A practical guide for anyone seriously considering living in a van - A complete list of all the expenses you can expect when starting Van life.
Written by someone who is immersed in this lifestyle full-time. I've made all the mistakes, and did all of the research for you...
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@quicksand
Lets start with a joke...
For millenials, the American dream is a possible crash in the Real Estate market 🤣
Okay, that's enough dark humor for now...
Your here to see if this lifestyle can save you some cash and benefit you personally.
I totally understand that some of you just want the quick answer and might not want to read about my life story below.
For that reason, were going to start by giving you the best No BS list of all the expenses you can expect as your starting and getting used to this lifestyle.
After you check out the list below, just keep reading if you would like more context into my personal experiences and exactly how I calculated the numbers below.
No BS list of what you need to comfortably start:
Purchase price of your Van: - Anywhere between $2,000 to $120,000.
Carbon Monoxide Alarm: - between $30 - $80
Foam Mattress & Sleeping Bag: - between $120 to $300
Window Deflectors/Rain Guards for Vans: - $80
Mailbox: - About $70 every 3 months.
Price of Gas: - Between $300 - $600 each month.
Food: - Anywhere between $200 - $600
Tinting your camper windows: - Between $120 to $500.
Gym membership: Between $15 - $120 monthly (not counting the sign-up & annual fees)
Storage Unit: $70 - $400 (depending on the amount of stuff you have)
Vanlife Emergency Fund: Aim for somewhere between $4000 - $25,000
Conservative Total Price: If you can be frugal and look for things on sale, expect to spend about $1,800 your first month
(not including the cost of your new van or an emergency fund).
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@kerryraw
I'd say that's much better than the $2500 average cost to rent in LA!
This $1,800 number will get much lower after the initial investments into your campervan, and whether or not you make the effort to save & plan accordingly.
Its the getting started part of Vanlife that is the most expensive...
"If traveling was free, you'd never see me again" -Pinterest
Okay, now that everything has been listed out for you, the rest of this article will give you some context and go into a lot of detail about my life and exactly how I came up with these numbers.
Before we go on, would like a more general guide that answers the question "What to Know Before Living in a Van?" If so, check out this Van Life article that gives a broader, 50ft perspective of what to keep in mind in terms of sleep, basic hygiene, staying happy and healthy, etc.
How this article will make your life on the road easier...
The goal here is to help anyone (millenial or not) get a clear understanding of exactly what is needed to start and eventually thrive in this lifestyle for the long term.
Everything mentioned in this article comes from my own Van Life mistakes and personal experiences from being completely immersed in this lifestyle full time.
Throughout this reading, I will try to list and explain in detail every expense that I have come across.
Please take into consideration that what your about to read is written by someone who is on a pretty tight budget and not so much into the typical Vanlife scene.
In other words, I am not the van life hashtag type you see on social media traveling all over the country in a converted Promaster or Sprinter van with all the amenities like custom kitchen, fold out bed, running water, etc.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@drewbernard
Living the dream!!
I have nothing against these Vanlifers at all, its just that my personality and financial situation don't really line up with this style of Van Life.
Basically, I'm a full-time worker just trying to stay ahead of my finances and take the occasional road trip.
With all that being said, this article is perfect for those of you on a shoe-string budget looking to start Van life affordably.
“Adventure is always an option when you live in a van.” Anonymous
Do you relate to my reasons for getting into Van Life?
I'm going to get a little personal here and tell you all about my circumstances that led me down this path to Van Life...
You might relate to where I'm coming from.
As you may have already guessed, I am classified as a millenial.
When I hear that word, it makes me cringe, but it is what is...
As a kid in the 1990's, I just assumed that I would be living in a decent house or apartment someday.
When I got into the work force at 16 years old, minimum wage was $6.75 per hour.
I was working 20-40 hours per week at a fast food restaurant and earning around $225 every 2 weeks.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@romanll
Some argue McDonalds is actually in the REAL ESTATE business, rather than the food industry🤔
College was challenging for me because the only subject I had a sincere interest in was History.
