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Van life is more popular than ever, and it’s easy to see why. The ability to go anywhere, anytime is hugely appealing. And, for many people, van life is a way to save money, especially in a time when buying a house has become incredibly costly. But how much does van life cost, really?
Having a good idea of the expenses of van life is essential before taking the plunge and getting your own campervan. In this article, we’ll break down the various costs of van life, and talk about just how much you should expect to spend to live in a camper van.
How Much Does Van Life Cost?
When discussing how much van life costs, we can break the costs down into two main categories: the upfront costs and the long-term costs.
- Upfront costs are the costs associated with actually acquiring a campervan.
- Long-term costs will include recurring expenses such as gas and bills, as well as one-time costs such as repairs or recreation.
With upfront costs, the main cost is buying (and sometimes outfitting) your van. When buying your van, there are three options: buy a new ready-made campervan, buy a van and convert it yourself, or buy a used van. Each has its advantages, disadvantages, and specific costs.
How Much Do Camper Vans Cost?
If you want to live the van life, the first thing you’ll need is… well, a van! Just like with any big-ticket item, there’s a wide range of answers to the question “how much does it cost?”
First of all, there are brands at all kinds of different price points, from relatively affordable budget options to ultra-luxury vans that cost as much as some houses. Plus, there are different routes to getting a van; you can save a lot of money by buying used or converting a van yourself.
First, let’s take a look at buying a brand-new, ready-to-go camper van.
Buying a New Camper Van
A bright, shiny new camper van is an appealing option for plenty of reasons. Knowing that everything is in new condition means fewer worries about breakdowns and maintenance. Plus, a new van will have the latest features and technologies to boot.
Class B Motorhomes
When we talk about camper vans, we’re most often talking about Class B motorhomes. These are the smallest type of RV, with a form factor similar to a cargo van. Class B RVs take the chassis of a panel van, such as a Mercedes Sprinter or a Ford Transit, and convert them into RVs.
Generally speaking, the price range for new a Class B starts around $60,000 and goes up to multiple thousands of dollars. The Airstream Atlas, for example, starts at a whopping $260,260.
Most models will sit somewhere in the middle, of course. Your “average” camper van will cost somewhere in the $70,000 to $110,000 range, while anything considered “luxury” will start around $140,000.
Another option for your camper van is something like a panel van or cargo van. Really though, any type of van can be made into a camper van with a little determination – even a minivan.
Even at the budget level, a brand new camper van costs a lot of money. Thankfully, there are ways to get a van cheaper. Your first option is to buy a used camper van.
Buying a Used Camper Van
Buying a used camper van is a great way to keep your van life cost down. An older rig will pretty much always be cheaper than a new one. For one, new camper vans (much like a new car) begin depreciating the moment you drive them off the lot, losing as much as 20% of their value just in that moment.
That depreciation means you can get big savings by buying a used camper van. In fact, with a bit of patience, it’s possible to find a used camper van that costs less than $10,000! In addition to local classifieds and buy-sell groups on Facebook and other social media, sites like RVtrader.com can help you shop for used vans.
Buying a used camper van is also a way to get a “classic” vintage camper van, such as the Volkswagen Westfalia Camper. These campers are gorgeous and a great way to stand out. However, when buying a vintage Volkswagen or any other vintage van, there are some things you should keep in mind.
In fact, whether the camper van you’re buying is 5 years old or 50, you should do a thorough inspection before buying. If a camper van’s cost seems too good to be true, it just might be, and you don’t want to get stuck with the headache of a lemon.
Making sure you thoroughly inspect a used RV can save you tons of money and effort in repairs down the line. It may also be a good idea to have a professional RV inspection.
If you buy a used RV, it’s also recommended to learn some basic repair skills. This is useful for anyone trying to keep van life costs down, but it’s extra useful with used vehicles which are more prone to issues.
How Much Does it Cost to Build a Camper Van?
The final option is to build your own camper van. This is done by acquiring a van and converting it into a camper van. This can either be done by a professional company or you can do a DIY conversion.
