Today I’m going to be talking about an unusual way to (potentially) save money that’s near and dear to me because someday I plan on doing it myself—and that’s van living.
Okay, so I don’t plan on living in a van for more than a year at a time, if that, but based on my appreciation of 70s camper vans, my partner’s desire to start a traveling food blog, and our mutual love for Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (yes, we know how it ends) living in a van makes sense for us, if only for a while.
That being said—it definitely doesn’t make sense for a lot of other people. But, the saving potential vs. what it cost to live alone, for those who are brave enough to take on this style of living, can be substantial if done correctly.
Today, I’ll talk about the cost of finding the perfect van, what it takes to maintain it, and a bunch of other costs people tend to take for granted when they live in an apartment or home.
The cost of the van
Unfortunately, I’m not going to get my 70’s VW bus when my partner and I travel because, thanks to the recent wave of 60s and 70s nostalgia, they’re coming back into style and can reach over 20k for one in driving condition.
That’s the kind of cost you want to avoid…no matter how cool those vans are. The point is to save money and spend it on experiences.
As sketchy as Craigslist can be, you can find a lot of vans in your area. Usually people are pretty honest about the shape the car is in, but make sure you have a mechanic look at it if you aren’t sure what to look for.
Depending on which blog you may follow, people have spent just a few hundred dollars on a van they fixed up or upwards of $5,000 on a van that runs well enough already.
What I plan to spend: $1,000-$5,000
The cost of upkeep
How much you travel and how much down time you spend in your van will determine how much you spend on maintenance costs. If you park your van in a friend’s driveway and just live in it to save a few hundred dollars on rent, you won’t have to put as much money into it as someone who is driving across the country.
Remodeling your van to live in it
This is where you can get creative. Sure, you can buy a van, make sure it runs, stick a mattress in the back and be on your way, but there are a lot of ways to dress up your van with just a little bit of money (and a lot of time).
There are many examples of individuals who have spent as little as a couple thousand dollars, some who’ve spend closer to 10-15 thousand, and those who have spent the equivalent of a down payment on a house.
I’m leaning more towards the couple thousand-dollar end of the spectrum. This means my van likely won’t have a running sink and small stove top—even though that would be ideal. A small set of cabinets and a mattress with some storage underneath is all I plan on having.
What I plan to spend: $1,000
Basic car repair
Learning basic car repair for your van, will be a life saver. If you can change a tire, your oil, and understand generally what’s under the hood—you can avoid having to take it to a mechanic every time something small happens.
The cost of traveling (and staying in place)
As I said before, there’s a significant difference in cost between people who travel in their vans and those who remain relatively stationary. But let’s cover one of the biggest worries van dwellers face—where to park.
Walmart offers free, overnight parking
Rest stops and Walmarts are your best bet when it comes to traveling. Except for select locations, Walmart allows vans, cars, trucks, and RVs to park overnight in their parking lots. Although, this isn’t a long term solution.
Some campgrounds are free
Government owned land is often home to free camping for a couple nights to a week at a time. This is called boondocking.
It’s easy to find free camping spots these days. Check out this site to find free public camping near you. Know that these spots rarely have anything but open land. There’s no restrooms, water, or electric.
Don’t make it obvious you live in your van (especially if you live in the city)
If you’re staying in a city, it’s important to look as inconspicuous as possible. One of the best tips: Never park in the same place two days in a row.
You’ll quickly be able to tell where people can park overnight, since a bunch of other cars will also be there. Neighborhoods filled with apartments are a good option because most residence have to park on the street anyway. But make sure you don’t need a permit to park overnight there, or else you could end up being towed while you’re still in the van…not fun.
The unexpected costs
If your van breaks down halfway to California (or wherever you’re going), you can’t just ditch it. You live in it. That means, an emergency fund is essential for anyone who wants to try out van living.
Additionally, I guarantee there will be unexpected expenses you weren’t thinking of when you made the switch to van life. Living in a van is weird, and there are weird expenses that come up when you don’t have a larger home.
What I plan to have in my emergency fund: $1,000 (which I’ll add to as I take money out)
Here’s where the expenses can add up—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how much you’re saving on rent (or a mortgage) each month.
When you live in a van there’s a lot more to consider than if you have a home or apartment that comes with amenities. Let’s go through them one by one.
Some of the more high-end vans come with a very small fridge and stove top (which can obviously only be hooked up at places like campgrounds, or run on propane). But most don’t.
