“I knew I was going to make x amount of dollars and that x is pretty low. So, my approach was, ‘Let’s really try to shave off as many expenses as possible.’”
Comedian Dave Stone became a bit of a legend among comedy fans early in his career, but not just for his comedy. Sure, he’s hilarious, an enthralling storyteller with a Dixie drawl and culinary obsessions to match.
But one thing stood out above any of his talent or skills in road comic lore: He was the guy who lived in the van.
Dave Stone Lived in a Van
Birmingham, I’ve slept in my van 15 straight nights just to bring u the gift of laughter so maybe come to this stupid show or whatever idgaf pic.twitter.com/OlB4iZp0c2
— dave stone (@davestonecomedy) September 28, 2016
For two years and four months between 2012 and 2014, Stone survived in Los Angeles and for 80,000 miles of traveling the U.S. within the 54 square feet of a 2006 Ford cargo van.
Word really got out in 2012, when the comedian and his van were featured in an episode of the documentary web series “Modern Comedian.” At that point, he’d been living in the van for about six months.
“Looking back on it, I felt pretty chipper at that point,” he told me recently.
“I always wondered what the documentary would have looked like towards the end … because after two and a half years, it was definitely time.”
He’s been out of the van and “living like a normal human” for over two years now, but he’s remained just as dedicated and creatively frugal in pursuit of his dream.
I got him on the phone nine days into a four-week tour — somewhere between Denver and Omaha — to find out what he does have to say looking back.
Raised in Canton, Georgia, Stone’s comedy career kicked off in the burgeoning market around Atlanta.
His ambitious spirit shows in the array of jobs he held before taking on comedy full time. He was a radio DJ for five years, tour-managed “some rock bands” and owned his own landscaping company — to name a few.
Before his move to L.A., Stone was working full-time as a feature comedian — the paid middle act who performs between the emcee and the headliner during traditional comedy club shows.
The work pays, but not well — and it had him on the road around the country for up to 10 weeks at a time.
Though doing comedy for a living was a milestone — he decided if he was going to “get serious” about his career, he’d have to go where the industry is.
“I had a bunch of friends from Atlanta that were moving to New York, and naturally you’d think I’d want to follow that path, but I felt like I needed to break out and do my own thing, plant my own flag,” Stone says.
California’s weather and general “quality of life” also attracted him more than New York’s, as did the fact he’d never spent much time in the west-coast state.
“I thought, why not give that a shot,” he says.
Living and touring on feature-comedian pay, however, the move didn’t come so easily. After making the decision, he spent about a year and a half “trying to get to L.A.” — trying to set aside money, mostly.
He would need to pull together a nest egg to make his way across the country and settle into a new place in a new city, and that was proving pretty difficult.
Moving Into a Van
Then, he got the idea for the van.
Before leaving Atlanta in early 2012, he was renting a room in a friend’s house.
“Even though it was a normal-sized bedroom, I spent all my time in this little bitty 50-square-foot area with my mattress, my chair, my table and my computer,” he explains.
It hit him: “Man, all of this little living space can fit inside of a cargo van.”
Since he was already on the road most of the time, “the light bulb got even brighter.” He realized he could combine his tiny living space with his vehicle and cut his expenses.
With that, he finally had a plan to get to L.A. Over the next few months, he bought a 2006 Ford cargo van for about $7,000 and set out to convert it into a livable space.
With a bit of carpentry experience, basic tools and a lot of YouTube video tutorials, Stone did all the work himself. It wasn’t an actual conversion van, so he was starting from scratch.
He spent less than $1,000 and a lot of man-hours making the van livable. It required more than just shoving a mattress inside.
First, he needed insulation. California nights get colder than many of us probably realize. Traveling about half of the time meant Stone would also face the country’s varied climates.
To create the framework for his 54-square-foot mobile living space, he started by carving out plywood walls and a ceiling, to which he adhered insulation, covered by carpet.
He also built his own bed frame to hold a mattress he sawed short to fit within the 71-inch width of the van. Stone squeezed into the space at 5 feet 9 inches tall.
