How CHEAP is van life? Our monthly van life expenses breakdown

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We get asked about our monthly van life expenses all the time.

Everyone talks about how much it costs to buy a van and convert it into a home on wheels…

But how cheap is van life once you actually get on the road?

The answer:

It depends.

It depends on a BUTTLOAD of different factors  – mostly related to your travel style. 

But let me tell you this:

You can do some pretty freaking cheap van living and still have an amazing time. 

When we crunched the numbers, we were surprised to see we are actually spending less adventuring around the U.S. in a van full time than we did backpacking through Thailand!

Here’s the video version of our van life budget breakdown:

And for all you readers out there – before we get into our van life costs and cheap van living tips, let’s talk about some of the upfront expenses.

How much does a campervan cost?

There is no easy way to answer this. You can spend $1000 for an old, cargo van. This is what my brother did. It had 200,000+ miles on it and he was expecting it to break down, but it held strong for his entire 3 month U.S. road trip (he still uses it as a work van to this day!).

Or you can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a brand-new, tricked-out Sprinter van build.

As for us, our trusty ol’ 1992 Dodge Roadtrek camper van (AKA “Salsa Mobile”) cost us $4,500. We then invested about another $1,000 in a WeBoost cell booster, a portable solar panel, two new marine batteries, and some other camper essentials.

cheap van living next to a beautiful lake
Salsa Mobile, our trusty home on wheels.

Is Salsa Mobile the most comfortable, high-tech van in the world? No way! But do we love her? More than anything! (So much so that we’re thinking of driving her all the way down to Colombia).

How cheap is van life once you’re on the road?

Once you’ve bought your van, converted it, and stocked up on all your camping gear…that’s when the cheap van living kicks in.

From then on, your biggest expenses will be food and gas. 

And if you master some tasty van life recipes and travel slowly, these costs can be super cheap.

In fact, as you’re about to see, we spend the same exploring all the most beautiful places in the U.S. as we did living in Bangkok. (And we thought we had it cheap there!).

Van life budget: Our cost of living in a van per month

Keep in mind that these totals are van life monthly expenses for TWO people. We pride ourselves on our ability to be frugal, yet still go on dope adventures.

Fuel (gas, propane, butane): $480

Between gas for driving and propane/butane for running things in the van, fuel is our biggest expense.

We spend on average $430/month on gas, but this can vary dramatically depending on…

  • Your vehicle
  • What state you’re in (California is outrageous!)
  • How fast you move

We’ve been moving pretty fast, and probably could cut our costs in half if we took a chill pill and slowed down a bit.

Our van uses propane to run the fridge, stove, and furnace. It costs us ~$20 per month, but that really depends on how cold the weather is and how many layers of clothes we feel like wearing. 

man bundled up in van cut down van life expenses and avoid using the furnace

If it’s nice out, we use butane to cook on our camping stove outside. You can pick up butane canisters for about 2 bucks each, and they last us ~10ish meals depending on what we’re cooking (and how cold it is).

Tolls: $8.40

I feel like tolls need to be on this list. But, honestly, I have no effing clue how many tolls I owe. 

It wasn’t until 2 months into our trip that I realized what electronic tolls were (I guess I need to get with the times after living in so many third-world countries). Apparently, some tolls you just drive through without stopping, and then need to go online and pay afterward.

I never saw any signs saying this, so I just assumed they weren’t charging for the day! 🤦🏻‍♂️

I don’t think we’ve passed through too many of these (and I can’t figure out how to check – so if you know, LEAVE A COMMENT PLEASE!). 

We usually try to take the scenic route wherever we go (which I highly recommend), and this usually involves old highways and sideroads that don’t have tolls.

The only toll I know for sure that we’ve passed is the Golden Gate Bridge, which I believe was a whopping $8.40. So let’s go with that.

Insurance (Car + Health): $177

Our Progressive car insurance plan runs us $43/month. We have a rickety old van, so we don’t really care about full coverage. If you have a fancy van, this might be more expensive. But if you can afford a fancy van, why are you reading our cheap van living budget? 🤑

Your cost might also depend on if your van is considered an RV or a regular van. Our Roadtrek is considered a Class B RV, which makes insurance a tad cheaper.

As for health insurance, Day and I aren’t residents of the U.S., so we just use digital nomad health insurance whenever we visit. This only covers us for emergencies, but is much cheaper than normal U.S. health insurance.

Day’s travel insurance runs her $73/month (with a U.S. coverage waiver).

Since I’m a U.S. citizen, I have to use a different type of travel insurance through IMG Global, which costs me $61/month.

Cell phone: $70

We each have Unlimited Everything plans through Visible. Visible uses Verizon’s network, but is way cheaper. 

Visible is also super handy because they allow unlimited tethering, which comes in handy when you’re working from your van and need to stay connected. 

The cost for Visible depends on how many people you have in your “party”. We have two people in our party and pay $35/month per person.

man testing out cheap van life cell phone plan
Using my glamorous phone to find our next camp spot.

