How Much Does Vanlife Cost?
A cost analysis of vanlife from a real life accountant
We knew vanlife would be fun, challenging and eye-opening. One question remained much less certain – how much would vanlife cost? As an accountant, I (Megan) did a little budgeting and estimating for what our life on the road might cost. I focused on daily living expenses (including entertainment) , although I knew there would be “real life” expenses such as health insurance, phone bills and car payments that I’d still be paying even though they weren’t factored into my official ‘vanlife budget’.
So what’s the average daily cost after living in a van for 30 days?
What to keep in mind:
- This is for both of us. That’s $39.55 each per day or $14.2k each per year.
- This is from our first 30 days on the road, which means we brought supplies with us that we haven’t had to restock yet: Dr Bronners and other toiletries, paper towels and cleaning products. Also, we have not had to pay for laundry or a shower (yet), thanks to staying with family/friends and finding *unfortunately* cold bodies of water to ‘shower’ in.
- States we visited in our first 30 days: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho
- Expenses for us will likely only go up from here.
- This is only our experience, I am not speaking for the vanlife community. You can do this with more or less money than we do – I am only offering our experience as a baseline point of information.
What this includes:
What this does not includes:
- Fixed monthly expenses:
- Phone bill
- Variable expenses:
- DJI Mavic Pro drone & Sony A7ii (2nd camera) for Matt
- Mountain bike for Megan
- New personal gear
- Winter jacket, Sunglasses, shoes and bike helmet for Matt (because he actually didn’t have any of these things to begin with)
- Bike tools & repair
Expenses by category
- Food: Food is by far our largest expense. This includes groceries (43%), restaurants (46%), coffee (10%) and propane for cooking in the van (.7%). It’s about a 50/50 split in cost between groceries and eating out but we’re definitely eating cooked meals more than we are eating out (value). We’re consistently surprised that we enjoy eating our own cooking more than most restaurant meals. Matt keeps saying “I’d be so thrilled if we could just order this at a restaurant.” Part of our travel experience is local food. We like to try at least one restaurant in each city, especially when we’ve received a recommendation. The rest of the meals out were purchased either because we were tired, starving or needed something to eat quicker than we could make it. My coffee addiction is also making up 10% of our food expenses, although we like to rationalize it since a cup of joe generally comes with *free* wifi. Keep in mind that food is our largest expense and you could do this much more cheaply than we do – this is just our experience.
- Transportation: This is mostly fuel with a few parking, toll and ferry fees included. We’re averaging 20 miles per gallon which we feel good about. We had budgeted for 15 miles per gallon so that’s 5 extra miles per gallon! Vanna repair costs are considered separate from transportation and included below.
- Lodging: We’ve only paid to sleep three nights out of 30. This was a pleasant surprise and has been mostly driven by the abundance of free camping around Idaho. The three nights paid were all spent with friends camping in Big Sur, CA and at Lake Crescent, WA. We haven’t splurged for a hotel yet… but I’m sure it will come at some point when we’re tired, cold and in need of a hot shower.
- Personal Care: No paid laundry, showers, gym or toiletries yet. Just give us time.
- Fun: We get most of our fun for free: mountain biking, hiking, exploring, skinny dipping and pissing in the woods. The only activity we’ve paid for so far was the Hot Springs Resort in ‘Lava Hot Springs’ Idaho. We’re still hoping to take advantage of guided trips, kayak or SUP rentals, and maybe even a few movie theaters. Who doesn’t like popcorn for dinner every once in a while?!. Note: We already had an America The Beautiful Annual Pass that gets us into national parks (at a cost of ~$80/year).
- Vanna: Auto repairs. I’m sure this category is going to sky rocket at some point along this journey. Our expenses so far were from replacing our Turbo Boost Resonator week 1 (read our post here to find out more about day 1 van troubles). It will also eventually include oil changes and other routine maintenance. Service on large diesel engines cost more than regular-sized, gas engines.
- Misc: All that other stuff. Firewood, a new fridge and misc supplies. “What could possibly be included in misc supplies,” you ask? A few examples include: a cast iron lid, a broom, bear spray, a small saw…and lots of baby wipes. You get the point.
What did we budget for?
Our actual expenses for month #1 came in at about 51% of what we had budgeted for. (BvA= budgeted expenses vs actual expenses)
Most things have been cheaper than we accounted for in our budget. We purposely set the budget conservatively (high) to provide some breathing room and manage our own annual spending vs. income expectations.
- Food: Budgeted $50 per day per person plus a little extra to refill propane for our van stove. It turns out food in every other city/state is less expensive than San Francisco (duh) but we have also treated ourselves to far fewer fancy meals than we anticipated. Tacos are cheap but our wine, coffee and kombucha addiction helps make up for that.
- Transportation: Our estimate for gas/mileage was pretty close. Gas has been slightly more expensive than anticipated due to using a national average, but being on the west coast it’s more expensive. This has been offset by driving fewer miles and getting slightly better gas mileage. We didn’t account for any ferry, parking or uber fees. We mentally set aside $5k for the ‘oh shit’ Vanna fund, but it never became a part of our official budget.
- Lodging: We budgeted for a $30 campsite fee three nights a week but have only paid for three the entire month.
- Personal Care: Budgeted for gym fees and laundry mats.
- Fun: The adventure budget! We have not paid for many entertainment activities due to a fully packed schedule and having lots of free fun with our family, friends *and each other*. This will likely include rentals, tickets, shows, etc. Anything that enables us to explore and adventure.
- Misc: $10 a day for all that other stuff that you always forget about!
How do we fund our journey?
There are many vanlifers out there getting creative about how to make a living on the road. There are still a million potential income ideas floating around in our heads that we have yet to act on. I think more of this will come with time. Our adventures are mostly funded through savings and subsidized by working part time on the road. I kept my job (scaling pack to work about 16 hrs/week) and Matt is also working part time with CreativeLive.
Stay tuned for more updates in the coming months
Are you interested in following along on the riveting journey of vanlife expenses? We’ll continue to provide updates in the coming months.
Want to know more?
If you want to nerd out over how I created our budget, mileage/fuel estimator or download a copy of our expense tracking spreadsheet send us an email and we’ll fire over a download link (contact us).