How Much Does Van Life Cost?
How much does van life cost? It’s one of those questions that you hear all of the time from others who are either considering van life or are just getting started in van life.
There isn’t a definitive answer we can offer you upfront for this question. What we can tell you is that van life is as expensive or inexpensive as you want it to be. Let us explain.
It’s like asking someone if going out to dinner is expensive.
There are so many different variables that go into the expense of getting started in van life. Then, once you have your van outfitted to travel, there are just as many, if not more, variables that affect how expensive your van life experience is going to be.
For many people, van life is an intentional lifestyle with positive and optimistic, boundless opportunities. For others, it may be a solution to an unfortunate or difficult time in their lives.
Regardless of why you have chosen van life to be your destiny, life still happens and we still have to abide, to a certain degree, by the capitalistic rules that govern our society.
All that to say, is that van life still requires money regardless of your situation or ideologies.
Since there is no definitive answer to how much van life costs, we will address some of the more typical expenses that go hand in hand with van life.
This is going to cover some of the general costs and expenses related to purchasing and building or outfitting your van for full-time life and travel.
In this Guide
In this guide on How much van life costs, we will discuss and explain some of the most common expenses that accompany a van build and daily life for a full-time van life experience.
Is Van Life Expensive?
Yes and No. Yes, van life can be expensive. No, it really isn’t all that expensive.
We are not trying to be coy here. We are making a point.
The question itself is a very subjective question. How much does van life cost? What does expensive mean? Expensive to one person is hardly anything to someone else.
I suppose it depends on what your net income is compared to your net expenses. Also factor in your spending habits and comfortability with expenses.
Someone who does not value saving or collecting money will have an entirely different perspective on the average expense of the typical van lifer.
Since we have not done any true research with a large sample size of van lifers, we will use this blog post to express and relate to our cost of van life.
Just remember, your budget, expense habits, and experience is your own. It does not affect others and other people’s experiences should not affect you.
Living In A Van Worth It?
We are going to answer this with a quick and resounding, Yes! For us, van life is worth more than the most beautiful luxurious home money could buy.
Being free to roam and explore at our whim is our dream. It is our ticket, if you will, to a life of freedom and adventure whenever we want it.
Before van life, we would save up money and mark dates on a calendar for when we wanted to “escape” our daily routine and rituals of waking up, working, coming home, eating dinner, watching a little tv, and then going to bed. Only to wake up six to eight hours later to do it all over again.
It wasn’t fun for us. It wasn’t the life we wanted to spend the next 30 years doing over and over again. To us, it was like the movie Groundhog Day. Nothing really changed from week to week or month to month.
Every day when we wake up in our converted van on our queen-sized bed, make a fresh hot cup of Peet’s coffee and have some breakfast, we are thankful.
Not just thankful for what we have and the potential for the day ahead, but happy and grateful for just being able to direct the day based on our terms.
The “freedom” we speak of is not just some Instagram fantasy. We are actually living our best life with intention and purpose for ourselves.
Is Van Life Cheaper Than Renting or Owning?
It’s really not just a matter of how much van life cost. It is more of how much less does van life cost as opposed to a traditional lifestyle.
In the most expensive cities in this country, and especially those on the coasts, the rental costs are very steep and it is not uncommon to find a one-bedroom apartment for $2 000.00- $3 000.00 per month or even more. That’s why many people are now giving van life, RVing, or skoolie life a try as it has become much more affordable.
For example, according to one study, a minimum wage worker in Los Angeles can’t afford rent on a basic two-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30% of their income for the same.
Van life is not only an alternative, it’s actually much cheaper than renting or buying a house if you’re living with at least one other person. A new Sprinter will cost you anywhere between $40- $60k with an average of about $50k, however, used ones can be bought for as little as $20k in some cases. For example, there are a number of dealers offering them at prices ranging from $16,900 to $30,000.
