$1,405. That was the reported national average monthly rent in the US as of June last year. With property prices so high, it’s no wonder that so many people have to resort to living out of their cars to save money.
In fact, according to recent reports, the number of people living in their vehicles has ‘exploded’ in recent years as property prices have risen. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are living in their car across the country to escape paying rent.
On our family’s long drive down the coast, we opted to sleep and live out of our car. We were unable to find proper accommodations last minute that accepted dogs. The only choice was $225 per night at a 2-star hotel. Living out of a car made me realize how super economical it was, especially if done right. We saved $450 by making our car our camping ground.
For some people, this is the last resort; it’s a make-shift solution to get by while in between housing. For others, it’s a way to avoid expensive price gouges, live a freer, more frugal life.
Whatever your own reasons are, living in your car can be a great way to save money, but it’s not without its own set of challenges. In this in-depth guide, I’m going to be showing you how to live in a car legally, safely, and cheaply. Just read on and you’ll have all the information you need.
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Table of Contents
The Basics of Living in Your Car
Ok, let’s start with the basics. What are the essential things you need to get by living in your car?
It’s tempting to think you only need those three basic living essentials: food, water, and shelter. However, in reality, most of us feel we need quite a bit more than that to have a decent quality of life.
With that in mind, here’s what you really need to live in your car:
- A place to park
- Something comfortable to sleep on
- A place to shower (and use the toilet)
- Food (duh!)
- A permanent mailing address to receive mail (and for a bunch of other reasons too)
- Somewhere to store your stuff
- Power for your devices
- Gas and other vehicle-related things (like maintenance tools, access to tires in case you need to change yours, etc.)
- A way to stay safe
If you’re going to be living in your car for a prolonged period of time, you need to make sure that you can tick off all of these boxes. I’ll be touching on most of these things throughout this article.
Before we move on, though, here are three more basic principles to live by when you’re living in your car:
- Be discreet – you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself
- Change location often – for legal reasons and to stay safe.
- Prioritize your own safety – don’t stay anywhere you feel unsafe, lock your doors, and have quick access to an alarm or another personal safety device.
Legalities Of Living in Your Car
If you’re living in your car, it’s important to be aware of what’s legal and what’s not. Unfortunately, living in a vehicle is a bit of a legal grey area, and laws differ from state to state.
Generally, though, here’s what you need to know:
- Sleeping in your car on private property that you don’t own (or have permission to be on) is illegal
- Sleeping in your car on property owned by cities is often illegal but it depends on local laws
- If you’re parking on a public street, you need to stay within the local parking time limits (this is often up to 72 hours) or risk getting a parking ticket.
As I said, some states are more lenient than others. For example, in LA, there’s a complete ban on sleeping in your car between 9 PM and 6 AM if you’re parked on neighborhood streets. It’s also illegal to sleep in your car at any time of day or night near places like schools and parks.
Even if you’re not in violation of local parking laws, some police offices may be suspicious and ask you to move on if they notice you sleeping in your car in a public area. That’s why it’s always advisable to be discreet and change location regularly.
So, we’ve covered where you can’t sleep, Now let’s talk about where you can sleep in your car.
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Where to Park and Sleep in Your Car (Legally)
When it comes to picking somewhere you can legally park and sleep in your car, these are probably your best six options…
1. Public Land
Public land includes places like national parks and forests. You can find them in almost every state. You can usually park in these areas legally. You’ll be out in the sticks but, on the plus side, you’ll have access to the great outdoors and a lot of privacy.
If you’re sleeping in a national park with a lot of space, it’s a good idea to bring a tent and an inflatable mattress. That way, you can camp instead to avoid sleeping on your cramped car seat. Your spine will thank you, trust me!
2. Your Own Land
If you own a piece of land, it’s legal to park and sleep there. If you don’t, you could consider asking a friend or relative if you can park up on their driveway/garden.
You usually have to pay to stay on campsites, but they’re also usually safer than the alternatives. You get your own dedicated plot so you can pitch up a tent (if you have one). Plus, you have access to shower facilities and a water supply.
4. Highway Rest Areas
Highway rest areas are set up specifically for drivers to sleep in so, of course, it’s legal to park up here overnight. They also often have restrooms that you can use to freshen up.
5. Walmart Car Parks
I’m not sure about how legal this is, but I do know that many people living in their cars sleep in Walmart parking lots. It’s safe, secure, and there’s almost always a Walmart nearby, which makes them a good option if you need somewhere to park up in a pinch.
6. Trucker Stops
Truck stops can be another good option. Just make sure you choose somewhere in a safe area. Try to make sure it’s also big, busy, and well-lit. Some truck stops have WiFi and shower facilities too.
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Where to Shower When You’re Living in a Car
Even if you’re living in your car, it’s important to maintain good personal hygiene. Therefore, after you’ve slept, you’re going to want to shower (and probably use the toilet too).
My recommendation would be to get a gym membership and use the gym’s facilities to shower and freshen up. Some gym memberships can be as cheap as $10-$20 so it’s a worthwhile investment.
Alternatively, you could also:
- Shower at your local recreation center
- Use the facilities at a truck stop or rest area
- Purchase a portable shower head and hook it up to a water supply if you have access to one
When you need to use the bathroom, you can use any public bathroom you can find, which is easy if you’re in the city center – just head to the nearest mall!
