This Minimalist Mom Saved Thousands of Dollars by Turning a School Bus Into Her Family's Home

Maressa Brown
·7 mins read

Real Moms. Real Money - Deborah Mayes

In 2017, Deborah Mayes, a mom of four, decided to explore tiny home living and downsize to life on a 250-square-foot converted school bus. Through their journey, the Mayes gained control over their finances and have embraced minimalism.

For the first 11 years of their marriage, Debbie Mayes and her husband Gabriel Mayes were living what many would describe as the American dream. After tying the knot in 2005, they moved to Texas, welcomed four children, and were living in a 5,000 square-foot house. "Gabriel worked multiple jobs, sometimes working until the early hours of the morning," says Debbie. "We very much believed that our value was based on what we did and that success in life meant that we had the nicest house, cars, and our kids were in the best school."

But the lifestyle began to negatively impact the couple. "The pressure to provide for our increasing expenses and keep up with everything took an emotional toll, not just on us as individuals but also on our marriage," says Debbie. "We were both miserable and disconnected, so realized we needed to change everything about our life."

Debbie had seen a video about Expedition Happiness, a documentary that follows a couples' journey across the U.S. in a refurbished school bus. She was intrigued. "Gabriel was a little skeptical, but we had a family meeting and asked the kids what they wanted to do: move to California and rent a house or travel cross-country on a school bus? They all chose the school bus idea."

The couple was thrilled that they could customize the bus to their needs, and they also loved the idea of not being tied down to one location to call home. "If we didn’t like California, we could just move our home somewhere else," notes Debbie.

So, the Mayes family sold their house and moved in with Gabriel's parents temporarily while they focused on purchasing and converting a school bus into a home fit for their family of six. "Moving in with his parents was the first challenge," says Debbie. "Can we live within two rooms? Can we just be so close together and survive? Can the kids even sleep in one room?"

In the meantime, any money the parents made went straight to the conversion. Though there was certainly a bit of trial and error involved in getting the bus up and running, the total cost for the bus and its conversion came to $36,000. By June 2017, the family was ready to move onto the 256 square-foot bus, nicknamed "Skoolie," full-time.

That's when the couple started a business building and maintaining websites. "That allowed for us to have a monthly income that was recurring," explains the mom of four. At the same time, they were saving a ton by keeping their expenses so low. "Spending nights in RV parks, it's super inexpensive, and your electricity is covered," she notes. "So, really, we were just paying for gas and food at that point."

The experience was exactly what they hoped for. It brought the family closer emotionally as they navigated life in such a smaller home. "We got so connected," says Debbie. They also learned "how to advocate for ourselves if we needed time alone."

In the summer of 2019, the Mayes' bus journey came to an end, but they decided to apply the minimalist lifestyle lessons they had learned to their next chapter: buying and renovating a small house in Redding, California. And the Mayes family is currently documenting that journey—as well as tips on saving money through DIY and minimalism—on their social media.

Debbie shares her advice on making minimalism work for you, facing your fears, and being proactive in order to save money.

Embrace DIY

Living on the bus empowered the Mayes family to do more than they thought they could. "We ended up having to fix things over the course of living there," says Debbie. "I got my screwdrivers out and fixed things when they were broken and discovered that I was actually much more capable of doing these DIY projects than I thought."

So, when it came time to renovate their new home, going all in on the DIY approach was a no-brainer. Debbie says that by doing most of the renovations themselves—save the electricity and plumbing—she and Gabriel have saved at least $20,000—and managed to stay within their total budget of $30,000.

After getting a quote for $17,000 for the cabinets alone, the couple decided to do it all on their own. "We ripped everything out ourselves," she notes. "We tore down a wall ourselves ... We did the concrete countertops ourselves and sanded/sealed our floors."

Her DIY advice? "Figure out what you can do yourself, and don’t be afraid for things to not be perfect," says Debbie. "Have a professional advise you and then do everything that you can. There are so many tutorials online that can guide you in your own projects."

Find Your Own Version of Minimalist

While living on a school bus for two years as a family might not work for everyone, Debbie urges parents to par down. "Stuff is not as important to us as it was," she says. "We really downsized all the toys, all the clothes. I learned that kids really don't need as many as we think they need. We learned that the quality of things is much more important than the quantity of the things that you have."

Embracing minimalism in a similar way can be simple. "Take one room at a time and with each item you have ask yourself, 'Would I still want this item in five years?'" says Debbie. "That helps you to really understand if the thing you’re looking at is something you really love."

Another tip: "Keep a 'memory box' for each person in the house to put in sentimental items," says Debbie. "We gave each kid a small box and said, 'Put your favorite toys in here.' When they’re given a space to fill, it really helps them to decide what items they really want to keep."

Focus on Experiences

The Mayes' minimalist journey has resulted in many lessons learned for everyone in the family. "Our kids have learned the joy of spending money on experiences," shares Debbie. "We’d much rather spend money on a day trip or going places together as a family than the newest, nicest toy."

And because they had to whittle down their possessions in order to live on the bus and in their new small home, the Mayes kids have learned to really enjoy the toys they have kept. "If they wanted a new toy, they had to switch out a toy they no longer wanted," notes Debbie.

Figure Out What Sacrifices You're Willing to Make

Just like the Mayes parents urged their children to swap out toys, they've also had to make tough calls to spend or sacrifice on certain budget line items. But if the end result leaves you feeling downright joyful, you'll know you made the right move.

"It's worth it to me to save money in certain areas or to budget," says Debbie, who gives the example of lowering the family's grocery budget a bit in order to have their home reflect their desired aesthetic.

"It really feels good to wake up and be like, 'Oh, this looks the way that I want it to look—that was a sacrifice worth making,'" she says.