If we assume that you’re going to have expenses totaling $2 000 per year, it will take you about 3.5 years before your 500 dollars/month van payment exceeds the cost of monthly rent. This is assuming that you’re getting 2 people living in a van and the average price of gas stays at $3 per gallon.
As it was said before, your fixed monthly budget will be around $500, and here is how it can be broken down:
$30-40/month for auto/RV insurance
$75/month for maintenance
$400/month in fuel costs
The quote is for the average vehicle and it will be lower, in most cases, if you want to have a smaller van or if you need certain features that cost more. As an example, a 12v electric fridge costs around $420, and solar panels and equipment can get quite expensive costing as much as $5,000 or more depending on the complexity and type of equipment you use.
However, both of these are optional and if you’re planning on living in your vehicle for an extended period of time, it is definitely a good idea to have them.
The thing is that this option will cost you less money in the long run than paying rent every month as you’ll save thousands of dollars over the years without even realizing it. Of course, there’s also the fact that you’ll be able to live in virtually any location and just by moving vans, or even better RVs, every time you’re getting tired of a place.
Living in a van is not for everyone. However, it does have some benefits over living in an apartment.
Having your own vehicle gives you more privacy as well as a certain level of freedom that can’t be found in most other living arrangements. It also has some disadvantages and it’s not going to work if you’re planning on having more than one person living inside the vehicle.
It is much easier for two people to live together compared to a couple with two children. For example, if you’d like to have a child, you will need to change your vehicle and get something bigger. If you would like some privacy, you can always opt for an RV which is also more comfortable than living in a van.
If you’re interested in van life or giving it a try this post could be helpful. It gives you a list of everything that you need to know and some tips on how to start. If you’re looking for vehicles that are suitable for this lifestyle, here is a list that we have prepared as well as some guidelines on buying used ones.
Another thing that you should consider while living in one of these vehicles is the fact that it’s not the same thing as living in your apartment where you can go to bed early and nobody will bother you.
You’ll have almost no privacy at all when living in a van so it’s better if the two people that are going to live there get along with each other and don’t mind being close for long periods of time.
It is certainly possible to live in a van for several years and save thousands of dollars while doing it. Yes, it will take some time before you manage to accomplish this but the experience that you’ll have and all of those places where you’ll be able to visit are definitely worth it. It will also allow you to spend more money on experiences instead of on “things” so you’ll get much more out of your money.
Although it is certainly not for everyone, living in a van can turn out to be a lot of fun and some people do end up liking it. If you have different ideas about how to save money, share them with us in the comments below.
The Build – How Much Does a Van Build Cost?
I revert back to my earlier statement. It depends on how expensive you want it to be.
There are so many options you can choose from when it comes to your tiny house on wheels.
Some people like the vintage van look while others like to go for the more updated and electronically equipped vehicles with all of the bells and whistles.
As far as make and models go, there are three very popular vans for a good full-time van life experience.
Depending on the age, mileage, year, make and model, you could realistically spend anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000 for the van before you have built it out, or have someone else build it out for you.
As a point of reference, we purchased our 2014 Sprinter 144wb back in November 2020 for $15,000.
Van prices are continuing to rise in price due to the lack of inventory for used vans.
Perhaps it has something to do with Covid-19 or perhaps it is just a shift in people’s thinking, but van life is becoming more and more popular daily.
The more popular it becomes and the harder it is to find a reliable working van as a base to build on, the higher the purchase cost will continue.
How much will it cost to build out your van? It depends on how much you are willing to spend, and how luxurious or elaborate you want your build to be.
I don’t know what is happening in the lumber industry right now, but I do know that lumber, wood, plywood, or anything that is a derivative from a tree is expensive as hell right now.
A sheet of sanded plywood at Home Depot used to cost around $35 – $40 a sheet. (late 2019 to early 2020) As of a month or two ago, sanded plywood jumped up to $60 – $70 per sheet.
Birch and poplar wood went up even higher.
The point is, that just the basic raw materials to build a van out now have gotten significantly more expensive.
