If you’re scrolling through Instagram and seeing all the beautiful shots from people living their best van life, you may be wondering how much money it would take to do it yourself. With more and more resources about DIY van life out there, it’s easier than ever to purchase a van, perform the conversion on a budget, and hit the road.
The amount of money you should save before starting van life varies. On average, a used van and DIY conversion can cost around $15,000-$20,000 total. Monthly expenses can be at least $1,000-$1,500 each month. For your first year on the road, consider saving up around $35,000.
The rest of this article will explore where your finances will go once you’ve committed to beginning van life. We will explore your initial investments as well as what you can expect in terms of monthly expenses.
Initial Investments for Van Life
Once you’ve set your mind on making your van life dream a reality, it’s time to take a look at what is really required to get started. You will need a vehicle that you can convert to suit your anticipated van life needs.
While there are some influencing factors, on average, this will be the highest cost. The purchase of a used vehicle and a DIY conversion will vary, but the average seems to be around $15,000-$20,000.
Let’s take a look at the breakdown of these numbers.
Depending on your situation, the van itself may cost you anywhere from $0 to $30,000 or more. If you already own a van and don’t need to buy a vehicle for your lifestyle change, you won’t spend a dime at this stage.
Do you want something brand new and top of the line?
You can easily drop tens of thousands of dollars if that’s the case. If you’re open to a used vehicle, perhaps an older vehicle, you can easily get something for a few thousand.
Think about the age, mileage, size, make, and model of the vehicle you want. Some of these factors may be more important to you, depending on your skills and preferences. If you’re handy, you might not mind an older vehicle that requires some tuneups.
If there is more than one of you setting out in the van, having a larger vehicle might be essential.
These will all impact the price range of your vehicle and how much money you want to have on hand to make your initial purchase.
To give you a very general idea, buying a lightly used van in great shape could cost between $10,000-$15,000. However, you will find many budget van lifers who found a suitable vehicle for under $10,000.
Keep in mind a very low-priced van may involve a few thousand dollars worth of repairs before it’s really up and running.
Maybe you’re lucky and already have a van that’s ready to live in.
However, for most people setting out for life on the road, some amount of conversion is required. This can be an extensive process, from the electricity to the kitchen to the insulation to the flooring to the bed.
You will want to consider how you want to convert your van. Are you up to the task of doing it yourself? Or perhaps you want to hire a professional to perform the conversion. You may also consider hiring a professional for parts of the job you don’t feel comfortable doing.
You will also want to think about the materials you want to use in your conversion.
Some investments may feel expensive at first but will save you money in the long term. Solar panels, for example, can feel like a lot of money upfront, but they can provide electricity and power for you in the long term without touching your monthly budget.
To get an idea of how much a total conversion will cost, let’s take a look at some van lifers who have been through the process.
There are plenty of ways to cut costs if you are looking for a budget build, just as there are plenty of ways to spend money on top-of-the-line build-outs. It all depends on you and your needs and preferences.
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Monthly Expenses for Van Life
Once you have your initial investments out of the way, it’s time to take a look at what your monthly costs will be. Luckily, you can adapt a wide range of monthly budgets to van life.
Like in real life, your monthly expenses can be vastly different depending on the choices you make. If you are looking to live in a bit of luxury, your expenses will be more than if you are cutting costs whenever possible.
While your monthly van life expenses largely depend on your and your spending habits, let’s take a look at some typical monthly budgets of van lifers. These won’t be perfectly accurate for everyone, but they will give you an idea of how much it costs month to month in the van.
Amount of Travel
The amount you plan on driving will have a big impact on your monthly expenses.
Typically, when people begin their life in the van, they can feel quite excited about the newfound freedom. This may lead to much more driving in the first month or so as van lifers excitedly move around, seeing beautiful place after beautiful place.
While this will certainly raise your monthly gas expenses, it can also add up in terms of tolls and entrance fees. It may also elevate the wear and tear on your vehicle, meaning more frequent repairs.
