Is Living in a Van a Realistic Option? Here Are the Costs You Need To Consider

Pembrey, Wales - July 13, 2013: Old fashioned VW campervan on Welsh campsite with canvas awning attached.
tirc83 / iStock.com

Living in a van sounds like a nightmare to some, but it’s a fantasy to others. Depending on the vehicle, van life can eliminate mortgage payments and free you up to travel anywhere there are roads.

Now, more than ever before, van life has become a viable option for some people. That doesn’t mean you’re free from budgeting, though. There are a few things to consider before starting your van life adventure.

Buying a Van

A Volkswagen is the classic choice, but it isn’t the most economical. The popularity of the company’s vans has caused prices to skyrocket, often costing more than $50,000. The Ram ProMaster is among the least expensive options, starting at around $32,000.

But it’s not just the price of the van you need to consider. Gas mileage should also factor into your purchasing decision, since you’ll be driving around a lot. You’ll also want to consider if you want to be able to stand up in it. And will you need electricity? How about a toilet or shower? Are you planning to live in it full time or part time? Does it need to be pretty?

Make Your Money Work for You

There are even more questions to ask yourself when buying a van, but these will help you at least get started.

Converting a Van

There are three ways you can convert a van into a liveable space: with a conversion kit, DIY, or as a custom build. Again, if you’re looking to be economical, then a custom build may not be the right choice for you.

If you have the skills, tools, space and motivation, then a DIY conversion is a great way to control costs and get as much of what you want as possible. This is also the slower route. Even if you practically have everything, it’s just not as efficient as a kit.

Conversion kits can cost you anywhere between $2,000 and $30,000, depending on the size of your van and the features you want. They don’t offer a lot of customization, but they are the fastest option. You can even have someone else install it.

Gear and Hacks for Van Living

Here are some things to think about before setting out on your van life.

Cookware

If you decide not to put a kitchen in your van, you can get small camping cookware and stoves. This way, you can cook outside and not have to eat fast food all the time.

A good cooler is also very important. It’ll keep your food safe and, more importantly, keep your drinks cold in the summer.

Batteries

You can’t escape technology, especially when you’re living in a van. Choose a battery pack with multiple plug options, so you can charge any devices you decide to bring. Make sure it can jump the van’s battery as well. A dead battery in a remote area could mean being stuck for days.

Tools

Learn how to do basic and emergency maintenance for your van’s model and make sure you have wrenches and sockets in the right sizes.

A multitool is also a must-have if you’re living in a van. It is the Swiss Army knife of pliers. Multitools often come with a case, so you can attach yours somewhere easy to find.

Make Your Money Work for You

Map

GPS is amazing until there’s no service. Be sure you have a map of anywhere you plan to travel and update it every couple of years.

Cleanliness

Depending on whether you plan to be living in your van full time, part time or for the occasional weekend, you might have different cleanliness needs. For a weekend, you could tough it out if you’re at a campsite without showers. If you plan to be full time, make sure you have a shower plan, whether that’s a gym membership or a solar shower.

Finances for Van Living

While a lot of expenses will go down if you switch to living in a van full time, some will stay the same or go up. Important payments like health insurance, or subscription entertainment services like Netflix, will stay the same. Almost anything related to a house, like electricity, natural gas and water, will go down.

If you have an active hobby, like bike riding, there’s a good chance that expenses from that hobby will go up slightly from doing it more often. People also tend to eat out more when they are on the road. When living in a van, you will be doing laundry in a laundromat, so be sure to have plenty of quarters. You’ll also find activities you’ve done for no extra cost, like showering, become expenses.

Your most important expense will be your regular van maintenance and emergency maintenance. You should always have money set aside for any maintenance and any extra expenses you’ll have as a result. For example, if it takes more than a day for work to be done on the van, you will have to get a hotel or stay with someone else.

Here are some expenses at a glance. Keep in mind that these amounts are estimates and may be different for you:

Monthly Expense Cost
Gas $400
RV insurance $150
Gym membership $20
Verizon hotspot $30
Laundry (10 loads per month) $40
Total $640

Note that this total doesn’t include any payments for your food, or any subscriptions or hidden expenses. Though, since you won’t be paying utilities at home, it may even out.

Legalities

Van life is not illegal, but the government does expect to be able to send you mail, so you do still need a physical address. Most places will accept P.O. Boxes or virtual mailboxes, but some services may require a permanent address to sign up. Make sure you check your mail regularly, so you don’t miss a jury summons or official correspondence.

Good To Know

Overnight parking will be your biggest legal hurdle. In most places, it’s illegal to stay overnight in public parks, government parking lots, in front of businesses or in neighborhoods. Many Walmart stores permit overnight parking, but not all. Check the local laws before you tuck in for the night.

Is Van Life Realistic?

Yes, living in a van can be realistic. It takes planning and not all people will be able to do it, but you can make it possible if you’re keen on it.

If you are ready to downsize, living in a van can be a great way to save money and travel within a budget.

If you can do your job remotely and can cope with some of the challenges mentioned, then van life can be a great option, even just to save money.

Our in-house research team and on-site financial experts work together to create content that’s accurate, impartial, and up to date. We fact-check every single statistic, quote and fact using trusted primary resources to make sure the information we provide is correct. You can learn more about GOBankingRates’ processes and standards in our editorial policy.

About the Author

Diane Fogle is the owner and sole freelance writer at The Little Green Bird. She received her Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Denver.  The research skills gained through that program, combined with a love of learning and intellectual freedom, have led her to a passion for helping businesses communicate with their customers. She lives in Colorado where she hikes with her husband, two young daughters and an old greyhound.

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