One of the most commonly-asked questions about living in a camper van is ‘how much does van life cost?’.
In this post we break down the major van life costs and provide all the information you need to come up with a realistic, personalized van life budget.
This advice is relevant to you whether you’re planning to spend time in your van on the cheap, comparing the cost of van life with your current mortgage or rental expenses, or if you’re planning a big road trip in your camper van and want to know the true cost of van life to budget for daily, weekly or monthly to help you plan for your upcoming adventures.
If you’re researching the pros and cons of van life and working out if it’s feasible for you, read our ultimate guide to van life next.
How cheap (or expensive) is van life?
If you’re wondering how much a camper van costs to buy or convert, read this post: ‘how much does a van conversion cost‘, which breaks down the costs associated with obtaining or building out your camper.
In addition to the cost of buying or converting your camper van itself, it’s important to consider what your living costs will be to live in the van – especially if you’re planning to use it full-time or for some month-long (or multiple months-long) road trips and want to make sure your itinerary is going to be affordable.
Your monthly budget for van life living is going to vary greatly depending on your personal lifestyle, circumstances, priorities and financial goals.
Some key questions to answer that will influence how cheap or expensive van life will be for you are:
- Are you treating your time in your camper like a home, or vacation? Are you planning to live in your van full time as an alternative to your house or rental, for freedom and to save money? Or do you expect to spend on dining, coffees, visiting attractions and buying skiing lift passes along the way?
- How many miles per month do you expect to drive? The more you drive, the more you’ll spend on gas costs, and gas can easily be one of the larger van life costs.
- Can you (or do you want to) live cheaply? Consider what luxuries you don’t want to live without, and how frugal you are prepared to be. That includes regular showers, internet, access to town and city amenities, sports such as skiing, eating out, etc etc.
- Will you have to incur certain expenses to run your business or do your job remotely, working from your van – such as good mobile internet? This may also mean you need to camp in places with mobile phone signal, which can rule out certain free camping options where there’s no cell service.
- How far are you willing to go in pursuit of being frugal? Are you prepared to spend additional time seeking out affordable (or free) camping locations, cooking your own meals and enjoying free entertainment to save money? Or are you going to want to enjoy coffees, skiing lift passes, luxury campsites and covering a lot of miles in a short period of time?
There are loads of van life bloggers and vloggers out there sharing tips on how to live in a van for cheap – and spend less than $1000 per month. Yes, it is possible!
However, achieving $1000 per month requires significant discipline and is a very frugal budget that many people may struggle to stick to!
For many, it’s more realistic to expect to budget around $1500 to $4000 a month. In the next section, we explain how this breaks down and how to estimate your own REALISTIC van life budget, depending on where you expect to prioritize your spending (or saving).
Monthly van life costs
These monthly costs are estimated running and living costs you may expect to budget for to live in a van, full time, per month:
- Gas: $250 – $1,000+
- Insurance: $120 – $240 for the vehicle, plus your healthcare insurance
- Campgrounds and parking: $200 – $1,500+
- Phone and internet: $100 – $200
- Food and hygiene: $500 – $800
- Other stuff (including van repairs and mail services) $200+
Adding up the ranges above, you can see how we get to the monthly budget range mentioned above.
This is just to give you an idea – you may need to spend more or less than these ranges depending on how you plan to use your van and travel.
Gas costs are basically the same whether you’re solo in your van, or traveling as a couple.
The amount of money you spend on gas or diesel for your van will depend on how far you travel each month.
Another factor that can affect your gas expense is whether you have a diesel-powered heater in the van and how often you use it on cold days and nights.
If you’re planning to travel around in your van, on big cross-country road trips, you can easily spend up to $1000 per month on gas alone. Be sure to also budget for the cost of any toll roads or bridges you may need to pay for along the way.
If you’re not traveling far in a month, then gas can cost between $250 and $500 per month.
Therefore a way to keep your monthly van life costs down is to stay in a smaller area and not drive long distances. This may be more achievable if you’re not planning to do much long-distance road tripping in your campervan.
There are two types of insurance to budget for, which are your van (or camper / RV) insurance for the vehicle, and health / medical insurance for you.
Depending on the level of insurance you have on the van, this could range from around $1,200 to $2,000+ per year, so budget for a van insurance cost of between $100 and $200 per month.
Health or medical insurance cost will vary depending on your personal circumstances and what country you live in.
Campsites and parking
Your monthly van parking and campsite costs can vary significantly depending on where you choose to stay, and what amenities you want from your overnight parking spot.
