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, it is becoming more and more commonly that people continue to work while living on the road as opposed to waiting for retirement. 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.  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 good news is that van life can be so inexpensive that the debt can fall away quickly with the right mentality.

Let’s discuss two usual suspects of van life. Both have their advantages and disadvantages of course.

The hourly worker which must stay in the general area and work the job. He/She is looking for free (or near-free) options for places to spend their nights although it is becoming more difficult over time thanks to local ordinances or laws preventing sleeping in a vehicle within city limits. Camping location 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).  One can usually find single overnight locations for free, or a paid location – be it a campground, RV park, or driveway –  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!

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. With movement comes the added cost of gasoline, and in the end it can cost significantly more to fuel up every few days. 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.

In the end, either the cost of camping or the cost of gasoline will be the most expensive line item in your budget at $300-400 per month depending on where you may decide to live, or how far you may decide to drive each month.

The image to the right is an example of a minimalist’s budget while exploring roughly 1200-1500 miles per month of the Western United States and utilizing free camping most of that time. I’m sure that as you look at the figures, you are already adding or subtracting some of your own personalized costs. With work, the budget can be reduced to under $750 per month, leaving all additional income to pay off debts or put into savings.

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

And for the super-minimalist, living in a van can be done for as little as $300-400 per month, and even less with total focus on that goal. However, 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 only moving your home when the weather forces you too. Imagine how quickly the debts would be paid off if your total monthly expenses totaled under $500 per month.

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