Sure, living in a van sounds sweet, but can I do it?
Can I convince my significant other to drop this cozy pad in Lush City and give up the lattes, Whole Foods, double ply toilet paper and this big, big bed we currently have grown accustom to?
I’ve personally had three vans in my life. I’ve also lived in an Airstream travel trailer and a Class C RV. Over my 9 years of traveling, I’ve done it with any arrangement of just me and my girlfriend, our three kids, and even grandma and a dog thrown in there for a few years. So, I believe I have some insight into what life on the road is like, and I’d be more than happy to share some of that with you today.
Firstly, let me tell you about today.
As I’m writing this, a fire ant is biting my toe, having crawled in through my Keens and found the skin around said appendage particularly enticing. It’s painful. The reason it happened is because I’m sitting at a picnic table in some state park where, along with bird shit and the stink of what fisherman leave behind after cleaning their take, creatures like fire ants inhabit my every day life.
Three hours ago I was walking out onto a long pier with my two youngest sons and their jaw droppingly beautiful mama. We shot rocks into the water with slingshots, the oldest of the two tried spearing fish with a piece of bamboo he found on the shore, and later we collected a few shells to mail back to grandparents in distant corners of these United States.
Two hours before that we were breaking down on the side of some Gulf Coast Texan highway and unsure of whether we’d make it to our next destination. Luckily, we did so only steps from a barbecue joint and so figuring out our next moves over brisket and pulled pork tacos made things easier.
This morning we woke without coffee, having forgotten to purchase any, and so had to wait the two hours it took us to get out of bed, pack down our VW Bus (by no means a major ordeal), feed the kids and drive to anywhere that might sell coffee.
This is but an example of how things can go wrong, sometimes gloriously right, and everything in between.
If you’ve followed along thus far, perhaps you’ll be more interested in some of the finer details of what this life entails, and can make a decision for yourself.
The Cost of Vanlife
Firstly, this life can be as absolutely cheap or expensive as you’d like to make it.
The big things we as humans need to pay for these days –food, shelter and clothing–will be covered here. Some of these can be drastically cheaper than you’ll spend living in a traditional home, or if you so choose, ridiculously more expensive. Let’s tackle those one at a time and go from there.
Our refrigerator is 2 cubic feet. The average fridge for sale on Home Depot’s website right now is around 25 cubic feet. You do the math.
We go grocery shopping every two days. I hate it, but it’s a fact of life. And frankly, we eat out at restaurants almost every day, too.
So what does that all add up to?
Well, in the US we spend around $250 per week on groceries. We’re not particularly thrifty shoppers, and buy the food we like and want, not just what’s on sale. We’re a family of five.
With restaurants, we drop at least $35 per meal, around five days per week. That doesn’t include buying alcoholic beverages, and our two youngest boys typically share a meal as they don’t tend to finish even that. We eat at local places more often than fast food joints (though we do occassionally) and thus these are the prices. If we all get our own meal, and I have a couple of beers, or we go out to eat at some place with the words “brewery”, “organic” or “farm-raised” on the menu, the bill bounces way up to $75. I try to limit those to once per week.
So all told, for a family of five, our food bill is around $1860 per month. Or $372 per person.
Just looking at that number disgusts me, but then again, that food is tasty and it’s fun to try out the local fare. I suppose if you grocery shopped like we do, and you were a single person, you could get your weekly tab down to $75 for food…if you never ate out.
Do you never want to eat out though? While vanlife has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of money you spend at restaurants, man, I sure do love an hour stop in some greasy diner or hip brewery as we barrel on down the road, meeting new people, getting a feel for the local life, that sort of thing.
Vanlife Food Estimate
Food: $372 per person, per month
So then comes the next biggest expense, finding a place to park for the night.
You can camp for free just about anywhere in the country. You’ll want blackout windows and a van that looks like a worker might pop out and fix your plumbing at any minute to do so. For us, as a family, I don’t want to park on some street and–when nightfall comes–turn out all of the lights and go to bed.
When we were just a couple of travelers, two young adults on the road, this wasn’t as big of a deal. We’d go out and party or have dinner or catch a movie, then come home to our van and crash out, no lights, no one on the street the wiser.
