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If you want to start living the van life, especially to save money, you might be asking yourself this question: how much does van life cost?
And you probably won’t like my answer: it varies.
The cost of van life can really run the gamut, depending largely on how much you drive, if you cook in your van or eat out, and whether you pay for campsites.
In this article, I’ll tell you about my personal experience with van life and give you frugal living tips from one of my favorite van lifers, Liesbet Colleart of the blog, Roaming About.
I hope this helps you decide if van life is right for you.
Table of Contents
How Much Does a Camper Van Cost?
The first thing you’ll need to think about before you start living van life is how much a camper van will cost. There is a HUGE range here, and it all depends on how much you want to spend. I highly recommend buying a van you can afford with cash.
When I first started living in a van, I bought the cheapest one I could afford with cash: A 1994 Chevy Astro conversion van. My first van felt giant to me: a place I could find respite and work during the day, a wonderful place to sleep at night. The van was just $6,000, which eliminated my need for a car payment.
Later, in 2021, I bought a brand new Mercedes Sprinter van as a DIY project to document on this website. I paid for half the van in cash and chose to finance the other half to build up my credit.
Campervans can cost anywhere between $3,000-$250,000, depending on your budget and what exactly you’re looking for. If you’re trying van life for the first time, I’d recommend going with a cheaper van in case you don’t like the lifestyle!
Van Build Costs of Van Life
Another HUGE part of van life costs is figuring out how much you want to spend on a DIY campervan build. If you buy a van that’s already built out, this section won’t apply to you,
There are ways to do budget campervan conversions. My friend Hilary Bird converted her van for just $2,000. Click here to listen to my podcast episode with Hilary.
With our Chevy Astro, we didn’t add much to our camper van conversion. Only a rooftop vent ($200), a solar system ($1,500) and a fridge ($700). However, the solar system and fridge were given to me as part of my writing honest reviews of the products.
Our new Sprinter van is another story, as parts for Sprinters cost way more than other vans. The total amount that’s gone into this van build so far is around $30,000.
Smaller vans are easier to make into a camper van conversion, and if you want to go really cheap, you can just build a platform bed in an empty van with storage underneath. This is how my dad camps in his minivan and he really likes it!
As you can see, the question “how much does van life cost” can be hard to answer as everyone has a different budget and preferences.
Plus, keep in mind that a used camper van will cost way less than a brand-new one. Check out this article to learn more about affordable campervans:
How Much Does Van Life Cost? What I Pay in Monthly Expenses
I lived part-time in the Chevy Astro and part-time on my sailboat between 2018 and 2021. Back in those days, I didn’t track expenses, but gas prices and food prices were way lower than what they are now in 2022.
Plus, I didn’t live in the van full-time. We mostly lived on the sailboat and took the van on 2-4 week adventures, sometimes up to two months, but always returning to the boat.
Starting in 2021, we’ve been living in our van (2021 in the Astro, now the Sprinter) for six months at a time, which brings van life costs up.
I’ve been using a software program called Mint to track the monthly van life costs, and here are the main ones:
- Diesel Fuel: $400-$800
- Van insurance with Roamly: $80
- Groceries & Alcohol: $500-$800
- Health insurance for one person with Zion Health: $200
- Camping Fees: $50-$400
- Restaurants: $100
- Coffee Shops: $10-$15
- Internet, both Unlimited AT&T hotspot and Starlink: $250
- Google Fi Cell Phone Plan: $35-$45
- Subscriptions [Netflix, Spotify, Paramount+, Amazon Prime] $40
- Storage unit for other van and utility trailer: $125
As you can see, fuel and food and alcohol are our highest costs, but those could also be significantly reduced if we spent less time driving around and if we were more mindful about coupon clipping and shopping at discount grocery stores.
However, I do like to buy all organic produce and high-quality wine, beer, bread, cheese and coffee. I allow myself these small luxuries because the entire experience of living in a van isn’t very luxurious.
My paid campsite fees have a large range because the higher end of this spending is staying at hot springs resorts, where we camp in our vehicle but still pay $50-$100 per person for the night. Hot springs are another luxury we give ourselves since baths are the one thing I miss the most when living in a van.
