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If you frequent virtually any social media outlet you have seen the take off of this new brand of tiny living: van life. From tumblr to Instagram #vanlife has been a whirlwind of a trend that has been strong in Australia, Europe and has most recently dominated in North America.
While the tiny home focuses on living in homes under 300 sq ft, vanlife takes it a step further adding wheels and less than 90 sq ft to the mix.
As someone who has lived the van lifestyle for almost two years I find the question I am most commonly asked is about finances in the van. While I didn’t turn to this lifestyle for the financial break it would turn out to give me, it was a definite perk that is worth focusing on.
Have you been wanting to downsize your life? If you are looking for a leap into minimalism and have a desire to travel, van life should be near the top of your list.
It takes the best parts of a tiny house but puts it on wheels. This allows you to have the freedom of moving your home with you as you travel.
While it is commonly termed as van life you will find that people often drive any number of mobile homes. From lavish RVs and converted buses to those living in a van or even a Prius, van-lifers are seen in all shapes and sizes.
The point of the lifestyle is simple: choosing a quality lifestyle over modern luxuries.
If you have a hobby, like rock climbing or mountain biking, this could be the way of life that allows you the most freedom to do these sports more often. You can go to places that you would never have thought possible and spend more of your life doing what you love.
Escaping the traitorous 9-5 routine this lifestyle is designed to give you control and freedom. Imagine for a second that you love surfing. Being able to pack up your life and move to California to surf every spot along the coast.
But it doesn’t stop there. If you want to change it up you can simply pack up and drive across the border to Baja, Mexico. You can travel wherever you want whenever you like.
Day To Day Costs
The beauty of living life in a van or mobile home is that your expenses are largely variable meaning that you are in full control. You can choose how much you spend on these wavering expenses to allow you complete freedom.
This isn’t really a day to day expense as it is more seen monthly or commonly a once a year fee. It is a necessity as your vehicle becomes your home.
If you get into a car accident you not only lose your van but also the place you sleep. Having the proper insurance is a step to protect your home and your family while on the road.
You can also get a cheaper rate of insurance by researching which vehicle you will use for vanlife. For example, our older Volkswagen Westfalia was classified as an RV.
This means that we only had to pay a mere $1,000 a year. We also prepaid this amount so that we didn’t have a monthly fee which greatly reduced our monthly expenses.
This can be one of the biggest fees associated with this life. It obviously all depends on how much you drive. If you find a good spot you can stay in one place for as long as you want. In the weeks or months that you stay in one place you won’t have a large expense in this category.
There will be other times where you spend hours a day driving from one spot to the next and this will cost you.
Any full timer should absolutely take advantage of as many fuel rewards programs as possible to get rewards and perks every time you fill up. It may even be worthwhile to sign up for a few.
While you no longer have to pay traditional rent you will still be on the hook for nightly expense fees. The good news is that it is very possible to get around paying this cost on a nightly occurrence. In fact two years on the road and we only paid for 5 nights of accommodation.
Staying in campsites can cost you around $30 a night, more if you are looking for hook ups for things like water and electricity. Luckily there are hundreds, even thousands of free campsites scattered all around North America.
We use an app called AllStays. It is available for iPhone or Android phones and is easy to use. It will show you every available campsite around you and includes information ranging from price to how many sites.
We have found that they have a great database of campsites. With the help of this app you will be driving down roads that you would never have thought would have campsites. Most of these sites have fire rings and even bathrooms. They are usually remote and not that busy.
Just like your life before van life you will need to eat. This expense can vary depending on a few factors. The first is if you have a functioning fridge in your van. Having a fridge can be a large upfront cost but can save you loads of money in the long run.
Not having to get fast food for every meal will allow you to not only live farther away from civilization but also keep you healthy.
There are a couple of options when it comes to fridges. A dedicated fridge with a compressor will keep your food at a lower temperature and even make you ice (a luxury in this way of life). These fridges are ideal for life in a van.