When acquiring a vehicle to convert, there are a handful of panel vans that are most commonly used. The three biggest are:
Cargo vans start around $25,000, and the most expensive will top out just shy of $40,000. For example, a 2021 Ram Promaster City has a starting MSRP of $27,410, while the 2021 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter’s starting MSRP is $38,000.
However, cargo vans aren’t the only game in town. For example, Oasis Campervans use minivans like the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey as the basis for their highly affordable van conversions.
Still, cargo vans are the overwhelmingly popular option. Most professional conversion companies only work with cargo vans, and most guides for DIY conversions will be focused on this type of vehicle.
Professional Camper Van Conversion
The cost of a professional conversion can vary wildly, with professional cargo van conversions starting around $30,000 and going beyond $200,000 in some cases. The costs will depend on many factors, such as the exact company doing your conversion and what features you want installed.
DIY Camper Van Conversion
Your other option is a DIY van conversion. If you have the tools and know-how, this can be a great way to keep the entry cost of van life low. DIY building your campervan will generally run around $5,000 to $15,000 on top of the cost of the van, with the cheapest builds coming in at $1,000 or even less!
If you want to DIY convert your own camper van, looking at other people’s conversions can be a great starting point.
What is the Monthly Cost of Van Life?
Okay, you’ve finally gotten that van of your dreams. Maybe the van cost an arm and a leg, or maybe you got it incredibly cheap. Either way, now it’s time for you to start thinking about the real cost of the camper van life: the monthly cost of living in a van.
Just like living in a traditional home, living in a van comes with a number of different costs, some recurring and others one-time. And just like in a traditional home, these costs can vary significantly from month to month (and person to person).
Consider it this way: if someone asked you “how much does it cost to live in a house?”, it would be difficult to give them a straight answer. You could maybe give an answer about your own costs, but ultimately the answer will depend on what the house is like, where it is, and what the lifestyle of its inhabitants is like.
Answering the question of “how much does living in a van cost?” is no different. Your van life cost will depend a lot on your van and the lifestyle you live in it. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of van lifers online who are happy to share their costs and budget.
By comparing different people’s budgets, we can get an idea of some of the “average” costs of van life. Most of these budgets are for 2 people, but we’ll also look at some monthly van life costs from solo van lifers as well. While some folk’s van life cost is lower than $1,000 a month, on average, van lifers spend $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
We’ll break down the different costs of van life into categories to give us a better idea of the individual costs of van life:
- Campgrounds and parking
- Phone bills
- Everything else
One of the biggest monthly expenses in van living is gas. This cost will vary depending on three factors:
- How fuel-efficient your van is
- The current cost of gas
- How much you want to travel
This cost will be more or less the same whether you’re solo living or if you’ve packed the whole family. Gas costs for most van lifers will be around $200 to $500 a month.
If we look at Far Out Ride’s vanlife costs from 2017 through 2020, we can see they’re normally in the neighborhood of $500 on gas per month. When they do spend more, it’s usually for a cross-country trip, which can cost around $800 to $900 in gas.
Calculating Your Fuel Needs
A good way to budget for fuel is to know how much it costs to fill your tank and how far a tank will take you. If filling the tank of your van costs around $50 to fill, and you can go 300 miles on a tank, then $200 will take you about 1200 miles in a month.
Campsites and Parking
The ability to go anywhere is one of the best parts of van living, but eventually, you will have to park your van. (Everybody has to sleep at some point).
Campgrounds at national parks usually cost $10 to $30 a night, offering basic campsites with a couple of amenities that usually don’t have hookups. RV parks, meanwhile, will have more amenities and hookups and can vary wildly in price.
Affordable RV parks can be as little as $20 to $40 a night, while luxury parks can be over $100 a night. So, if you stayed at a campground or RV park every night for a month, you’d be spending anywhere from $300 a month to over $3000 if you stay in a luxury park!
However, you don’t always have to pay to park. A great way to save money is to make use of “BLM land”. BLM land is public land managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. It’s completely free to use this public land to do “dispersed camping”, or camping away from developed facilities.
There are some rules and regulations to follow, though. For example, you can only camp in one area for 14 days in a 28 day period, to prevent environmental damage. Also, BLM land is not always marked; you may want to reference a map to help you find it.