I did not earn a degree for 2 reasons:
One, because I had a major drinking problem when I was younger.
Two, I did not believe going into student debt to obtain a History degree was a wise investment.
Needless to say, I opted to just work 40+ hours per week lifestyle doing general labor and working in restaurants.
Now, even in the dark years of my excessive partying and substance abuse, I have always been very good with paying my bills on time.
Since 19 years old, I rented rooms in good neighborhoods, bought my own groceries, and made all of my monthly payments in a timely manner.
The reason I am explaining all of this is to paint a picture and admit to you that for years I felt as if I was a loser.
Besides my addictions, the main reason I felt this way was because it seemed that after every time I payed all of my bills for the month, I was either broke or left with only a little bit of cash for myself.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@neonbrand
My 1990's childhood optimism of having my own house or apartment seemed like a silly fantasy.
Once in a while though, that optimism would come back and I would go look at houses all around where I grew up in Southern California.
After 5 minutes of research I would think to myself:
"You mean I need to save up $100,000 just for the down payment on this little house for $600,000? That's Bogus..."
It made me feel hopeless thinking about having to save $250 per month for the next 25 years, just for the down payment! 🤣
Yes, I sound similar to the stereotypical millenial just complaining and not taking responsibility.
Please don't judge me, I am just sharing with you my thought processes in my 20's.
Fast forward a few years, my passion for all things History eventually led me in the direction of Economics & Finance.
I became obsessed and started to feverishly study monetary history and world finance every chance I got.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@agent_illustrateur
Monetary History is VERY fascinating.
After extensive study, I had the realization that perhaps I was not nearly as big of a loser as I thought I was all those years!
I learned that the millenials and many other generations throughout history have gone thru eerily similar economic circumstances that were seeing today in 2022.
"History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme" -Mark Twain
In fact, economic history seems to run in predictable cycles when it comes to the purchasing power of fiat currencies thru-out the ages. (1)
In other words, the United States Dollar has lost well over 90% of its purchasing power over the last century. (Of course the mainstream media would never mention this).
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@rrrob_
I learned that in the 1950s and 60s, a 2-3 bedroom home in California could be purchased with about $160,000 in 2022 dollars (adjusted for inflation).
$160,000 for a 2 bedroom house in 2022 dollars?!
Jesus Christ that sounds wonderful doesn't it?!
Even a janitor working part-time at McDonald's can more or less make that lifestyle work!
When I began to have these revelations, I realized that I was far from being the only one living with all of that frustration all those years.
Around this time, I was also starting to feel really annoyed that at least 1/3 of my hard earned paycheck was going towards someone else's mortgage or Real Estate investment.
Nothing against anyone who owns their own home or invests in rental properties. I would be doing the same thing in their shoes!
It is ultimately my fault for not applying myself or listening to my elders advice when I was younger.
The whole point here is that Van Life became a very appealing lifestyle by offering a solution to my nagging financial issues.
And of coarse, I must mention that I love to travel.
I have already been to Western Europe, the Middle-East, and several states within the USA.
While grateful, I still don't feel that I have seen even half of the places I want to go... Living in a van makes that possible.
This leads me to my first question for you..
What type of campervan do you have (or plan on purchasing)?
If you have not purchased your camper yet, just know that a decent one will cost you anywhere from $2,000 to $120,000.
The reason I include such a high number of $120,000 is because there are companies out there that will actually sell you a fully converted dwelling with all of the custom amenities you can possibly imagine.
If your in a good financial position, then a pre-converted campervan may be a very attractive option for you (especially if you don't want to put in the work to do it all yourself)
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@theverticalstory
Stove, running water, storage, futon... Now that's good living!
In my case, I just wanted to save as much money on my new van as possible.
I ended up paying $4,500 for mine.
It is a very plain "soccer mom" style of mini-van that blends in perfectly to any parking lot or residential neighborhood.
Vanlife can be surprisingly comfortable in something like this.
Let me warn you by saying that I actually got a really good deal because one of my best friends is a very skilled mechanic.
He helped me screen for a good private seller without having to go to the dealership and pay $10,000 for something similar.
