I GOT AN EMAIL yesterday from a serviceman who was getting out in a year, and was trying to make decisions for his future. His friends and family wanted him to go to college and plan for his future, but his heart was telling him to buy a van and go live wild and free. He was writing me for my thoughts on what he should do. My answer follows.

Hi, first, thank you for your service for the country!! I think that is one of the hardest questions for any of us to figure out. I married young and had kids so all my dreams were put on hold while I got a job and took care of my family. Thirty years later I have a nice pension and social security will kick in in a few years. So my youth was no fun, but now my older years are wonderful.

That is the typical way we do it the USA, but is it the right way? I think every person has to answer that for themselves. You will be giving up security in your older years for a full, wonderful life now. That sounds pretty good right now, but you might think differently when you are older and eating dog food.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. After you get out of the service there is nothing wrong with buying a van and traveling in it for a few months or a year. It is so common there is a name for it. It is called a “Gap Year” because there is a gap on your resume between high school and college, or college and starting a career. Your gap will be between leaving the military and staring your schooling or career. I think you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing that. After a while you can reevaluate what you want to do with your life. Then you can take another Gap Year or jump on the traditional path. Who knows, in your travels you may come across the perfect place, person or job that will make it clear to you just what you should do with your life.

Maybe a Gap Year will become a Gap Decade and then a Gap Life!

Or maybe with a little luck you will find the perfect gal and have kids and live a “normal” life. There’s nothing wrong with that! I assume your GI benefits are good anytime and you can go to school later in life, right? But you will always have the memories of those months/years of living free.

The one thing I believe in is thinking outside the box. You don’t have to do everything just like everybody else. You can mix and match the elements of your life to your choosing. Life doesn’t have to be black or white. You can travel in a van for awhile. Then go to college and live in a van on campus. Then get a job and build toward a retirement and keep living in a van. Or get married and raise your kids on the road. Think outside the box.

The one thing you should always keep in mind is to be happy. So few of us ever consider whether what we do makes us happy. I believe with all my heart the reason God put us here on earth is not to be “good” but to be happy and at the same time to contribute to the greatest degree possible to the happiness of others.

I wish you the very best! If there is anything I can do to help you follow your dreams, don’t hesitate to ask! – Bob

Do we have to sacrifice the present for the future?

Is it possible to have both a happy youth and happy old age?

I meet more and more young people who are making the choice to be vandwellers and abandon the “normal” American life. While I admire their courage, part of me is old-fashioned enough to worry about their future. Of course everyone must make that decision for themselves, but I strongly encourage you to think it through and realize your present decisions can have powerful consequences in your future. There are no wrong decisions as long as they are fully informed and you think through the full range of possible consequences.

My father’s death had a powerful effect on me. He worked like a dog all of his life and was never very happy. He got all the happiness he could out of life, but in my opinion it wasn’t much. When he turned 60 he retired and never had to think about money again, he was totally financially secure. He was soon diagnosed with cancer and was dead by 62.

I saw that and knew that was NOT what I wanted for my life. I took early retirement at 51 and have never regretted it in any way. The last 6 years have mostly been wonderful beyond my ability to describe them.

At the same time I know people who gave no thought to their future and now in their old age they are paupers, forced to work at jobs they hate just to have enough to eat. That is equally NOT what I want for my life.

As with most things in life, the best choice is generally the middle way. Here are my recommendations to everyone:

    • Insist on being happy now. Living an unhappy life year-after-year, decade-after-decade so you can be happy for a few years in your old age is a horrible way to live. If you aren’t happy now, make changes until you are. Sacrifices will have to be made, but not too much.
    • Keep the future in mind. Whether we like it or not we are all going to get old and get sick. Do everything you can to prepare for it.
    • Learn to live very cheaply in a van. Needing the minimum amount of money will pay off whether you are young or old.
    • Create a community of people around you that support you, and you support them. Being a vandweller has brought me an amazing number of deep, lasting friendships. Nothing is more important for living a happy life.