I can’t see telling my young kids though, “Hey, be quiet, it’s dark at 5pm in the Winter and you all need to be absolutely silent until we go to sleep!”
And while stealth camping is cool for finding a free place to stay in a city, I think the glory of vanlife is living in nature, so here’s to trying to get real and stay away from parking on some city street.
Plenty of free options still apply, though. Some rest stops–in certain states like Oregon and Minnesota–will allow you to stay for 8 hours. So that’s free, and doable if not particularly comfortable. BLM land–Bureau of Land Management–which exists mainly in the western states, also provides this, as do many national forests across our nation. If you had the right setup, i.e. were completely self-sustainable as far as whatever power, water and Internet access you might need, then it’s completely reasonable to think that you could live for free via BLM land and certain national forest camping.
When it comes to paid camping in legit campgrounds with amenities that range from swimming pools and sewer connections to simply a long drop pit toilet, the options vary greatly. These are great generalities, but paid national park, national forest and state park campgrounds tend to run around $20 per night, which will get you a picnic table and a fire pit in most national forests and maybe even water, electric and a shower in the state parks.
The most expensive places are often the least beautiful, but have the most amenities. Private RV parks, for example, will get you an electric hookup, a spigot at your spot with endless water, a bathroom with flushing toilets, showers, a laundry mat (that you pay extra for) and often other things like a pool or playground. But they’ll run $35 – $45 or so on average (though often have discounts for weekly or monthly stays). Were you to strictly stay in private RV parks–something I imagine few vandwellers actually do–you could expect your monthly rent to be somewhere around $300 – $1200 per month, depending on the desirability of the locations you choose, and how long you stay at each location. The lower end of the spectrum doesn’t always mean a crappier place, mind you. These parks simply tend to be in more remote locations, and almost always out west. In the east, expect $300 / month to get you a small strip in some overcrowded, under-cared for equivalent of a camper’s slum.
Next on the list are state and national parks. These are dramatically more peaceful and beautiful than private RV parks, and tend to run closer to $20 / night. You’re still living under the rules and regulations of a campground, but your space will likely be larger than most private RV park spots. You may get water or even electric hookups directly at your site. Particularly in state parks, showering facilities and flush toilets are available. Weekly and monthly discounts are rarely given, and often a two week maximum stay at any one park is enforced, to give others the chance to visit and avoid longterm residents from clogging up the public park systems. These are, depending on the state, some of our favorite places. You’ll have access to trails, sometimes a visitor center or other historic or informative places, and don’t have to rely solely on your rig’s built in systems.
National forests fall next in line. They tend to run anywhere from free to $20 per night, with something in the teens being the average. There are usually no hookups. Your spot is often as large as any state park but with fewer amenities–don’t expect a store or even campground office. The situation with these is typically that you pull in, there’s a campground host living out of an RV or trailer, you register, find a spot, and it’s yours for as long as you pay, up to the maximum stay–again usually 14 days. While the amenities are fewer–often no showers and just pit toilets–the immediate nature is often much more profound.
Finally, BLM land–Bureau of Land Management–is typically the most pristine, and usually free. It’s almost exclusively found in the wide open western states. Absolutely no hookups are provided, and you usually don’t even get a set camping location…instead you find an open track of desert or forest, and find a spot that suits you.
Camping Costs Breakdown
Private RV Parks: $300 – $1200 / month
State & National Parks: $600 / month
National Forests: $450 / month
BLM Land: Free
There are other expenses to keep in mind, of course. If you choose to stay in private RV parks, and don’t do it for longer than a month in any given park, your electric, water and even sewage–if you’re equipped–will be part of your rent. Same for all of the others, when electric and water are provided.
State park campgrounds often provide water and electric.
National parks quite often have no hookups at all, and national forests and BLM land almost always are completely hookup free.
So you need to consider how you’ll generate power for things like a fridge, stove and your cell phone or laptop.
Many a mobile fridge runs on 12v or propane. Most stoves require propane. For us, we can make it on a 2.2 gallon propane tank beneath our little van for three months. That’s cooking one or two meals a day (remember, we eat out usually once a day) and making coffee every morning. That’s about $2 a month. In our Airstream, which powered a significantly larger fridge and where we did much more elaborate cooking and had a larger space to heat, it was closer to $28 per month. Your usage will vary, but if you’re just cooking a couple of meals and coffee per day, expect the lower end of the spectrum. If you go with those green propane cylinders, though, the cost will be higher as you’re paying a premium for that convenience vs. having an onboard tank of your own.
