The Full Story (with Pictures) of How #HotelPrius Became a Thing.

Hi, my name is Chris Sawey, and 1 year ago I made the choice to live out of my Toyota Prius, my “home” while I figured out the details of life post-college. What started as a one-month experiment to cut back on “unnecessary spending” and to get ahead, turned into a full year of so much more than I could have ever expected or anticipated. I call my home #HotelPrius.

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The Beginning

After Graduating in May of 2013 from Emerson College in Boston, MA., I loaded up my newly purchased 2007 Toyota Prius with my belongings and hit the road headed south, towards Austin, TX. I didn’t need much of a reason to go back to Austin. The truth of the matter was, I was burnt out from my degree and was in no huge hurry to start a career. For me, Austin was the safe choice and required no real risk at all. As a kid, I had grown up at a children’s home near Austin and heard they were hiring a new Youth Activities Director and put in my application. Because I had lived there as a kid, my application went to the top of the list. While still in Boston, I had made it through several levels of the interview process and felt really good about getting the job. We discussed the fact that there really was no better fit for the kids at the children’s home than a kid who grew up there. My ability to empathize with the kids was unmatched by the other applicants and I was confident the job was mine. Although the job was not what I necessarily wanted after college, I still saw it for what it was: an opportunity to work and save money while I waited for another to come along. I felt like the job was good fit for my skillsets and at the very least would build my resume and gain me some work experience while I figured out what I really wanted to do.

Before the trip, I had mapped out a route, planning to stop in National Parks and big cities along the way. I had no deadlines or time frames, and my plan was to take as much time as I needed getting to Austin. At this point, I had an insatiable itch to travel and to experience new cities. And that is exactly what I did.

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The road trip lasted just a little over two weeks. I went to Maine, New York and Pittsburgh. I visited a few places in the Virginia’s, and stopped in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, New Orleans and several little stops along the way. I bought a GoPro to document the adventure and planned to start a blog with all the footage, discussing the importance of travel and how to do it efficiently.

The Break-In

After a long and relaxing trip across the east coast, I finally arrived in Austin late one weekday evening. I called some friends a few hours before arriving and booked a bed and a warm shower for the night. We parked on the street outside their home and was greeted with hugs and good-to-see-you’s by our awaiting friends. That night, too exhausted from long hours of driving, we passed out in our separate rooms without even showering or going to the car for our bags. A big mistake. At some point in the middle of the night, someone had broken into our car. With everything we owned in the car from the road trip, it was too hard to immediately assess what had been taken. In the next few hours I would learn piece by piece what the thieves had walked away with. The 7-Up can outside by my tire and the ripped boxes in the back told me they had been quick and sloppy. It was clear they didn’t spend too much time in the car and only grabbed things that were easily accessible. Things like my day-pack in the back seat that was full of my most important possessions. The crooks had walked off with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, my GoPro and all our footage and pictures from the road trip. They stole my Macbook (laptop), and few other smaller knick-knacks they now seem relatively unimportant. The worst hit was my back up hard drive with every journal, picture and file I had spent the better part of my life working on. All of my hard work from the last 10 years– gone!

And if that wasn’t enough to make me feel lost and helpless, a week later I got into an accident and totaled the Prius. Now with no job, no car, no place to call my own, limited money, and no convenient way to apply for jobs, I struggled. Needless to say, the decision to come to Austin was strongly reconsidered. It was very difficult to navigate through life during that time but I was fortunate to have friends guide me and get me back on my feet. I stayed with friends for the first few weeks and used their computers to retype my resume and cover letters while I waited for my claim through State Farm to finalize.