For those living the van life in Canada, the equivalent of BLM land is “crown land.” Just like with BLM land, you can freely camp in these areas. But, be careful to follow any rules, and be aware the crown land can be leased to logging companies and other entities, making it unavailable for camping.
By making use of free campsites, you can save a ton of money every month.
One final (and fairly well-known) way to save money on parking and campsites is to park at Walmart. It’s company policy to permit RV parking in Walmart parking lots, although it is subject to availability, and the store manager has the right to deny RV parking. Walmart advises contacting a store’s management to be sure.
Just like with any other vehicle, it’s required in the US to have insurance on your RV. This will have the usual damage, medical, and liability coverages as normal car insurance, along with RV-specific coverage such as roof and pest protection.
Generally speaking, insurance for your van will be $1,000 to $2,000 per year. Broken down into a monthly cost, that’s about $80 to $165 per month. The exact costs will depend on your RV, the coverage you want, and who your insurer is.
Most major insurers, such as GEICO and Progressive, offer RV insurance and offer quotes online, so don’t be scared to shop around.
In addition to RV insurance, you’ll also probably need health insurance. In the US, this costs about $450 a month on average, but just like with auto insurance, this cost varies a lot.
While a cell phone is already a daily necessity for most of us, it’s even more so when living in a van and traveling frequently. Beyond just staying in touch with the world, cellular data is the main way to access the internet for many van lifers.
While cheaper plans can be gotten for around $20, plans which have more data for mobile hotspot use will cost around $100.
One of the biggest van life costs is going to be food. Just like sleep, everybody has to eat.
Many camper vans will have only a very basic kitchenette or no kitchen at all. So, some van lifers, such as YouTuber Jennelle Eliana, eat the majority of their meals out at restaurants. In Janelle’s case, she spends $400 a month on eating out and doesn’t generally buy groceries.
Far Out Ride generally spends $500 to $600 on groceries monthly and another $200 to $400 eating at restaurants.
Whether eating out or cooking at home, the food cost for van lifers will generally be between $400 and $1,000 a month.
Repairs and Maintenance
One final major expense to consider is the cost of maintenance and repairs on your van. Just like any vehicle, sometimes breakdowns just happen. And even without breakdowns, a camper van will need regular maintenance such as oil changes and tire rotations and replacements.
Depending on the repair or maintenance being done, this can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Due to these high costs, it’s smart to make room in your budget to set aside some money every month. This “slush fund” can then be used for unexpected repairs or any other surprise costs.
Besides these main van life costs, there are a number of other expenses to consider.
First are monthly memberships and subscriptions. It’s very common for van lifers to pay for a gym membership so they can use the gym to shower. This will cost around $20 to $30 a month.
Another common cost in this category is an annual pass from the National Park Service. This pass costs $80 a year, and gives you access to over 2,000 recreation areas across the country.
On top of these, there are the costs of video and music streaming services, which will generally run you $10 to $20 a month.
There’s also the question of laundry. In addition to laundromats, many RV parks will have laundry facilities. Depending on how much clothing you have and how often you wash it, this will cost you around $10 to $30 a month.
If your RV uses propane for anything, you’ll also have to refill your tanks periodically. This isn’t a big expense, and will usually be around $15 or less per month.
On top of all these expenses, are the cost of entertainment and adventures. That can mean anything from $20 on movie tickets to a few hundred dollars on lift tickets. There’s plenty of fun and adventure to be had at every budget, but it’s still a good idea to work those expenses into your budget for your van life cost.
8 Tips For Cheap Living in a Van
As you’ve seen, living in a van can get quite expensive depending on your lifestyle. However, there’s plenty of ways to keep costs down. Here are some tips for living cheaply in a van:
- Make use of BLM land and other free campsites instead of pricey RV parks.
- Make your own food to save on the costs of eating out. Even if you don’t have a kitchen or kitchenette in your van, you can still save money by preparing foods like sandwiches and salads. Plus, stopping by the grocery store deli for a hot meal is way cheaper than at a restaurant (even fast food joints).
