Living in a van was genuinely epic. My husband and I had dreamed about it for a while but knew we wouldn't want to embark on a build while living in Vietnam and instead would wait until or if we went back to the US long enough to go for it.
When we finally got our chance, we jumped on it. We bought a 2006 Ford Econoline we affectionately named Wanda just a month after getting back to the US. We (my husband with me as his trusty helper) built her out in another month, eager to hit the road on our Western US road trip as soon as we could.
We had some money set aside for it but otherwise had a really tight budget to work with. Our digital nomad plan was to cut down to just a few hours of freelance work a week to be able to truly enjoy the freedom van life would give us, without needing to rely on steady internet. Plus, with how quickly we completed the build, we put most of our time into it each day, greatly decreasing our salaries. If you don't have a nest egg for the adventure, I'd recommend taking longer for the build so you can still keep up with work.
Keeping that in mind, we were super conscientious about saving money with the van build and the traveling we planned to do once it was done. If you're in our same position and want to keep your costs as low as possible, these are our biggest tips, divided into 2 categories: build and travel.
Van Build Costs
I'll be honest, if I was left to build out our van by myself, I think I'd still be working on it. I know the basics about tools but I wouldn't consider myself handy or at least I've never needed to be the handy one.
My husband on the other hand studied industrial design so part of his coursework was to build things with a variety of materials, complete with blueprints and all. That skill of his was certainly helpful and allowed us to do the entire build on our own, without needing to enlist in outside help or a van conversion company, saving us money along the way.
If you're more like me though, don't let that deter you. Just know that the month timeline will be less feasible and you'll be relying on YouTube far more but I'll get to that in a second.
With that in mind, let's dive into the details on how you can save money on your build.
You Don't Need a Sprinter Van
I know Instagram and TikTok might try and convince you otherwise but you certainly don't need a brand new fancy van for this lifestyle to be great. Opt for an older used van that's not yet finished instead. If you want to buy a van that's already built out for van life, check these tips for picking out the right van for your lifestyle.
The van purchase should be your biggest cost of van life so just by buying a cheaper van, you're already saving yourself money. The good thing is, this is an upfront cost, so you can make a wise decision about what you really can afford.
We found our van from a nice family on Facebook Marketplace. She (yes, the van is a she) was still in the prime of her life but did have a lot of miles on her. Before putting down any money, we took her to a mechanic. You'll also want to do a quick check on the fuel efficiency of the van you buy, since gas costs add up quickly on the road.
Even if you're buying a van just a few years old, I'd highly recommend taking it in for a check-up so you can avoid any surprise costs later on. Remember, the van you buy is your home but firstly it's a vehicle. While you might be tempted to make your purchase based solely on aesthetics, remember it needs to run well and be rust-free for you to even consider it.
We had to do some van repairs but the family was willing to drop the price to help pay for those fixes since they went with us to the mechanic. Even if the person selling you the van seems trustworthy, they're most likely not a mechanic, so have someone check under the hood first.
The Level of Conversion = Your Level of Expertise
Like I said before, my husband is confident as a builder so we were able to do some special things with our build. We had a table built on a swivel that converted into our bed and a sink that actually pumped water without needing electricity.
These are things he was capable of doing relatively quickly and confidently but you might not feel the same way.
You'll save yourself a lot of stress and money by sticking within your level of expertise. You don't want to waste money on materials or start screwing things in that might not actually fit.
Your van can always be improved upon later on, it doesn't have to be the perfect camper van conversion to get you started.
The sweet spot you'll want to hit to save money and be comfortable on the road is somewhere in the middle of a van with stove and another with a futon tossed in the back of the trunk.
When you start shopping for supplies, it can be tempting to eye the perfectly stained wood or the backsplash with a fun pattern.
Remember this though: you can always make things look pretties later on. For structure, you don't need fancy wood; plywood with a coat of paint works just fine. Just be sure if you do build with plywood or cheaper pieces of wood that you should take some time to scout out the good ones. Some pieces will be wobbly and won't lay flat.
