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How some older Americans are monetizing their #VanLife

With large parts of the economy still sputtering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are having to scale back. But some older Americans were already living a minimalist lifestyle on the road -- and some of them have leveraged their nomadic approach into income. Economics correspondent Paul Solman has their story as part of our Making Sense series on Unfinished Business.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, a number of major companies, including Disney and American Airlines, announced new layoffs.

    With big parts of the economy still hurting from the coronavirus, many are having to scale back. But some older Americans were already living a minimalist lifestyle on the road.

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has their story.

    It's part of our Making Sense series Unfinished Business. And a note: Portions of the story were shot before the pandemic.

  • Marc Vroman:

    This whole entire industry is just exploding right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    At Nomadik Customs, Marc Vroman and his crew retrofit vehicles to live in.

  • Marc Vroman:

    I think, with the combination of just how things are in the world right now, people are really wanting to jump into vans and buses and just alternative housing situations.

  • Paul Solman:

    These days, the hashtag #VanLifeBusiness is booming. Vroman's hired eight new workers, but still can't keep up.

  • Marc Vroman:

    At last count, I think I had something like 180 estimates to write, probably another 400 e-mails to return. And yesterday alone, we received 37 phone calls.

    I feel like I hopped onto a rocket ship, and I have just been doing everything I can to hold on.

  • Paul Solman:

    The last half-year of lost jobs has spurred a desire to escape. Cheap mobile living enables it. But lots of folks, many older, were on the road before the #VanLife hashtag, inspired by this 65-year-old.

  • Bob Wells:

    Living in nature. Wouldn't you like to be out here and see and live like this?

  • Paul Solman:

    YouTube celeb Bob Wells moved into a van 25 years ago when divorce left him unable to meet the rent in Anchorage, Alaska.

  • Bob Wells:

    I knew I could live comfortably in a van on $1,400 a month, because no house payment, no utility payments. I had solar. I was my own utility company. It worked really well. I enjoyed it. That was the amazing thing.

  • Paul Solman:

    Enjoyed it so much, in fact, he created a Web site, CheapRVLiving.com, and then a YouTube channel, to teach others to downsize and thrive on wheels.

  • Bob Wells:

    Finding heat in your van is a really important issue for a lot of us.

    Everything you need to do to stay clean is right here.

    The topic of today is poop. You can just sit right straight down on a bucket.

  • Paul Solman:

    Wells' videos, viewed over 80 million times, preach the simple life, especially appealing right now to those ages 55 to 70, some three million of whom have been shoved out of the work force.

  • Bob Wells:

    Twenty-five percent of Americans don't have a penny saved towards retirement.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes.

  • Bob Wells:

    So, in five, 10, 20 years, that 25 percent are going to be living on Social Security, and Social Security won't be enough for them to live on.

  • Man:

    Thanks for all you do.

  • Bob Wells:

    Thank you.

  • Paul Solman:

    Every winter in Quartzsite, Arizona, Wells' devotees convene at the RTR,the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, for seminars and community.

  • Man:

    I feel like I'm a disciple.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    You're Moses, and I'm the disciple. You're spreading the word.

  • Paul Solman:

    Wells, a self-described introvert, is their celebrity guru.

  • Bob Wells:

    There's a lot of us here who are on Social Security. And their Social Security is anywhere from $600 to $1,000 a month.

    And so you can see they couldn't rent a home on that. But when they move into their vans, most of them slowly have to start dipping into their savings, their emergency fund, and so most of them will have to work some time to replenish it.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, the topic of one RTR huddle, earning on the web.

  • Man:

    If you're not monetizing it, you're not making money through your Web site or social media, then you're kind of missing out.

  • Woman:

    Well, hello, YouTube family.

  • Paul Solman:

    Inspired by Wells' success, most people here seemed to have a YouTube channel of their own.

  • Woman:

    We're Camper Size Living.

  • Woman:

    And where can we find you?

  • Woman:

    YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.

  • Paul Solman:

    YouTuber Linda Mastromonaco lives in her SUV, sleeps in the front seat.

  • Linda Mastromonaco:

    I curl up. I stretch out this way. I stretch out this way.

  • Paul Solman:

    Two years ago, Mastromonaco gave up her apartment, quit the last of her low-paying, no-benefits jobs.