Free parking spots
You can find places to park overnight for free, in both cities and in more remote areas.
Popular places to park your van for free in urban areas include Walmart, casinos, and Cracker Barrel.
Many experienced van lifers needing to head into the city for appointments or to pick up essential supplies are also very good at finding quiet parking spots for one-night stealth camping stays.
If you are looking for somewhere away from towns and cities, then in the US you can find dispersed, free camping spots located in National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.
Generally, these spots are available on a first-come basis, and you can stay in one spot for up to 14 days at a time.
Useful resources for looking up free parking spots include Campendium.com and iOverlander.
State and National Park campgrounds
State and National Park campgrounds are a popular choice for overnight camper van stays, and range in cost from around $10 up to $40, depending on the location and amenities available on-site.
Many of these facilities will provide access to water, restrooms and showers as part of your stay. Some also offer other amenities including electricity hook-ups.
Even if you don’t plan to stay in a National Park overnight, if you plan to visit more than a couple of National Parks in a year then this annual parks pass is a great money saver compared to paying for park entry fees separately each time.
Private campgrounds are generally a more expensive option and tend to cost upwards of $50, sometimes even over $100. Some will also offer monthly rental options.
For these prices, you should expect electrical hook-ups, nice washrooms and other facilities that vacation-focused campgrounds tend to offer – including decent internet service and a laundry facility.
You can get creative with your overnight parking spots. For example, there are services for self-contained campervan and RV users such as Harvest Hosts, which cost a small amount for a year’s membership ($99 at the time of writing).
Being a member of Harvest Hosts allows you to search their map network of more than 3,000 wineries, farms, breweries and golf courses across the US, for free overnight camping arrangements.
This also has the benefit of allowing you to visit their facilities and enjoy their produce / drinks or services for less than the cost of some private campgrounds.
If you were to stay in a mixture of camping spots over a month, at an average cost of $40 per night, this can easily cost $1,200+ per month, so this is a good amount to budget for if you plan to do something similar. Staying exclusively in the more expensive resort-style campgrounds could cost in the region of $3,000.
Equally, if you plan to spend most of your month in free, dispersed campgrounds, and the occasional night in a Walmart or other RV-friendly business’s parking lot, you could spend next to nothing on overnight parking – say $200 to allow for a few nights somewhere with showers and laundry facilities each month.
If you don’t have a van yet and aren’t sure where you’re going to prefer or enjoy staying, consider trying out vanlife before you buy one. You can rent camper van conversions from companies such as Outdoorsy and RVShare for anything from a weekend to several weeks! This will also help you answer questions such as what layout to choose, and whether you really need a shower in your van.
Phone and internet
Whether or not you need to have access to good phone service and internet depends. If you’re planning on working on the road and need connectivity, then this is important.
It’s also important to bear this in mind when choosing your camping spots. Many dispersed camping options, as well as state and national park campgrounds do not have any cell service – or at least, not enough for reliable phone calls or internet.
If you’re going to use a lot of bandwidth for work, downloading or uploading files, photos and videos, or perhaps even streaming music or TV / on-demand shows, then consider upgrading your mobile phone’s data plan to cover this need.
A budget of $100 to $200 is typically enough for a full data plan, although this could cost more if you need to use a lot of data while on the road.
Food and hygiene
In this category we’ve included groceries, toiletries, medicine, gym memberships and laundry costs.
A gym membership can cost as little as $20 per month, even if you don’t plan to do a workout in the gym, as it allows you to access their shower facilities! This is a good option if your plan is to stay in free camping spots with limited access to showers.
Grocery cost varies depending on where you are traveling, and what you choose to eat and cook, as well as whether you’re traveling solo.
This is definitely an area that the most frugal of van lifers can save on, compared to those that like their take-out, road-trip coffees and the occasional meal out!
Expect to budget between $500 and $800 for your groceries and other personal expenses in this category.
This includes other expenses such as paying existing monthly loans and credit card payments (including any auto or RV financing for buying your campervan), van registration, repairs, tires and mail forwarding services.
Aside from existing financial commitments personal to you, it definitely pays to assume you may have some other expenses such as these, so we suggest ensuring you have access to $200+ per month as a contingency and to cover some of these costs, should they be needed.
Hopefully having read this post you have a better idea of how cheap (or expensive) van life can be, and what you should expect the cost of van life to be for you and your personal needs and preferences.
Don’t forget to save money in case of a car accident. A blown tire is one of those things that can surprise you. To prepare for these scenarios, keep at least one spare tire in your van.