How Much Does Van Life Cost?

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED April 28, 2021

Van on a road
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For some people, van life is a departure from the standard grind of day-to-day monotony and repetitive schedules and tasks.

For others, it’s a way to cut down on some of the most difficult to manage living costs, especially rent or property prices.

While both of these can be an accurate look into the reasons why a lot of people choose a full-time van life, the reality is that there are a few things that you need to keep in mind.

The Reality of the Situation

First of all, while van living doesn’t have the same repetitive cycles that you’ve experienced in your everyday life up until now, there is still a routine.

Charging into the unknown with eyes closed and not a care in the world may sound adventurous and fun, but it’s a lifestyle that won’t last long if you don’t prepare for it beforehand.

Even if you managed to save a good chunk of money over the years to increase your van life budget, if you’re not smart, all of your money will evaporate pretty quickly.

This means that the daily grind of waking up in the morning and going to the office will be replaced with the daily grind of mapping out the best routes and closest camping sites.

Now, while you may prefer the mapping more than the office work, you still can’t afford to take it easy and need to make smart decisions.

Second of all, van life has its own costs that need to be taken into consideration.

Disclaimer

Brick wall - van life cost

We’re going to be upfront with you and simply tell you that there’s no way that we can make an accurate estimation as to how much money you’re going to spend in a given month.

The exact amount will depend on the facilities you use, the equipment you have, the routes you choose, the van you drive and more.

Additionally, every person is different. This means that while some people can handle life on the road for longer, others will need to stop and recharge for a day or two.

This will affect the number of times that you’re going to need to refuel, the camping costs for staying in a given location for a certain amount of time, the cost of groceries and so on.

What we’re trying to say is that we’re going to be making a few assumptions about your living situation and rounding out a lot of the costs that you might come across.

There will be specific costs, such as the gym memberships that are a fixed price, while things such as insurance rates are going to vary wildly from person to person.

This means that while we won’t be able to map out your monthly costs down to the dollar, we’re still going to be able to isolate certain common factors and let you know how much money you’ll roughly need in order to get through any normal month of life on the road.

General Van Life Cost

Some people will need to spend more than $5,000 a month, while others will manage to scrape by with little under $1,000.

As a basic rule of thumb, we’d recommend that you assume that the base average of your van life cost is going to be around $3,000 a month.

This baseline of $3,000 is a good starting point when it comes to planning out your spending budget and adjusting your plans to compensate for your monthly expenses.

You’ll be able to reach this number by doing most minimum entry level jobs, so it shouldn’t be an unachievable goal to be able to bring in at least this much money each month.

If you aren't able to keep up with the cost of living for any reason, you simply need to make a few changes.

However, if you actually manage to spend less than you anticipated, then it might be a good idea to put some of it away for certain unforeseen situations.

Maintenance

A man repairing a car

This is without a doubt the most tricky subject that we’re going to tackle.

Any sort of maintenance costs that you're going to come across will depend on the severity of the repairs, the state of the van, your insurance policy and so on.

Depending on the state of your engine, the basic costs such as the motor oil and fluid changes are generally going to set you back a few hundred dollars a month.

The tires themselves usually amount to somewhere between $150 and $300 and aren’t a regular cost since they might last for quite a long time.

Depending on the amount of driving you do, you might need to replace the oil at more regular intervals and make sure that the tires aren’t worn out and won’t leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.

All in all, we’d say that the regular maintenance checks should be manageable if you set aside around $500 a month.

Unfortunately, when it comes to unexpected maintenance costs such as the need to replace certain engine parts or fix damaged equipment, we couldn’t even begin to imagine how much you’d need to spend.

Certain Promaster models are known to have remarkably cheap components, and you might be able to find a replacement for a bargain.

On the other hand, a lot of seemingly economic cargo vans and sprinter vans can cost you an arm and a leg in repairs.

High maintenance costs could be an everyday occurrence for you if you want to live on the road.

The best thing you can do is set aside as much money as you can for these sorts of eventualities and hope you have enough to cover any needed repairs.

Upfront Costs

There are only two things you need to worry about before hitting the road - the van and the insurance.

Both of these elements actually play off of each other, and the state of the van that you buy is going to have a very large effect on the insurance rates that you’ll end up with.

There will be some pretty large price swings in both of these categories, but we'll do our best to illustrate the sort of prices you're likely going to be looking at.

The Van

A new van will generally be in better condition than a used van with some miles under the wheels.

But on the other hand, most used vans have been put through their paces and have come out on top, while new vans may develop unpredictable flaws.

Whether you go for new or old is ultimately up to you, but your budget for the van might need to be doubled depending on your choice.

Also, keep in mind that you’ll also need to take into account campervan conversion costs.

In general, the average camper van already has all of the equipment that van lifers would need for life on the road.

However, any other type of van might set you back between $10,000 and $20,000 for modifications such as solar panels, propane stoves and any other DIY necessities.

We go over a few more details about the type of van that you might want to go with (as well as a few other essentials) in our other article on van life that you might like to check out.

Without going into too many specifics in this article, the difference in van types, mileage and equipment means that a van is going to cost you anywhere between $20,000 and $100,000.