This style of moving will make the first few months much more expensive, but either naturally or by the need to save money, people usually start to slow down their pace of travel. It can be tiring to be on the move so much, and it can feel better to stay longer in each place and explore more on foot or short drives.
Also, for people working on the road, they may choose to stay in a place longer when there is easy access to essentials. If they are working on a big project, they may choose to park somewhere where they can easily access wifi and work smoothly for several hours.
Food and Drink
The way you choose to eat and drink each day will also impact the shape of your monthly budget. Are you committed to buying groceries and cooking in the van for most meals?
Or do you prefer to eat out on a regular basis?
If you want to cut down costs and be able to stay out in nature for longer stretches, cooking your own food is a great choice.
If you enjoy a bottle of wine or craft beer regularly, this can also increase your budget. Think about how often you consume these pricier items to get a better idea of how much you will need for these items on the road.
Depending on the age and mileage of your van, you may want to budget different amounts for van repair. You might have saved some money initially buying an older van with more miles on it. If that’s the case, you may need to budget more for repairs along the way.
Entertainment and Lifestyle
This is another category of personal preference.
Do you want to have many of the comforts of home on the road with you? Some van lifers opt to purchase short-term gym memberships, concert tickets, a fancy haircut, or other services that may not be universally needed.
Consider what regular services you want to use and how much they might cost on the road.
Insurance and Fees
Depending on your personal situation, your insurance and other fees will vary. You will need vehicle insurance plus registration. You may also need to consider health insurance that would suit the nomadic lifestyle.
Budgets of Other Van Lifers
To get an idea of what all your monthly expenses will look like, let’s see some of the numbers from other people living in their vans full time.
The couple at Project Untethered spend, on average, $1,500 a month for two people traveling in the US. At Two Roaming Souls, this van life couple reports spending anywhere between $1,400 and $2,500 a month for two people in the US.
Additional Savings to Start Van Life
After you’ve paid your initial investments, it is a good plan to have some money left over as you get started with your first months on the road. Even if you have a steady income, it is always a good plan to have some money stored away for unforeseen expenses.
As you go through the learning curve of life on the road, it can alleviate some of the stress if you have some saved funds you can use. Actually, living in the van day after day will reveal to you what you did well in the conversion and what may need improvement.
You may discover some essential goods you still need to purchase, or you may decide an upgrade or repair cannot be postponed. However, you might not have room in your monthly budget for these right away, which is where savings can come in handy.
The amount of savings you have available to you depends on whether or not you are planning on working on the road. If you have a steady income stream for the foreseeable future, your savings do not have to be as substantial as someone looking to take a year off from work.
If you are not planning on working remotely, it is a good plan to have a few thousand dollars saved in addition to a year’s worth of monthly expenses. This will come in handy if your van is in need of serious emergency repairs or you need to make another big purchase without much warning.
For a more detailed discussion about saving money before van life, you can check out this Q&A with a van lifer on Youtube:
Earning Money on the Road
With an increase in the popularity of remote work, another question to ask yourself is whether or not you can earn money on the road. Some van lifers perform full-time, traditional jobs from the road and earn a steady salary each month.
Many are freelancers and work on projects as they come in, earning enough money for their monthly expenses or at least cutting the amount of saved money they need to spend.
Having a way to earn money while living in the van is a great way to alleviate the pressure of saving up completely beforehand. If you have an idea of how much money you can earn each month from the road, you will be able to better calculate how much you need to save before making the transition.
However, if you are planning on working online, you will likely need to invest in a few more pieces of equipment to make sure you always have wifi and power when on the road. This upfront cost will easily pay for itself if you are steadily working and earning money each month.
Before you get started with your transition to van life, you will want to make sure you have enough money saved for the three categories of expenses. You will need the upfront investment in your van and conversion, around $15,000-$20,000.
You will also need a year’s worth of monthly expenses, approximately $15,000.
If possible, save an additional $2,000-$3,000 to give you a cushion to fall back on in case of an emergency. In total, starting van life with around $35,000 will be a comfortable number depending on your preferences.