The rest was pretty bare bones. “Modern Comedian” shows an old chair, a closet rod to hang clothes, a battery-operated fan, curtains (his mother sewed) and a set of plastic drawers labeled “food,” “not food” and “stuff.”
Touring in the Van
If you’re considering such a move for yourself — and several eager comedians have, since hearing Stone’s story — note one major lifestyle factor: The comedian spends about half his time touring, outside of the city.
About half those nights on the road he stays in a hotel or in a comedy-club-provided condo while he’s performing.
If you’ve ever spent long stretches of time broke and traveling, you’ll understand that’s not a huge consolation. But it does offer some relief the average drifter doesn’t get.
Plus, Stone does a lot of “DIY touring,” booking his own shows at local venues that aren’t comedy clubs. In that case, no one pays for his lodging — and he sleeps in the van.
“I refused to fork over the money myself, because that was the whole point of the van — not just to save on rent, but also hotels on the road.”
He spends three or four nights each week, for about half the year, in the van. At around $60 a night for the cheapest hotels, and without free lodging at least half the time, he saves a ton of money sleeping in the van — at least $5,000 a year.
In exchange, he pays $10-$12 to shower at a truck stop when he needs it.
“It does feel weird to pay for a shower,” he admits, “but by the time you’re ready to pay for a shower or need to pay for a shower, it is money well spent.”
And when parking lots or truck stops aren’t available, he’ll fork over $8-$10 to spend the night at a campground. The night before our call, he’d slept at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska.
A photo posted by dave stone (@_davestone) on
Knowing there’s a network of comedians around the country who’d be delighted to take him in for a night, I had to ask: Why not just crash with friends on the road? “I had and still do have a nice network of friends out there,” he explains.
But, “This is my idea, this is my little journey, my little trick (or) loophole to not have to pay rent, so I’m going to tough it out and not be a burden to my friends.”
Touring as much as he does comes with another major downside: It’s nearly impossible to keep a day job.
You often imagine the aspiring comedian, actor or writer in Los Angeles making ends meet by waiting tables poorly or serving coffee with a bad attitude.
By the time Stone moved west, however, touring was his main source of income, and one he wasn’t going to give up. He did take one “little kitchen job” when he first moved to town, but that disappeared with his first multi-week run on the road.
“It’s hard to … tell your boss, ‘Hey, I’m going to need off the next five weeks while I travel the country,’” Stone explains.
Living in the van made it possible for Stone to survive with comedy as his main source of income — even when it was really low.
During his stints in town, usually around six weeks at a time, he could bring in extra money with odd jobs, like dog-walking and handyman work he found on Craigslist.
He could also make about $40 for a day as a TV extra, usually as an audience member for a game show.
How Much Does It Cost to Live in a Van?
Let’s set the touring aside for a minute.
If you’re just looking to save money moving to a new city, is living in a van the way to do It? Here’s what life in the van was like for Stone while he was in L.A.
On the bright side, the savings are enormous. For his 28 months in the van, Stone avoided the cost of rent and utilities for an L.A. apartment.
Based on what he pays now to share an apartment with roommates, about $700 a month, plus another $100 for shared utilities, that’s about $22,400 saved in just over two years.
With the van, he reduced his bills to three necessities, which he estimates cost less than $300 each month:
Cell phone, $90 — He signed up for an unlimited data plan with T-Mobile, a necessity in a life where the phone was usually his only form of connection or entertainment.
Gym membership, $30 — He paid for a monthly membership with L.A. Fitness, a national chain of health clubs he could find at home and on the road. “That’s the best $30 a month I had ever spent, because the gym really acted as a (second) home…” he explained. “It’s where I did all my bathroom stuff everyday.”
Car insurance — He paid a “typical rate” for car insurance, not making the company privy to the vehicle’s full purpose.
“I don’t know how that insurer would feel about somebody using a vehicle for a dwelling,” he admits. “I kept that a secret, because I just assumed it would have an impact (on the premium).”
He also made payments on the van until he paid off the $4,000 vehicle loan about a year ago.
What Do You Eat?
“One of the hardest — maybe the hardest — thing about the van was not being able to cook,” Stone says. “No cooking whatsoever.”