Next up is electric. To create your own, you’ll either need a generator or solar panels…or both. I believe generators are more common for the RV crowd, so here we’ll focus on solar.
For a 100w system–enough to power a laptop for a couple of hours per day, charge up two phones, keep two 12v fans, a single LED light and a fridge similar to ours in size–you can drop around $400 for a decent system. That includes $200 for the solar panel, charge controller and necessary wires, and another $200 for two batteries and all of the miscellanea you’ll need to get it all hooked up correctly. We personally have four batteries, and a charger that works when we’re plugged into actual electrical outlets to help lighten the load. You can also get a setup where, when you’re driving, your engine charges your backup batteries just as it does your main vehicle battery. These can run $100 or more, and while we don’t have one currently (mostly because our alternator is barely strong enough to power the vehicle in our old VW Bus), I would wager it’s a great investment, particularly when solar power isn’t going to be abundant.
Those are initial costs, once they’re paid for–and unless they need maintenance or replacement–you’re running on free power from there on out, as long as the sun is in your favor. We’ve mostly traveled around Mexico and the Southwest during our solar days, and so cloudy days are rare, but for us there is never a need to plug in just because we need more power.
Finally, there’s water. You can buy it in any store, for about $1.30 / gallon. Or you can get it for free from many places (RV parks, state parks, and so on) but it won’t come with a fancy guarantee of being from some crystal pure source. As a family of five, we go through two gallons per day easily. When we have to buy it–such as in Mexico or whenever the water is just nasty tasting in the US–that’s another $40 / month.
So to recap, if you don’t stay in RV parks where much of this is free:
$40 / month water
$400 for a solar system (or $17 / month spaced out over two years)
$2 – $28 / month on propane
While this is the final piece of the puzzle, it’s not the easiest one to assess. You may think, “Why would my clothing costs be any different?”
The main answer? Space.
Living in a van, and more so as you add more people to said van, you won’t have as much room for shoes and pants and shirts and everything else. You’ll find yourself living with fewer of each, and thus each will run out more quickly. For example, I own two pair of pants and five shirts at any given time. One pair of shoes and a pair of sandals. I typically have to replace all of these, except maybe the shirts, every year. They just wear out more quickly, perhaps because vanlife is a bit more rugged than living in a house, but largely because I just wear them more often than if I had ten pair of pants and thirty shirts, four pair of shoes and an assortment of flip flops and sandals to choose from.
Still, even for a family of five, we don’t spend more than $125 per month on clothes, when we total up the entire year’s spending and divide it proportionally. This typically includes a pair of quality boots for myself, a pair of annual Uggs for the lady, and two pairs of shoes each for our three kids, as needed. Outside of that, we don’t refresh our look every season or anything, so some things last forever (or over the span of multiple kids’ usage), and other things get replaced as needed. Should you be able to live as frugally as we think we do, that would mean $25 / person / month.
Totals Food, Shelter & Clothing
So given an even assortment of camping locations (and even the most rugged vandweller will appreciate the laundry services and hot, hot showers RV parks have to offer now and again), and all other costs, one could estimate:
Food: $372 / person / month
Total: $854 for one person, $1236 for two people, $2000 for a family of four
Next up is gasoline, or diesel. Whatever powers you. This is a fluctuating market, both due to the actual fact that gas costs from $2 – $4 or more depending on where you are and what year it is, and because not everyone will drive as much as the next guy.
We average around 10,000 miles per year. If gas runs $3 a gallon on average, and we get 20 mpg, that’s $1500 a year, or $125 per month. This is also the expense you have the most control over, especially if you enjoy walking, riding a bike (those cost money) or taking the bus (also costs cash).
Vanlife Fuel Costs
Total: $907 for one person, $1207 for two people, $1507 for a family of four
Trying to get Instagram famous? Need to make cash online while you travel? Just want to email your mom to say no one has kidnapped you and is ransoming you for the big bucks folks living in vans must have…?
