When I turned 40 I was broke, unemployed, and living in a van. Then I started sharing my life online, and now I no longer feel ashamed.

  • When COVID-19 hit, Annie Wonderlich, 41, lost her business and had to sleep on friends' couches.

  • She saved up money to buy and renovate a van, and she has been using it to explore the US.

  • At first she felt ashamed of her lifestyle, but now she uses her online platform to inspire others.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Annie Wonderlich 41, an Instagram and TikTok influencer who is traveling the US solo in her van. It has been edited for length and clarity.

In November 2022, I turned 40. It was really rough on me. I was living in a van, and I wasn't married. I didn't have a house. I didn't have all these things that society told me I needed.

I always thought I'd be a millionaire by the time I turned 40, but here I was, living in a van, broke.

Three years earlier, before COVID-19 hit, I had everything I could have ever wanted or needed. I had founded a successful events company with 11 full-time employees, a couple of shops, a beautiful house, friends, and a boyfriend.

But despite my success, I felt lonelier than ever. It made me realize that you can feel utterly isolated despite having everything you ever wanted on paper.

Everything changed when I started watching videos about van life on social media and dreaming about living like that myself. I was sleeping in rental cars and on friends' couches at the time.

When things began opening back up, I started going to grocery stores to buy flowers, foraging for them on the side of the street, and making flower arrangements. I saved $3,000 by delivering them to people's houses and used the money to buy an old van in May 2020.

Now, just after turning 41, I no longer feel embarrassed about my lifestyle. Instead, I feel free and empowered. A lot of people think you have to be rich and young to live in a van, but that's not the case.

This unconventional lifestyle isn't for everyone, but I want to show people that you don't need to do what society tells you. You can carve out your own path without anyone else's permission.

At first, living in a van made me feel ashamed

When I first bought the van, it was such a struggle. I'd spent all my money on it, so I barely had enough money to pay for gas to drive it back.

I lived in the van in a parking lot in Home Depot and on the street of Abbot Kinney in Los Angeles while renovating it and selling flower arrangements to make money. It took me about six months. After that, I finally left to go and explore the US.

At first, I was embarrassed about living in a van. I'd worked hard to climb the ladder and start my own business. I imagined myself as a successful businesswoman in my head, and living in a van didn't fit in with that.

I started meeting online creators who lived in their vans, and I saw them making money from sharing their lifestyles on social media, but most were in their 20s. I felt ashamed that I was older than them.

I never set out to become an influencer, but after living on the van for around a year, I decided to start posting about my life on Instagram because I saw my other van life friends doing it and making money from it, and I thought it would be a good way to make money for myself. My goal was to make it into my full-time job until I started my next business so I wouldn't have to be broke anymore.

At first, I still felt ashamed of my age so I kept it a secret. I look young, and people just seemed to assume I was in my 20s. I was constantly getting messages from people who were the same age as me saying things like, "I wish I did this when I was younger." It made me feel like a phony.

It took a while for me to come to terms with my age myself but once I did, I decided to make it my superpower by talking about it online to show that you can do anything and start over again at any time.

It clearly resonated, because lots of women my age started commenting on my videos and sending me messages telling me how inspired they felt, and I realized there were lots of people out there who felt the same way as me.

I learned that it's OK if you're not where you feel you should be in life

I always wanted to get married and have kids and I still want those things, but life sometimes doesn't give you what you want, and you have to roll with the punches.

I took that pain and shame I felt, and I started using my social media platform to encourage women that it's OK not to be where you think you "should" be, and it's OK to be single. The most important thing is to love yourself and feel contentment.

In the past, I made choices I came to regret because I was so desperate to be married and have a kid — that's what I thought I should be doing. But now I realize that you don't need to wait for a man to come along so you can live the life you want. You can do it on your own.

When I first bought my van, I was frightened to live in it alone. Now I've been doing it for so long, I'm not afraid anymore. I'm not scared of being poor, either. I've done that multiple times now. I know I'll be OK.

I'm excited to keep exploring the world in my 40s

I was shocked by how much my story resonated, but it wasn't all positive. I was equally shocked by how much hate I received from people who were mainly men. In a world where we are fighting inequality in so many areas — especially in gender and race — I feel like we are still behind when it comes to ageism.

It was about six months after turning 40 that I began to feel different. I realized that age is just a number. People say youth holds power, but I don't think that's true. As I've gotten older, I've learned more about myself and acquired more knowledge.

I've outgrown many of my old friendships and made new friends who I love and cherish. We all support each other. I've become a better friend and a better family member over the years because of my experiences. Overall, I've become a better human.

Now that I'm in my 40s, I feel like my life is just beginning. I am still single and childless, and I don't have a permanent residence. But I can't wait to keep exploring life and the world.

Read the original article on Insider