How Much Does #VanLife Cost?

if you’re pursuing any sort of extensive road trip, you’ll notice that there’s sort of a shortage of financial particulars.  I did the logical thing. I asked my friends. I even asked one of my mother’s friends. True story, my mother sings in a choir with a woman my age who pursued van life. Since I know I’m not the only one who has considered the possibility of van life, i’m going to share the wealth of knowledge that was shared with me with people who are actually doing van life. Most of these people do not have a van life blog, so they aren’t trying to convince you to consider van life and click their affiliate links and fund their lifestyle. They’re just living the dream. Do I sell my car and go full out for #vanlife ? Do I go for a test run with a 3 month van rental in “low season” to go up and down the Pacific Coast ? (The cost would be about $1k per month for a 3 to 6 month rental – in case you were curious.)

Response Numero Uno:

Congrats on the new adventure! We aren’t able to go on the road full time but when we do get to go out and adventure it’s worth it. The van is definitely an investment, or rather, a money pit. Ha! We’ve both become mechanics practically through dealing with maintenance. We traded in a car and shared one car for six months as our daily driver in order to buy the van which was about $10k. After a ton of research, we got a screaming deal. Most people spend about $15-$20k and maintenance is an ongoing process. We sort of knew what we were getting into, but have had to shell out more cash than intended over the last year. Investing is ongoing. Totally worth, it but if you’re looking for reliability for road trip and camping, a Westy is not your best bet unless you entirely replace the engine, which is a good extra $9-$10k. Ha!! Good luck to you! You’ll have a blast and enjoy every single second, whatever car you choose! Life on the road is magic.

Conclusion: Westfalia’s look awesome but are not so reliable.

Response Numero Dos:

We sold our cars to purchase the fully converted van. We decided to not do our own conversion purely for time’s sake and the expense would have been roughly the same to get a cheaper van and convert it ourselves versus a van that is converted for us. We bought our van from a third party lender and used the money we got from selling our cars as a down payment for a loan. Our monthly loan payment is cheaper than our two car loan payments we had had previously! (Somewhere around $250/month.)
We also wanted to make sure the engine was excellent. While the VW Westy’s are awesome and super popular, the engines are not as reliable. (We broke down once in 6 months, while some others who drive Westy’s, broke down 3 times in 6 months.) So while we were paying a bit more than most, it was an investment in our overall ease of experience.
If you’re thinking of going with a van, a great option I’d recommend for you is to get a smaller Sprinter van of some sort and convert it yourself. It doesn’t need to be a huge conversion – just a mattress, stove, storage. (Running water is a bonus!) Our friends @homesweetvan did this by buying an inexpensive empty van and converting and designing the inside themselves.
As far as comparing a van versus the Honda Civic, that’s totally up to you! I can tell you this much: our biggest expense on the road was gas and groceries – something you will have no matter which vehicle you choose. We hardly ever paid for campsites because we’d boon dock on National Forest and BLM land. We did stay in Walmart parking lots probably 3-4 times total (only when we didn’t feel like looking for a place) but, in the USA, there are so many places to camp for free. Airbnb’s might be harder to come by, especially in the more “off grid” places. So it really depends on where you want to go and how much you’re willing to spend.
If you love to cook, I definitely recommend getting a stove and maybe even a mini fridge if you can swing it. Going out to eat is much more expensive than cooking. We bought groceries every 4 days and cooked 3 meals a day every day. We loved it! We did go out to eat about 3 times a month but cooking was a much healthier and special experience that we enjoyed doing every day.
All in all, with the two of us, we spent around $2,000 each. This included gas, groceries, the car loan, my student loans, health insurance, bike repairs, oil changes, car services, adventures (river rafting, etc.), occasional campsites (which range around $10-25/night), souvenirs, and probably much more that I’m forgetting. 🙂
When comparing if you want to do a car versus a van, I would definitely consider the expense of staying in hotels/AirBNB’s and food. I’d also inquire with Megan from Fresh Off the Grid since she and her boyfriend Michael live in a car. She’ll likely give you a really good layout of their expenses and experiences

Conclusion: You absolutely do NOT need to be debt free in order to pursue #VanLife. Don’t let debt hold you back from taking risks in life. This couple made their numbers work and they went for it. Mad props to them.

