Van Life Costs: Expenses, Travel Tips, & 4 Budget Hacks

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED April 28, 2021

Van on a road
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There are many reasons why full-time van life is an attractive way of living. While some gravitate to van dwelling as a way to embrace an alternative lifestyle, others are on a mission to save money.

Regardless of why you choose to live out of a van, the reality is that it requires extensive planning. Before you get the urge to sell all your stuff and downsize to a cargo or camper van, be sure to do your due diligence and calculate van life costs.

Although van dwelling is an adventure you won't forget, the extended road trip won't last long if you haven't budgeted for monthly van life expenses.

Below we will provide an in-depth review of van life costs alongside monthly expenses, travel tips, and four budget hacks to help you save money on your next big adventure.

Estimating van life costs: A general overview

We have already published an in-depth guide to van living. In that article, we explained everything you need to consider before hitting the road—and our readers loved it.

But one thing we could have done better was to provide a comprehensive breakdown of van life costs. So, before you invest all your hard-earned money, take a few moments to read this article. That way, you have a better idea of how much van life costs in reality. Let's get to it.

Brick wall - van life cost

How much does van life cost?

We're going to be upfront with you—there is no way we can give you a clear-cut estimation as to how much money you'll need for full-time van living.

Each person has different wants and needs, so how much you need to be comfortable on the road is subjective. That's why it's essential to plan out your trip and make price estimations based on your specific situation, preferences, and budget.

Factors like vehicle type, miles traveled, duration, and location all affect how much you're going to spend, and these are only a few variables that influence van life costs.

While we will do our best to outline as many fixed price scenarios as possible, understand that we won't be able to map out monthly van life costs down to the dollar. We hope you can take the common denominators and use them to formulate a list of monthly expenses tailored to your lifestyle.

Estimating van life costs and monthly expenses

While there's no precise figure for how much money you'll need to live out of your campervan, we can help you make an accurate budget. To complement our personal experiences as van-dwelling nomads, we scoured the internet searching for a suitable price range to ensure agreement with the greater community.

After engaging with a few bloggers, social media influencers, and Youtube videos about van life costs, everybody seems to agree that the average price tag for a month of van life (in the USA) is between $1,000 and $5,000. But that doesn't include money for purchasing a house on wheels and getting insured.

Remember to account for campervan conversion costs for DIY modifications like solar panels, kitchenettes, sleeping arrangements, and other custom necessities. If you want to learn more about the different types of vans and their advantages and disadvantages, pop over to our beginner's guide to van life.

Otherwise, let's look at seven things to include in your budget for van life costs.

Upfront expenses: Van payment

A man repairing a car

There are two upfront costs you'll need to settle before hitting the open road—the vehicle and the insurance.

Both of these elements play off each other, and whatever type of van you buy will have a significant impact on your insurance rate. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the price point, the higher the insurance. The same rule applies to your van build. The more you invest in customized features, the more you are likely to pay for insurance.

Specific Dodge Ram Promaster models are known to have remarkably cheap components, and you might be able to find replacement parts for a bargain. On the other hand, many seemingly economic cargo and Sprinter vans can cost you an arm and a leg in repairs. But more on maintenance costs in a moment.

For now, consider you need at least $10,000 for a reliable van dwelling. If you go the DIY route, expect to pay way more.

Van life insurance

Enjoying a view from a van

We're not afraid to say it—insuring your house on wheels is a complicated process, albeit mandatory. If you're traveling within the US and opted for a custom van build, stay patient because the rules and regulations are not standardized like car insurance.

Which vehicles qualify as cars, RVs, campervans, and conversion vans are subjective to several factors and documentation, all of which affect how much you're going to pay in the long run. Since auto insurance and RV insurance (class B) are two completely different types of coverage, you must proceed with caution. Our advice is to see what you qualify for first and then find a range based on your vehicle's status.