They will work off a power inverter or the cigarette lighter on your dash and typically have an operating temperature of around -8℉ to 50℉. When connected through AC they will use as little as 0.5 amps an hour meaning you can run these on a 12 volt car battery.
Another option is an ice box. These are a much cheaper option but don’t do as good of a job in keeping your food cold. These are essentially boxes with a fan that works to cool your ingredients.
They are usually based on the ambient temperature of their environment. For example, if it is 80 degrees outside the ice box will keep your food at 40 degrees.
This can be problematic in the summer in places where it can reach 100℉. It will always be hotter in your van. If it is 80℉ outside expect it to be 5-10℉ warmer in your vehicle. Perishable food like meats, fruit and vegetables will not last for any length of time in temperatures of 60℉.
The last option for keeping food cold is a simple cooler. This is only recommended for short trips. Even though it is the cheapest of the options it can actually end up costing you the most money long term.
To keep food cold using a cooler you will have to keep buying blocks of ice. These can range from $2 – $5 in remote locations and even the best cooler will only keep the ice from melting for a few days. This means you will constantly have to monitor your cooler and make trips to buy ice.
As many people live this lifestyle quite simplistically, only making enough money to live without any of the added luxuries, it is important to plan ahead for additional fees that may pop up.
This includes costs for emergent situations or even simple things such as park entrance fees. Fees can range from $10 to $40 in places such as Arches National Park but are arguably worth it to see the sights.
Most commonly the additional fees you have come in the form of vehicle maintenance. This will again depend on the vehicle you choose to make your home.
If you choose an old 1980’s Volkswagen van you will have more regular maintenance repairs than if you choose a newer cargo van. But the tradeoff is that you will more than likely be able to repair older vehicles yourself.
Newer vans have electrical systems and computers that are not repairable by a do-it-yourselfer. Also, parts for older vehicles are typically less expensive than those of newer models.
Another cost that you may have is a cell phone or internet plan. There are data providers that have special rates for people in the RV community. They are cheaper than cell phone plans but include only data that can be tethered to phones and laptops.
You are still able to communicate with your friends and family and even work while on the road with this much more affordable service. With this you can make the beaches of Monterey California your office.
Be sure to not forget AAA services in here. It will without a doubt come in handy more than once.
If you break it down we have around three cost loops that people tend to fall into. There are more lavish splurges, midway spenders and true minimalists.
Just as the cost of living with a stable 9-5 and a house to pay for depends largely on the specific family, the costs of van life vary drastically from person to person.
As your insurance depends largely on the type of car you are driving we are going to exclude this from the equations below.
For lavish spenders who enjoy staying in a paid state campsite every single night they can expect an average of $30 per night fee adding up to a crippling $900 a month.
It’s important to note that fuel money will likely be one of your largest expenses. For this your average gas bill will be around $150 per week. This is one of the variable expenses that will be far less some weeks and more others.
Food shopping will look a bit different as there are no more large department stores to run to and no space to store massive amounts of food.
This is often a time that people start to really eat well and focus on their health so based on a two person occupancy you can expect to pay around $150 a week. Lavish spenders will likely spend quite a bit on additional expenses such as dinners out, alcohol, park passes, etc.
Camping Fee: $30 x 30 days = $900
Gas: $150/wk = $600
Food: $150/wk = $600
Additional Expenses: $150/wk = $600
Monthly Total: = $2,700
For your midway spender the costs will look a little different. Paying for a campsite every single night is not a necessity and therefore will cut down a lot of spending.
With that being said, midway spenders may like to stay at a campsite around twice a week to plug in their vehicle and charge batteries, fill water and take showers.
Food costs will go slightly down to around $100 a week as midway spenders understand that brand name doesn’t typically affect taste. Additional expenses also go down a small amount to $100 a week with this money spent on sightseeing and cell phone bills.
Camping Fee: $30 x 8 days = $240
Gas: $150/wk = $600
Food: $100/wk = $400
Additional Expenses: $100/wk = $400
Monthly Total: = $1,640
For a true minimalist you can expect the following costs.
