The cost of living in a van


The typical image of a full-timer is a retired couple living on social security or a pension/retirement – or savings – to fund their time on the road. However, what is happening more and more commonly is people continuing to work while also living on the road. No matter which way you may chose to live (or play) on the road, budgeting will be just as necessary as living (or playing) in a sticks-n-bricks house in a cul-de-sac.

You know how much you bring in (or have saved) and how much of that must go towards the necessary debts of credit cards, car payments, mortgages, etc. What you have left over is your budget for living on the road. Obviously, paying off any debt beforehand is critical to being able to live on the road long-term. If you can not accomplish that before starting this lifestyle, your budget needs to include those payments as well. Luckily, living on the road can be significantly less expensive then a sticks-n-bricks house and may help you pay off the debt even sooner.

The Super Minimalist – Some just want out of the debt rat-race and the freedom to do or move when and where they want. A quick purchase of a van (or truck & overhead camper setup) can remove a $1000 per month rent and utility bills. The Super Minimalist may have some income (Social Security, Disability, Retirement, hourly employment, etc) albeit small; let’s estimate $1000 per month of total income. Living on this amount is a very reasonable option and can be done with a bit of planning.

There are two usual suspects here, and I lived as both at different times during my tenure;

  1. The hourly worker which must stay in the general area and work the job. He/She is looking for free options for places to spend their nights although people are finding it more difficult over time thanks to local ordinances or laws preventing sleeping in a vehicle within city limits. Camping is one of the hardest things to deal with in this situation. Even though the hourly worker may get away with some free camping within city limits (aka, Stealth Camping) eventually he/she will have to pay for a place to sleep. Sometimes Craig’s List can help find that place with a local willing to rent out a driveway or small plot of land for cheap. Local fraternal organization (Moose, Elk, Eagles, etc) may take you in to their parking lot with an annual membership (and some monthly donations to keep everyone happy). Some may even have electricity and water available. Lastly, you can simply rent a cheap room if things get real tough (freezing winters, or very hot summers) for a few months. I have done them all in my time as a van-dweller and usually find places for free (moving each night) or a paid location for under $300 a month.
    There was a 6-month period that I lived behind a local Moose Lodge and worked at he Gym which was next door to the Lodge. I earned an additional pay check, on top of my normal work online, and donating a few hundred per month to the Lodge as thanks for letting me stay. The rest went directly into my savings for rainy days. I even got my gym membership for free which included daily hot showers!
  2. The nomadic earner (either disability or working online) is lucky enough to have freedom of movement and may not need to deal with paying for camping as often. When I lived this way (usually 6-9 months per year) I found my fuel bill increased by the same amount I would have spent camping as I drove more to see the sights. All in all, it was a wash financially, but going places and seeing things was the original reason I started this life. Obviously, one could sit still longer in each location and save money, especially in the South West where you can legally camp for up to two weeks (or more) at a time in BLM or National Forest. Relocating only twice per month can save hundreds in gasoline alone.

Either way, the combined cost of camping and gasoline cost was my primary cost each month at $300 to $400 per month. I’m sure that as you look at the figures above, you are already adding or subtracting some of those costs. The above numbers are a realistic budget traveling 1500 miles per month to see the sights while living in a van. Eventually I removed and sold my items in storage, starting cutting my own hair, and refined auto insurance and other misc costs which brought the budget to under $750 per month.

In the end, the realistic cost of living on the road in a van – and traveling to see the sights – or similar type of automobile ranged from $25 to $35 per day for a single person, ($40-50 per day as a couple) not including car payments, savings, or other debts that you come into this lifestyle with. It can be done for both less and more depending on your own personal driving, camping, and eating habits.

If complete cost reduction is your thing, then living in a van can be done for as little as $300-400 per month, and even less with total focus on the goal. It does require staying put in one location (free camping spot outside of city limits) for as long as six months at a time, and moving your home only when the weather forces you too.

Next: The cost of living in a travel trailer