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Taking a "Gap Year" or a "Gap Life:" The Present Vs. The Future

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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 in italics.

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

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.


  1. Steve

    Very sage words and after many of our conversations we have had, was well thought out and written… I call it the “End Game”… I call it the end game not for your life’s end game, but for each section of life, ya have to have a goal, or end game… The scariest end game is the final end game, the ending period of your life, reflecting back do have grand memories or disappointment… Live, love, and be free, but dont sell out your financial freedom/independence in your final end game…

    • Bob

      Very good thoughts Steve! I especially like the idea of having a goal for each segment of your life. I never thought of that before. Part of thinking toward the final end game is having it without regrets. I look back at my life and have many regrets, many things I would change. I have to admit working harder at a job is not one of them.

  2. Sam

    Not a question you can answer for someone but at least he knows to ask questions. I took my “gap year” at age 40, rode my Goldwing, played the ponies and chased skirts. Should have stuck to the first two.

    • Bob

      Sam, I’m sure there are many things you would change in your life, but I am equally sure taking that year is not one of them. No comment on the “skirts”! Bob

  3. Tim McDougall

    That was well said, Bob. I’m especially glad you pointed out to the young man the importance of preparing for his “yearning years”.
    It’s too bad that it often takes us a lifetime to see how we could have done things differently, and much better, had we not been blessed with the “superior knowledge of youth.”

    • Bob

      Youth is certainly wasted on the young! I guess the best advice is to live in such a way now so that in 20 years you will have the fewest regrets. For me, an un-lived, unhappy life must be the greatest possible regret. But, not planning for the future and having to eat dog food to barely survive in my old age would be way up there too.
      But if I had to choose one or the other, I would choose to live a full life when I was younger, even if it means an insecure old age. There is always a chance to change my circumstances in my old age, and no chance to go back and change an un-lived, unahppy life. My wonderful memories may not fill my stomach, but they will warm my heart. I think that may be more important.
      But, like Sam said, it is a question each of us has to answer for ourselves. Bob

  4. CAE

    I wasn’t quite ready to chose “Gap life” but then the system has pretty much rejected me at the ripe old age of 53. So, why fight it?! I’m grabbing all the gusto the Gap Life has to offer.

    • Bob

      Unfortunately, many of us are being forced into gap year and the gap year is stretching out into a gap life. For some it is a living hell, for others (like me and hopefully you) it becomes heaven on earth. As you said, it is all in your attitude! Bob

  5. Joey

    hey guys!
    Joey here. For me im 19. ANd what I’ve been calling my gap year has not exactly been an exciting one. In may 2011 I turned 18 and decided that i didn’t want to spend my life planning for the future. I spent 12 months straight in college and had already burned myself out. I don’t regret that time at all. I got a lot of good parties and friends out of it but by august 2011 I knew there was something else for me. I decided tofall into the hands of fate. It was exciting at first. I moves in with a friend from a couple years back and tries to find a job but that didn’t work out so great. So I went back to my college town and basically hung around for 8 months trying to figureit out. I got a fast food job at first and that only lasted a couple months. The money was nice but I learned that I don’t like having someone else arbitrarily deciding how my time Is spent. I started looking into ways to go off the grid like intentional communities and even tried hoofing it a couple times. My family grew tired of my indecisiveness quickly and so did I. The story goes on but basically I learned that we are all in a gap life. It’s not just enough to know what you dont want. You need to know what you want and gradually or grandiosely put everything you’ve got into it. The universe has simply been forcing me tk figure that out. It’s good that I know I don’t want a worrisome life but just because something seems exciting doesn’t make it better. As my friend allie put it, were all looking for that golden ratio. The perfect mix that feels right for you. It may not be what you thought when you first Started on your journey. But it’ll be better.

    • Bob

      Well said Joey! It really is up to each of us to make our own decisions and take responsibility for our own lives. I wish you the very best as you search for the right balance in your life. Good luck!! Bob

  6. Kim

    I’m with CAE.
    Fate has recently given me a gap(not sure of the duration). I’m 54 and just lost the job that I loved and fully expected to retire from. So I’m using this enforced sabbatical to buy the van I’ve wanted and go see the places I’ve wanted. I won’t be fulltiming exactly but I hope to put a lot of miles on the rig.
    Thanks for helping me know that it’s possible.