We visited way more hot springs in the summer of 2022 because we didn’t go to any for the past three years due to COVID restrictions.
While our monthly expenses might seem high, they are only this high for half of the year. The other half we live in our sailboat in Mexico, and we almost completely lose the diesel fuel costs and our grocery bill goes down to about $200 per month.
Other Van Life Costs to Keep in Mind
Aside from the typical expenses everyone pays like groceries and fuel, there are other costs to keep in mind when planning your monthly budget.
Many van lifers choose to join a gym as a way to take hot showers on the road. Gyms like Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness are very affordable, sometimes as cheap as $10-$20 per month.
We’ve never purchased a gym membership on the road, instead choosing to shower with our solar shower or at campgrounds. The only time we were members at a gym was when we lived in the van in the San Francisco Bay area, when I spent most of my days at The Bay Club.
Instead of paying for a gym membership, you can also try to find a free trial at a boutique studio in a town you’re going to be visiting. This has often worked for me and saves money on a monthly membership.
My older Chevy Astro van needed maintenance once in awhile, but really not all that much considering its over 25 years old. I do think it’s a good idea to keep some money in the bank to cover van repairs, because you never know when you might have to deal with a breakdown or car accident.
You’ll also want to have some money set aside for hotel costs if you’re van is in the shop for a few days.
Laundry isn’t a huge part of our monthly budget and is fairly affordable, but sometimes you might pay up to $12 to wash clothes and sheets at laundry facilities. We’ve been lucky enough to have family members up and down the west coast where we normally travel, and so we’re able to do laundry in their house.
If you have quick-dry outdoorsy-type clothes, you can also get away with hand washing your clothes and setting them in the sun to dry. We often do this on our sailboat as it’s harder to find a laundromat when you’re anchored out in Mexico.
You can also buy something like the Scrubba laundry bag for an easier time handwashing your clothing.
Since you are living in a van, you’ll most likely be visiting tourist attractions, and you’ll want to have some money on hand to go to museums and national parks. We always purchase an annual national parks pass for about $80 that gets us into an unlimited amount of parks. We find this sure beats spending $30 at every national park we visit.
You’ll most likely have monthly van life costs that are personal to you. This might include massages, haircuts, manis/pedis or even flying home to visit family. This category would also include items like clothes, shoes, toiletries and other personal expenses.
I’d highly recommend leaving some money aside for any out-of-the-ordinary costs. This can be anything from an illness in the family, a personal illness or injury, a large van maintenance cost that you weren’t prepared for, or even a wedding or baby shower gift.
How to Save Money on Van Life Fuel Costs
One of the biggest monthly expenses any van lifer will face is fuel, whether you have a gas or diesel vehicle.
In 2022, gas prices are crazy high, often over $5 to $6 per gallon to fill up our Mercedes Sprinter van with diesel. You can lower these costs by camping for free on public lands for up to 14 days before moving to another location.
When you do have to buy gas, there are a couple of ways to save money living in a van:
- Use Gas Buddy. Download the Gas Buddy app to find the cheapest fuel near you or on your route.
- Use Upside. The Upside app is awesome because it lets you search for fuel deals near you. I have $45 waiting to be transferred to my bank account from using Upside. You can sometimes save $0.20 per gallon if you go to a gas station participating in the Upside program. Upside also gives you discounts on groceries and restaurants, which I haven’t tried yet.
You’ll also want to consider the fuel efficiency of your van. My Chevy Astro van gets about 13-15 miles per gallon, which is pretty dismal for a small van. My Sprinter van gets more like 18 miles per gallon and is way bigger.
You’ll definitely want to factor in gas costs when choosing a vehicle for van life.
How to Save Money on Food While Living the Van Life
Another monthly expense that can really add up with van life is food and alcohol. Since I buy high-end groceries when I’m in the United States, this is one of my biggest van life costs, even though I cook my own food most nights.
However, if you’re on a more strict van life budget, you can learn to save tons of money on food.
