Is Living in a Van While Going to College Cheaper?

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Higher education costs are steadily rising, and the dream of graduating from a university/college seems more out of reach for many students. This issue has led many students to choose van living to cut back on their costs. But is living in a van cheaper than college housing options?

Image: Amanda

Living in a van while going to college is cheaper as you won’t pay for dorms or rentals. You’ll cook your meals, use public facilities, use free Wi-Fi, and might not need to get loans to pay tuition and fees. However, it’s a big challenge to live in a van without everything you’re used to.

Keep reading the rest of this article to get more familiar with the pros and cons of van living instead of a college dorm or a rental apartment. We’ll go over this lifestyle thoroughly to see how realistic it is.

How Much College Costs

Every college degree comes at a cost, including tuition. According to a report by Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid in 2020, the average college budget for an in-state student that attends a four-year public college in 2020-2021 is about $27,000.

And while the average budget is about $43,000 for an out-of-state student of a public college, it reaches nearly $55,000 for a private college student.

In addition to the tuition and fees, you need to pay for housing, transportations, textbooks and supplies, and food. While scholarships and loans can help with the financial issues of students, such expenses can be overwhelming for them, graduating with heavy debts.

Costs of Living in a Van for Students

In recent years and with the rising costs of college life and the growing popularity of vans, many students have decided to spend their college years in vans. They believe living in a van can reduce many of their costs. 

Let’s break down the costs of living in a van.

Purchasing and Renovating 

Buying used vans can be your best bet if your goal is to be on a budget. Fancy vans are for Instagrammers, not desperate college students. That’s why most college students buy used vans in good condition and renovate them. 

Vans come in a wide range of prices depending on their company, built, facilities, among other things. 

You can buy one for about $4,000 and renovate it for another $5,000, or spend more lavishly and buy a newer van with more facilities and conveniences. If you’re skilled enough, you can renovate it yourself. 

Otherwise, you can use conversion kits that cost $2,000-30,000.

Car Insurance

Car insurance is another cost to consider, hinging on many factors like your age and driving record. The average car insurance costs around $1,500. However, the insurance rate for older cars is lower than newer vehicles.

Gas and Maintenance 

Depending on how much you drive and use your van, you can expect to spend $1,200 and up on maintenance and gas expenditure in a year. If your van is parked somewhere, you’ll need to refuel less, but it can sum up to an average of $400 just for gas in a year.

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Pros of Van Life for Students

While living in a van during college seems a great idea, you must know that this nomadic lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Before making any hasty decision, ensure that you’ve got the mindset and physical tolerance needed for a not-so-luxurious lifestyle. 

Let’s look at the perks and downsides of van dwelling. 

You’ll Save Money

Saving money is the most significant advantage of living in a van. Most of those who have traded their college dorms with vans have been able to save thousands of dollars and even finish their education without debt.  

Fewer Distractions

Another great benefit of living in a van is the minimalistic lifestyle that reduces the distractions that may interrupt your study. For example, you won’t spend your time playing video games. Instead, you could go off-grid and enjoy nature while studying. 

Flexible Location

It’s fantastic to move your home whenever you want, yeah? A van makes it possible. So you can live near to your campus or workplace and avoid traffic, not to mention getting rid of the high rents of near-campus places. 


Living in a van is a great opportunity to live independently and take responsibility for your life. You’ll also learn new skills that will prove helpful in your life. But, you’ll also have to take into consideration that no one else will help you when something goes wrong with your home/van.

Cons Of Living In a Van for Students

However, living in a van isn’t as perfect as it seems in pictures. You’ll be deprived of some conveniences that you were used to, and this may take time to get adapted to it. 

Let’s see what its downsides are. 

Parking Place

Finding a suitable, safe, and also legal parking place for your van can be tricky. The goal of living in a van is to reduce costs. However, some parking lots charge you daily, and in most states, it’s not legal to sleep in a car for more than a few days.

Even the colleges themselves won’t be glad to find you sleeping in a van in the parking lot. 

However, 24-hour stores, hotels, and Walmart stores allow you to stay in their parking lots. You can also stay in campgrounds to use their public showers and bathrooms. Some of them don’t charge a fee.

Internet Connection and Electricity Access

Access to the internet and electricity is another critical issue. As a student, you need the internet for your studies, checking emails, being in touch with family and friends, and so much more. That’s why van-dwelling students are always looking for free internet. 

You can sit in a café, McDonald’s, or Starbucks for free Wi-Fi. Or, like Ken Ilgunas, you can use your college’s library Wi-Fi and even recharge your devices while you’re there.  


A big problem with van life is that you’re vulnerable to weather conditions. Most vans can’t protect you so much during the cold winter days, and if you’re used to sleeping in a warm bed, this can be inconvenient. 

Besides, a van is not exactly like a home, as you can’t just walk into it while dripping wet. You must be careful to keep it warm and dry as much as possible.


Staying clean and keeping good hygiene can be hard when you live in a van. Finding a stable water source for drinking and cooking meals is hard enough, let alone showering or using the bathroom. 

However, many college students that live in vans use their gym showers and toilets. If your campus is closed, paying a modest membership of a 24-hour gym can also be a good idea. 

Balancing Classes With Van Life

Balancing your van-life with classes is another issue. Some students get so involved with van life that they forget about their classwork or lose their motivation to study. Besides, matching your classes with different time zones can be challenging if you use your van to travel around the country.

Final Thoughts

Living in a van can be cheaper than college housing and save you a considerable amount of money. However, despite all its perks like freedom, new experiences, and meeting people, it has drawbacks that make it challenging. So, think twice before heading to buy a van.

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