Gym: $20

We signed up for Planet Fitness to have access to their showers (and to not get fat). Their Black Card membership costs $20 and allows you to bring a guest. There are Planet Fitness gyms all over the U.S., so it’s super duper handy for road trips. 

The only problem is, with COVID, a lot of gyms have closed their showers. If you’re reading this after the craziness has passed, you should be good to go. If not, make sure to have a Plan B for washing the van life grime off your body. 

selfie of beautiful latina at planet fitness
Day’s favorite day….SHOWER DAY!

Showers: $10

When you’re out in the wild, there’s not always a Planet Fitness around to take a shower. 

You could shower for free by building one onto your van, using a hanging camp shower, or—my favorite—filling one of those collapsible buckets with water to take a washcloth bath.

taking a free camping shower to stretch our van life budget

But if you have a wife with long pretty hairs on her head, she will probably want a real shower every once in a while to keep those hairs looking pretty. 

Showers at campgrounds, truck stops, and community centers will run your $2 – $10 each. We usually spend around $10/month on paid showers (on top of Planet Fitness). 

Campsites & Accommodation: $10

There’s really no reason to pay for camping. There are TONS of free camping spots all over the U.S. We use the iOverlander and Campendium apps to find them. 

We’ve only ever paid for camping once, and that was just because we heard they had really good cell service and we needed to blast out some work (plus, it was only $5/night).

The average campgrounds seem to cost $25-$50. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I say it’s a big waste of money. But it may be worth it to you if you can get a warm shower, do some laundry, charge your batteries, and have enough electricity for your lady to use her hair dryer. 

camping at a free camping spot in Nebraska - one of the best ways to cut down on monthly van life expenses
Our first ever free camp spot in Nebraska

Food and alcohol: $410

This is where our budget may differ from most other people. 

If you like to try different restaurants and bars in each place you visit, this will be WAY more.

For us, that’s not super important. Firstly, because Day is a master chef (at least she is in my book). Second, we usually have to spend our “fun money” replacing things that I destroy…like the brakes I torched in the mountains…or the drone that swam away in the river.

cooking in a van with a nice view
Cooking isn’t so bad when you have a view! (Said the person who never cooks)

Anywho.

We buy 90% of our food and alcoholic beverages at Walmart whenever we have to sleep there. The other 10% is typically spent at Little Caesar’s and Chipotle. 

Electricity: $10

The only electricity cost we have are the AA batteries we use for our interior lights. If we had another solar panel, we could power our lights with the sun. But, we don’t. 

So far we’ve bought a buttload of batteries from the Dollar Store. Turns out, these don’t last very long. You may be better off not being a cheap ass and just buying normal non-Dollar Store batteries. 

We spend about $10 per month on batteries. (In the video we forgot to mention these because they were mixed into our grocery receipts).

interior van life lights powered by batteries
All these pretty lights are powered by AA batteries

Water: $5

There are free water spigots all over the place. This is where we normally fill up our water tanks. As a last resort, we fill our jugs up at a Walmart refill station, which is also very cheap. 

Laundry: $10

So far, we’ve been in cold-ish climates. This means we don’t sweat and our clothes last longer before smelling like garbage. 

We’ve only had to hit up laundromats every couple of weeks, and each laundry run costs us ~$5 to wash and dry.

You could probably wash even less if you packed more clothes. But we travel pretty light.

inside a laundromat

Activities: $30

We honestly don’t spend much on activities. Our favorite activity is hiking, which is normally free (sometimes you have to pay to park).

We bought the “America the Beautiful” annual pass that gives you access to all National Parks for $80. The longer you travel (and the more parks you visit), the better this deal is. 

Depending on your style, it’s possible to spend a lot more on activities. We’re lucky because the activities we love happen to be cheap.

exploring the grand prismatic spring in yellowstone national park
Exploring Yellowstone with our National Parks Pass

Miscellaneous & Unexpected Expenses: $200

It’s hard to give a number for unexpected expenses because you never know what’s going to happen. But usually, something does happen.

Whether that be getting sick, or drowning your drone, or burning your brakes, or going on a shopping spree at TJ Maxx because you don’t want your Youtube followers to think you only have one outfit…

You need to budget for the unexpected. 

Some months this may be $0. Some months it may be $1000. But on average, I’d say $200/month is a safe number.

flying drone in the forest alongside a river
The last time the drone was seen alive

Total: $1440.40

Not bad for two people traveling in an expensive country like the U.S., eh?

Now, this could easily be more depending on your travel style, but it also could be much less. 

For example, we have been traveling almost every day for the past month to recharge our batteries with our alternator. If you had a better solar setup, you could post up much longer in each location and cut your gas bill way down. If you only moved once per week and didn’t go far, you could shave this budget by several hundred doll-hairs.

Cheap van living tips

Here are some cheap van living tips we’ve picked up that will help you knock down your van life costs:

▶ Buy travel insurance. If you don’t have normal U.S. health insurance, you NEED to buy travel insurance. Here’s the best one for for non-U.S. citizens. 