    • Bob

      Hi Kim, thanks for the kind words on the book, I appreciate them. This economy has thrown many peoples lives into turmoil. I’m sorry you lost your job, but I’m glad you are turning it into something positive. If you get out to the desert this winter, be sure to look me up! Bob

      • Kim

        Bob – thanks for your response. I plan to attend the RTR. I’ve never been to Quartzsite, nor have I boondocked (yet) so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.
        There are 2 solo travelers on a discussion board I frequent who plan to be there as well. I’m excited about meeting you all and seeing the creative ideas you’ve implemented!

        • Bob

          Kim, I think you will love it, there are so many great people there that you almost have to make some really close friends. See you soon! Bob

  7. Shelly

    As an aside for young people (25 or older), or anyone who might be considering going to college, your financial aid package is based on how much money you made the previous year. So not having much income can make you eligible to get more money grants, aka free money. So a year or so of traveling about with savings can be a big benefit on the college front, if you plan it carefully. As always, your mileage may vary.

    • Bob

      Shelly, that’s good to know! You might end up saving money by taking a gap year and traveling. Now that would be nice! Bob

  8. AJ

    Hello Bob,
    Great blog !! I have spent the better part of the day reading through all the topics, also sounds like some great people. I just wanted to touch on a few points. Working for future security is important but it can be lost in a “heart-beat” I can tell you this from what is happening in my life currently. I played the “American Dream” game and lived up to all the social expectations that are placed upon us and I was miserable in the process. Graduated from high school, joined the service served my country for 8 years, war vet (Desert Storm) came home went to college on the GI Bill, got married had a daughter, went into real estate as an agent bought a 2 family house and lived in half and rented out the other half, after a number of years bought a 2nd home small little place on the out skirts of town country setting. Started my own real estate company by age 38 and then at age 43 … the life changer and security taker came !!! what could that be ??? well yes our wonderful government … The IRS even though I used a CPA for all my tax purposes the IRS does not agree to the tune of $107,000 for 3 years.. currently appealing this. So to make a long story short everything I have worked for will be taken, the rental probably my primary house the motorcycle .. and everything I will earn for the next 10 years (statute of limitations) so by age 55 I can once again start with a clean slate and start my savings for retirement. For the past year I have been thinking of what I am going to do to survive and being that I love to travel and always wanted to see more of the Americas I think I will have a 10 year gap .. lol In all honesty in a way it is kind of a blessing I would never be able to walk away from what I am accustom too but if given the push I have no problem with it. Like I mentioned I was in the service, I lived out of a vehicle for 8 years and it was some of the best years of my life !!! I am truly tired of the rat race and I want out.
    Just my 2 cents worth again great blog !
    Thanks for the info.

    • Bob

      AJ, while the details vary your story is being repeated all over the country in alarming numbers. People trusted in the American dream and found out that even when they did everything right there are no promises of living happily ever after. This economy has brought many, many people to a moment of crisis. Like you, lots of folks are considering the mobile life as their best alternative. I hope we can serve you and make the transition easier! Bob

  9. Charles

    Great advice, but in answer to the GI benefits, they have a “shelf-life”, college was 8 years after separation, when I got out in 1977.

    • Bob

      Thanks of the info Charles.

  10. Nitewriter

    Just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying your blog. I would also like to mention that traveling and going to school can be done at the same time. I teach online classes for several colleges around the country. I can teach from anywhere. The issue is though, that I have students from all walks of life all over the world. People can go to school totally online these days. So a gap year (or years or whatever) does not have to mean putting off school. It’s actually the perfect time to go to school when there’s no job to go to and no obligations. Just live free on the road and go to school.

    • Bob

      Nitewriter, you are totally right! I’ve know two college professors who taught from their rigs (one a Class C, the other a Class B) and one student who got his masters while living in a van in the desert. It’s pretty astounding what technology allows us to do nowadays!
      I said in a previous post that I learn most things I know from other people, and now you are one of them. I checked out your blog and the picture of the propane stove through the hole in the table leaped out at me. What a marvelous and simple solution to a problem! Those little stoves are cheap and simple but I always thought they were too unstable to be practical until I saw what you did. Brilliant!

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