Van life has become an increasingly popular choice for anyone looking for adventure, freedom, and a minimalist lifestyle. One of the most common questions that arise when considering van life is: how much does van life cost? The answer to this question is not straightforward as it depends on various factors such as the type of van, the level of customization and amenities, the destination, and the lifestyle choices for each van lifer.
In this article, I will provide a detailed breakdown of the costs associated with van life, covering both the initial investments of buying and converting a van to the ongoing expenses of van life cost per month.
How much does a van cost?
The initial investment in van life can be substantial, as it involves purchasing a van and converting it into a livable space. Purchasing a van has a wide range of cost depending on the make, model, and age of the vehicle.
Older vehicles may be cheaper to buy, but they may also require more maintenance and repairs.
On the other hand, newer vehicles may be more expensive upfront, but they may be more reliable and require fewer repairs in the long run.
How much does van life cost – Buying a new van
A new van can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $100,000 or more, with the average cost ranging from $40,000 to $65,000. Ram ProMaster is typically the most affordable van, followed by Ford Transit. Mercedes Sprinter vans are the most expensive vans on the market.
The base price of a new cargo van typically includes basic features like air conditioning, power windows, and a basic audio system. However, buyers can add on a variety of options and features to customize their van to their specific needs. Some popular options for van life include a high roof for increased headroom, an upgraded engine for more horsepower, and an extended cargo area for more storage space.
Consider reading How to Buy the Best Van for Van Life
How much does van life cost – Buying a used van
Generally, a used van can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 or more, with the average cost ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.
At the lower end of the price range, buyers can expect to find older models with higher mileage and more wear and tear. These vans may require more maintenance and repairs, but they can still provide a solid foundation for a van conversion project.
On the other hand, newer and more well-maintained models can cost significantly more. These vans may have lower mileage and require less maintenance, making them a good choice for buyers who want a reliable van for their conversion project.
How much does van life cost – Buying a pre-built camper van
Instead of buying an empty van and converting it, you can purchase a fully built camper van.
Most brand new camper vans range in cost from $50,000 to $200,000, with the average cost ranging from $70,000 to $120,000. There are two primary ways to buy a brand new van for van life – through a manufacturer or through an independent builder.
Manufacturer vans are usually more expensive. Some of the most popular camper van models include the Winnebago Travato, the Airstream Interstate, and the Roadtrek Zion.
Independent builders can be more affordable than manufacturers, but they typically have a waitlist. However, you’ll get a more custom van than you would with a manufacturer.
Typically, a used pre-built camper van can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 or more, with the average cost ranging from $30,000 to $70,000.
At the lower end of the price range, vans may require more maintenance and repairs, but they can still provide a comfortable living space for van dwellers on a budget.
Furthermore, newer and more luxurious models may feature high-end amenities like full kitchens, bathrooms, and entertainment systems. While they can be more expensive upfront, they may also require fewer repairs and provide a more comfortable living space for long-term van life.
How much does a van build cost?
In addition to the cost of a van itself, there are additional expenses for converting the van into a livable space. The cost to build a van can be expensive, depending on the level of customization and amenities desired.
Van conversion cost can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the factors that can affect the cost of the conversion include:
Proper insulation is essential for comfortable van life, and it can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000 or more, depending on the type and quality of insulation used. Most van insulation costs less than $600.
Consider reading the Van Insulation Guide
A reliable electrical system is necessary to power lights, appliances, and other gadgets in your van. The cost of an electrical system can range from $500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the complexity and the number of devices to be powered. If you plan on living in your van full-time then you’ll want to plan your budget on the higher end of the range – batteries, solar panels, inverters and wiring add up quickly.
A water system is essential for hygiene, cooking, and drinking, and it can cost anywhere from $300 to $3,000 or more, depending on the type and size of the water tanks and the plumbing system.
Most van lifers can get by with a 12 volt pump, accumulator, fresh tank, and gray tank. This typically costs between $400-$700 depending on the size of your tanks and whether they’re custom.