For a point of reference again, we have spent approximately $20,000 on electrical, solar, hardware, plumbing, and appliances on our build to date.
Although we are now living and traveling in our van full time, the build and expenses will continue to compile.
No different than a house, condo, or boat. There are always upgrades to complete. Repairs to do and additions that you never thought about while you were doing the initial build.
The basics for us before we wanted to start living and traveling full time was an adequate solar system that would allow us to live and travel without the need to plug into a power source.
All sun power for us as we travel across America. This cost for us was around $5,000. We have 620 watts of rooftop mono-solar panels. 600-watt hours of batteries and a solar generator for backup power, and 110v power sources such as laptops, wifi, and computer equipment.
We have 33 gallons of on-demand ready freshwater.
We have on-demand hot water available through our ventless and tankless instant hot water heater.
10 lbs of propane for the hot water heater and our oven and range.
A three-burner stovetop with a full-size oven for cookies, biscuits, and pizzas!
Queen size bed.
12v refrigerator to keep our cold ones cold!
Lots of vans! One MaxxAir fan and two marine grade Sirocco 3 speed gyro fans.
We still spent more on electrical wire, and hardware such as bolts, screws, and washers. Lots of brackets and tools for carpentry.
Speaking of which, if you are ever to consider building anything with wood that has a 90’ angle, might we suggest a Craig-screw kit. They are gold when it comes to attaching two pieces of wood at a 90’ angle.
There are many other things we have purchased for our van such as our dog butt hooks, LED strip lighting, miscellaneous clips, hooks, and mounting points.
As we mentioned earlier, it all depends on your budget, time, and desire to build your van as elaborate as you want it to be.
Also, remember, the bigger the van, the more likely you are to spend more on the build.
Maintenance – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
Van maintenance is one of the expenses most people don’t really think about or consider. It is, however, one of, if not the most important aspect of van life cost.
This van life expense really depends on whether or not you are going to pay someone else to do your oil change or if you plan on doing it yourself.
We have a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter 144 wb and the only professional oil changing place we could find to change our oil and filters was a Mercedes Dealership.
At the dealership, the cost for the oil change would cost us approximately $300.00
We decided that Don would change the oil himself for us. The cost to change the oil ourselves was approximately $150. Changing the oil in any kind of vehicle is really simple and does not require much time.
Disposing of the oil requires a trip to the local dump and disposing of it properly.
When changing your own oil, be very careful to tighten the oil pan bolt sufficiently and not to over-torque it.
A good set of tires is worth their weight in wifi. (Gold has far lesser value than good wifi for a full-time van-lifer)
Please be sure to keep your tires healthy, balanced, and conditioned. Just because you have a penny’s worth of tread on your tires, doesn’t mean they are good tires and safe to drive on!
Check the dates of your tires and the condition of the rubber. Old tires are just as dangerous, if not more so than bald, slick tires.
General upkeep of your van is an expense most people seem to overlook and worse, neglect.
Windshield wipers, wiper fluid, DEF fluid, and light bulbs are all vital elements for a successful drive and van life experience while traveling.
Not being able to clear your windshield while driving in Florida during the love-bug season for example can make for a very nasty windshield that can become so dirty it is unsafe to drive.
Driving through heavy rain without good windshield wipers and a good coating of Rain-X on your glass could be equally as dangerous.
You’re going to burn as much fuel while traveling as you are. Yes, you read that correctly. (I know you read it twice) It’s like the saying, “it is what it is”.
The more and further you drive, the more fuel and more money you are going to spend on driving.
Getting from point A to point B is expensive. However, it may have to cost you as much as you are spending.
There are a few tips and tricks on spending less money on fuel for your trips.
- Cruise Control
Use cruise control as often as it is safe to do so. By utilizing the cruise control option on your van, you will keep your RPMs at a more consistent level and thus save on fuel.
Constantly pushing and letting up on the gas pedal consumes a significant amount of fuel. Keep it steady.
Also, the slower you drive, the more money you will save.