  • Linda Mastromonaco:

    Target, Kroger's, Chico's, all the retail. I have waitressing background. Just all kinds of things where you're on the treadmill, just trying to really, literally make ends meet.

  • Paul Solman:

    She now lives on the road, hawks inspirational cards online, has posted hundreds of videos to her YouTube channel.

  • Linda Mastromonaco:

    I am back on the road.

  • Paul Solman:

    Up to nearly 30,000 subscribers.

  • Linda Mastromonaco:

    More people are feeling stuck right now and making a plan when they can that leaves.

  • Paul Solman:

    How's your YouTube channel doing in terms of income?

  • Linda Mastromonaco:

    Income has exploded over the last couple months. I was averaging $600 a month, and I'm over two grand for this month.

  • Steve Turtle:

    Hi. I'm Steve Turtle. And I'm a workamper.

  • Paul Solman:

    Steve Turtle gives his YouTube followers the down-and-dirty on workamping, working seasonal jobs while camping, that is.

  • Steve Turtle:

    I want to show you how I clean toilets.

    (EXPLOSION)

  • Steve Turtle:

    Woo-hoo! That's how you clean a South Carolina toilet right there.

  • Paul Solman:

    Turtle's been hamming it online for over two years.

  • Steve Turtle:

    YouTube rewards you for people watching your videos and the commercial.

  • Carol Meeks:

    Welcome, welcome, welcome.

  • Paul Solman:

    Carol Meeks has a YouTube cooking channel for nomads on a tight budget.

  • Carol Meeks:

    Some people are living on $500 to $600 a month. So, I mean, we're not going to be having salmon and crab legs. You can do a lot of things for a dollar a serving, if you know how to shop, and if you're creative in how you're cooking.

    I'm planning on becoming the Anthony Bourdain of van life, OK?

  • Bob Wells:

    You can wash your hair, and you got some pressure.

  • Paul Solman:

    But how many itinerants can support themselves on YouTube earnings, like Bob Wells?

  • Bob Wells:

    For most people, it's not realistic. The idea of making thousands, very few do that.

  • Paul Solman:

    Consider Steve Turtle's YouTube take.

  • Steve Turtle:

    I was somewhere around $150 a month, and then, in March, it sort of fell apart. There was just not a lot going on.

  • Paul Solman:

    Turtle stopped livestreaming when COVID hit.

  • Steve Turtle:

    We are live.

  • Paul Solman:

    He's back at it, but hasn't reached YouTube's pay threshold.

  • Steve Turtle:

    I don't think I'm going to try to survive off of YouTube.

  • Bob Wells:

    Hi, everyone, and welcome back to my next video.

  • Paul Solman:

    But if you, like Bob Wells, manage to go viral — pardon the expression…

    You make about 75 grand a year from YouTube? That's what I read anyway.

  • Bob Wells:

    I make an amazing amount of money from YouTube.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    More than $75,000, I take it.

  • Bob Wells:

    An amazing amount of money. You wouldn't — I wouldn't believe it.

  • Paul Solman:

    OK, very good.

  • Bob Wells:

    Yes, so…

  • Paul Solman:

    So, what do you do with the money?

  • Bob Wells:

    I give it away. What do I need money for? I live in a van.

  • Paul Solman:

    Indeed, Wells has started a nonprofit to provide homes on wheels for folks in need, in tune with his YouTube channel's goal, to lend a helping hand.

  • Bob Wells:

    I have been devastated in life. In 2011 — I have two sons — and one of my sons took his life.

    That's the only reaction possible. There's nothing like it. It's just — how do you express it?

    Every morning, you wake up and say, how can I be alive on a planet on which he's not here? And so the adequate answer is, I have something to give.

  • Paul Solman:

    He gives; his followers receive.

    Carol Meeks' YouTube channel has grown since we met in the winter.

  • Carol Meeks:

    Just under 4,400 subscribers. And I actually think that that's been impacted because of COVID, because so many people are looking for entertainment and engagement, and they're doing it online.

  • Paul Solman:

    In January, she was forming friendships with fellow nomads in the flesh. Since the pandemic, virtual bonds.

  • Carol Meeks:

    I have met so many people online and so many other people who have channels who are in this type of lifestyle, so I feel like I have a community.

  • Paul Solman:

    Carol Meeks, like so many older Americans, seems to have found a new tribe, on the road, online.

  • Carol Meeks:

    Take care, friends.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.

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