The Real Cost of Vanlife

the rearview mirror of a van, and part of its windshield and hood, camping in a forest

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There’s a whisper in our full-time traveling community, a stinky weed, a petulant desire to keep some already told secret, a bit of burned rubber ash in the Solo cup hanging around the high school bonfire of life that is “vanlife.”

Or RVing, living on the road, being a modern day nomad, whatever you want to call it.

“This life is not for everyone. Not everyone can afford it.” It’s typically accompanied by some notion that certain people, of certain ethnic, racial or anyway otherwise upbringings, can’t afford to live on the road, out of a vehicle, enjoying new towns, cultures, countries and wild places. The sentiment often comes from a good place, this “we need to respect that not everyone can afford to live a life of travel,” concept. And sure, that’s true.

I can’t afford to fly to a new city in a new country and live out of hotel rooms and dine out at restaurants everyday. But, for the last twelve years, I’ve been able to live somewhere new nearly as often as I’d like to do so. And I am not rich, nor have ever been.

So today, I’d like to share a few ways that I–and my family of six–have managed to make the road our home, and do so affordably yet still feel luxurious, even if we’re really no more wealthy than your average run of the mill mill workers. I’ll share specifics on making money, what our various RVs and vans over the years have cost, all of the bills, how we managed to even save a considerable amount living this way, and the most important aspect of it all, the immense riches we’ve accumulated in the form of sights seen and time spent together as a family. If that last part doesn’t interest you, their is still value to be found in this article…but I encourage you to start weighing happiness significantly more than your own personal GDP.

1. How much does living on the road in a van or RV cost?

There are multiple facets to this question, but first lets start with the actual home-on-wheels.

In 2008, my now 18 year old (then 7) son and I spent a year traveling around the United States in a Class C RV. If you’re unfamiliar with what “Class C” means, its more or less your standard rig. They look like a typical van up front, and then the “home” part is a big white box with ugly swirly graphics going all back the sides. It had a toilet, shower, kitchen, a decently sized fridge. Two beds and a couch complimented the dinette. I didn’t particularly love driving it, but it wasn’t a huge step down from some of the apartments I’d had in my 20s when it came to space. But, I could take that modest apartment wherever I went.

The thing cost $12,000. And it was ready to roll. I bought it in 2008, and it was a 1996, so old but not drastically. Less than a week into the trip, the transmission blew, and that set me back a few weeks and $4000. So, lets say that I got a reliable enough RV (last I heard, the people who bought it were still on the move) that was extremely spacious and functional, for $16,000.

Buying an Ugly, Used RV

a Class C RV parked in Taos, NM RV Park
Not the prettiest of homes, but roomy and got the traveling job done.

My son and I spent a year in it before deciding to move on. I wanted to “upgrade” to a VW Bus. But before we get into that, the math goes like this for that particular RV.

Initial Cost: $12,000
Repairs: $4000*
Average RV Park Camping Costs / Month: $800
Months Lived in: 13
Cost Per Month: $2030

I consider that “Cost Per Month” to be quite high, yes. I look at that as my “rent” payment. And I’ve never paid rent that high in my life. But, I was a rookie then. And when I was done with that RV, I didn’t sell it (if I had, that would be included in these figures and would have taken the monthly rent down to $1400 or so / month…still a bit high.) The cost of camping in RV parks was about three quarters the price of the RV itself.

And then someone reading this going to say, “Well, that’s a high rent, but even when compared to a mortgage, you have to consider that the RV depreciates while the house typically appreciates in value.” Sure, that’s true. I have two things to say about that:

  1. RVs don’t always depreciate. A vintage Airstream or VW Bus that still function well and are in good shape are worth oodles more than they were when they were purchased in the 60s or 70s. If you buy a big white fiberglass box, like my first RV was, yes, they’ll lose value. If you buy a well-built piece of American (or German) history, that’s simply not the case.
  2. Yes, homes and property typically appreciate in value. But not always. Great Recessions and worldwide respiratory diseases happen. If you get stuck in the wrong market, or lose your job, at the wrong time, you can lose all of that appreciation. And when comparing 50 years worth of relatively small financial gain against 50 years of traveling the world, seeing your kids grow up, spending late mornings with your lover or just watching the sunset in a different place on a regular basis, well, which is worth more to you come time to pick out the casket?

The VW Bus

a family doing school outside of their VW Bus on the beach
This little ride served us well for years, from New England to Baja California to Belize and most points between.