This means you’ll need to figure out what you’re going to eat. Unfortunately, this likely will include a lot of eating out. Which is fun, but not great for your health necessarily, or your wallet.
But there are other ways to cook healthy meals. When you’re camping, you can use the campfire to cook your meals. If you’re not at a campground, or it doesn’t have a fire pit, investing in a propane stove and cooking on the tailgate of your van will be a life saver, and will be a lot cheaper in the long run than eating out all the time. You can get a small camping stove for anywhere between $30-$150+.
What I plan to spend: $50-$100 on camping stove (I cook a lot)
If you’ve rented before and your unit didn’t come with a washer and dryer, you’re already used to using a laundromat. This is what you’ll have to do when you live in a van. Google laundromats wherever you are and find the cheapest price.
Again, those who travel a lot (which is a majority of van dwellers) will need to factor in the cost of gas. Unfortunately, most older vans don’t have great gas mileage, so you’ll be paying quite a bit in gas.
If you’re lucky, and in the market for a new van you can convert, here are some with the best miles per gallon.
A credit card that offers great gas rewards, can make you a little extra cash if you have to fill up frequently. There’s also an app for finding the cheapest gas stations near you.
Not having access to a regular shower is probably what turns people off most about living in a van. While it’s definitely not as easy as hoping into the shower in your home or apartment, you do have options.
If you’re staying in an area for an extended period of time, cheap gym memberships—like Planet Fitness—often offer showers.
For small towns that don’t have gyms, campgrounds have shower facilities you may be able to use. Again, it might cost money to stay at the campground. But after you haven’t showered in a few days (or weeks), it might not seem like such a burden to fork over a little cash. If there aren’t any campgrounds around, cheap motels are always an option.
The best option? If you’re traveling through where your friends or family live, beg them to let you use their showers.
Storing your stuff
Most of us have more stuff than would fit into a van. That means you’ll have to store most of your possessions. The best option is to hit up your parents and ask to store your things in their basement or garage.
If this isn’t an option, consider how much your stuff really means to you, and maybe sell or donate some of it.
If you really can’t part with your belongings call around to local storage units wherever you call home and see who offers the best prices.
Thankfully, most businesses and all libraries have free wifi. However, as rare as it seems, there are places that don’t have great wifi (or wifi at all). So, if you’re traveling and need wifi for work, or because you’re an internet junkie like most people, what do you do?
That’s when a phone with a good data plan can come in handy. Yes, unlimited data plans cost more, but more and more plans are offering them. Know, however, that lower cost unlimited plans might not have the best reach if you really get out into nature. Sprint, for example, doesn’t have the best service in non-urban areas.
The cost of working
While most of us would love to quite our jobs and spend our lives traveling, the reality is we need money (which means a job) to survive.
I’m lucky, my career choices are based around work I can do from my laptop. Freelance writers, photographers, web designers, etc. just have to find free wifi (see above) in order to do work.
But plenty of other, more traditional jobs, can be done while traveling. Carpenters, artists, chefs or cooks, or any retail workers have an easier time finding work for short periods of time than other careers.
I’ve also known people who’ll do pretty much any work for a paycheck—one guy even built ships during the summer. This is the perfect mindset for van dwellers.
If you have a full-time job that allows you to travel, you might also want to consider a side-hustle (or two) to help make ends meet during rougher months. Many of these can also be done from the road.
What I plan to spend
My budget for preparing to travel will be around $7,050 at most for the van, remodels, an emergency fund, and a camping stove. That’s a low budget compared to others, but my goal, after all, is to save money.
I’m good at getting by on a cheap food budget—my partner and I can spend less than $100 every week and a half or so. But I do imagine we’ll have to budget for more eating out, since we want to experience the food wherever we go.
We’ll also be working on the road as freelancers, so we’ll have money coming in.
Overall, before we hit the road, we plan on having an additional couple thousand saved for unplanned expenses, camping at inexpensive campgrounds, food, gas, and laundry.
Upfront expenses are obviously more costly than simply renting, but instead of spending $1,000 each month on rent and utilities, we’re going to put that money towards traveling and experiencing the world. That’s worth the money.
Van living isn’t for everyone, but for the brave few, it can cut out many major expenses. Instead of paying rent or a mortgage, buying a used (or even a new) van, working from the road, and learning where and how to eat, can be a rewarding experience for you and your wallet.