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YouTube Influencer Develops Online Resource For People Living In Vehicles


When Americans can't make rent or pay the mortgage, they sometimes move into their cars, which tells you something about our social safety net. But this is not that story. This is the story of a man who turned that predicament into a calling. Here are Stacey Vanek Smith and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from our Indicator podcast.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: When we reached Bob Wells, he was camped out off the grid in his white GMC Savana van in the middle of the California desert some 25 years into his experiment in mobile living.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Would you describe yourself as an influencer? Or how do you describe what you do?

BOB WELLS: Well, I make YouTube videos. I have 467,000 subscribers. So yeah, I'm an influencer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Bob Wells does not look like your typical YouTube influencer. In fact, with his flowing white hair and bushy beard, Bob, at 65, looks not unlike Santa Claus if Santa had decided to close up shop at the North Pole and move permanently into his van.

How did this whole journey start for you? What was your life like before you discovered this lifestyle?

WELLS: Well, I was either very, very lucky or very, very unlucky, depending on your point of view.

VANEK SMITH: It was the winter of 1995. Bob was living in Anchorage, Alaska, where he'd worked for over two decades in a union job at a Safeway. At the time, Bob was going through a divorce. And after alimony and child support payments, he says, he was no longer making enough to clear his rent.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that is when he noticed an old, beat-up box van for sale on the side of the road for $1,500.

WELLS: That was all the money I had left in the bank. But (laughter) I had to have a place to live. And so I began my van-dwelling adventure in the winter in the cold van. And I - that first night, I cried myself to sleep.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Bob had done a lot of camping in his life. He knew how to make a small space cozy. And after a few weeks, he figured out how to make it sustainable. And the money he was saving on rent meant he didn't feel like he was always on the knife's edge.

WELLS: It slowly and subtly shifted from I despise my life to I kind of really, really like this.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In 2005, about a decade after he moved into the van, Bob decided to pay forward some of the techniques he developed. He started a website called Cheap RV Living to serve as a kind of online resource for other people interested or, in many cases, forced to move into a vehicle.

WELLS: I started it with the sole intent of letting people know there was an alternative, which is to eliminate your biggest cost in life, which is your housing.

VANEK SMITH: For a long time, the site just kind of moseyed along, picking up, you know, a few page views here and there.

WELLS: Then 2008 happened.

VANEK SMITH: Bob says, in the wake of the financial crisis, he was inundated with desperate messages.

WELLS: I've lost my job. Now we're all losing our home. What are we going to do?

VANEK SMITH: Bob says, even after the economic recovery started to pick up, the number of inquiries and people in the community continued to grow.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bob started his CheapRVliving YouTube channel in 2016. But unlike a lot of the glossier, more glamorous content associated with the #vanlife crowd, Bob's videos are all about helping people struggling to keep their head above water financially. And they're filled with the nitty gritty details of living behind the wheel.


WELLS: The topic of today is poop. You know, there are a lot of corners you can cut, your behind's not one of them. You want that thing to be clean all the time.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bob says his videos have become so popular that he's now making more money than ever before. And as the baby boomers continue to age into Social Security, Bob expects the movement towards van life to surge. And he sees it as his mission to try to help however he can.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "SURFACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).