Your van costs will be the purchase of a van and the ongoing monthly costs as you’re out on your travels.
A budget van with minimal comforts can cost less than $10,000, whereas a van with all the upgrades can cost over $100,000. It’s possible to keep your monthly costs under $1,000 if you’re extremely frugal. More realistically though you should expect to spend $1,500-$4000 per month.
I spent eight months living in my van full-time and have used it for many other shorter adventures. Along the way, I kept track of every cent that I spent. For this article, I used my financial records and have spoken with other van lifers to give you the best idea of what to expect for your van life costs.
Everybody’s needs and expectations of comfort are different. This means that costs are going to be different for every van lifer. This article will help you identify what’s important to you to give you an estimate of how much you can expect your van costs to be.
We’ll go over the following categories:
- Purchasing a van
- Monthly van life expenses
- Overnight Parking / Sleeping
- Phone and Internet
- Van Necessities
- Self Care
- Health and Dental Insurance
- Auto / RV Insurance
- Annual Fees
- Personalized Expenses
- Emergency Fund
- The Bottom Line
- Budgeting Tips
Keep reading to find out how to estimate your van life costs.
Purchasing a van
The cost of your van will depend on many factors such as:
- Used vs New
- DIY or Professional Build
- Expected level of comfort
- Timeline for getting on the road
These and many other considerations will go into the decision of what van you decide to buy. As with many things in life, you get what you pay for. Keep in mind that whatever van you choose, you’ll want to factor in the costs of taxes, registration, and possibly even warranty.
You can buy a new camper van or a used van with a lot of miles that you plan to convert with a simple build for less than $10,000. A new van with a professional conversion can easily cost over $100,000. It’s worth taking some time to consider what’s important to you. The van you’re in will have one of the largest impacts on your van life experience.
Monthly Van Life Expenses
The cost of gas will depend on three main factors:
The first is the fuel efficiency of your van. If you have a newer van that gets more miles to the gallon, you’re going to pay less than an older van that is a gas hog.
Next is the current cost of gas or diesel. This depends both on where you are in the country and what the general gas prices are when you need to fill up.
Lastly is how much you drive. If you’re driving across the country and moving a lot, you’re going to burn a lot more gas. If you plan to stay put in one place for longer periods you’ll spend a lot less.
Gas: $200-$1,000+ per month
Your monthly food costs will generally fall into three categories:
The first is groceries for cooking in your van. Cooking in a van requires more creativity because you won’t have all the same cookware nor space to store as much food. Many van lifers find healthy meals to prepare such as stir-fry in a skillet. Finding easy meals to make is a big win here. I bought a Ninja blender with two cups and made a lot of smoothies. It’s quick, easy, and convenient to consume while driving. Not to mention being healthy!
I’m a believer that food is medicine and one of the greatest forms of health insurance. I recommend finding meals that don’t require cooking such as salads, sandwiches, and snack mixes.
The second food category is eating out. This will vary for van lifers as much as it does for everybody else. Some people love the convenience of not needing to cook or clean up and the socializing that eating out provides. Others love the process of preparing their meals and only eat out on rare occasions. Only you know where you fall on this spectrum.
The third and final food category is coffee shops. Coffee shops are great for getting free wifi, charging electrical devices, and simply getting out of the van and into the world. I can make coffee in my van, but it’s nice to visit coffee shops so I budget for the occasional cup of coffee.
Food: $200-$1,000+ per month
Overnight Parking / Sleeping
Where you plan to park overnight can have a big impact on your monthly van life costs. Your options, from most expensive to least are:
RV Parks: These parks are specifically designed for people traveling that want a comfortable place to park overnight. They range greatly in amenities and cost. The more affordable parks might simply have a place to park, bathrooms and showers. The high-end ones will have wifi, jacuzzis, social events, gyms, and other amenities.
$20-$100+ per night
Campgrounds: Usually situated more in nature than RV parks. They often have bathrooms and showers, sometimes even water and electrical hookups. Many campgrounds are close to trailheads and/or water for activities.
$15-$40 per night
Harvest Hosts: An annual membership fee of $99 gives you access to over 4,000 wineries, breweries, farms, and attractions. The unspoken rule is to buy something from the host so the cost here will depend on your level of generosity.
