I drastically lowered my cost of living by moving into a van, and you probably can too! This post goes into detail about the real cost of van life, breaks down all my expenses, and the cost of buying or building a camper van, and provides tips for saving up for life on the road.
Over the last few years, living in a van helped me eliminate rent (my largest bill) and allowed me to pay off credit card debt I accumulated while living in New York. It also granted me the freedom, inspiration, and content to build an online digital storytelling business, which in turn, funds my lifestyle.
I have lived in the van on and off since September of 2017, and have spent one year full-time on the road. Since I began van life, I’ve spent entire months camping in a different place every night, one month on a farm in Oregon, and eventually started trying to travel slower and stay put on public lands for a week or so at a time. The cost of living breakdown below (especially for gas and groceries) is based on an average of my full-time experience.
There are endless variations of van life, so please keep in mind that this post is simply based on my personal experience. It is a guide for those interested in transitioning to life on the road and curious about the general cost of van life.
My van life monthly expenses average to about $945/month ($1,084/month if I include my annual expenses divided out by month). Meaning, I only need to make a minimum of $13,008/year to support my van lifestyle.
Ironically, I make about three times less annually by working remotely as a digital storyteller than my old New York City non-profit salaried job, BUT I have more disposable income and less debt. For reference: I used to pay $1,150 for rent and utilities per month for a room in a 2 bed/1 bath midtown Manhattan apartment.
Below is a breakdown of my van life budget. It is separated by fixed monthly expenses, flexible monthly expenses, and my annual expenses.
Van Life Budget
Note: My flexible monthly expenses can fluctuate based on how much I’m traveling. Some of my fixed monthly and annual expenses are luxury and/or business expenses that might not apply to most people. I also don’t have student debt and my van is paid off.
|Fixed Monthly |
|Flexible Monthly |
Fixed Monthly Expenses/Auto Pay Subscriptions
- Cell phone (unlimited plan with Verizon)- $62
- Online Business Related Expenses (Total=$39)
- Cloudways (Website server/host) – $10
- GSuite & Google Storage – $7
- Adobe Creative Cloud – $22
- Planet Fitness Gym Membership (For Showers)- $22
- PetPlan Dog Insurance- $22
Flexible Monthly Expenses
- Gas- $400
- Groceries – $300
- Miscellaneous (Dog Food, Laundry, Car Maintenance, etc) – $100
- Car Registration & Novelty License Plate – $334
- RV (Class B) Progressive Auto Insurance- $1,080
- Annual National Park Pass- $80
- WWOOF Membership- $40
- Website Domain Renewal Fee- $15
- Amazon Prime- $120
How much does a camper van cost?
- DIY Camper Van Builds Cost: $6,000+
- You can buy a used low top van for as low as $3000 dollars and do a build out the inside into your tiny home for $3000 (I know people who have done their whole build for less than $6000)
- You can also get a fiberglass camper high top installed for as low as $5000+
- New custom van builds can range from $19,000 to $80,000+ (not including the cost of the vehicle)
- Used camper vans can range from $10,000 to $80,000+ (depending on milage and quality of the build)
- RV Cost: $10,000+
- New Recreational Vehicles will cost from $35,000 to $300,000
- You can find used RVs and or factory made campers (e.g. Roadtrek) for $10,000+ (or sometimes less)
Note: These costs don’t include vehicle registration, license plate fees, and insurance
I paid $24,000 for my 2016 Ford Transit low-top cargo van and spent about $3500 to build it out. A year later, I added a hightop (~$5,000) and had the entire interior rebuilt from scratch via a professional RV Renovator company in Mesa, AZ. The entire conversion cost $48,000. So in total, my first “budget” van build was $27,524 (including the van). And my second luxury build was around $72,000 (including the cost of the van).
Getting Financially Ready for Van Life
My experience won’t apply to everyone. The following is a suggestive guide that will be the most helpful for those with the following circumstances:
- on a budget
- don’t already have an established online business
- currently employed or have at least some savings
- serious about making the transition into van life
When I first decided to venture into
I bought the van on my travel credit card so that I could get the miles and use them to travel down the road.
I paid off about 2/3 of it right away and slowly paid off the rest over the next year. By the time my van build was done, I still hadn’t figured out how to make money online. So I took a risk and sold most of my things, and decided I would figure out how to make an income while on the road.
I spent my first month quickly dwindling through my savings, unnecessarily spending money on gas and campgrounds, because I was driving to a new place almost every day.
My second month, I got a WWOOF membership for $
This process was a lot of trial and error, but in the end, it has given me the freedom to work remotely and travel full-time.
So if you are anything like I was, impatient, on a tight budget, and you keep daydreaming about van life…I highly recommend taking the following steps:
- SAVE AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE (if you have student loans, car/van payments, or credit card payments, you should save enough to cover these bills for at least a few months)
- Cancel all unnecessary subscriptions (e.g. Netflix etc.)
- Cut out luxury items from your spending habits
- Sell excess and unnecessary possessions (i.e. clothes, shoes, electronics, furniture)
- Get a used van that meets your needs, here are a few options:
- if you have a car already, consider trading it in for a van, and do a cheap conversion
- buy a used cargo or passenger van from a dealership so you can finance it (requires decent credit) **this is what I did**
- buy an older, high mileage pre-made camper to get started and hit the road quickly
- Get yourself a WWOOF or Workaway membership, then find a farm or job that suits your skills, needs, and interests (I’ve used work exchanges a handful of times to save money, and I can’t recommend this method enough)
- Rent out your house or sublet your apartment (but find a friend or family member who can “manage” the property while you are away). Otherwise, exit your lease or sell your house
- Take the plunge and hit the road 🙂
If I’ve learned one thing from my own van life journey, it is that no matter what stage of building a remote income you are at, work exchanges like WWOOF and Workaway allow you the freedom to figure out most of the details after you’re already on the road. They provide the perfect platform for “the inbetweeners” by ridding yourself of big monthly expenses (rent, gas, and groceries), while you grow your online business and skills. You could also technically convert your van while doing a work exchange (I would negotiate this with your host farm or job before arriving).
Whatever you choose to do, just know you don’t have to have it all figured out beforehand, you are not alone in this ambiguous van life journey, and a lot of opportunities will arrive once you start your new life (especially if you plan to share your journey on social media).
Oh and most importantly, there is no right or wrong way to live in a van or do a conversion- so do what works for you! I wish you all the best!
Feel free to reach out with any burning questions about my own experience in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I am very impressed with your journey. Can you give details on how you converted your van? Why did you opt for a high mileage van?
You can find a pretty detailed description of how I converted my van and why I chose my van here: https://www.spintheglobeproject.com/how-to-build-a-camper-van/