In 2009, I moved my son and I into a 1978 VW Bus. The hippy van. Ours was rather quite special, but that’s a different story for another time. Three months later, my dream girl, long lost love from college, moved in with us. We had no toilet or shower, but those exist in abundance in the world. Instead, we had a small sink, heater and enough space for the three of us to sleep–my son on the top bunk in the pop top, the two of us below.

This Bus cost me $4000. If I had more experience with salesman, I could have shaved that down significantly at the time, no doubt. I then spent $1500 making some relatively small modifications and shoring up the mechanics of the then 31 year old vehicle. At this point in time, and for the next year of traveling around in this particular vehicle, we continued to stay in campgrounds. Here’s the breakdown:

Initial Cost: $4000
Repairs: $1500
Average RV Park Camping Costs / Month: $800
Months Lived in: 10
Cost Per Month: $1350

That’s getting a little closer to a normal rent payment in a typical city. At this point you might say, “Well what about car insurance and gas?” Good look, my dear man. But you’d likely pay car insurance living in a more traditional setting anyway. And if you have a car, you have to pay for gas too. There’s nothing about “full-time traveling” that means you have to cover 100 or 200 miles per day. We’ve found, over the years, that the slower you go, the less miles you cover, the more you see in reality. It’s possible, for example, to drive across Colorado in 8 hours, but you won’t have experienced much other than a busy highway and a small slice of the beauty the state offers–from the distant boring safety of your windshield.

So insurance and gas equaling out, we now were living in a vehicle that was significantly smaller, with fewer amenities (remember, no shower or toilet) but with far more freedom. To park in normal parking spots, fit beneath all gas station overhangs and beneath trees, and paying the same for gas as a normal car (as opposed to our previous RV, which was 12mpg on a good day, downhill all the way, in my dreams.) Oh, and I managed to snag the woman who would be by my side for the remainder of my life and make a bunch more of my babies. But I can’t guarantee you that perk.

A Vintage Airstream

a Ford van pulling a 1976 Airstream through the desert

As our family grew, we decided we needed an upgrade. We bought a van and a vintage Airstream. The Airstream was a 1976 which the previous owners had shown some love and work. Still, it would require some significant maintenance over the four or so years we lived out of it. The van was a dream, a 2006 Ford E-350 which we still have. We bought it with 30,000 miles and it’s still going 7 years later with almost no problems. But, all vehicles require maintenance. Here’s that breakdown:

Initial Cost (Airstream): $7000
Initial Cost (Van): $16,000
Repairs (Airstream): $6000
Repairs (Van): $3000
Average RV Park Camping Costs / Month: $487
Months Lived in: 41
Cost Per Month: $1267

Okay, so now what’s happened is we’ve expanded from a small VW Bus to a 31′ Airstream, which had three beds, a full bathroom, kitchen, the whole shebang, plus a sweet van which had a bed in the back (the master bedroom) and somehow still lowered our monthly “rent.”

So how did that happen? Well, two things:

  1. We were measuring the value of the other vehicles over around a year. Living out of the Airstream and van for three and a half years significantly reduced the cost over time.
  2. We largely continued living out of RV parks for the first two years. Then we bought a generator (nasty things!) and started wild camping, i.e. camping for free on national forest or BLM land. Even when we didn’t, or couldn’t, do that, we would find state parks–much more beautiful with much more serene settings and more elbow room to boot. Our rent went down to under $9 / day and at that point we’d still use private RV parks or paid state parks now and then.

This was the paramount of our luxury, on the road living. The Airstream wasn’t the shiniest, and we were never prone to glamour, but damn, those days we had a ton of space and life felt really, really good.

And So On…

In January 2016, we put that Airstream into storage, gave the van to grandma to use, and pulled our VW Bus out of storage (in my dad’s garage) and did 16 months in Mexico and Belize. We’d been on the road 8 years by then. We now have “equity” in the form of a 2006 Ford van, a 1978 VW Bus and that 1976 Airstream. Short of the van, none of these assets had to this point depreciated. In fact, thanks to the boom in people wanting to live on the road, our VW Bus could have likely sold for at least $20k and the Airstream something similar. But, I’m not one to sell the few personal possessions–where my children literally grew up–easily. So, 2016 – mid-2017s numbers in the VW Bus again.