If you’re somewhere more rural, you could consider investing in a portable chemical toilet if you have space to store it in your car. You could also just do it the old fashioned way – dig a hole, do your business, and cover it up!
Costs of Living In a Car
You’re probably wondering how much money you can save by living in a car, so let’s talk about costs. Even though you’ll be saving money on accommodation, there are other costs that come with living in a car that you’ll need to account for.
Assuming you plan on living a frugal lifestyle and keeping costs as low as possible, here’s what your monthly expense sheet might look like:
- Gas: $100 – $300 (depending on how far you drive)
- Insurance: $100 – $200
- Water: $10 – $30
- Food: $200 – $300 (for basic groceries/convenience store food; probably a lot more if you dine out often)
- Gym membership: $10 – $20
- Parking: $100 (if you utilize free parking spots frequently)
- Misc: $100 (for any car repairs, coffee shop trips, etc)
- Total: $620 – $,1050
So with that in mind, how much money can you save by living in your car?
The short answer is probably around $1,000. That’s around the figure that most people living in their cars tend to arrive at. The long answer is that it really depends on your lifestyle, how frugal you are, and the cost of accommodation in the area where you live.
Bonus frugal tip: To save money, buy staples like rice and peanut butter in bulk and store these in your car.
Of course, these monthly expenses don’t account for other one-off purchases that you’d have to make too, so let’s move on and talk about those.
What You Need to Buy
Obviously, you’ll need a car. Ideally, though, you’d have a van or other large converted vehicle with a spacious, well-insulated interior. This will make things much more liveable.
However, I know that a lot of you reading this are probably living in your car out of necessity rather than choice, so you might have to work with what you’ve got. If so, there are still some things you should try to buy to make living in your car more bearable.
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At a minimum, you’ll need some pillows and a blanket to sleep on at night. Ideally, you should also spend money on:
- A P.O. Box (to receive mail – you’ll likely need a mailing address to take out a gym membership)
- A good quality flashlight
- Storage bins or bags to separate your clothes, toiletries, and other possessions (you can use the trunk to store bedding)
- Electric cooking devices like a small hob to cook your meals if you’re camping
- A tent so that you can get out of your car and lay on flat ground once in a while
- A blow-up mattress to sleep on
- A combo backup battery and air compressor in case you need to jump-start your car
- A spare tire and some tire sealant
- A waterproof cooler to store any perishable food items you buy
- A chemical toilet (porta-potty)
- Reflective window shades for added privacy at night time
- A power inverter to charge your electricals that don’t come with a car charger adapter
- A low-voltage cut out device to protect your car battery
Phew – that’s a lot of stuff. If you can’t afford it all, don’t worry, just prioritize the items you think you’ll need most and try to get those.
Dangers of Living in a Car
Now, I want to talk about the dangers of living in a car and how to avoid them. This is probably the most important thing to know about if you plan on living out of your vehicle.
The biggest danger is from break-ins. A car parked on public land is at a greater risk than it would be if you parked it on private property or somewhere out of sight. Of course, it’s still unlikely that anyone will ever try to break in, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and to take precautions. We’ll talk more about these precautions in a few moments.
Another thing to be aware of is law enforcement. The police are there to protect us and keep us safe, but they do tend to be suspicious of people sleeping in cars. They’ll never do you harm, but it can be intimidating to have to deal with police officers in the middle of the night, which is why you should try to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
Living in your car can also put your physical health at risk. Living in such cramped quarters all the time puts you at risk of developing back pain and other musculoskeletal problems. It can also be dangerous to your mental health.
For all of the above reasons, living in a car really should be a last resort and you should always aim to get more suitable living arrangements as soon as possible.
How To Live in a Car Safely
Here are some tips for staying safe while living in your car:
- Pick your parking spots carefully and opt for busy spaces with lots of other people around before sleeping
- Don’t make it obvious you’re sleeping in your car by stuffing rags in the window or covering them with sheets for privacy. If possible, opt for tinted windows or reflective shades instead. These are less conspicuous.
- Make sure someone knows where you are at all times. Inform friends or relatives of where you’re staying each night.
- Store personal safety devices in your glove box but make sure you do this legally and responsibly. In many states, for example, you can legally carry pepper spray in case of emergencies.
Pros and Cons of Living in Your Car
Ok, that about covers everything you need to know about living in your car. If you follow the advice above, you should be able to save money by living in your car safely and in reasonable comfort.
However, living in a vehicle certainly isn’t for everyone. That’s why, before we finish up, I thought it would be useful to list a few pros and cons of living in your car. Here they are.
- You can save up to $1000 per month
- You don’t have to be tied down to a mortgage or rental agreement
- It’s a great way to get out and explore
- It encourages you to live a more adventurous lifestyle
- It’s a minimalist way of living
- It’s less safe
- It can be cramped and uncomfortable
- You have little storage space
- It’s less hygienic
- It might get too cold or hot depending on where you live
Alternatives to Living in Your Car
If living in a car isn’t right for you, but you still want to save money on accommodation, you could consider one of the following instead:
- Get a roommate (or two) to split your rental costs with
- Try Airbnbing
- Consider housesitting or using sites like Workaway and Couchsurfing to find free accommodation
- Stay with friends or family for free
- Invest in an RV, or refurbish a van for more living space
- Buy a plot of land and build your own tiny house
Living in a car should probably not be in anyone’s longterm plans but if you’re in a pinch, living in a car can save big money compared to renting or motel hopping. Hopefully, that provides some food of thought!
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