Before you make your purchase, please take the time to make sure your not buying something that will cause you problems a few months down the road.
Make sure the seller has the pink slip in hand.
If your in California, make sure that it will easily pass Smog and has a recent certificate to prove it.
You may want to consider hiring an honest mechanic to do an inspection for you before committing to buy it.
If you want to avoid all this hassle, there is nothing wrong with just going to a dealership and spending the extra cash to get something with a good warranty and lower miles.
The dealerships usually have some really decent vans in the $9,000 to $12,000 range.
“The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.” Tony Robbins
Van Life Cost - Carbon Monoxide Alarm
If you are not sure what Carbon Monoxide is then I beg you to spend 1 hour researching it on your own.
For now, I will highlight the most important things you need to know about Carbon Monoxide.
CM is an toxic oderless gas that is emitted from your engine/exhaust system.
I'm sure you have heard of people committing suicide by leaving their car engine running inside of an enclosed space like a garage or shed?
Its the Carbon Monoxide that kills them in these tragic scenarios.
Well, guess what... there have been many people who have accidently died from CM.
One case involved a young couple who were simply just trying to rest in their vehicle after being on the road for several hours.
This couple pulled over to the side of the road and kept the engine running to provide heat so they could rest for a few hours.
Well, CM ended up leaking into their enclosed space somehow and they both died.
I'm not trying to bring you down but its very important that those of us in Vanlife are especially aware of this potential hazard.
There is good news.
Avoiding CM is very cheap and easy to do.
It's completely in your control.
All you need to do is invest between $20-80 for a CM alarm that you keep in your vehicle at all times.
This is mandatory Van Life Gear
I keep Two alarms in my vehicle because... why not?
Each day I push the little test buttons on my alarms just to be 100% sure that I will be alerted if CM gets into my space.
Before I sleep, I like to drive around a little bit with the windows completely down just to get fresh air circulating before retiring for the night.
There is no need to freak out about CM as long as you take some simple pre-cautions.
Van Life Cost - Tinting/Blacking out the windows.
Before you ever sleep in your van, one of the very first things I recommend you do is figure out how your going to black out your windows for some privacy.
Privacy is extremely important when living your life on the road.
For me personally, there is nothing worse then trying to sleep and knowing that the outside world can see you (maybe your different).
In fact, when I buy another vehicle some day, the first thing I will do is drive it straight to the shop to have the windows tinted "limo style."
Complete stealth on the road is good for the soul!
When I first got my van I was on a tight budget and did not even think about the possibility of getting the windows tinted.
I found an instructional Youtube video of this French Canadian Vanlifer who made a step-by-step guide on how to make your own blackout window shades.
This DIY method requires you to shop around at a few different stores to get the required materials you'll need to make your own shades.
The materials cost me about $120 in total.
It took a 3 day weekend for me to build and put together a decent set of black out shades very similar the ones in the video.
And guess what, they work great!
I still have them to this day just in case.
I used my shades for many months until I decided to just have my windows tinted for $450.
And believe me, if I can make these black out shades then so can you.
I'm not the engineering type nor have I ever been into building things from scratch.
These shades will not only keep the interior cool by absorbing the heat, but they also will provide you with privacy and help you blend in wherever you park.
“Van life is the proof that you can live more with less” Kikka’s Voyage
But why did I end up ditching the shades after a few months?
Well, the truth is that they became a royal pain in the ass.
Whenever you park, you have to immediately jump to the back and proceed to install the shades before people have a chance to see what your doing.
When you wake up early in the morning, you have to take the shades back down and store them somewhere in your vans limited space.
When the shades are installed, you can't see what's going on outside and it tends to make the interior feel like your in some sort of tin-foil cave.
These are the main reasons why I don't use the shades anymore, but you can be assured to know that they do in fact work!
If your on a budget or you plan to only do this occasionally, then these shades will work perfectly for you.
If your doing Vanlife full time, maybe consider paying the $450 to get your windows professionally tinted.
Once I got my windows tinted, it truly enhanced my peace of mind on the road.