Aside from a few days at a time in a comedy condo or hotel room, Stone spent the better part of a year and a half sticking to his guns and staying in the van.
He didn’t couch surf at all at first, except for occasional pet-sitting or house-sitting. So his life was limited to the few amenities he’d built for himself.
Stone didn’t have a deep cycle battery on the van, a power source common for van or RV living that allows someone to run small appliances without running the vehicle. So he didn’t even have a hot plate or microwave for cooking.
“That was just more money and more trouble that I couldn’t afford, so I went totally bare bones,” he explains.
His kitchen was nothing but a cooler and that one “food” drawer of dry goods. That seriously limited both the quality of his meals and his ability to eat frugally.
“I was still spending the same amount of money as a normal person would spend on groceries, but I didn’t have the benefit of eating anything that was any good,” he says.
One glance at his Instagram feed, and you might peg Stone as much a foodie as a comedian. (You’ll also definitely be in the mood for barbecue.)
“I don’t want to brag, but I’m proud of my culinary talent,” he told me humbly. “There’s definitely a handful of things I’m good at (cooking), and biscuits and chicken wings and stuff like that, is definitely on that list.”
Admit when you’re wrong. Be kind to animals. Make biscuits. A photo posted by dave stone (@_davestone) on
His culinary prowess may not be unusual for a Georgia native, but it’s definitely rare in a road comic, whose ability to cook is limited by frequent transience.
Not staying in hotels and never having a kitchen to come home to meant Stone was basically cut off from one of his greatest joys for two years.
“I ate all the time the way, like, a third-grader would eat lunch,” he laments. “Just a bunch of turkey sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches and packs of crackers and crap.”
Or he ate fast food. “Just go to Jack in the Box and get the two-for-a-dollar tacos and stuff like that.”
After about a year and a half of living in the van, fellow comedian Kyle Kinane, who is now Stone’s co-host of “The Boogie Monster” podcast, broke him down and “pretty much ordered” Stone to house-sit while Kinane was out of town.
By that point, the possibility of preparing a warm meal was so exciting for Stone that he admits he “would just go nuts in (Kinane’s) kitchen and cook all kinds of crazy crap.”
It was so much fun, he jokes, “sometimes he’d come home and there’d be chili on the ceiling.”
Is it Safe to Live in a Van?
One obvious issue when your home is a vehicle is the seemingly-simple question: Where do you park?
“There’s definitely an art to figuring out a good parking spot in Los Angeles,” Stone explains.
You want to avoid tickets and don’t want to pay for a meter or garage. Plus, where you park the van has a huge impact on your safety, a big deal in such a vulnerable abode.
Even though he didn’t have many valuables, Stone pointed out, “If you know a guy’s living in that van, there’s going to be something in that van of value, whether it be a phone or a computer or something.”
The right balance is hard to strike.
For safety, you don’t want to park in the sketchiest neighborhoods, even though it’s easy to blend in there.
But for stealth, you can’t park in the nicest neighborhoods, either.
For example, Beverly Hills might seem nice and safe, he said. “But then I’d stick out like a sore thumb, and I got people who are going to call the police on me because there’s a bearded weirdo living in a van outside of their mansion.”
It’s the little things you can’t learn from YouTube videos.
He said the cargo van gave him an advantage over a conversion van or RV, because it was inconspicuous. To most passersby, it just looked like a parked work van, so fewer people suspected he was living inside.
That helped keep the housewives and cops from worrying, and it kept him relatively safe from break-ins — though he did face two break-in attempts in his two and a half years.
For those few times stealth and judgment weren’t enough, he kept a machete tucked near the door of the van. Seeing the weapon is enough to scare off intruders. Thankfully, he never had to put it to use.
Is it Worth the Savings?
When I asked about the drawbacks of his experience, Stone was quick to point out, “I’m always hesitant to talk too negatively of it, because it was definitely a self-induced hardship. It’s not like I fell on hard times or whatever. It’s something I chose to do.”
Still, Stone had a lot of fortitude to stick with the van for as long as he did. Even the minor inconveniences he mentioned convince me I certainly couldn’t have done it.
Not being able to stand up.
Not being to take a shower or go to the bathroom whenever you want.