Remember to always drive at a safe and legal speed for the road, surrounding traffic, your vehicle’s ability, and the conditions.
- Good tires
Good tires are a huge saving for lowering your fuel usage and expense. The proper size and proper inflation go a long way.
- Clean air, fuel, and oil filters.
It’s a few of those items we don’t really think about or consider until we are forced to think about them. So, how long has it been since you replaced any of the filters in your van? Are you happy with the mpg you are currently getting?
- Airflow and resistance.
Are you driving a van or a sailboat? How much stuff have you attached to the roof of your van? Try to keep your van as aerodynamic as it was when it came off the assembly line.
Daily Life – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
What really is the point of van life if you are not doing or seeing cool things on a regular basis? For us, one of the main purposes of jumping out and doing van life on a full-time basis was to experience all that life has to offer us.
There are some beautiful landscapes just waiting for our eyes to feast upon them.
What would Instagram followers do without all of the amazing pics posted about van life?
This particular area of expense balances your personal preferences and budget.
Defining what fun activity is amongst the millions of people in van life is like trying to define what “happy” or “good” means.
I think back to when we were living and traveling in our skoolie, Caroline back in 2020. We were camping at a site for a few weeks and there was an older couple camping near us in the 5th wheel. Every night when we would walk Bandit and Kina, we would see them inside playing Yahtzee.
We love to kayak. A few hours on the water is so good for our mental game as well as our physical. So, spending several hundred dollars on a couple of kayaks that we can store and travel within our van is an easy few hundred dollars to spend.
Knowing we are going to get more than our monies worth of entertainment and enjoyment out of them.
Going hiking and seeing amazing sites like Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior is worth the State Park pass to go and experience the amazing and natural sites.
Eating local foods at locally-owned restaurants is such a better experience than fast food or chain restaurants. We don’t eat out every day, but it is a nice change to have someone else prepare and cook your food and then wash the dishes afterward.
It is a luxury we used to take for granted, but appreciate it so more now.
Whatever your thrill or enjoyment for recreation is, plan accordingly and budget accordingly so you can get the most out of the local scene and opportunities to experience things you would have a chance to if you were not traveling.
Sometimes, boondocking or stealth parking is not an option. There will be times when a county, state, or National Park overnight stay is a must. It may be to get you closer to a trailhead you want to kike or cycle.
Perhaps you just want to experience the natural beauty and seclusiveness of the park itself for a day or two or ten?
Just know that van life is not 100% guaranteed boondocking for free. Plan and budget accordingly.
Memberships (Harvest Host, Good Sams, NetFlix, Hulu, National Parks, Gym, etc)
This is an expense that I go back and forth from essential to luxury expense.
Memberships like Good Sams, Harvest Host, National, and State Parks have some very relevant and easily redeemable benefits. Discounts, “free” parking and easy access are just the tip of the benefits from these memberships alone.
Having a gym membership to somewhere like Planet Fitness is great for parking, staying healthy on the road, and the occasional long hot shower.
As far as entertainment goes, having a streaming service makes rainy days go by much quicker and more enjoyable.
We like to relax with a show on one of the streaming services before we go to sleep at night.
Food – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
Food can and likely will be one of your most expensive budget lines for van life. It doesn’t have to be with some strategic planning and self-discipline. We all have to eat. We all have our own required and personal preferences of dietary needs.
The better we eat, the better we feel. Coincidentally, the better we eat the more money we spend too.
Eating out can be a luxury and it doesn’t always have to be expensive or unhealthy.
Utilizing discounts through programs like Good Sam’s, AAA, AARP, and credit card points, you can get a good, healthy quality meal for a very reasonable price.
The bottom line is, if you eat out very often, then your budget is going to balloon-like the little girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Groceries are the way to go! As long as you have ample storage for food and the skills to prepare your own food, this is definitely the least expensive route for your food budget.
It is very satisfying about preparing and cooking your own meal inside or outside of your DIY van. The food just tastes better and we appreciate it even more.