Van Life Cost - What do you plan to sleep on?
When I first got started, I was using a $100 military cot to sleep on.
The cot was wonderful because it fit perfectly and made it easy for me to store my things underneath.
Contrary to popular belief, cots are actually quite comfortable in my experience.
However, the only drawback for me was the fact that sleeping on the cot made it so that my body was only a few feet away from the vans ceiling.
I felt a little too "exposed" to anyone who just happened to peak inside the front windows.
This led me to Amazon where I spent hours doing research on the best odorless comfortable foam mats that would keep my body as close to the van floor as possible.
I ended up purchasing this foam mat which was a very wise investment because its very comfortable and keeps me low to the ground while I rest.
Seriously, you can't go wrong with this mat in your van.
Whatever form of bedding you decide to use, just read the reviews and check to make sure others have not complained about any odors coming from the material.
The last thing you want is a toxic odor like vinyl stinking up your van and putting your very life at risk!
Anyway... a military cot is a decent option, but I prefer to use some type of foam mat. Both will cost you about $100.
A basic sleeping bag and blanket will run you about another $90.
Van Life Cost - Getting Proper Ventilation
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@macroman
I'll bet there are several of you who have not thought about this yet.
It took me awhile to figure out how important good ventilation is for sleeping.
One of the luxuries of life in a house is that there is usually good ventilation while you sleep. (if not, you just crack open your bedroom window).
Having proper ventilation is essential to getting good rest.
There have been many studies that link poor ventilation with decreased cognitive function, brain fog, poor mood, and just feeling crappy in general.
In the beginning on my journey, I did not make any effort to properly ventilate my van.
I would simply park the van and just go to sleep, allowing all of that stale air to just marinate in the van all night.
Looking back, I can definitely confirm that I experienced all of the negative symptoms of poor ventilation mentioned earlier.
But what can you do, were trying to be stealth right?
Having open windows is a bit of a red-flag for more reasons that one.
This is what you do... Invest in a set of window deflectors/rain guards.
Now you can roll the windows down just enough for some fresh air!
These are relatively cheap and very easy to install.
I payed about $80 for mine.
Once these are installed, you can crack your windows during the night while still maintaining a stealthy appearance.
However, I must admit that my van does not have side windows that roll down.
For this reason, I also place a thin cardboard tube on the back windows of my van.
These thin cardboard tubes prop open my back windows about an inch, which is just enough to provide air flow without being too obvious.
Taking these simple steps has made a very noticeable difference in the quality of life and mental alertness I enjoy most of the time.
In fact, the sleep I get in my van is often better then the sleep I used to get living in a house!
Ventilation is key.
Now, if your more mechanically inclined, you can definitely build a much more elaborate ventilation system.
I'm not mechanically inclined... neither am I willing to take on such a project like that right now.
The window guard solution mentioned above is simple and has been working just fine for my camper.
“When ordinary life doesn’t interest you, get a van.” Anonymous
Van Life Cost - Gym Membership
Where do you plan to shower?
Having a consistent place to take a shower is absolutely essential to living your best life on the road.
This is how you feel after going 5 days in a van without a shower!!!
When I first got started, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of his house key and told me I was more than welcome to come and take a shower at anytime.
I thought, "cool, problem solved, I'll just shower at his place every other day or so."
Well, after a few days of doing this I felt as if I was imposing on my friend.
If you have good friends offering you help, the last thing you want to do is just post up at their house and wear out your welcome!
So, to show some respect and gain a little more independence, I went ahead and just signed up for a gym membership.
Most gyms offer a consistent place for you to take a shower and stay on top of all of your basic life essentials (ie clipping your nails, flossing, shaving, etc).
My particular gym has locations all thru-out the state of California.
No matter what town I am in, there is usually a gym within a 5-10 mile radius.
You can find a gym membership for anywhere between $15 - $120 per month.
I pay $30 per month (plus a $50 annual fee.)
Life is good.
Van Life Cost - Get yourself a Storage Unit
Where do you plan to keep your stuff while living in a van?