Additionally, suppose you buy a new van. In that case, it's more than likely that the seller is going to want a one-time payout rather than allow you to separate the money into multiple installments like you have during standard car payments.

The Insurance

Enjoying a view from a van

We should warn you ahead of time that both the health insurance and the car insurance will be a real headache to navigate.

Car Insurance

First of all, the car insurance is likely going to turn into RV insurance,

We go over this in more detail in the van life article that we already mentioned above, but in essence - a custom van build is pretty tricky to ensure.

Standard campervans are much simpler, but everything else needs to be registered as an RV before it can be properly insured.

RV insurance also has a more defined policy, whereas modified living quarters are the wild west of insurance policies and you might get charged obscene amounts because of this.

That being said, depending on the state of the vehicle itself, and its status as a mobile home, you can be charged anything between $1,000 and $3,000 per year.

Health Insurance

When you spend the majority of your time on the road, you’ll need to keep a close eye on your health and make sure that you’re keeping up with your regular checkups.

Unfortunately, you won’t find a lot of freelance or temp jobs that offer you work insurance.

This leaves you with the option of either paying out of pocket for your medical needs (which can bankrupt most people in about two hospital visits) or short-term health insurance.

Most short-term plans are going to set you back a few hundred dollars a month, and the physical is generally very easy to pass.

We should warn you that a lot of them have limitations when it comes to the medical coverage that they can offer, and they might reject people depending on pre-existing conditions.

However, regardless of the flaws, these insurance plans are still the best option for van lifers.

Parking

Parking with people

There are plenty of choices when it comes to where you can spend your nights if you’re living in a van.

There are, of course, paid parking and camping spots that will cost you somewhere between $10 and $50 a night.

However, you’re very rarely going to be forced to pay for a night’s stay since there are plenty of free campsites that you can take advantage of.

Most of these free sites are going to be either in a national park or a state park.

The easiest way to find out which type of park is closest to your location and can provide you with a free stay is to go to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) site.

You can also do what is referred to as stealth or urban camping, and simply park your van in a Walmart or casino parking lot for the night.

This will allow you to stay in the city without paying any parking fees at all, but you might need to call ahead to make sure that the specific location allows overnight parking.

Of course, the reason why this is called stealth parking is that while you’re not doing anything strictly illegal, you might get a parking ticket if you’re found out.

Groceries

Family eating food outside their van

You’ll need to use the first week of van living to find out how much you should set aside for buying food.

We recommend that you don’t hold back during the first week in order to get an estimation that’s as accurate as possible.

We’re not saying that you should eat out in a restaurant every day of the week, but you shouldn’t starve yourself either.

Setting this benchmark is going to determine all of your other plans, so you'll need to be careful with what you buy.

You can’t live off of instant meals, and you’ll need to try and keep your diet as balanced and as healthy as possible.

Some people spend as little as $200 a week on groceries and other living expenses, while others spend $500 in a single day.

As always, the exact sum is going to depend on you, but we recommend that you pay particular attention to this aspect of van life costs.

Cutting Expenses

The most obvious van life cost is going to be fuel.

Regardless of how frugal you are or how well you plan your route, you’ll need to face the fact that this is one area of van life where you can’t afford to take the cheap route.

However, there are easy ways to save a bit of cash when it comes to virtually everything else.

Internet

If you’re a blogger, writer, or any sort of freelancer that takes their work on the road with them, then you’ll need a good internet connection.

You have the option of splurging on a more costly Verizon package or simply going to some nearby coffee shops in order to take advantage of their free wifi.

In a pinch, you can also use your phone’s hotspot, but this might result in an inflated cell phone bill, so you might want to avoid using it to scroll through social media.

Water

One of the biggest advantages to living on the road is that the amount of water that you spend on a day-to-day basis is going to be practically nothing.

This will reduce the van life cost of water to the one-time $12 price of the 5-gallon water bottles that you might want to buy from Amazon and reuse.

These bottles can be filled back up as many times as possible, free of charge, as long as you have access to a river or a clean water source of any kind.

As for showers, we recommend that you get yourself a $22 Planet Fitness gym membership, which will allow you to grab a quick shower in more than 2000 locations in the US.

Heating

There are a few options when it comes to keeping yourself warm in the colder climates that don’t involve having to waste propane on something like the Mr. Heater portable propane buddy heater.

For example, you can simply hop onto Craigslist or Amazon and get yourself a Therm-a-rest thermal sleeping bag.

Alternatively, you can also simply turn a standard sleeping bag into a thermal one by heating up some water and placing it in a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag. We particularly like the Fashy Classic Cross-Hatched Hot Water Bottle.

And lastly, you can also just put on an extra layer of clothing and bundle up against the cold.

The Cost of Living the Van Life

A van under a night sky

The main thing that we want you to take away from this article is the fact that your monthly van life costs aren’t going to be consistent.

Some months are going to be worse than others, and some are going to be better. Don’t stay fixated on one sum and try to adjust to new challenges as they come.

You’ll need to get used to the idea that plans aren’t always going to work out as you planned, and sometimes, you’ll need to go a bit over budget.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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