The Rebuild

The process was less than speedy, but I was thankful I had full coverage insurance on my car and that the car was paid for in cash. After several long and depressing weeks of waiting and sitting around the house. I received a phone call and a check from State Farm to pay for a new car. The outcome was so much more than I expected. The check was significantly more than what I paid for my last Prius. It allowed me to buy a newer model Prius I had found on craigslist with considerably less mileage. I even had a little extra to help cover the expense of a new laptop and the huge spike in my car insurance. I had a car now, but I was still very far behind. Everyday I was reminded of the loss of not just my laptop, but the files that I could have used to help me make money and get ahead. With backup graphic design experience I could have at least made extra money freelancing, but with no portfolio to show for it, I had to start completely fresh. It wasn’t easy remembering the last ten years of job experience for a resume either. I typed up what I could remember and put together a resume as best I could from memory. I started applying wherever I could.

Camp Life

Finally, I had landed a job at a summer camp relatively close to Austin that needed a senior counselor. The pay was minimal, and I would be sleeping outside for 6 weeks, but it was fulfilling work and provided food and pay. Most importantly, it gave me six weeks to continue playing catch up and hang out with teen boys who needed a mentor for the summer. During the day I spent time with my campers, rock climbing, fishing, and kayaking down the Colorado River just telling stories, getting to know each other and goofin off.

My days at camp were long but rewarding. On the nights when I wasn’t exhausted from the Texas heat and when all the campers were asleep, I would sneak back up to the main cabin and apply for jobs. A short 6 weeks later, camp was over and life resumed to the way it was. A harsh reminder.

Great, Now What?

The timing wasn’t perfect, but I managed to land a few other part time jobs and a place to crash with some friends after camp was over. Still unsure of exactly what I wanted to do as a career, I decided my best option in the meantime was to try my hand at substitute teaching during the day and wait tables at night. With the subbing job, I took it because I felt it was the perfect next step to see if teaching for the public school system would be something I could invest in as a career. With waiting tables, I had done it in college and was good at it, but I hated the idea of going back. To me, it felt like I was taking steps backwards rather than forwards, and that was a feeling that left me very unsettled. Finally things began to unfold. I stayed at a friend’s house until my job training was over and then moved out as began to feel my presence was becoming an unspoken burden to my friends. Whether or not that was true, I felt it, and I started looking for places of my own. I had found a place with my own room and monthly rent with another older friend of mine, Julian. I had met Julian through friends years back and despite the 20 year plus age gap, we became great friends. Julian is someone I can’t imagine my life without. He has been a great teacher to me and wise counsel the some of the more uncertain and rocky seasons of my life. He agreed to let me stay at his house for a few months while I organized my life again. He preferred living alone, but would take in roommates occasionally as he had the rooms and it would help pay for the mortgage. No lease, but an agreement to pay $600 on the 1st of every month for each month I planned to stay, and it was furnished! Perfect for what I needed and as long as I booked 10 days of subbing a month, I would cover the costs of rent and bills. With the money I made waiting tables, I planned to use towards gas and food and maybe even put some money away for the next chapter. The inconsistency did make me a little nervous but I was assured by the teachers at the schools and my boss at the restaurant that I would have no problem finding as much or as little work as I wanted, and they would be flexible with my schedule. The first month of rent and bills was not a problem, I was prepared. I used the leftover money I made from camp to pay for the next months expenses, but by the second month I was cutting it too close for comfort. Because I was new and only worked part time, I was not getting the good sections at the restaurant and not getting the classroom hours I wanted at the schools either. Both required seniority I did not have yet. I still made my estimated 10 day subbing minimum but had still not received a check from the schools as they only paid out once a month. Finally, my check was deposited into my account a day late from when rent was due. With taxes and everything else taken out, my total for the month was $590.49. Not even enough to cover rent! I had been eating like crap, losing weight rapidly, and sitting at home on my days off hungry and depressed, trying to not go out and spend money. When I was given invites to go out with friends, I said no because I couldn’t afford it. I hated that this is where my life had ended up. I was a college graduate with the experience and the skill-sets to do just about anything I wanted, but yet I was back to waiting tables and subbing! I had five years of college and had nothing to show for it. I was exhausted and depression was rapidly taking over. Something had to change, and quick. I discussed with Julian my concerns and my options for the future, but we couldn’t seem to get around the topic of rent being late. I didn’t need a lecture, but he felt he needed to give me one anyway about priorities and planning. The way he saw it, I was at home most of the time waiting for work, when I could be working somewhere else and making money. But that wasn’t my problem. I already had two jobs and a third wouldn’t make things easier. Plus “any other” job wasn’t the right investment of my time or energy. He didn’t see the details of my life, my hard work, my depression, my exhaustion or my efforts. He only saw the money he was missing for rent. It was understandable, but I needed him to see how hard I was trying. I needed help and I needed grace. The conversation didn’t go too well and his attitude towards me undoubtedly was the final deciding factor to move out. For the sake of keeping our friendship, I was convinced his home, his lectures, and rent was not something I appreciated, but ultimately did not need in my life. I did, however, need a few days to figure things out and told him I would have a decision for him within the week and would pay him the money I owned him as soon as I knew a plan. He agreed, and for the next week I thought hard about my options.