As mentioned earlier, I have always rented rooms and easily just kept all of my things wherever I was living.
Throughout my life, I have never been a "pack-rat" or the type of person who likes to own unnecessary things.
Much to my surprise, I found that my van is simply way too tiny to store the small amount of things I own.
We all have certain items that are either valuable, sentimental, or extremely important to hold onto.
For example, life things like birth certificates, documents, family pictures, extra clothes, etc.
These are the kinds of items that are best kept outside of your van; not only for safety reasons but also because you want to have as much free space in the van as possible.
Depending on how much stuff you have, I recommend you set aside between $70 and $300 each month for a storage unit (and possibly insurance for your unit).
There are perks to being anonymous!
Having your own storage unit makes life in a van so much easier and enjoyable because it allows you to operate with only the barest of essentials needed to live your daily life.
My $70 per month, 5 ft. by 5ft. storage unit is one of the smallest available.
It looks small, but I was very surprised to find out just how many things I could actually fit in there.
Every once in a while, if I want to pickup my special pair of Vans shoes for example.... I can just roll up to my storage unit and walk in unannounced with no questions asked.
Everything in my unit is organized in its own category for easy access.
I love it. This is a truly wonderful way to live a minimalist life.
Van Life Cost - Food
I'll tell you right now that unless your very discipled or have some type of cooking system in place, expect to spend extra on food.
Maybe $200-$500 each month.
Eating healthy and cheap can be tough without a regular kitchen.
I have seen some other Vans with really elaborate cooking setups.
For example, you can easily go to Walmart or any sporting goods store and just look around for a sale on a portable stove (ran off of propane or from your battery).
I have not done this yet mostly because I'm not into the idea of having to find a place within my city to cook in.
But now that I think about it, how hard can it possibly be?
At this time, my current strategy for grub mainly revolves around having a limited amount of food items that I eat over and over again.
Here are some of my go-to food options that may interest you:
Consider getting a Subway gift card for yourself.
I put about $100 per month on a Subway gift card which allows me to get a consistent supply of fresh vegetables into my diet.
Also, consider downloading the McDonald's and Jack in the Box apps because they are always offering free stuff.
Try keeping cans of tomatoes, Spinach, beans, and mixed veggies in your van at all times.
These are just a few ideas, I went into much more detail about food in a previous article here: https://www.regalnomad.com/post/is-it-realistic-to-live-in-a-van-in-2022-dark-side-of-van-life
For now, just consider that your worst case scenario is that you end up spending extra money on food.
Maybe $300-$500 if your a little reckless and eat out too much.
"Good food is very often, even most often, simple food" Anthony Bourdain
Van Life Cost - Gas
As of writing this in mid-2022, gas prices have been shooting up a lot within the last few months.
The average cost of gas right now in California is $6.40. Crazy right?
Well, even if gas was not so expensive right now, I would still say that you should expect to pay extra in gas for at least your first month.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@juanlf
Gasoline...the life blood of Van Life.
For example, I was spending a lot on gas in the beginning because I really made the effort to find at least 10 parking spots I was comfortable parking my van at night.
Naturally, this required a lot of extra driving around and exploring new streets that I otherwise would not be compelled to drive down in normal life circumstances.
I spent upwards of $600 in gas my first month!
Now, all of these parking spots that I found are strategically located close to my work, gym, and other places I frequent regularly.
As a result of making this initial investment, I am now at the point where I am actually saving money on gas because all of my driving routes are mapped out and planned before I even turn on the vans engine.
With all of that in consideration, just expect to spend extra money on gas for a few months.
If your frugal and selective on where you drive, eventually you can find yourself saving more money on gas than you did living in a house.
And there it is!
That's life in a van and all the major expenses to be prepared for when your first getting started.
Next Up: Is it Realistic Living in a Van? The answer is Yes, living in a van can be realistic. A lot depends on how disciplined you are with money and whether you can embrace planning ahead for basic life tasks we normally taken for granted. It requires a minimalist way of life that is not suited for everyone. If you you can face and stomach the downsides of Van Life then you have a really good shot!