For added luxury consider a water heater, water filtration system and a shower. This setup will cost $800+, with the largest expense being contingent on how fancy your shower is.
Consider reading Do You Need a Campervan With a Shower?
A kitchen is necessary for preparing meals, and it can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000 or more, depending on the size and the type of appliances and cabinets installed. Most kitchens can be built for less than $800, depending on the sink, stove and refrigerator you use.
I have personally found that a camping stove top is all I need, which is a considerable savings compared to an RV oven with a cooktop. Cost: <$150
Conversely, I splurged on my van fridge because I knew I wanted something reliable and extremely energy efficient. Cost: $1,300
Consider reading Buying the Best Fridge For Van Life
Sleeping and Seating
A comfortable sleeping and seating area is essential for a livable van, and it can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the size and the quality of the mattresses, cushions, and upholstery.
The largest price variable here is custom upholstery, which can cost $800+ if you hire someone to sew your cushion covers for you. Foam and upholstery fabric are fairly expensive as well.
Storage is necessary for clothes, gear, and other items, and it can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000 or more, depending on the type and size of the storage solutions.
The primary cost here is for your cabinets and overhead storage. If you’re making DIY cabinets you’ll save considerable money, as you’ll just need plywood and common tools. However, you can buy pre-made kits to save time, but they’ll run closer to the high end of this budget.
Upgrades to your van’s exterior can include a roof rack, adding or tinting windows, installing an awning, upgrading tires and lifting your suspension. Each of these items can cost up to $1,000 or more.
Other amenities such as a ventilation fan, a van toilet, a diesel heater, front swivel seats, and an air conditioner can also add to the cost of the conversion, and their cost can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
The Most Expensive Items In A Van Build
- Lithium Batteries
- Solar Panels
- Roof Rack
- Rooftop RV AC
- Swivel Seat
- Composting Toilet
Monthly Cost of Van Life
The ongoing monthly cost of van life can vary widely depending on factors such as location and lifestyle. A van life budget should include:
Fuel is one of the most significant ongoing expenses associated with van life, and it can vary depending on the distance traveled, the type of vehicle, and the fuel efficiency.
A typical van can get anywhere from 10 to 25 miles per gallon, and typically range closer to 15 MPG.
Gas prices fluctuate wildly but you can expect to pay at least $3 per gallon, sometimes $5, and if you’re in California a gallon can cost over $7.
Maintenance & Repairs
Maintaining a van can be costly, and regular maintenance and repairs are necessary to keep the vehicle in good condition. The cost of maintenance and repairs will depend on the vehicle’s age, make, and model, as well as the level of upkeep needed.
Some common expenses include oil changes, tire replacements, brake repairs, and engine tune-ups. It’s important to budget for these expenses and to keep up with regular maintenance to prevent more costly repairs down the road.
An oil change typically costs approximately $100 every 3 months, or 3,000-5,000 miles.
If you’re putting a lot of miles on your van then you’ll also have more frequent tire rotation and replacement, brake repairs and engine tune-ups. A new set of tires will cost about $1,000, or more for specialty terrain.
Camper Van Insurance
Van lifers will need to have insurance for their vehicle, which can range from $50 to $300 or more per month, depending on the type of coverage and the level of risk involved.
It’s incredibly important to make sure that your insurance covers the replacement cost of your camper van and not just the vehicle body. If your home is totaled and you’re not fully insured your insurance will only cover the cost of an empty cargo van, not a camper van.
Most van lifers pay approximately $100 per month for insurance.
Campsites and Parking
While you can save money by staying at free campsites or boondocking, there are times when you may want to pay for a campground. Campground fees can range from $10 to $100 or more per night, depending on the location, the amenities provided, and the time of year.
Typically, I like to stay at campsites if I’m in a location without many BLM camping options. I aim to find campsites that have free wifi, showers and laundry so that my money goes farther since I would have to pay for those items individually otherwise.
