Full-time van living on a budget
Like most people who full-time in their RV, I too live on an income of far less than the average person. Many full-timers live on retirement or pensions. Others work for a period to save up enough money to do this long term without any source of full-time income. Myself, I fit in the category of having some income from work that I do online. It is not a lot of money, but considering I have no rent, mortgage, car payments, or utility bills to pay for… I do not need a lot of money to live comfortably.
Let’s discuss two usual suspects of van life. Both have their advantages and disadvantages of course.
The hourly worker which must stay in the general area and work the job. He/She is looking for free (or near-free) options for places to spend their nights although it is becoming more difficult over time thanks to local ordinances or laws preventing sleeping in a vehicle within city limits. Camping location is one of the hardest things to deal with in this situation. Even though the hourly worker may get away with some free camping within city limits – aka, “Stealth Camping” – eventually he/she will have to pay for a place to sleep. Sometimes Craig’s List can help find that place with a local willing to rent out a driveway or small plot of land for cheap. Local fraternal organization (Moose, Elk, Eagles, etc) may take you in to their parking lot with an annual membership (and some monthly donations). One can usually find single overnight locations for free, or a paid location – be it a campground, RV park, or driveway – for under $300 a month.
There was a 6-month period that I lived behind a local Moose Lodge and worked at he Gym which was next door to the Lodge. I earned an additional pay check, on top of my normal work online, and donating a few hundred per month to the Lodge as thanks for letting me stay (also tax deductible). The rest went directly into my savings for rainy days. I even got my gym membership for free which included daily hot showers!
The nomadic earner (either disability or working online) is lucky enough to have freedom of movement and may not need to deal with paying for camping as often. With movement comes the added cost of gasoline, and in the end it can cost significantly more to fuel up every few days. Obviously, one could sit still longer in each location and save money, especially in the South West where you can legally camp for up to two weeks (or more) at a time in BLM or National Forest. Relocating only twice per month can save hundreds in gasoline alone.
In the end, either the cost of camping or the cost of gasoline will be the most expensive line item in your budget at $300-400 per month depending on where you may decide to live, or how far you may decide to drive each month.
The image to the right is an example of a minimalist’s budget while exploring roughly 1200-1500 miles per month of the Western United States and utilizing free camping most of that time. I’m sure that as you look at the figures, you are already adding or subtracting some of your own personalized costs. With work, the budget can be reduced to under $750 per month, leaving all additional income to pay off debts or put into savings.
In the end, a realistic cost of living on the road in a van or similar type of automobile ranged from $25 to $35 per day for a single person, or $40-50 per day as a couple, not including car payments, savings, or your own personal debts that you come into this lifestyle with. Of course, it can be done for both less and more depending on your own personal driving, camping, and eating habits.
And for the super-minimalist, living in a van can be done for as little as $300-400 per month, and even less with total focus on that goal. However, it does require staying put in one location (free camping spot outside of city limits) for as long as six months at a time, and only moving your home when the weather forces you too. Imagine how quickly the debts would be paid off if your total monthly expenses totaled under $500 per month.
My personal experiences… (BTW, for a while I published my monthly, quarterly, and yearly finances here )
Exactly how much money is needed? Well that depends on a lot of factors, but considering I really only need to feed and clothe myself to ‘survive’ it doesn’t take as much as living in a conventional house or apartment. The entire reason I chose to full-time live in a van was to ‘live’… to go out an see the country and explore new places, which can only be done if I move locations. And that is my largest monthly cost; gasoline.
I figure, my gasoline cost can be managed in one of two ways;
1) I could travel like a Goose… drive once per month or season and stay in the same location for that entire month or season. It may cost a few hundred dollars in gasoline to make each location change, but it is a one-time cost. Migrating from place to place assumes I will be paying for long-term camping costs. RV parks can be found for as low as $200-300 per month. National Forest campgrounds can be had for $20 per day or less. A Goose saves in fuel costs, but pays more in housing. Or…
2) I could travel like a horse… drive often but only short drives of 25-50 miles per day seeing everything there is to offer by stopping at every attraction along the route. Drive only an hour or two each day and spend the remainder of the day relaxing, experiencing, and enjoying the sights. A Horse eats, drinks, and sleeps on the move rarely staying still long enough to have to pay for housing.
I chose to be a horse, slowly and steadily moving across the landscape at 20-50 miles per day. This cures my ‘ants-in-pants syndrome’ of feeling bored once I have been in one location for 2 or 3 days. I refill my fuel tanks ($300-400 per month) and food ($150-200 per month) each weekend as I pull into a town and rarely pay for overnight camping. I stay my nights at Walmarts, Truck stops, Rest areas, free camping at National Forest and BLM lands, and sometimes I just take a secluded highway exit and park off to the side. I shower at my gym, or at truck stops, or I take advantage of cheap RV parks ($20 per night or less) where I also get power to recharge the batteries, WiFi to watch my favorite shows online, refill water tanks, laundry, and a shower for one nights cost.
I do have a single monthly bill; A gym membership ($40 for a national chain) so I can workout and shower in any of the thousands of gyms across the country.
I also have a pay-as-you-go cell phone, which I refill with minutes as needed (every 4-8 weeks) for a fraction of the cost of a regular monthly cell phone contract and these phones will connect to any and all networks (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, etc) so I get a signal just about anywhere I am, not limited to only my home network. I do not use my phone much, instead using Skype to talk with family and friends to further save costs. My work pays for my cellular Internet connection with Verizon.
All in all, I “live” (not just survive) on about $1000-1200 per month in expenses, although I can reduce my total monthly expenses by more than $500 by traveling and splurging less… but only if I am in need as I prefer to keep moving.If I stuck to my budget perfectly, my monthly costs would be under $750 per month, even with nearly $400 of that going into gasoline.
For less than the cost of renting a small apartment plus utilities, I travel 1500-2500 miles each month and see all the wondrous things the country has to offer. I do most things on the cheap, willing to go out of my way to save $2 here and there and in doing so it allows me to travel further each month to experience more places and attractions. And, my budget still allows me to set a portion of my income away in savings for future large costs.