▶ Find ways to earn a van life income. You can easily offset your costs by learning how to make money living in a van. Here’s a huge list of travel jobs to choose from.

Become a housesitter. Eventually, you’ll want a break from living in a tiny van. Instead of splurging on a hotel or Airbnb, you can use housesitting jobs to score free accommodation (and get in your fix of animal love).

▶ Don’t pay for camping. There’s no reason to pay for camping when it’s so easy to find free places to sleep. Use iOverlander and Campendium to save yourself hundreds of dollars per month on campgrounds. 

▶ Use Gas Buddy. I never buy gas without first looking at the Gas Buddy app. You never know when you could save $20 filling up two minutes down the road.

▶ Cook in bulk. Cooking in a small van kitchen isn’t always fun, but if you master a few recipes, it’ll save you tons of money. 

▶ Slow down. Stay in each place longer. You’ll not only cut down your gas bill, but you’ll also avoid getting “travel burnout” (this is a real thing!)

▶ Use rewards cards. I’ve saved thousands of dollars by opening rewards cards, meeting the minimum spends, and earning huge sign-up bonuses. It’s like free money, guys. (Just make sure to pay off your balance in full each month).

▶ Plan your route carefully. Vans aren’t the most fuel-efficient vehicles out there. Plan your route carefully and avoid backtracking as much as possible. Also, do you really need to see that mediocre waterfall 45 minutes out of the way?

▶ Invest in solar. It’s free energy. It also allows you to stay in each place longer without running out of battery, saving on gas. 

▶ Layer up. We try to use our furnace as little as possible. Underarmor + a down jacket + a warm sleeping bag will get you pretty far.

▶ Choose cheap locations. California has by far been the most expensive state we’ve traveled in – especially gas (our biggest expense) and propane. If you’re moving around a lot, you could save a couple hundred dollars per month simply by traveling in a cheaper state. Check out the difference in gas prices by state.

▶ Grab an America the Beautiful pass. If you visit more than three or more national parks per year, this will save you money. It also gives you free access to some campsites. This is one of our favorite camping hacks and has saved us money on activities, parking fees, and campsite fees. Many national parks also have campgrounds where you can fill up your water tanks even if you don’t pay to stay there. This has also come in handy on numerous occasions.

▶ Give Visible a try. We had our doubts about using a cheap “off-brand” cell phone service. So far, it’s served us well, and it costs about half the price. 

▶ Take care of your van. It’s easy to forget maintenance when you’re busy having adventures. But to avoid any big repairs, it’s important to give your van some regular TLC. Failing to do so will ruin your cheap van living budget real quick.

▶ Know your limits. Van life can bring out your adventurous side, but remember that your van has limits. If you get stuck in remote Salt Flats in Utah like our van life buddies, it’s gonna cost you a fortune to get towed.

van stuck in a salt flat in Utah
Glad you made it out of there alive, @orphan_of_the_american_dream!

How much does van life cost per month for “normal” people?

What’s your definition of “normal”?

There really is none. It all depends on your unique van life travel style. 

To calculate your van life budget, feel free to borrow our expenses spreadsheet.

To help you estimate, re-read through our expenses and think to yourself, “Would I spend more or less than these guys?”

Van life cost of living recap

There you have it guys. As you can see, van life can be expensive, or it can be SUPER cheap.

It all depends on your travel style.

We are able to have some amazing adventures living fairly comfortably for less than $1500 (for BOTH of us).

I’m not gonna lie, despite what social media makes it look like, this isn’t the most comfortable lifestyle in the world (this van life reality video will show you what I mean):

But if you’re looking to explore the U.S. without breaking the bank, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

I mean…$1500?? That’s less than I spend on normal, boring life at home!

Frequently asked questions

Can you save money living in a van?

It is possible to spend way less living in a van than in a regular house or apartment. If you continue to work while living in a van, it is much easier to save. Since you no longer have to pay for rent (or a mortgage), your cost of living will be much lower. 

How much should I save for van life?

Van life is full of unexpected expenses, so it’s best to save up to have a nice emergency found of several thousand dollars. As far as buying a van goes, it all depends on your expectations. Vans range from $1,000 to over $100,000. I recommend starting with the cheapest van you’ll be comfortable in, then upgrading from there.

How can I make money living in a van?

There are tons of ways to make money living in a van. You can work remotely, freelance, or start your own online business. Since van life can be so cheap, it can be easier to get your van life business off the ground. That said, it’s not always easy to stay productive living in a van as there are many extra tasks to worry about (finding water, bathrooms, gas, propane, electricity, internet, a place to sleep, etc.)

How much does it cost to live van life?

Monthly van life expenses can vary dramatically. If you cook your own food, use free campsites, enjoy free activities (like hiking), and travel slowly—it can be incredibly affordable (we spend $1440/month as a couple). But if you are constantly eating out, going to bars, doing expensive activities, and driving every day—you’re expenses will be much higher.

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