Initial Cost: $0 Already owned it.
Repairs: $2000 
Average RV Park Camping Costs / Month: $150
Months Lived in: 16
Cost Per Month: $275

These numbers are skewed, but show a few angles. First, the $150 / month in camping costs is due to the fact that the Mexican peso isn’t exactly top notch. At the time, it was 20 pesos to $1 US. Most of our campsites cost 200 pesos, which was around $10 / night USD. But many, many of the best places to camp in Mexico are free beaches, or camping for free in restaurant parking lots–often with water and electric hookups–where they charge you nothing if you eat at their restaurant once per day. And its like $15 – $20 USD to feed a family of five down there. So, that’s awesome and fortunate and remember to tip because you’re already scoring. 

The numbers also skew because this time around, we didn’t have to buy a new vehicle. But that’s the point–the longer you go in one vehicle, the cheaper it is.

We’ve since done a few other things. That Airstream? We spent $32k renovating it. It’s now worth $48k, so should we choose to sell it, that’d be profit right there. We put the Bus (they’re a pain in the ass to keep running) went back into storage, and we’re back in the Ford Van. I spent $15,000 upgrading it with solar, a new interior, a Sportsmobile pop top. I did this while we lived out of that renovated Airstream for the past two years–while our oldest attained his dream of “not being homeschooled,” a.k.a., “I don’t want to live with my parents and two way younger brothers anymore”–on a piece of lakefront property two minutes from a ski resort in a popular Southwest Colorado tourist town. 

I was able to do this all because, well, I created myself a steady supply of work from the road and made a decent living while also keeping my monthly “rent” low. I don’t think anyone in our family will say we suffered significantly–we could still go out to eat at restaurants, afford museums, science centers, buy books and movies and gadgets. We just saved a ton on owning a piece of property or paying someone else who did.

Which leads us to that hardest part, how do you make the money once you hit the road?

2. How do you make money living on the road?

Definitely. Yes. I hear you. This part sucks wet monster socks.

For me personally, the journey took a few years. It looked something like this:

I know what you’re going to say, “But I’m not a web designer. I don’t think making money being a blogger is real and I am not an Instagram influencer.” Sure, all of those things are what people tout as “How I hit the road.” And no, just because you have a hobby or talent doesn’t mean you’ll have the business sense or discipline to make it pay the bills.

But then again, plenty of people do! We know folks who work odd jobs, who have steady careers tailored specifically to travel anyway, who adapt existing careers into something you can do from home and, well, remember when March 2020 hit the US and suddenly everyone who could was working from home?

That’s a point to remember. Where in February 2020, bosses the world over were saying, “Work from home? Telecommute? Preposterous!” Suddenly the country was shut down and if a business wanted to keep someone working they basically had to let them work from home…well, all of a sudden everyone was doing it. Convince your existing boss if you’d like. Create a new business if you’re smart. Or just save a buttload of money so you can float for six months or a year while you figure it out (necessity is the mother of all full-time travelers, after all.) You can do it. Here’s how some other folks have.

3. The dividends of vanlife.

Let us imagine for a moment that you’ve achieved sub-$300 / month rent by living out of a van or RV. Lets say you’ve figured out how to make even $20,000 / year as a location independent entrepreneur, a modest amount these days no doubt. But you’d still be looking at $16k+ in disposable income. That may not seem luxurious, but lets just say that was worst case scenario. 

Home on the Road Movies from the Folks Behind Wand’rly

Want to see first hand what life on the road is like? The following are little home movies of the Wand’rly family’s travels. They’re for us, but you might like them too. A Year or So in Mexico: Part 1: Baja California In 2016, along with our friends Mali Mish, we headed to Mexico in

What else did you earn?

Yosemite. Alaska. Nova Scotia. Central America. Multiple continents. The smell of the wildflowers in the Smokies come springtime. The ability to say, “Winnemucca? Like the Johnny Cash song? Yeah I’ve been there, nothing to write home about. But have you been to Great Basin?!” If you have kids, you’ll see their first steps, hear their first words, watch and teach them how to ride a bike, how to read. You’ll have all of that time that would have been shared by them with teachers, daycare workers, strangers. You will have skipped out on countless boring meetings, or standing behind a gas station counter watching other people fill up the tank with their dreams. You might, if you do it well, even be able to sit in a camp chair, around a fire, beer in your hand, kids asleep feet away, and chat with a buddy saying something like, “Man, I don’t have a death wish or anything, but if I did die today, I’d feel pretty good about the life I’ve lived so far.”

And that’s got to be worth more than a reverse mortgage to pay for a retirement home and golf on the weekends come 65.