Phone And Internet
Communication and entertainment expenses can include cell phone plans, wifi hotspots, and satellite internet. Most phone plans cost $50-$100 per month, along with wifi hotspots. Starlink satellite internet costs $599-$2500 upfront for the hardware and $150 a month for service.
The cost of food and supplies will largely depend on your lifestyle and dietary preferences. Cooking meals in the van can save money compared to eating out, but groceries can still add up. It’s essential to budget for food, toiletries, and other supplies.
Groceries in more remote locations, like Alaska, can be 2-3x more expensive than in the lower 48. Additionally, remote locations tend to have fewer options to pick from, so you’re stuck paying for whatever is available.
Restaurants And Entertainment
While these expenses do vary by location, the monthly cost of van life in this category won’t differ too greatly from what you’re already budgeting.
Many of the personal hygiene tasks you take for granted in your day to day life are a completely different experience in van life. Additionally, they’re added expenses.
If you plan to find public showers instead of having one in your camper van you’ll need a gym membership or to pay each time you stop at a new facility.
Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness are popular, inexpensive gym memberships in the van life community. These gyms don’t have locations everywhere though (like in Montana), so take a look at their locations map before committing to a gym membership you can’t use.
My preference is to find local rec centers, aquatic centers, gyms, truck stops or campgrounds and pay a one time fee each time I visit. Most of these places cost $3-$5 per shower. Occasionally there will be a time limit, but I have found that this is not typically the case. Truck stops can be more expensive and cost $7-$20 and some provide towels.
I was spoiled with in-unit laundry and had lost track of how expensive it can be to use a laundromat. A typical wash cycle is $3-$5 and a dryer costs about 25 cents per 10-minutes. Overall, one load of laundry can cost $5-$10 depending on location and size of load.
Tips For Saving Money
While van life can be expensive, there are ways to reduce costs and make the lifestyle more affordable. Some tips for saving money include:
Boondocking, or camping for free on public land, can save a significant amount of money on campground fees.
Sadly, many free camping lands have closed in recent years due to litter, vandalism and general disrespect for the land. Please remember to use leave no trace principles while wild camping!
To save money on wifi expenses, you can use free wifi at libraries, coffee shops and restaurants. McDonalds and Starbucks have the fastest free internet options.
Cooking meals in the van instead of eating out can save money on food expenses. Consider shopping at discount grocery stores, and cooking meals that can be eaten as leftovers.
Traveling slowly and staying in one place for longer periods can save money on fuel and campground fees. This is the biggest expense category for most van lifers, so moving around less frequently can really impact your budget.
DIY Maintenance And Repairs
Learning how to do basic maintenance and repairs on the vehicle can save money on labor costs.
I’ve learned how to change my own oil and replace my brake pads. It’s amazing how much money you can save by doing the work yourself… and it’s surprisingly easy to do once you get past the learning curve!
An oil change should take you 15-minutes… which is less time than it takes to drive to most mechanic shops.
Use Alternative Energy Sources
Using solar panels instead of a generator to power appliances and gadgets can save money on fuel costs.
Use Discount Programs
Some camping and membership programs offer discounts on campground fees, fuel, and other expenses. Discount programs to consider are:
- Good Sam Club
- Passport America
- Escapees RV Club
- AAA RV
- National Parks and Federal Lands Passes
How much does van life cost?
In conclusion, the cost of van life can vary widely depending on various factors, including the initial investment in the van and the ongoing expenses associated with travel and living. Initial expenses for van life are typically pricey, but the monthly cost of van life tends to be less than living in a house or an apartment.
With careful planning and budgeting, van life can be made more affordable, and the benefits of traveling and exploring the world in a home on wheels can outweigh the costs.
Written by Claire Fleming
I’m a travel enthusiast who spends half the year in my self-built camper van with my dog, Oscar, and the other half at my home in Raleigh, North Carolina or on international adventures.