While RV insurance policies are clearly defined, modified vehicles like conversion vans are ambiguous. It's not uncommon to get hit with a ridiculously high premium for any DIY domicile, so find a company that isn't going to rip you off.

That said, expect to pay anything between $1,000 and $3,000 per year for van life insurance. We suggest this article from Bear Foot Theory for more detailed information about van life costs associated with insurance. Otherwise, see what types of RV packages Progressive offers, their price range, and use it as your frame of reference.

Health coverage

Without good health, you won't enjoy living as a nomad, so make sure to arrange health insurance before your departure. Depending on where you're from, it may be a good idea to check with companies in your home state first to see if there's a package that works for you. But first, take the time to learn about a few different options.

Travel insurance

Travel insurance is a great way to stay protected if an accident happens while living out of your van. If you want to explore international travel insurance options, the Word Nomads website is an excellent place to start. We like this resource because they offer flexible packages for traveling abroad and within the USA.

Short-term insurance

If you're not going to be living out of your cargo van forever, short-term coverage might be enough to keep you safe for a short trip. Short-term packages are for transitional periods, and they're usually cheaper. The good news is this type of package won't impact your monthly van life cost as much. However, the downside is their allowances are limited, so be careful. If a severe accident occurs, you might be stuck with a huge bill. Which means you'll pay even more money in the long run.

If you're interested in short-term insurance, check out E-health Insurance to browse more than 3,600 plans from 36 carriers.

Health sharing

Many van lifers opt for a cost-sharing approach as opposed to traditional insurance. To learn more about health cost-sharing options, visit TheHealthShareLady.

Regarding van life cost, there's no point in explaining how much you can expect to pay because the price varies dramatically from person to person. The only way to know how much to budget for health insurance is to sit down and do the research yourself.

Vehicle maintenence

We can't stress the importance of preparing for the worst-case scenarios enough. Ask any seasoned van lifer about budgeting for van life costs, and they'll tell you it's a good idea to set up an emergency fund, which you can also use for maintenance. When traversing mother earth in a van, it's only a matter of time before your vehicle breaks down. And when it does, you need to have money set aside to continue traveling.

How much cash you'll need to get to maintain your dwelling depends on the severity of the repairs, your campervan's make and model, and also your insurance package. While you can't predict everything that might happen, you can certainly set aside money for routine maintenance like oil changes, tires, and topping off fluids.

Generally speaking, a budget of $500 per month should be more than enough for repairs and upkeep. It may seem like a lot of money, but it's well worth it to avoid breaking down.

Parking fees

Parking with people

You might not realize it yet, but parking fees add up very quickly, and you'd be a fool not to include them in your almighty budget. We're not saying you need to map out every parking space and predetermine how much you need to reserve a spot—we want you to be aware of all the potential van life costs.

Of course, there is no shortage of sites for free camping. And if you're being frugal, you can undoubtedly get by without ever paying to park your van. But that requires a lot of time, dedication, and careful planning.

For the sake of your budget, let's estimate paid parking and camping spots between $10 and $50 per night. While many van lifers might think it's a bit ridiculous to allocate $50 per night for parking, remember that you can reallocate what you don't spend to compensate for other van life costs.

In just a moment, we'll talk more about ways you can save money while living out of your van. And rest assured, free parking and camping will be at the top of that list. But until you've cracked that travel hack, it's best to account for every penny you might spend—which includes parking fees.

Food and drink

Family eating food outside their van

How much of your van life costs go towards food and drink depends on your diet, lifestyle, and cooking situation. While drinking alcohol and eating at restaurants gets expensive quickly, buying basic groceries and cooking your meals saves you tons of money.

So to formulate that masterful spreadsheet and pay attention to what you consume daily. Track every penny you spend at the grocery, restaurants, and include alcohol because regularly drinking is going to increase your van life costs.

Do this for several weeks until you come up with an accurate estimation for your weekly food and drink expenditures. We recommend a weekly or monthly budget because it's easier to scale up or down depending on how long you travel.