Internet – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
This is the crux of van life for the full-timer. Having consistent, reliable yet affordable internet service while traveling and living full time in a van or even a skoolie is a critical must! Especially if you have an online job or you are remote working.
Not only is it critical for your job, but for safety reasons, it is important as well. If there is a strong and reliable cell phone signal, then you are likely to have a strong and reliable data signal for your mobile hotspot.
There are a few other options like DISH mobile, StarLink, and services like that.
For us and most of the other full-time nomads, we have more than one carrier for mobile data service. It is good to have at a minimum two different major carrier service plans for data. We use AT&T and Verizon. We are strongly considering picking up a Sprint/T-Mobile hotspot device as well.
Cell or data signals can be a very finicky thing. When you have to be online to make money, it can be very frustrating to be in an area where the signal is spotty at best.
Having a signal booster device such as a WeBoost helps poor or weak signals become relevant.
We have purchased and used WeBoost and so far it has proved its worthiness.
Having a cell phone and cell phone plan is as common today as a land-line phone was in the ’60s through the ’80s. It is just a given now that an individual has a cell phone.
Personally, we have not had a conventional landline phone for over 20 years.
Consider the purpose of the phone and all of the costs associated with it. We prefer to go through Cricket as our carrier because it eliminates tons of additional charges and taxes. For general web browsing, GPS, and making phone calls, it has been perfect.
We have used Cricket as our cell phone carrier for over 3 years now. We have saved a ton of money and frustration rather than dealing with AT&T.
Believe it or not, water is not free. Propane isn’t either, but that shouldn’t surprise you at all.
Depending on how much freshwater you are carrying, plan on spending some money occssionaly to refill your water tank.
So far, we have not had to pay for water. There are many resources along your travels where free water refills are available.
Just be ready to search them out and even ask a business where you are a patron.
This is a monthly expense you simply can not avoid or go without. Besides the legal implications of not carrying insurance on your rig, doing so is an unacceptable risk. We wrote an in-depth blog post on insuring your Skoolie. It is the same principles and it applies perfectly to van life as well.
Check out our post on Insuring your Van here.
You never need it until you need it. I know, that sounds like something Yogi Berra would have said. (By the way, that isn’t Yogi Bear. If you don’t know who Yogi Berra was, then Google him now.)
Health insurance is just one of those adulting things everyone should do. Budget and plan accordingly.
Miscellaneous – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
There are so many miscellaneous expenses you are going to incur while traveling and living your best life in a van.
The occasional soda, coffee, tea, or snack from a local vendor. Souvenirs from that awesome palace or event you just experienced for the first time ever.
Clothes, toiletries, haircuts, and those little things we usually take for granted end up adding up. They could put a crinkle in your budget if you are not careful.
The bottom line is to plan for a miscellaneous fund or expense for the unexpected items that bring you joy.
The Wrap-Up – How Much Does Van Life Cost?
Trying to put a specific or even a narrow range on how much van life costs can be near impossible. It truly does depend on how much you want to spend and what you set your budget for.
Unless you are living in your van on your own property, it can be expensive to live a “van life”. Then again, it is counter-intuitive to live a stationary life and consider your experience as “van life”.
Your experience will be your own personal story from the purchase of your van to the build-out. However simple you create your build or however elaborate, it will be your own.
One of the things we love most about a DIY van is it takes on the personality of the builder.
Your living space becomes an extension of yourself. Your color pallet, style, and decorations should exemplify who you are.
Anyone who has ever spent some time visiting us in the skoolie we built should immediately recognize our van like ours.
Let me be clear, our DIY van build is very unique from our DIY skoolie build. There are however some similarities between the two.
We couldn’t imagine a van build without our signature Starry Starry night ceiling!
We introduced almost 800 fiber optic lines into our cedar ceiling. Looking up at the galaxy of stars every night we crawl up into our queen-sized bed is amazing.
Get out there and put your personality into your van and explore where your heart and eyes lead you.
See you on the road!
Nat & Don (and Kona)