Living in a cluttered house with too much stuff and too much debt made Nina Nelson feel stressed and out of control. She began to simplify life for herself, her husband and their four children. With each item she got rid of and each bill she paid off, she felt more relaxed and at peace. So step-by-step, bit-by-bit Nelson changed her family’s way of life.
That path led her to where she is now: living in a converted school bus.
Nelson shares the 294-square-foot space with her husband, Ian, and four children, Isaac, 9, Eva, 6, Ella, 5, and Isaiah, 4.
The bus, which is still undergoing finishing touches, sits next to the home where Nelson’s parents live on a large herb farm south of Culver. While the space can feel small sometimes (Nelson jokes that she misses doors), she also likes having her family, often literally, within arm’s reach.
Getting to the bus
Growing up in Culver, Nelson pictured living a typical life, and for a while that’s just what she had. After meeting and marrying her husband, they worked regular jobs as a firefighter and nurse’s aide and owned a house. Nelson calls this life “lame.”
“We accumulated a bunch of stuff and a whole bunch of debt,” she said. They didn’t have many friends and “just weren’t really intentional about anything.”
Pregnant with her third child, Nelson, now 29, felt stressed. She knew she didn’t want to keep working with three young children, but she also wanted to get out of debt. They attended a workshop about Dave Ramsey, a financial coach who encourages people to get out of debt. They left the workshop with something of a plan. Four years later, they were out of debt. At that time, Nelson also began to try to get rid of many of their things. “I was cleaning all the time; clutter makes me crazy. I was spending all day cleaning and not paying attention to the kids,” she said.
The Nelsons sold their house, which they had been underwater on at one time, and moved back home to live with Nelson’s parents.
Not long after that, Nelson came up with the idea to live on a bus.
As Nelson looked for ways to save money, she began to adopt a more natural way of living. “I fell down a rabbit hole; I’m a completely different person,” she said.
She found that becoming greener saved her money. She started making all of her own soap, shampoo and personal products. Nelson also began using essential oils in a variety of ways. She makes most of the family’s food from scratch. Nelson says her mom jokingly introduces Nelson as her “hippie” daughter. It’s something Nelson never imagined herself being called.
“I never came around to it until I needed to save money,” she said. But now she’s starting to embrace the term — especially if it means doing things intentionally, which is her biggest goal.
In 2010, Nelson started a blog to chronicle some of her favorite how-tos and thoughts about living and mothering with intention. Called “Shalom Mama,” the website has started to gain a following. Nelson explains “shalom” means peace and wholeness, two things that she is always looking for. Nelson says many moms are attracted to the site because they “feel so crazy all the time and are looking for more peace and purpose.”
As Nelson began to research natural living, she kept coming across stories of families who lived in converted buses. She approached Ian with the idea. “Would it be cool to live on a bus?” Nelson says he shut her down right away, saying, “no, that sounds crazy.”
But Nelson never gave up the idea. The couple watched a documentary that featured a family living on bus. Afterward, Nelson says, her husband agreed to the idea, with one caveat. If they didn’t like it after a year, they could move on.
In October 2012, Ian brought the school bus home. Nelson says as she watched it pull in to the driveway she thought, “Oh, my God, we bought a bus.” They had purchased it from a man in Idaho for $3,500. When Nelson stepped inside for the first time, it hit her just how much work was going to be required to turn it into a home. The man who had been living in the converted bus was a smoker and had installed brown shag carpeting and wood paneling.
In order to focus on converting the bus, Ian cut back to part-time at work. For a few months, the family of six lived in a small travel trailer on Nelson’s parents’ property. Nelson says that cramped space was actually good in a way. She says they all thought: “The bus is going to be huge!”
Nelson says Ian did almost all of the renovations. It is designed very thoughtfully.
By June of 2013, the family was living in the bus. The kitchen and bathroom spaces were completed around Christmastime of 2013.
Walking onto the bus, the space has a surprisingly open and airy feel. White wainscoting and tile line the walls and a light wood laminate covers the floor. Two low benches line each wall, with built-in storage below. This is where the family keeps books, a yoga mat, dirty laundry and other items, all in separate sections. The benches will soon be lined with a colorful soft fabric. Two large metal posts can be inserted in between the benches and then a large table top is attached to create a large dining table, which the children also use for some home-schooling projects. Mostly the table is stored during the day.
Past the benches is the kitchen, with counters on both sides and a large basin sink. Ian built the countertop to cover the top of the stove, to provide more counter space. The top is easily removed during cooking. The cabinets, which were free online, still need to be painted.
Nelson makes use of the naturally magnetic ceiling. They use magnets to hang curtains and to post notes. The girls also discovered that My Little Ponies have magnetic feet and like to attach them to the ceiling.
Past the kitchen is a small propane heater for the house and also the side door of the bus. Nearby is a shower that flows into a large metal basin that Nelson says is big enough for baths.
The bathroom has a working toilet and some storage, but is still a bit unfinished.
Then come the sleeping quarters. Two sets of small built-in bunk beds line the walls. Each child has a small, contained shelf to keep personal items. Beyond the bunks is the queen-size sleeping area for the parents. Seemingly everywhere are tiny spots for storage, like small cutouts under the bunks. Many items are also stored in bins under the Nelsons’ big bed.
Nelson estimates they have spent $8,500 on the bus, including the original purchase price.
Life on the bus
“When it’s bedtime, the kids think the bus is stupid and they want to stay up and keep playing,” said Nelson. But otherwise, she says, they tend to like it.
“I miss doors,” said Nelson. She hopes they will be able to install real doors soon, as the curtains they used at the beginning tend to fall down or get kicked over. “The things people take for granted!” joked Nelson.
When the children begin to bicker or have typical sibling rivalry issues, Nelson tells them to go outside. Or to go find their bunk. She also has an important rule: No screaming on the bus.
Nelson says they don’t intend to live on the bus forever. They hope to travel with it relatively soon (although they want to paint the exterior first). The couple hope to buy an acre or two and have a homestead in Central Oregon.
For now, they like the space. “It’s very much us. Everyone is really close — I like that.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org