The average van lifer traveling around North America spends anywhere from $100-$500 per week on food and drink. As stated, the only way to know how much money you need for food and beverages is to track your spending now and do your best to consume the same amount when you travel.

Calculating the cost of fuel

Fuel is probably the most expensive component of van life (outside of startup costs) so include it in your travel budget from the beginning. Factors that influence your fuel expenses include your make and model, distance traveled, and location.

If you're on a tight budget, it's a good idea to prioritize buying a fuel-efficient vehicle because gas is more than likely going to be the most expensive van life cost. After you purchase a dwelling, it's essential to note your gas mileage (MPG).

If your vehicle gets 20 MPG and you plan to travel 2000 miles in the USA, you will need 100 gallons of gas. As of December 2021, the average cost of gas in the states is $3.71 for one gallon of unleaded fuel. Therefore, you would need $371 to drive 2000 miles.

Adjust your numbers and plug them into the same formula to know how much you'll need for gas. A bit of number crunching goes a long way when calculating van life costs.

How to save money on the road: Four hacks for van lifers

Many people are attracted to the van lifestyle because it presents an opportunity to cut back on spending and get more for your dollar.

Aside from poor planning and a nonexistent budget, there are a few situations that might cost you big bucks in the long run—at least if you're not careful. Here are four hacks to help you save money while traveling.

Hack 1: Locate free camping

There is no shortage of places that provide access to campsites free of charge, and an intelligent van dweller knows how to take advantage of the situation. North America is full of National Parks, campgrounds, and public land where you don't need to pay to park.

If you are familiar with the rules and regulations and have trouble locating free campsites check out websites like iOverlander or freecampsites.net. These tools are wildly popular with travelers looking to save money on van life costs.

There's also the option of stealth or urban camping, which means you find a parking lot to sleep in overnight. Many nomads have good luck pulling off at a Walmart or casino parking lot to catch a good night's sleep. Just be aware it's not technically legal so try to lay low and stay in your vehicle.

Hack 2: Use free wifi

If you're a blogger, writer, or any freelancer that takes their work on the road with them, then you'll need a good internet connection outside of your cell phone.

While you always have the option to pay for wifi or a hotspot, the truth is it's just another bill to add to your lengthy monthly expense chart. And if you're traveling, it's easy to eat through your data and end up paying even more. The good news is there are plenty of options for free wifi for those willing to put in the effort.

Always be on the lookout for places offering free internet and an open network. Examples are cafes, restaurants, libraries, and even McDonald's locations. There are always ways to stay connected without paying Verizon a monthly internet or phone bill.

Hack 3: Optimize heat sources

During the winter months, even the most experienced van lifers find themselves spending more money than planned trying to stay warm. It's a shared experience, and it could cost you lots of money in the long run. So do your best to optimize heat sources before the cold arrives.

[Related read] Money Hacks That'll Help You Reach Your Money Goals

The easiest way to stay warm and save money on van life costs is to invest in an affordable heat source that doesn't eat up a lot of gas or propane.

The most straightforward option is a quality subzero mummy bag. We like the Coleman 0°F Mummy Sleeping Bag. It's under $100 and will keep you toasty in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hack 4: Don't pay for water

Water should not be a regular van life cost. Instead of buying water as you go, we suggest purchasing at least one 5-gallon water bucket for refilling purposes.

Every expense adds up no matter how small, and honestly, there's no reason anybody should be spending much on water. Keep your containers handy and constantly stay alert for places to resupply. This way, you never run out.

The cost of living the van life

A van under a night sky

The main thing we want you to understand is that the best ways to cut down on your monthly van life costs require careful planning and an in-depth budget. While you can't predict accidents or disasters, you can avoid many bad situations by preparing for the worst.

Before you embark, follow through with as much financial preparation as possible. In the end, unpredictable expenses will arise, but the key is to be ready. Have an emergency fund on hand, and don't be afraid to get creative when you're in a pinch.

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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