Free Options: There are many ways to avoid paying anything for overnight parking, depending on your expectation of comfort. Here is a list of places you can potentially park for free:
- BLM and National Forest land
- Cracker Barrel
- Truck stops
- Mooch-docking (parking in the driveway of a friend or family member)
- stealth parking
These apps can help you research what the cell service is like, what amenities are available, and read reviews from other travelers.
Overnight Parking / Sleeping: $0-$3,000+ per month
Phone and Internet
Having a reliable cell signal will bring peace of mind to the novice van lifer. You know you can call a friend or a tow truck if you need help. Having a stable internet connection is helpful in many ways and some will be dependent on it for their income. Some van lifers get away with having a simple phone plan that has good coverage and an unlimited data plan.
Others opt to get a separate device, such as a wifi jetpack, for their internet services. I chose to have an AT&T device for my phone and a Verizon jetpack for my internet. Since I was able to tether my internet to my AT&T device if I needed it, this would mean I’d have reliable internet anywhere I had coverage for either network. Other networks to research are Skyroam, Straight Talk, and Elon Musk’s Starlink.
Phone and Internet: $30-$290 per month
Gyms provide access to showers, bathrooms, water, wifi, and exercise equipment. It might even provide you with the benefit of a last-resort place to park overnight as many of these gyms are open 24 hours. The most common nationwide chains are:
- Planet Fitness
- Anytime Fitness
- 24-Hour Fitness
- VASA Fitness
- Crunch Fitness
- You Fit
Gym: $22+ per month
I do most of my laundry on the road at laundromats. Since I park my home outside I can simply load my laundry and return to my van. Other places you can find laundry machines are:
- Some RV parks
- Some campgrounds
- Some truck stop
- Homes of friends and family
Laundry: $10-$40 per month
The categories you’ll want to consider here are:
- State and national park fees – there’s a national park pass you can get for $80 per year that will give you free access to many parks
- Video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or HboMax
- Souvenirs and gifts
- Music streaming services
- Entertainment apps such as AllTrails
Entertainment: $200+ per month
These are expenses that are specific to this lifestyle. Things to consider are:
- Refilling your propane if you use it for cooking and/or heating
- Street Parking
- Ice (if you use it for keeping food cool and/or a swamp cooler AC unit)
- Mail-forwarding services
- Bear spray
Van Necessities: $50+ per month
This category includes:
- Medical visits
- Hygiene products
- Anything else you do to care for yourself
Self Care: $160-$370 per month
Health and Dental Insurance
Your health insurance costs will depend on your health needs, age, home state, and what’s available to you. Many choose to use the ACA/Obamacare portal to find competitive plans. If your income is below a certain amount you might qualify for Medicaid. If you’re over the age of 65 Medicare may be an option. Some van lifers choose to go with Catastrophic insurance to keep the costs down.
Health and Dental Insurance: $100-$450+ per month
Auto / RV Insurance
One option is to go with regular auto insurance and then renter’s insurance to cover the cost of your personal belongings within the van. However, this won’t cover the cost of your van build. To get that covered you’ll need RV insurance. Every provider has different restrictions and policies based on your state.
Auto / RV Insurance: $60-$240 per month
Registration renewal, van maintenance (such as tire rotations, oil changes, and other routine maintenance), and other annual fees won’t happen every month. You can add all your annual fees up and divide by twelve to get your monthly cost.
Annual Fees: $50-$200 per month
Depending on your lifestyle you might have expenses related to running a business, student loans, software products such as Dropbox or Evernote, etc.
It’s always a good idea to have an emergency fund set aside for unexpected events. This is especially true for van life. It’s good to set aside funds for unexpected repairs, towing, a hotel, and a rental car if your van needs to be in the shop, etc. A general rule of thumb is to set aside 3-6 months of living expenses.
The Bottom Line
Total monthly expenses will vary greatly from person to person. While it’s possible to spend less than $1,000 per month, this will require significant effort, planning, and compromise. It’s more realistic to expect to spend $1,500-$4,000 per month.
Note that the costs outlined here do not include setting aside money for savings, retirement, or investments. Here is a link to a spreadsheet that you can copy and get an idea for yourself what your expected monthly costs might be.
There are many ways to keep the cost of van life down. You can learn to do your van maintenance, plan ahead to keep the cost of gas and parking overnight down, entertain yourself with free events and activities, and learn to live simply.
Now that you have an idea of how much van life will cost, be sure to check out our ultimate beginner’s guide to van life to get you on the road.