The Plan

I knew this season well. I called it “survival mode.” If life has taught me anything, it was that limitations always force creativity, and I’ve been served a fare share of limitations growing up. Living in Children’s homes as a kid prepared me well for how to navigate through touch circumstances and taught me how to adapt quickly. I went to my room and assessed what I owned. I considered what was important and what was excess and then wrote out a list of expenses of what I thought to be “necessary” spending. Netflix and new clothes unfortunately did not make the cut. The only thing I considered “necessary spending” was my car insurance, a cell phone, food, gas, and saving for the future. I looked at my car outside the window and knew exactly what I needed to do. I removed everything from the car and studied the space. I toyed and played with the seats and the inside of my car, measuring and strategizing with ideas, mapping them out in my head. My biggest priorities were a bed and space for clothes. I needed it to be efficient and organized. I needed a system. It was the only way to make this small space work. Within the week I had a plan. I picked up a few tupperware bins from Target and materials from Home Depot to help with some construction constraints, but mostly I used my already owned camping gear to set up home in my Prius.

Once the bed and closet were installed, the idea of living out of my car, I thought might actually be plausible. Many details still needed to be worked out, things like where to park, where to shower, laundry, free-time, etc, but I knew I would figure it out in time. Not to mention, my friends were going to think I was crazy. But I didn’t care. I was done relying on friends, sleeping on couches, sharing space and feeling like a burden. I knew this was what I needed to do. This was my best option to get ahead. It was a sacrifice to save my sanity, my money and to avoid slipping further into depression. Most of all, it was for my health and my well being and I was convinced it was the best thing I could possibly do in this particular season of life. After all, this wasn’t the first time I’ve slept out of my car. The last time was years ago in my teens, more by force circumstances really because I had nowhere else to go. My own mistakes had brought me to that point the last time, but this time was much different. If I was going to live in my car again, it was going to be by choice. It was different not only because I had a better car for it, but also because I had a place to go, I just could no longer justify the cost of keeping it. For me, it came down to cost-benefit analysis and the benefits of a room with rent was not worth the cost to keep.

The Leap

After 11 days of preparation and gathering my supplies, I finally was ready. On December 12th, 2013 with my Prius loaded and home ready, I was prepared to embark on my journey. I had paid Julian a pro-rated amount of what I owed him for the month and drove away both excited and a little nervous to start the adventure. Earlier that week I had spent some time scoping out places to park and sleep for the nights ahead and had an idea of where I would go. Around 3pm on a Thursday I sat down for the first time in my new home, not exactly sure of what my newest adventure would bring.

The first night of #Hotelprius was spent at a local automotive repair shop waiting until morning to get my car fixed, a perfect reminder that the next steps of my journey would not be easy or smooth. After leaving Julian’s, I had stopped at REI to pick up some last minute gear and wool socks to keep warm. It was cold that day and I had left my car running to keep it warm. When I returned to my car, my battery had died. At least it was in front of my favorite store. It could have been worse but I wondered if living in my car was still a good decision.