Not being able to cook what you want to eat.
The hardest part, he says, was for 28 months “never, ever being able to be 100% relaxed and secure.
“You know that feeling after a long, hard day, you come home from work, have dinner, you’re watching TV, it’s time to go to bed,” he explains. “You get in bed, you turn the lights off, you lock the front door, and you’re just secure.”
In the van, you don’t get that feeling. At any moment, someone could be trying to break in, a cop could knock on your window or you could be getting towed for being in the wrong parking spot.
“Always metaphorically having to sleep with one eye open wears you down,” Stone says.
Still, in the end, he believes it was worth it.
At comedy clubs, he would talk about living in the van, and after a show, members of the audience would stop by to talk about it. He describes, for example, “a 40-year-old dude with a wife and a kid, a nice car, a nice job and a nice house.”
“(He’d) come up to me and look me in the eye and go, ‘Man, I’m so jealous,’” Stone told me, incredulously. “I always thought that was ironic. You’re jealous of me? You got a nice job and a nice family, and you got stuff. You got things.”
But, he says, “I get it. It’s the freedom.”
At 39, Stone has no spouse or kids. He doesn’t worry about a mortgage. He doesn’t go into an office or adhere to a work schedule. He enjoys “being 100% untethered.”
“I had my own stresses that most Americans don’t have, (like) ‘where am I going to use the bathroom today?’” he explains. “But (it’s liberating) not having those difficult bills, mortgage, job, debt, all that.”
Moving Out of the Van
Early in 2014, Stone was finally able to move into an apartment in L.A.
He got a “small break” when he caught the eye of a production company to be featured in the forthcoming documentary “Gutbuster.”
“They wanted a comedian, and somebody who obviously needed to lose weight,” Stone told LA Weekly in 2014. “Just the Average Joe, Everyman type of dude. And I’m very, very average.”
Though it was more expensive — $1,100 a month — he lived alone in an apartment for awhile after leaving the van. He’s since moved in with roommates to save money again, but he said he needed that break.
“After two and a half years, it’s like being in prison,” he describes the transition from van to apartment living. “I had to get re-acclimated to the outside, and I thought that would be easier to do living alone.”
Would You Do It Again?
When he decided to buy the van, Stone says he told himself, “I’ll do this for six to nine months.”
That made it feasible, he thought. However crazy it might be to forgo proper shelter and live technically homeless in a cargo van, he thought, “I can tough that out” for six or nine months.
“Now, had you told me initially that it would have been two and a half years, I maybe would not have been so eager to go down this road,” he explains.
But he did. He toughed it out for three or four times longer than expected. And regardless of the drawbacks, in retrospect, he speaks pretty fondly of that time in his life.
“There were definitely nights where you’re just laying in a van, staring at the ceiling wondering what the hell you’re doing with your life.
“Then the trade-off was (realizing), Oh, I’ve literally got $300 of bills every month, whereas all my friends and peers and stuff have 10 times that amount sometimes.”
Reducing his reliance on income meant he wasn’t stuck in L.A. with a day job, that he could continue to travel and build his fanbase, which seems to be paying off — slowly, but surely.
While living in a van, Stone was filmed for the aforementioned “Modern Comedian” series, featured in the prestigious Just for Laughs Montreal comedy festival’s New Faces showcase, made his television debut on the “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” and competed on season 8 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”
In addition to starring in “Gutbuster,” Stone has also released an album with Comedy Dynamics titled “Hogwash” since moving out of the van.
He’s still touring the country like a madman — but he’s a headliner now, so it’s getting easier to make ends meet.
Tragically, he lost the cargo van when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver last August. He came out of the wreck fine, but the van did not.
“When I finally got out of the van and saw what had happened, I saw that it was just completely totaled,” he explains. “It was a real heartbreaker, because that van had a lot of sentimental value.”
Still, he didn’t stop. He replaced it with a minivan equipped with an air mattress and sleeping bag for traveling.
It’ll never be quite the same, but this “abbreviated version” of the old dwelling gets him through tours, which still have him away from home one or two months at a time.
Your Turn: Would you consider living in a van to save money on rent?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).