My friend Liesbet Colleart of Roaming About has some great strategies for saving money on food. She also keeps track of her monthly van life expenses and shares them on her blog.
- Buy what you need vs what you want. Instead of looking around and buying ice cream or yogurt because you want it at that moment, decide on what you truly need to make meals before going to the grocery store
- Don’t buy brand-name products. Always look for the generic brand.
- Pay attention to costs. Liesbet always checks her receipts at the end of shopping to make sure the teller rang up items correctly. This has also happened to me where the teller makes mistakes. I was once charged $24 for four apples.
- Buy affordable vegetables. Look for the cheapest veggies to buy and veggies that are in season, instead of craving asparagus in the off-season and spending a boat load for it.
- Shop at bargain grocery stories. Shop at stores like Walmart, Aldi, El Super or Grocery Outlet to find better prices. Trader Joe’s is also good for certain products, like cheap peanut butter.
- Be mindful of what you are buying. Liesbet says she’s so used to being frugal now that it’s become second nature. Now she’s just used to looking for the cheapest prices and buying what’s on sale.
Making your own meals will definitely save you money on your monthly van life costs. You can sign up for the $5 meal plan here, which gives you shopping lists and meals for an entire month!
You can also download a rewards app like Fetch to get cashback on your grocery purchases.
Try Boondocking Rather than Paying for Campsites
You can typically find good free campsites on federal land: National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The highest concentration of boondocking sites are on the west side of the United States, but I have heard you can find limited sites on the East Coast.
Boondocking is one of our favorite things to do. Not only do you not have campground fees, you have solitude, great views, and a true immersion in nature.
iOverlander is a great way to find boondocking sites, and you can use an app like The Dyrt Pro to see boundaries for national forests and Bureau of Land Management Land. (Click here for a free 30 day trial of The Dyrt Pro).
Liesbet says if you’re into seeing the national parks, you can avoid paid campsites by boondocking on federal land near the park entrance. “However, we do stay in campgrounds in huge national parks like Yellowstone where you’d use too much gas driving in and out of the park every day.”
You might find that you enjoy free campsites even more than campgrounds, although we do like to visit campgrounds on occasion to fill up our water tanks and take long, hot showers.
Learn to boondocking with easy with my Boondocking 101 Guide! Here's what you'll get:
- The exact methods I use to find free campsites
- How to find dump stations, water, going to the bathroom and showering while boondocking
- Bonodocking essentials gear list
- Apps and websites where you can find free and discounted camping
Get Cheap Campervan Insurance with Roamly
Another way to cut down on van life costs is to sign up with an insurance company like Roamly. Roamly provides RV insurance and campervan insurance, is pretty new on the scene. They are still expanding to states across the U.S., so if they are not available in your state yet, just keep on checking the website.
I recently insured my DIY Sprinter van conversion with Roamly and saved a ton on van life expenses. Previously, I’d been with State Farm, which charged me over $300 per month! Roamly’s goal is to help people with DIY and custom conversions find affordable insurance.
Roamly also lets you rent your van out on Outdoorsy to make some extra money.
If you need to save money on auto insurance or rv insurance, Roamly is the way to go.
Did I Answer Your Question: How Much Does Van Life Cost?
Just because I spend a certain amount on full time van life doesn’t mean you need to as well. There are budget options to everything, including your van purchase, the equipment you put in the van and what you choose to eat and drink on the road. I’ve seen forums with some van lifers stating they live in a van for $500 per month!
Typically the cost of van living is way cheaper than paying for rent or a mortgage. I love that when I want to save money, I can just stop driving my van and stay put for longer. With an apartment or a house, your payment is always due no matter what.
Your initial investment into van life will be more expensive than your monthly costs on the road. That will include buying your van and either DIYing it or adding the equipment to make it comfortable. Your campervan conversion will be your new home!
To be honest, van life isn’t for everyone. There’s a lot of moving around, discomfort, changeable plans and unexpected expenses. My biggest advice is to have an emergency fund to cover other expenses, start small, and figure out if you truly enjoy the lifestyle before getting an expensive van.