I waited several hours for a tow truck to arrive. I laid on my new bed and read several chapters of Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years on my Kindle, a book about living a good story and how every good story contains a character having to overcoming conflict to get what they want. By the time it finally came, all the local mechanic shops were closed for the day. I had the driver drop me and my Prius off at the Lambs Automotive in town, close to food and free Wifi till morning. The next morning, I woke up early and was at the front door waiting for the mechanics at Lamb’s as soon as they opened. It was an all day event and the battery set me back $250. Thankfully, it was money I would not have had if I had paid rent that month. I walked away thankful I had made the decision to live out of my car and smiled at the thought that I was on my way to living a good story.

After the battery ordeal was finally over, I headed directly over to the YMCA and bought a monthly membership using my old college ID to get the student discount.

For $25 dollars a month I had a place to shower at any YMCA in the city. No matter where I was, there was always a YMCA near by. For food? My plan was to take advantage of my discount and free “family meal” at my restaurant, and to get to know local daily specials around town on my days off. If I wanted to cook instead, I would pop in to an HEB grocery store or Traders Joe’s and buy a skillet friendly meal and cook it out of the back of my car. This excited me, because finally with the extra money I had I could eat well again and gain back some of the weight I had lost.

The Income

I continued to wait tables and subbed when I could. The subbing gig didn’t last very long though. The kids were certainly a reason to stay, but I ended up leaving after the first few months because I knew teaching for the school system was not my next career move. I didn’t quit before finding another job first though. For my next job I was fortunate to get involved in a new hotel restaurant start-up opening downtown, working for a local Austin celebrity chef. The opportunity more fell in my lap than me having to find it. A few weeks prior, I had sought out counseling for my increasing depression and met a man named Mike K., who was absolutely paramount in helping me find emotional stability again and helped me change the bandages from the last few months of emotional injuries. He did more than listen and give me advice. I could feel he cared about me and believed in my potential and wanted me to be successful. He set me up with an interview with his cousin, the Chef, and I was hired.

The restaurant was expected to start in January and held promise from the very beginning. In a few short weeks, I transitioned out of the subbing job and my other restaurant and began full-time at Chavez in downtown Austin early that January. During the day, I helped at weddings and banquets in the hotel, and at night I served in the restaurant.
I loved it. I was learning new things, tasting great wine and meeting great people from all over the world. For the first time in a really long time, I felt that I was going to be okay. By the time of the grand opening, I was already one month-in of living out of my car but the quality of life was better than it had been since college. I walked with my head up and with a smile. I finally felt I was beating life instead of life beating me. Chavez was a higher end restaurant on the bottom floor of a hotel downtown with a well known celebrity Chef, so we stayed consistently busy. The money I made was almost too good to ever want to leave. I might of tried to move into an apartment by this point had the new  restaurant not encouraged me to stay living out of my car. This hotel downtown had everything #hotelprius needed to thrive. Free downtown parking, a great view on the parking garage overlooking the city. Perfect access to sunlight to charge my solar panels during the day and cover from the occasional storms at night. I had access to water and ice when I needed it, and restrooms and free food on the days I worked. Plus the commute was less than a minute to work, and the YMCA was a 5 minute walk down the street. How could I not stay living in my car? With limited expenses and bills I was saving over $1000 a week. It could not have been more perfect. My coworkers complained about the traffic getting to work and their 30–45 commute. When asked about my commute: my answer, “Oh you know, about thirty to forty-five…seconds.”