The same rule goes for pre-fab pieces of furniture. It might feel tempting to get the piece that's already done but unless you're positive it'll fit like a glove, avoid it. It'll be a lot easier and cheaper for you to build that box rather than buying the one already made.
The same advice could be said for the material you choose for your bed. You could go for a futon style or a real mattress but for our bed to fit perfectly, we bought a memory foam mattress and cut it to our exact dimensions with an electric knife.
Use Your Resources
For us, this meant the good people at Home Depot and Lowe's. When you're purchasing wood from them, they'll actually go ahead and cut the pieces the exact size you need. This might not save you money directly but it will save you a lot of time.
The only key to this is making sure you're absolutely certain with your measurements and you label the cut pieces for easy assembly later. For them to understand just what you need, bring a blueprint so they can see what you're building - they might be able to catch an error you missed or give you some tips on how to simplify what you're doing.
For the record, a blueprint could mean something as simple as a hand-drawn sketch. No need to overcomplicate this with an online tool and perfectly straight lines.
Invest in Some Tools
There are always people buying and selling tools on Facebook Marketplace. Thanks to this, we bought a brand new table saw that saved us a lot of time and money and were able to sell it for just a 15% discount at the end of the month. In tool terms it was lightly used so it was a win-win all around.
Just like we sold our tools there, you could also buy them used, too. Even better, find a relative or friend that has these tools on hand and will let you borrow them.
At the very least, you'll want to have:
- A hand saw
- A table saw (if you're building big and have used one before - these things are dangerous if you don't know how they work)
- A drill
- A hammer
Don't Forget Insulation + Ventilation
While it's easy to assume insulation is only helpful in the winter and ventilation is only key in the summer, you really need both all year round. Even if you go for the most basic build possible, don't forget about these 2 essentials.
Just like in a house, insulation helps keep you warm and cool and will help the van stay a more neutral temperature in any weather. It also helps to keep dirt and moisture out, ensuring more longevity in your build. Once we gutted the van, the first step in our van build was to put insulation on the floor and in the walls. Once again, our trusty Home Depot and Lowe's employees were super helpful in getting us the right materials.
As for ventilation, many van lifers choose to put a ceiling fan in. If you plan to live in a van all year, you'll want to do the same. This will help with air circulation, especially in the summer. For us, we had some holes in our floor already from taking the seats out, which was enough to let our floorboards breathe. For more airflow, we had pop-out windows, and given the temperatures we were chasing, it was enough.
Electricity Isn't Necessary
I think every video we watched on YouTube insisted we install electricity. So many videos that we were so close to embarking upon the mission. In the end, avoiding it saved us a big cost and a lot of time and stress.
Since neither of us have experience dealing with electricity and we didn't plan to be off grid for weeks at a time, we skipped it.
Instead, we saved money by getting:
- A Jackery Portable Power Station: this was enough to charge 2 computers, 2 phones, and a hanging light for a few days use. We recharged it every time we drove by plugging it into the "automobile auxiliary power outlet" (aka the cigarette lighter on a car).
- A Yeti Cooler: this served as a refrigerator and happened to fit perfectly between the driver and passenger seat. If we drained the water, kept the lid shut, and kept it out of the sun, it would keep ice for a few days.
- Hanging Lights: we bought a few from Amazon that plugged in via USB into our Jackery. They were surprisingly bright and really handy to be able to move around and hang where needed. We also used battery-powered fairy lights for soft lighting at night.
- Camping Stoves: Instead of installing a stovetop, we bought two camping stoves. We could use them inside if it was rainy or move our kitchen outside on clear days. These work with either butane or propane.
- A Mini Porta-Potti: I'll be honest, we didn't use this much at all but we bought it more as a "just in case" situation and obviously a lot cheaper than installing a toilet. Since we stayed off the grid most of the time, I much preferred to do my business in the woods but it was a nice option mentally for those few days we stayed in parking lots.
These few adjustments, rather than installing electricity and relying on solar panels, cut down on a big van life cost and yet didn't hinder our lifestyle on the road at all.