Response Numero Tres (Van living vs Car living, with many thanks to Michael at Fresh off The Grid)

Hey TJ, 

Thanks for reaching out. That’s very exciting news. 

We struggled with the van life vs car life dilemma ourselves. It was not an easy decision to make. Ultimately it will come down to personal preferences, what style of trip you want to have, and how much money you have saved up. But there are some key points to consider. 

VAN LIFE 

Pros 

More camping options. Vans have the ability to camp virtually anywhere. City streets, Wal-mart parking lots, truck stops, wherever. Plus all the usual spots like national forests, national parks, etc.  Having a van also opens up the option of staying at RV parks, which do not allow tent/car campers. 
Interior cooking space – When the weather is not cooperating (cold, wind, rain, etc) it is nice to have a place to cook inside the vehicle. Even if you’re planning on traveling through the desert, it can be nice to have place out of the sun. 

More storage – If you’re the type of person who has toys (mountain bike, guitar, longboard, surfboard, ect) All the becomes nearly impossible to carry in a car. Even if you can find a way to jam it in, the cluttered space will affect the quality of your trip. 

Cons 
Expensive – Vans are expensive. Van build outs are expensive. Van repair is expensive. Everything about a van is a lot more expensive. 
Mechanical – If you’re looking at getting an older van, you will have mechanical problems. That just goes with the territory. Even new Sprinters can have troubles and when they do, you’re looking about $1K minimum. 

Large Size  – Some vans can be difficult to drive around a city. Getting in and out of parking lots, parking garages, finding parallel parking, etc. 

SEDAN LIFE 

Pros 
Cheaper (gas, mechanical) – Everything about a car is cheaper. Especially a car you already own. We considered buying a used Sprinter (~$20K), building it out (~$8k), plus maintaining it on the road for a year (~$4k). On the other hand, I already owned my car, and spent about $2k repairs over the course of a year long road trip. (mechanical, oil changes, new tires, etc)  So we saved a good deal of money that way, which we put towards the trip. 
Easy to get around city –  It can be a lot easier to get around cities. Although, unless you’re staying somewhere, it’s harder to stay in cities. 
Cons 
Limited camping options – Car camping is great if you’re in the right area for it. But car camping on a city street, wal-mart, or truck stop is sketchy. Many times we would avoid areas we wanted to see (Seattle, WA) because we knew there was no place to camp nearby. 
Exterior cooking – You have to cook all your meals outside. This is fine when the weather is nice, but it can be miserable in poor conditions. 
Interior space to hang out –  You also don’t have anywhere inside to hang out. If it’s really hot and bright outside, there’s not much relief sitting inside the car. 
(Michael’s) CONCLUSION 
If you have the money and feel that you’re fully committed to living life on the road, a van is great option. However, if you don’t have the budget for it or you not sure you’re going to enjoy life on the road, you may want to limit your financial commitment at first. Car camping for a month is a great way to “test” the waters. It will also allow you to appreciate just how much of an upgrade a van can be. 

Blogger Resources

This post absolutely would not be complete without mentioning two of the other resources that I’ve used extensively for estimating the cost of life on the road.

My buddies at The Resume Gap had an excellent summary of the costs on their initial leg. Unlike the kind folks from Response Numero Dos, these guys have absolutely no shame in spending money on restaurants. I’ve mostly cut out restaurant food, but it will be interesting to see how I handle it on life on the road. I think if I cook at least one meal per day that would be awesome.

I consider Jay Zantos‘ FAQ to be the most comprehensive resource on road trip finances particularly if you are venturing out there solo.
As for me? I’ll be sticking to the plan of traveling the country via Honda Civic, AirBNB and tent camping. I might pursue Van Life at some point in the future, but I need to understand if I even like living on the road before I make that sort of financial investment.
The Actual Costs of Van Life