- Go on cheaper adventures. Instead of going on expensive adventures like hang-gliding or a day on the ski slope, take advantage of state and national parks. These parks can have entry fees as low as $5 while still providing a full day of fun and excitement.
- Take advantage of cafes like Starbucks. By using their Wi-Fi, you can save on cellular data costs (and enjoy some free air conditioning to boot!).
- Learn how to do your own repairs. A few tools and a bit of know-how can save you a ton of money on maintenance and repairs. There’s a YouTube video for almost everything.
- Carefully plan your route when traveling. Choosing an efficient route can save you money on gas and tolls, and keep you from wasting gas because you got lost and are driving around aimlessly.
- Try to see and do everything you can in one place before moving on. By staying in one place rather than finding somewhere new every few days, you can save money you’d be spending on gas.
- Keep track of your budget. Whether you use a pen and paper or an Excel spreadsheet, tracking how much you spend is a great way to stay disciplined with your money.
Van Life Cost FAQ
Let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about the cost of living in a van.
1. Is Living in a Van Cheaper Than Renting?
If you’re wondering if van life costs less than renting, the answer is: it depends. Your average van lifer spends about $1,000 to $3,000 a month, while the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the US is about $1,600 a month. Add the cost of things like food, utilities, and other expenses, and the costs of renting can easily go up to and beyond $3,000 a month.
So if you want to live a more luxurious van life, you’ll probably save little to no money versus renting. But if you don’t mind living frugally, it’s possible to live the van life much more cheaply than renting.
2. Can You Save Money Living in a Van?
It’s 100% possible to save money while living in a van. In fact, you’ll probably want to have some money set aside in case your van has a breakdown or any other unexpected expense comes your way.
By taking advantage of money-saving tips like free campsites, you can greatly reduce your expenses. You may also want to make your savings a part of your budget, and aim to set aside a certain amount every month.
3. How Much Money Do You Need to Live Van Life?
As we’ve seen, most will want to have at least $1,000 a month when living in a van. Although you can spend less than that, you’ll have to get quite frugal. And if you want to live more comfortably, you’ll likely want to have $2,000 or more to spend per month.
There’s also the cost of buying your van. If you buy used, you can get yourself into a camper van for $10,000, or even less. But if you’re buying or converting a new van, you can expect to spend at least $60,000, with most new vans coming in at $70,000 to $100,000.
So if you want to live the van life, you’ll need at least $10,000 upfront (and usually much more) plus at least $1,000 a month for expenses.
4. How Can I Make Money While Living in a Van?
When living in a van, there are plenty of ways to make money. One popular option is freelancing online. These platforms let you sell your services, such as writing, graphic design, or computer programming, from anywhere you may be.
Another option is advertising revenue via a blog or YouTube channel. Starting a van life blog or YouTube channel is a popular option for many van lifers. While it can take some work to build an audience, once you do you can receive income from advertising on your page or channel.
Teaching English online with companies like VIPkids is also a popular way to make money while traveling. This usually requires, at a minimum, a 4-year college degree, but some have more stringent requirements, such as a TEFL certification. These jobs generally pay from $10 to $25 an hour and usually don’t require you to do any lesson planning or grading.
For those who don’t want to work online, there are also in-person work opportunities for van lifers, often referred to as “workamping.” There are many opportunities for seasonal work to be found. There are plenty of resources online to help you find these jobs, such as WorkampingJobs.com.
The Cost of Van Life is Nothing to Fear
Just like with living in a traditional house, the cost of living in a van can vary depending on a lot of factors. When investing in your van, you can expect to spend somewhere in the range of $60,000 and up, with most vans being $70,000 to $110,000.
A used camper van can be gotten for a lot less, but you’ll have to be careful you aren’t buying a lemon. And even if the inspection goes well, you’ll probably be looking at more repairs on an older vehicle.
Once you’re in a van, you’ll probably be spending between $1,000 and $3,000 a month. This cost will depend on how much gas you use, how much you spend on food and plenty of other costs. You can keep these costs down by doing things like using free campsites and eating cheaply.
So, now you have the answer to the question, “how much does van life cost?” And now that you know what to expect, it’s time to start planning; soon, you’ll be living the van life of your dreams!