YouTube Will Be Your Friend
YouTube is extremely helpful in teaching you how to actually build and also for tips on keeping van life costs low while building. We learned a lot of hacks and do's and don'ts thanks to a handful of accounts.
From really general to super specific, you'll find more than a few accounts documenting their build based on the level of detail you're trying to achieve. While it might be tempting to call in a team of specialists to complete this build for you, it'll cut a huge cost by doing the build yourself instead of outsourcing it.
This YouTube account was one of our favorites to consult during our van build.
Van Travel Costs
Now that you've built out your own camper van on a budget, it's time to hit the road. This is where the real fun begins! Unless again you're like my husband and couldn't get enough of the hammer and nails.
For the rest of us, this is where the sweat and curse words finally pay off. From our experience, van life can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. You can quickly increase your monthly expenses by traveling frequently, staying in paid campsites, and eating out. On the flip side, you can cut those biggest van life costs by taking it slow, choosing your destinations wisely, and camping in free areas.
Let's dive into the details to keep your monthly costs as low as possible while still enjoying the freedom that life on the road warrants.
Avoid Expensive States (or Areas)
Let's start with where you plan to travel to. Whether you're living in a van full-time or are on a few months road trip, the places you go will greatly affect your van life expenses.
The state we spent the most money yet the least amount of time is California. We had planned to stay even longer in the state but the reality proved to be much different than the expectation. Gas costs are far higher, groceries cost more, restaurants are expensive, and it's harder to find free campsites. Plus, since we travel with our dog, there were far less places for him to run freely.
All of these reasons combined made us cut our time in that state and head to Nevada faster than expected.
Since gas prices will easily be one of your biggest expenses on the road, choosing to explore cheaper areas is the best decision you can make to save money.
Rely on These Free Apps
Speaking of gas prices, did you know there's an app that shows you the cheapest place to refuel near you? This app along with a few others cut a lot off our monthly van life costs and made the whole experience go a lot smoother.
There are a lot of apps out there and some we even paid for but they didn't carry enough weight to justify the monthly costs. Instead, we found a few free apps that were true budget savers.
Our favorite free apps include:
- GasBuddy: This is the app that shows the cheaper gas prices in your area.
- Campendium: This app shows free campsites, mainly on BLM land, national forests, and some national parks. This app worked great in most states in the Western US.
- iOverlander: We preferred Campendium in general but iOverlander worked best in California.
- AllTrails: If you plan to hike or mountain bike on your trip, AllTrails is the best app for showing trails in your area. They offer a paid version but the free one worked perfectly for us.
- Wi-fi Finder: This one we actually didn't learn about until after our trip but would have been handy on the road. We relied on hotspot from my phone and just went without internet when we were camping but if you need to quickly connect for some reason, this app shows you places nearby with free wifi.
- Flush: Another app I learned about in hindsight but would have been helpful is Flush. This app shows you places nearby with public toilets because if you're like us and didn't put a toilet in your van, sometimes you really just gotta go.
Cook More Than You Eat Out
Obviously enough cooking for yourself will save money living in your van. As mentioned above, we used camping stoves and a Yeti cooler to keep our food fresh. We made a weekly food budget and got creative with really basic meals like wraps, rice bowls, and pasta.
By cooking our own meals, we also were able to enjoy more time in the natural beauty we were craving with this lifestyle. We'd roll into our campsite before dark, with enough time to unpack and get a fire going before dinner time. Our mornings looked similarly, eating yogurt or overnight oats before hitting the trails or the road.
To making cooking for yourself easier, you'll want to have access to some sort of running water. We installed an electric pump into our sink (that charged on our Jackery), pulling clean water from one container and draining into another. This made washing dishes before we hit the road easy and stress-free.
Our personal expenses lumped into our food budget but again we kept that low with only basic shower essentials, deodorant, and sunscreen.
Avoid Paid Campsites
If you only go to paid campsites, your monthly van life costs will skyrocket compared to someone who never pays for a place to sleep. With the two apps listed above (Campendium and iOverlander) we never once paid for a place to sleep (except the night in Vegas we stayed in a hotel to hit the casinos without worry).
