This week, we’re exploring economic inequality and poverty here on TFD. To see the whole series, click here.
Ask any young incoming college freshman what they imagine their first year of college will look like, and I guarantee you it will involve living on campus and staying in a dorm room. It’s the quintessential college experience fed to us by movies, television, and friends. In our minds, the college experience should involve living in dorms, eating at the campus dining hall, and having the latest electronics.
For a while, I was unsure if I would get to experience that. As any young adult who has ever filled out a FAFSA application knows, your amount of financial aid depends largely on your parents’ income levels. My parents had really good incomes. However, their finances were a mess — a fact I would find out when they got divorced while I was in high school. Each of them was tens of thousands of dollars in debt. When I asked if they had anything saved for college costs, they each pointed at the other to shift responsibility.
I knew from that point that if I wanted to attend college, I would have to cut costs as much as possible. I kept my grades up and while still in high school, I started to take dual-credit college classes. When it came time for college, I eagerly filled out the FAFSA application and created an Amazon wishlist for all the things I needed to buy for my dorm room. I was so excited to get out and be on my own. But the excitement didn’t last long: I got my aid package back and noticed the shockingly low amount. It was just enough to cover my tuition and fees for the year. Panic set in.
How the heck was I supposed to cover my books, supplies, and room and board? Then the thought hit me: living in my car. It was going to be the only way I would be able to afford college for my first year. I started planning how I would do it; I had some money saved up from working at a restaurant during high school, which I used to buy my books, supplies, and anything I needed to outfit my car to live in.
I arrived to campus a few days before classes started. Walking through campus, I saw hoards of people moving in different directions, happy and laughing as they made their way to their new dorm rooms. In the freshman class Facebook group, people excitingly posted pictures of their decorated dorm rooms, complete with new TVs, Macbooks, and gaming consoles. I looked at it in wonder of how they could afford it all while simultaneously labeling themselves as “broke college students.”
As night started to fall, I drove my little Ford Focus to a Walmart parking lot. With sheets duct taped to the windows, I laid down, contorting my 6’2 body to fit in the backseat so I could sleep. My car ended up being my home for nine months while I attended my first year of college. My diet consisted of prepacked food and meals at the campus dining hall, possible only because I had decided to splurge and buy one of the semester meal plans offered. For showers, I used the campus recreation center.
Living in my car wasn’t a pleasant experience, despite what any van-dwelling Instagram picture would have you believe. I was constantly cramped, developed back pain, and had to deal with the sweltering humidity and heat that came with Texas weather. Despite being unpleasant, I did take away a few things from the experience.
Living in My Car Saved Me a Lot of Money
Getting the typical dorm life you see on television and in movies comes with a cost. Dorm rooms are notoriously expensive. Flashbacks of dorm rooms “way back when” would usually conjure up images of a small and stale cement block room with two beds close together. As Pinterest and Instagram have become popular, the image of an extravagantly decorated dorm room with all the amenities has taken over.
As I started my freshman year of college, I remember the eagerness everyone had to get the “nice” dorm rooms. The ones that had pools, deluxe laundry machines, and a suite or apartment style layout. Even the basic dorm rooms would have cost a good amount. I don’t think anyone should have to resort to it, but living in my car allowed me to save over $7,000 in room and board fees for the year.
I Got Resourceful
I knew my limited funds and part-time minimum wage job were going to be no match for the huge cost of getting a college education. While I did take out loans to cover my tuition, I got resourceful with the money I had to make sure it covered my needs. Budgeting became essential. I used Mint to keep track of my spending and monitor it for any mindless purchases. Any time there was an event on campus promising free food, I made sure to attend. It got discouraging at times, like when I would be debating over buying $3 Oreos while other people around me were buying $10 Chipotle burritos every day. I made it work.
Simple Living Took on a New Meaning
Being 6’2 in height, living in a small Ford Focus sedan wasn’t pleasant. My sleeping arrangement involved laying my upper body on the backseat while bending my feet to fit in the footwell area. My trash bag sat just a few inches from my face in the other footwell area. I kept all of my school supplies, food, and clothes in my trunk, which I could access in the car by folding down one of the rear seats. There wasn’t room for anything not essential.
Shopping and trips to the mall became nonexistent. Being an avid reader, eliminating any book purchases was hard, but it forced me to visit the school and city libraries. I grew to frequent them a lot, both for the selection of books as well as providing air conditioning and outlets for charging. Having a limited amount of space to work with forced me to practice simple living and cutting out unnecessary purchases. This idea of cutting back and living simply has started trending in recent years, popularized by the minimalist movement. I’ve never been one to call myself a minimalist, and don’t think I ever will. However, living in my car did force me to live with less. It allowed me to focus on what I needed and clear my mind.
Living in my car my freshman year of college was a difficult thing. Whenever I would hang out with people, I would always have to lie and say I commuted from a nearby city. Dating became impossible. I constantly questioned every purchased I made.
Even with all that, I did learn to see some of the benefits. It allowed me to attend college that first year. It forced me to go outside, visit the library often, and get more involved with my classes. I was one of the few freshmen who regularly attended campus job fairs. Due to the many community college credits I had from high school, I was able to accelerate my degree and graduate in 2.5 years. Doing so allowed me to get a head start on working, which is what I had wanted.
But often, I look back and wonder how exactly I was able to get through the experience of living in my car. The humidity, lack of space, and general lack of options was crippling. My biggest takeaway is an inner motivation to never have to go back to that.
Colin blogs about money and travel over at Rebel With A Plan. He’s taught in Thailand and braved the Australian outback and lived to tell the tale.
Image via Unsplash