Sure, you can find coffee shops or McDonalds or rely on campground WiFi, but those all have drawbacks, too. First up, they’re unreliable. Do you really want to ask the guys at Mickey D’s to reset the router? How many coffees do you feel comfortable drinking to justify sitting in some coffee shop for eight hours? And campground WiFi? Well, that’s reserved for those expensive RV parks, and even then it doesn’t even always (or usually) work that well.
If you want your own Internet connection, you’ll need a cell phone data plan that allows you to tether. Despite what the various providers say, that’ll cost you around $120 for “unlimited” data, after taxes and everything, but including your phone line and text messaging. Verizon is often the best, but many a traveler will have a Verizon and AT&T connection, to cover as many of the bases as possible. If you have two or more people on board, the cost of two connections is a bit more justifiable.
Total: $1027 for one person, $1447 for two people with both AT&T and Verizon, or something similar or just higher for a family of four, if you end up giving the kiddos cell plans.
Grand Total on Expenses
Well, we’re not quite there yet. What about health insurance? Unless you plan to frequent a particular state, or don’t mind going to the emergency room every time you need to talk to a doctor, health insurance is a bitch.
You see, most plans are based on a particular state. You buy a plan in a state, and you can go to the doctors that plan covers, in that state.
Want to travel all 50 states? The premiums go up like crazy. For example, with a normal state-based plan, it’s around $320 per person, or $830 for a family of four. For our family of five, they wanted $1250 / month for the plan that had the highest out of pocket costs and deductibles, if we wanted it to work in every state. Note that any plan will work in any emergency room across the nation, or so we’ve been told.
Personally, we forego insurance and pay the extra tax come tax time. It’s still cheaper. We’d love to have a better setup, or better news for you, but currently, those are the realities.
Note: No doubt this will change drastically one way or the other, or just remain incredibly high, given new legislation under the Trump administration.
Then there’s car insurance. Figure $50 – $250 additional, depending on your age, driving history, credit and whether or not you’ve got a full fledged RV system–that is, water, electric and sewage hookups–as insurance on something they consider an RV is significantly cheaper.
Vanlife Health Insurance
Health Insurance: $320 for one person, $1250 for a family of four
Car Insurance: $50 – $250
Damn, Vanlife is Expensive!
True, $1500 – $2500 per month doesn’t seem like the freewheeling Bob Dylan lifestyle Instagram photos of toes sticking out the back of some cargo van with the sun rising over them claims it to be.
Can it be cheaper? Hells yeah, mama.
Quick ways to save cash on all of these:
Cook Every Meal, and Eat Pieces of Shit for Breakfast Club
At $75 / week per person, you’re talking $10.70 a day on food. There are folks out there claiming they live on $10 total per day, but are you living in a van to enrich your life, or to eat $0.30 Ramen noodles all day? The latter? Yeah, you could probably sustain your life on $1 / day of food if you only ate cooked noodles. Hot dogs at the gas station cost about a buck, and you can load them up with enough free ketchup and mayonnaise to add those badly needed additional carbs or whatever they’re making gas station ketchup and mayo out of these days… Or dumpster dive! People love it, as weird and gross as it sounds, and there’s plenty of real, free, relatively sanitary food out there just being tossed daily. Realistically though, budgeting $10 per day for food–good, nutritious stuff that will make your body and mind feel good while you’re on your adventures–sounds like the way to go.
You could also camp on BLM land more often than not. This would drastically reduce your monthly costs, even if you went to a private RV park or state park with a shower once a week. Drop those campground fees to $80 – $120 / month, a truly legit way to save a ton of cash without giving up the finer things in life (in fact, since BLM land is often more beautiful, you might even be improving your health, happiness and humanity at the same time).
As to utilities? You could definitely skimp here. Water is freely available–and potable–in most of the US. So drop that $40 / month all together. You could completely forego power, too, and not buy that solar system. Another $17 saved and you’ll probably figure out a myriad of beautiful things to do with your free time without that computer or cell phone hogging up your eyeballs. Assuming you’ve got cash in the bank or don’t need to work on a computer, or answer a phone, to continue the journey along.
