Van life seems to be trending in recent years, and it’s a trend that very much interests me. There have been many times my boyfriend and I have contemplated living this lifestyle for a short period of our lives. It seems like a great way to explore the country and reconnect with what is important in life.
So, this week, I decided to do a little research about what it would take to take part in van life. On paper, it looks marvelous and care-free. But, is it really as great as it sounds? Let’s find out.
First of all, there are several sites dedicated entirely to van life, like this one. Turns out, van life is not such a new thing after all. Granted, the one mentioned is mostly just awe-inspiring photos of this lifestyle, but still dreamy nonetheless. What this movement celebrates, though, is home is not a location but a feeling…an experience. That is definitely something I can live with.
Sunsets like you’ve never seen, adventures, a simpler way of life, and stories that develop along the way…these aspects of this way of life all sound so appealing. But, what does it really take to live on the road and how much does it really cost you?
Before you start
Before even considering something like this, there will be initial expenses of course. Along with purchasing a van, you will most likely need to do some renovations to it in order to make it a suitable living space. This couple featured in Outside Magazine was able to renovate a cargo van they found on Craigslist simply by following a helpful online account. Spirit Van Life provides very specific details to followers on how to get turn your van into your home on the road.
While you can do the updates yourself to save costs, there are many details to know and keep in mind as you build your home on the road. In the minimal square feet, you will need to decide will this be used for long-term trips (a month or more at a time) or just shorter excursions. This will determine how much wattage you’ll need for electricity or if solar power is feasible for you (Solar Panels are roughly $450 a piece and a generator is around $400-$2,000, depending on how much solar power you want to use). Costs for updates can be $2,000 to $3,000 in repairs and supplies, depending on how customized you want to go. There are cargo vans available with most of the conversion already done for you available on sites like Craigslist, but you may end up paying more for the vehicle. These used vehicles seem to run, on average, anywhere from $1,600 to $10,000.
You could make the starting costs fit into a specified budget you create for such a venture; however, be realistic. You could luck out and spend $5,000 to $7,000 on the lower end and $10,000 to $12,000 on the higher end. To see if it is worth doing, see how much you would be saving versus renting an apartment each month with all bills included.
Another thing to think about before you begin is do you want a recreational vehicle or the van? With an RV, you likely have the luxury of a shower and toilet, but you have to pay to stay in RV parks while you have more flexibility with parking a van in public.
For the electrical work of your van, it may be worth hiring someone to do this to ensure it is done correctly. Again, you need to choose your source of power supply and know how much you’ll need for your adjusted lifestyle on the road. For instance, if you are a digital nomad, you may need a lot of electricity considering the amount of time you may spend on your computer. Because it will be for a much smaller space than your typical home, you may only have to pay a few hundred dollars for such work. Just do your price checking and align with your budget as best as possible.
Reaching out to friends with construction knowledge may be a great start for you and your new “home.”
With the vehicle logistics primarily out of the way, it’s time to weigh out the regular on-going costs of van life. Here is an idea of what to expect based on my research:
- Fuel: How often you plan on driving around along with the weight of your van both obviously play key parts in your gas mileage. I would expect to get less than 20 miles to the gallon. If you plan on being flexible on your travels, you can map out your gas and fill up in areas where gas is cheapest. If you plan on driving up to 1,000 miles per month you may be spending $200 or more in fuel alone.
- Food. Don’t overdo it with your food. One thing people seemed to mention consistently was how food can go quicker in vans, especially in hot weather conditions. Van lifers, as I’ll call them, suggest not buying more than you can realistically consume in a decent amount of time. Limit your restaurant eating to help save your budget and look for farmer’s markets instead. Plan your meals out to avoid food being wasted. Because you aren’t buying as many groceries, you should expect to spend less in a month on the road than you would living in a house or apartment. But, depending on the quality and type of food you purchase (organic, non-GMO, etc.), you may be looking at close to $120 per week in groceries. This amount can definitely be reduced though.
- Parking. Depending on where you are in the country, you may have some great opportunities for parking by a view. Highway 101 rest stops in the West Coast have several beautiful stops along with cleaner restroom facilities. A Walmart parking lot is always a good go-to from 10 p.m. on. Chances are, you’ll also run into quite a few other van-lifers. Lastly, another common option would be camping sites as they are available. There are some really affordable camping options out there, and we bet they will still be cheaper than staying in a hotel.
- Gym memberships. Say what? Yes. It appears that some of the folk in van life purchase corporate gym memberships so that they have access to a shower while on the road. Not a bad idea considering a membership at Planet Fitness is $10 per month. Plus, it is a nice way to maintain activity if you aren’t very active on the road (my guess is, you still are). But, another option for hygiene are truck stops that may offer showers at a fee as low as $10. Plan on taking limited showers while on the road.
- Internet services. While some people get by with free WiFi in public places while traveling, that may not be a realistic option for writers like me with regular deadlines. You could use your cell phone as a hot spot or look into 4G internet services.
One thing to keep in mind for van life, other than the initial costs and keeping aside money for any unexpected expenses, is the fact that some cities do not legally permit you to park on the street if you are living in your van. In those areas, it will be best to stay at a campsite. Luckily, the Bureau of Land Management offers free camping on public land as it is available.
There can surprisingly be a lot of costs that go into van life, but planning ahead will help to prepare you financially as much as possible. You don’t need to buy and fix up a van all at once; spread it out over the course of the year and take a little time researching and planning this new life.
Is this something you’ve been wanting to do or have done? If so, what would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Jenn Clark is a writer, PR specialist, entrepreneur, blogger and coffee enthusiast. A lover of laughter, traveling and cheese, she’s written about her life experiences here at suburbanfinance while at the same time growing other young professionals. You can find more of her work at Jennblogs.co.