By being smart in your build and making it where you don't need to connect to water or electricity, you can be completely self-sufficient on national forest land, which was by far our favorite places to camp.
It'll also help if you have a small enough van to navigate narrow roads and slip into small spaces. A bus or an RV for example would have fewer options while boondocking (dispersed camping on public land).
Enjoy National Parks & National Forests
Some of the best places to visit in the US are national parks and national forests. These places are protected and well-known for a reason. From the most popular ones like Yellowstone to lesser-known ones like Big Bend in Texas, there's a lot of beauty to soak up.
Plus, most parks have national forests right next door that allow you to camp freely. This means you can camp for free right outside of the entrance of the most sought after parks in the world. Pretty cool, right?
To really take advantage of the national parks without having to pay an entrance fee each time, get an America the Beautiful pass which allows you to visit national parks for free after paying the $80 annual fee.
Get a Planet Fitness Membership
Now that I opened the box and have you wondering, "Wait, how did you shower?" let's talk about that.
Our initial idea was to buy a bag shower that we could hang up in a tree or on the side of the van and let gravity do the work. We did that about 4 times until we tired of the cold shower, lack of pressure to get the shampoo really out of my hair, and the difficulty of refilling it every time we wanted to wash off.
That's when we learned about Planet Fitness, a popular gym that I've seen my whole life in shopping centers but never gave a second thought. A gym membership here will cost you about $10/monthly and gives you a free buddy pass each time. These gyms are nearly everywhere in the US and always have shower facilities.
Sometimes we'd pop in for a workout, too, but most of the time, we'd head here after a hike simply to shower off and go to our campsite for the night, nothing more.
I've heard of people getting away with not actually getting a gym membership but instead asking for a "free trial" at each location but I felt the $10/month for two of us to have unlimited access to a shower was worth the price.
Head to the Laundry Mat Weekly
Another personal expense you'll want to keep an eye on is washing clothes. This is where laundry mats will really come into play. Some paid campsites offer laundry facilities but we far preferred boondocking far away from others so opted instead to take our clothes in weekly to a nearby laundry mat.
To maximize our time, we typically found a coffee shop to work from nearby a laundry mat so we could get our freelance work done while our clothes washed.
Since we were re-wearing as much as we could, we'd typically just have one load of wash each week. Do note that each laundry mat cost differently so it was hard to judge just how much we would spend each time.
Keep Your Emergency Fund Filled
This last tip is one of the biggest I can give you: have an emergency fund and keep it filled! This fund will help you pay for vehicle maintenance and other surprise costs on the road. You never really know when you'll get a flat tire, get into a car accident, need to change your break pads, or need a night in a hotel incase you get sick.
Speaking of vehicle maintenance - keep up with it! Be on top of when you need oil changes, check your tire pressure regularly, and anytime your car doesn't feel like it's running well, take it in. Doing these preemptive adjustments saved us from any big, surprise expenses on the road.
Plus, by having car insurance, if you do run into a big issue, your insurance should help you cover the damage and take some pressure off of your bank account. Auto insurance might feel like an unnecessary monthly cost but it'll save you money in the long run if something unexpected happens.
To calculate how much you should have saved in your emergency fund, I would multiply your monthly expenses by 3 and have that set aside. Every time you pull from it, the first thing you should do is re-fill it.
Enjoy a Budget-Friendly Van Life
When asking yourself the question, "How much does van life really cost?, you can now see it'll depend on your idea of van life, the places you visit, and just how much you put into the build.
By keeping your lifestyle and van build basic, this is an incredibly cheap lifestyle. By focusing more on nature than tourist attractions and hanging out off-grid and entertaining yourself, your monthly budget will be unbelievably cheap compared to what you're paying to live in an apartment or house anywhere in the US.
On the other hand, if you purchase a Mercedes Sprinter van, drive up and down the coast of California, pay for campsites each night, and only eat out, this life will cost more than you can imagine.
The choice really is yours when calculating your monthly van life costs but know with full confidence that van living can be as cheap as you want it to be.