One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is: “How much does living in a van full time cost?” It’s also one of the most difficult to answer. The truth is: it depends. The lifestyle is different for everyone, and so is the price.
That being said, we’re going to give you a run-down of three van lifers with different backgrounds making it work on the road.
We hope this will help give you a reference point for how finances can be managed living on the road.
- Want to build your own? Read our guide: How to build a DIY camper van
How Much Does It Cost To Buy A Camper?
First things first, the type of vehicle you choose to buy is going to be the largest up-front cost. We’ve written a breakdown of what type vehicle you should buy to help figure this out.
Some people move into the vehicle that they currently own. They do minimal to no conversion, and enjoy the lifestyle just fine.
Others spend $45,000 purchasing a 4WD Sprinter. Then add another $15,000 on a high-tech campervan conversion. Despite what you see on Instagram, this is not the norm.
Keep in mind, just like furniture in a house, you can spend as little or as much as you want on a conversion.
Solar power, refrigerators and portable toilets are all comforts and may not be necessary to the lifestyle. Build within your budget and save a little bit for emergencies.
We bought our 1996 Dodge Ram Van for $3,700 on Craigslist and spent another $5,000 converting it with a queen sized bed, fridge, solar power, and general repairs. Here are some pictures.
Camper Van Insurance
When we first started our trip, getting comprehensive insurance for a self-built camper was nearly impossible.
We were stuck with standard auto insurance + renters insurance (using a parent’s address) to cover our belongings.
Fortunately, it’s a little bit easier to qualify for RV insurance with a DIY camper van than it used to be.
Comprehensive RV insurance can cover the cost of your camper van conversion plus personal belongings in the event of a collision, theft, or vandalism.
You can find out more about getting this type of coverage in our article about camper van insurance.
Or get a free quote from Roamly; which is a company that has plans designed specifically for homemade van builds.
How Much Does Living In A Camper Cost Per Month?
In a camper, you can get away with no rent. But there’s still food, gas and insurance to pay.
For some, this lifestyle leads to a significant reduction in expenses. These are the people who utilize free campsites, cook their own meals every night, and don’t splurge on entertainment.
On the other hand, paying for campsites, crisscrossing the country or visiting tourist attractions can quickly add up to even more than your traditional lifestyle.
Vanlife On $850 Per Month
Rob from Little House On The Road lives in a pop-up camper with his wife. Together, they aim to maintain a monthly budget of $850.
To achieve this goal, they always stay at free campsites, travel infrequently to reduce gas, and get creative with meals to keep the price low.
Rob and his wife do not have a solar power system in their vehicle. Instead, they power their devices using a generator that runs about four hours per day.
While some people certainly can go lower, $850 per month is a realistic budget to set if you’re looking to do vanlife on the cheap.
CheapRVLiving.com is a great resource for budget-friendly information. This website highlights numerous case studies of people making life work in low-cost situations. They also have forums and members that live in every type of vehicle from small cars to minivans.
Vanlife On $1200 Per Month
Alexander Travelbum has been on the road for two years, and this video discusses the expenses he pays with his girlfriend. We think these two offer a good representation of a comfortable adventure budget.
They cook most of their own food, eat out occasionally and buy the rare souvenir.
Most of their entertainment is cheap or free and includes visits to National Parks and outdoor activities. Their budget comes out to around $1,200 per month.
Vanlife On $2,000+ Per Month
The Minimal Millennials both work remotely and are able to splurge a little more when it comes to spending.
We think this video is a pretty good breakdown of how much it takes to live comfortably and have some fun on the road.
Overall the Minimal Millennials spend about $2,100 per month. This includes insurance, investments, coffee, groceries, gym memberships, internet, eating out, and gas.
Because they both work on the road, they are able to eat out more regularly and spend money on tourism.
They also tend to travel longer distances between locations and move frequently to different areas.
Health Insurance On The Road
One thing to keep in mind is the first two videos do not include health insurance in their budgets.
Health insurance is a complicated process and the price is going to vary wildly from individual to individual. It’s important to factor your own health care costs into the equation.
We are not healthcare experts, and because the laws change so frequently we’re not going to do in-depth discussion on the costs of health insurance.
Personally, we are insured through our home state’s healthcare exchange. There are also shared options to look into. The Minimal Millennials are on a group plan through TheHealthShareLady.com for example.
Don’t forget the Emergency Expenses!
One thing people forget to take into account is emergency vehicle repairs that inevitably occur.
It doesn’t take too many Youtube videos before you come across a camper that has been put out a day or a week waiting for parts to come in. These parts will also need to be replaced, so labor costs should be factored into your monthly budget as well.