The Name

As far where the name came from. After long satisfying days working for the hotel I would go “home” to the top level of the parking garage and sleep for the night, only to do it again the next morning. Because I practically lived there already, when asked where I lived, I could’t lie, so I told people I lived at the Hotel. When they asked what floor, I told them “the top.” Confused when they asked what hotel, I told them “Hotel Prius.” It actually started as a joke but after saying it to my co-workers and friends enough, the name kinda stuck. At first, I was too embarrassed to admit I was living out of my car and kept it under wraps for the first month or so. But after awhile I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of and became actually proud of my lifestyle. It was smart and resourceful. It was a direct representation of who I was as a person.

The Design

The inside design of #hotelprius took on many forms. In my free time during the days, I would continue to strategize and think of ways to improve my living space. Within the first month I designed curtains in a parking lot of a Joanne Fabrics and added a pull out table in the parking lot of Home Depot. Not only was it enjoyable for me, but it also made for a great use of my free time. It was exciting and I loved it.

Everything else, I would figure out as time went on as new experiences and situations called for it. I later added solar panels to charge my phone at night, and even played around with a few fridge options and mounted a foldable moped to the top. Look closely at the picture above.

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I was constantly making little upgrades here and there, all the while still managing to save money and eat well. My stomach grew and so did my savings. Depression slowly disappeared and life provided me with the kind of challenges I loved to work out and solve. Life felt real and organic. It felt right.

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What started as a one month experiment to get ahead and to catch up on life after a turn for the worst turned into so much more than I could ever have hoped or imagined. This is that adventure.

Documented.

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7 thoughts on “The Full Story (with Pictures) of How #HotelPrius Became a Thing.

  1. Hey Chris,
    I just want to say that I am really impressed and inspired by what your doing. From what I’ve learned about you, I feel we’re in similar situations in life. Recently graduated from college, trying to find our way through life (financially, emotionally, and probably spritually as well), and also trying to make a good story for outselves. In 5 days, ill be hitting the road and living out of my Honda Fit, a little gas effecient and spacious car similar to the Prius. Hitting the West Coast and have no clue whats out there for me other than some dreams, some opportunities, and loved ones. Just wanted to say “Rock on!” for doing what you’re doing, keep it up.

    • Matt,
      Thank you for the kind words! A kinda fit? Wow. Make sure to journal and keep track of your days. Pictures are good too. It sounds like a fantastic adventure! Safe travels my friend!

  2. Hey Chris, great story! Love your honesty. Can you tell me a bit more about the blue hatch cover in the top right, under “The Leap” section? I’ve been fiddling around with a similar workaround for my Yaris, but yours is much more streamlined. Do you have more pics of it?

    • Hi Loralee!
      Sure, the blue hatchcover is a product made by Habitents. Just Google it and you should find it. Should not run you more than about $100.

      Hope this is helpful.
      Chris

  3. Hi Chris,
    I am soon to be embarking on my own journey though with a few more challenges. Type one diabetic being one of them :/ I need to keep my insulin cold as well as other medications and while I do have a plug in cooler unit I am afraid of draining my battery not to mention gas consumption. I was interested in the solar panel you were using and having NO clue o anything solar was curious on the who, what, where of it all… My car is larger, a RAV4 so that should help a bit but I will also be travelling with a parrot (or 2…). That should make life and this adventure interesting lol. She is disabled as I am and my companion of 14 years 🙂 We are out on the west coast and would appreciate any advice!
    Sandy Rayn and Tipeeka

  4. I can only but admire your resiliance and creativity. I’ve previously converted a panel van into selfbuild camper. Progressed to converting Citreon Picasso C4 MPV into camper. Recently for a friend converted Renault Scenic into two berth camper with kitchen(cooker,water and waste). About to sell my sell my selfbuild converted Toyota Previa 2002 auto into 2 berth camper with kitchen in boot. Acquired a Mercedes Vito 2004 as camper.
    I wish you every success in your adventures. May the road take you where your desires lead you. The only limitations in life are those we place on ourselves. Ingenuity, creativity and passion will continue to be the seedbed of your success.
    Many blessings .Cam

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