Paying for a campsite is something long term van-lifers tend to avoid like the plague. Largely because the cost adds up to be quite crippling but also because the free campsites are often more beautiful than the paid ones.
This cost is instead traded for national forest passes that are much cheaper and also come with nearly limitless free camping.
Fuel expenses will stay quite the same as some weeks you hardly drive at all while others are spent driving across an entire state.
Long term van-lifers tend to focus on keeping their additional expenses as small as possible in order to stay comfortably in budget. This typically involves buying a bottle of wine to drink at home rather than going out for drinks.
Camping Fee: $30 x 1 days = $30
Gas: $150/wk = $600
Food: $100/wk = $400
Additional Expenses: $50/wk = $200
Monthly Total: = $1,230
When looking at these numbers keep in mind that this is the bottom line. There are no rent or mortgage payments on top of them.
When looking here that an entire monthly cost of living can equal the same cost as a typical rent or mortgage payment it is easy to see why so many people are turning to this cost effective and adventurous lifestyle.
These expenses can also vary depending on where you shop. For example, if you shop at the Dollar Store for things like spaghetti and snacks your food bill will be significantly less than if you shop at department stores.
The very first step to living this simplistic lifestyle is to get a vehicle to call home. Living life in a van does require an initial buy in cost. As people turn to many different types of vehicles this cost is difficult to be predicted.
If you are looking for minimal work to get setup you could end up spending more to start. For example a 1980’s Volkswagen Westfalia could cost up to $20,000 for one that is road worthy and not rusted.
If you are more of a do it yourself type you can look into a cargo van. These are available for cheaper but will need quite a bit of love. People are turning to these vans so that they can customize them the way they want.
It’s strongly recommended to get a mechanic to look over the van before you purchase it. This can save you tonnes of money down the road. You don’t want to spend months customizing your van only to find out that it needs a new transmission.
A decent cargo van can be found on craigslist for around $3,500.
You should probably put aside up to $3,000 to customize it the way you want. This will be entirely up to you how much you spend.
You will also need to build a bed, insulate the walls and add an electrical system. If you are wanting a fully setup rig you can even add solar panels to your system and a portable shower system, even an awning.
How Vanlifers Supplement Costs
People that turn to this way of life often don’t have heavy trust funds that they can fall back on. In fact more often than not these are people who are weighed down with student loans and other financial constraints that are simply sick of allowing finances control their life.
With that being said being realistic is still important and let’s face it life is expensive. For that reason most people need an income to support their travels and minimalist lifestyle.
There are many ways people do this and a lot of it boils down to your level of expertise. Of course the ideal for most people is to get paid for their travels and lifestyle. This is done through travel photography, writing, and even youtube.
You will find that most taking on this lifestyle will have many social media platforms including their own website in hopes of getting scouted by companies who will give them financial support in a new business such as becoming an affiliate marketer.
This is essentially selling products through companies like Amazon that give you a percentage of the sale. For example, if you sell a pedal bike you could earn up to 4% from that sale.
While some travelers have previous experience or jobs that allow them to work from anywhere this is not the normal. There are a few go-to ways of turning a profit in a van most of which involve the internet.
From freelance writing and website creation to working on farms and scouring the gigs section of craigslist there are many ways to turn a profit. Some people even make items, like bracelets or dreamcatchers, and sell them on the road.
Nearly every town in America has farmers markets where people can come and sell their items.
Of course there are always some van dwellers who live in warmer climates and use their mobile home as a way to cut down on expenses and save more money.
Living without the overhead expenses seen in modern living will allow you to save a lot more money even if you stick to your same job.
This lifestyle isn’t just something frequented by lazy millennials but a new option for retirees to enjoy their retirement fully without blowing through their 401K.
Believe it or not we are now seeing an influx of people from all different sized families taking to a simple life on the road in an effort to escape the 9-5 work week in order to see the world.
With this life costing as low as around $1,000 a month there are many different ways to make this lifestyle incredibly affordable.
Have you ever considered moving to an adventure filled life in a van or RV? What is stopping you? Talk to us about it in the comment section below.