Unlike in a house where if the dishwasher breaks you can live without it for a few weeks; your vehicle is your home.
If your vehicle breaks down and you don’t have an emergency fund you are out of house *and* transportation.
At the very least, you should ideally have enough set aside to get your vehicle towed to a mechanic and perhaps a cheap hotel for a few days if something needs to be replaced.
This is another area where vehicle selection comes into play. Inexpensive vehicles also tend to be less expensive to repair.
The motor on a Mercedes Sprinter can cost as much as $15,000 to replace, for example. See our post on types of vehicles to live in for more info.
Tips For Living In A Van On A Budget
Fuel costs are one of the biggest expenses you’ll have while living in a van. If you plan on doing a lot of driving, you’ll want to make sure you have a fuel-efficient vehicle. You should also budget for regular maintenance and repairs, as well as unexpected emergencies.
Another major expense is your living expenses. If you plan on spending most of your time camping or boondocking (camping without hookups), you’ll need to factor in the cost of food, water, and other supplies. If you want to be able to stay in campgrounds or RV parks occasionally, you’ll need to budget for those fees as well.
To cut down on our living expenses as much as possible (while still enjoying everything that van life has to offer) we focus on saving money in a few key areas:
- Free camping sites – We stay at free or very low-cost camping spots as often as possible. When starting van life, having a campsite with an electricity hookup along with full-sized toilets and showers can be an attractive proposition, but if you fit your van out right, you can almost always do without them.
- Stealth camping – If you plan to spend any time in the city then it’s imperitive you learn some stealth camping tricks.
- Plan your route. Instead of crisscrossing the country several times, consider staying in one area for days–or even weeks at a time. You’ll save a significant amount of money on gas.
- Cook your own food. Making your own meals is almost always going to be cheaper than eating out. Practice creating minimalistic meals or reheating extra dinner for breakfast in the morning.
- Save fuel when cooking. Roasting dinner over a campfire is cheaper than heating over propane if you have access to free firewood. Consider fuel costs when cooking.
- Use lids while cooking food in a pot to contain the heat
- Don’t use recipes with long cook times if you’re using propane or electricity
- Get creative with no-cook meals (sandwiches, salads, snack mixes)
- Reduce your water use. There are many situations where you can refill water for free. But if you can’t, do your best to conserve water.
- Use minimal water when cooking
- Clean and sanitize with white wine vinegar instead of water
- Minimize dishes so that cleaning takes less water
- Be smart about food storage. Not everyone needs to buy a $1000 Dometic fridge and solar system to power it. You can easily get by with a large camping cooler. Think about your lifestyle and weigh the options when it comes to all major appliances. But worse, letting food go bad is a waste of money and space.
- Cut back on electricity. Every electric item that you add to your camper is going to require a larger energy system. When you choose to add an induction burner, you’re not just buying a burner, you’re buying more solar panels and a larger battery bank as well. Get creative, and use something other than a coffee maker to make your morning joe!
- Solar panels – Apart from generally reducing your need to consume electricity in creative ways, harnessing the power of the sun can make a lot of difference to the costs involved in powering your favorite gadgets.
- Bundle up. Many people think they need a heater in the winter and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Unless you live in Canada, you can probably survive by bundling up in the winter or sleeping next to some hot water bottles.
- Take advantage of public locations. Having a hard time staying cool in the summer? It’s cheaper to walk around the mall during the day rather than buying an air conditioner. Starbucks or the local library is a great place to get internet on the road without investing in a cell phone signal booster.
- Use memberships. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis of all of the activities that you do. A US National Park Pass, for example, costs less than $100 per year but gives you access to dozens of parks and recreation sites which is more than enough activity to fill your day.
- Use a cheaper phone plan. There are more networks out there than Verizon and T-mobile. We use Visible which uses the Verizon Network towers, but at a cheaper price. Do your research and find the plan that works best for your situation.
- Buy a used camper van. You may think that financing a new vehicle is the cheapest way to save on repair costs, but that’s not always the case. Learning how to shop for a used camper van and mastering some basic repairs on youtube university can save you hundreds of dollars.
- Get RV insurance. You can save money with comprehensive RV insurance that covers your vehicle plus personal belongings.
- Drive safe and maintain your vehicle. Getting oil changes, keeping your tires inflated, driving the speed limit, and avoiding parking tickets is the best way to prevent surprise costs.
- Thrift mindset – Your van life adventures will rarely be enriched by opting for sparkling furnishings that come straight off the shelf for full retail price. It really pays to see the potential in used items that you may be able to do a bit of work on to make perfect for you.
Determine Your Vanlife Budget
Listed below are the most common expenses you should take into consideration before starting your trip. Download our budget worksheet to get an estimate of your expenses.
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