You could also source wood and ditch the propane system, cooking your food on an open fire. It’s tougher than you think to find your own wood, but it can certainly be done, and just about anywhere there’s a forest and a willing vandweller. Still, I’d estimate that most people in this situation will want to be able to cook without starting a whole fire every time they do it. Live on the low end of the $2 / month and save yourself hours and hours of hassle, or the absence of hot food when you’re in fire ban country.
You could mend your clothes on your own and make that $25 / month trickle down into $2 / month, including the initial cost of a bunch of thread and a couple of needles. You’ll probably end up looking homeless, given the likelihood of stains and true tatters that this life lends itself to, but it could be done (and that sketchy trainhopper look is kind of trendy now :P ).
As to gas, well, are you living in a van down by the river or are you traveling in your van? I wouldn’t try and shy away from that $125 number much, because gas will go up, and you will want to move on down the road, no?
Health insurance…we do without it. Scrap that cost if you feel confident enough to die should circumstances go that far south, or play the odds that they won’t.
And finally, you could just get liability insurance on your beloved van–aka your home–for around $50 / month.
Our new totals for living on the cheap? This is all for one person from here on out, as I don’t think, “Wanna live like dirtbags in a van?” is a great pickup line, and I’d never recommend trying to live so frugally with kids (being a dad of three and all).
Living in a Van on the Cheap
Food: $30 – $300 / month
Shelter: $100 / month with camping at places with showers once per week
Utilities: $2 / month for propane, living without water and electricity
Clothes: $2 / month, mending everything you wear until it’s absolutely done
Gas: $125 / month, because you know, you’re a travel and all still
Internet & cell phone: $0, relying on the kindness of strangers to call mom once a week of course.
Health insurance: $0, what’s a little cancer, anyway?
Liability car insurance: $50 / month
Not advocating, or knocking, the decisions to get to that number, but it is certainly possible, and quite frankly, respectable for someone to be able to live more frugally than even we think we do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding and using the myriad of ways to eliminate costs in our life in exchange for doing them for ourselves or foregoing lavishness in favor of simplicity.
Cost of the Van and Repairs
Yet, we still haven’t gotten to the biggest of all expenses when it come to vanlife: the van.
The cheapest, new Sprinter vans run $35,000 or so…before your bed, custom cabinetry, and that fancy wood flooring you want to put in. We bought our VW Bus for $4000 almost a decade ago, and bought a 1995 Chevy G20 for about that much as well a few years back (though it blew a head gasket and died only a few months into that particular adventure).
If you go cheap, you should be a good–or even better, great–mechanic so that you can take care of the little stuff on your own. Otherwise, garages get really expensive. If you get something new–and new can still break mind you–you’ll have a monthly payment. You could straight up luck out and get the best of both worlds, a slightly used, affordable, reliable van that won’t break down. Then you could kit out the interior minimally and on your own. I’d still bank on around $24,000 for a van (say something with 30,000 miles on it for $15,000, a pop top for around $7000, and then another $2000 minimum to fit it with a bed, kitchen, and other basic things not mentioned elsewhere in this article).
Again, you could go way cheaper–and we always have–but you’ll end up paying for it down the road anyway. It’s up to you if you want to spend your days working on your house or working whatever job you have to make the money to pay for the van up front.
Then There’s the Tough Stuff
Depending on how you’re setup, there are going to be some changes.
If you’re coming from the RV world, you’re likely already doing this to downsize on space. Even if you had a house or apartment prior, chances are this is a goal, or at least a known. Either way, get flexible. Or vanlife will sort that out on its own, sending some people running for the suburbian hills and others adjusting like a monkey wrench.
The worst part is probably needing to pee–or worse–at certain times of necessity. Some folks buy a portable toilet. We don’t understand how that would fit in our little VW Bus, but I suppose in a Sprinter or so there’s plenty of room. Learn to pee outside, avoid campgrounds with little coverage…and you’ll want to buy a shovel.
As to showering, you can install a solar shower or look into options like that. Should you be less inclined to care about daily washing, then life may treat you well. A dip in a river now and then can be quite refreshing. Just don’t pollute the watershed. Other options are the occasional night in an RV park or at a state park..
That and not minding your bedroom, kitchen and house smelling like old left socks and whatever’s leftover between those weekly river baths…
But really though, it’s not all that bad. Small prices must be paid for a freedom as infinite as your mind is willing to accept.