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Cost of Living in a Van Per Month: How to Create a Van Life Budget

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NB. All $ amounts are in USD

Our Cost of Living in a Van Per Month as a Couple

*not including van purchase

  • In South America, van life cost us $2,323 per month (2018).
  • In Mexico, van life cost us $2,708 per month (2019).
  • In Australia, van life cost us $3,455 per month (2020).

How Much Will Living In a Van Cost You?

Your van life budget will be completely dependent upon your own financial situation and personal aspirations for van life. But, we can help you work out what van life will cost you using a van life budget.

A woman sitting next to a small camper van in a campsite in northern Chile. The Andes mountains are behind. Cost of Living in a Van Per Month: How to Create a Van Life Budget

We will outline how to create your very own van life budget, to estimate the cost of living in a van per month for you, and break down how much van life has cost us.

We have included a simple Google Sheets template to help you create your own budget. We use Google Sheets because it is free and more flexible than budgeting apps and programs.

We are not personal finance experts and the way we budget may not fit your specific needs. But, we think that setting and maintaining some version of a budget will go a long way in keeping your costs down and keeping you on the road for longer.

Creating a Van Life Budget

A van life budget should include three major costs, start-up costs, recurring annual costs, and costs of living. Let’s explore each of those categories.

Start-Up Costs

Nowadays, vans and van builds are wildly variable and can range anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000+ at either extreme.

More likely your start-up costs will come in between $10,000 and $100,000 depending on your financial situation and specific needs and wants in a vehicle.

It doesn’t matter if you do not have a large budget to start vanlife with, you can enjoy all of the great things about Van Life even on a tiny budget.

Screenshot 2023 08 25 at 5.43.21 pm Cost of Living in a Van Per Month: How to Create a Van Life Budget

It is important, however, when designing your budget that you are both realistic about not spending more than you can afford and not sacrificing more comfort than you can tolerate.

If you can’t get this balance right within your existing budget, you may need to go back to the drawing board or van life is going to begin under pressure.

Recurring Annual Costs of Van Life

a woman sitting on the roof of a van looking out to sea in Ecuador

The recurring costs of van life, while variable are predictable. Although they may not be payable each week, you need to plug them into your budget so you can effectively prepare and save for these annual costs.

Adopting van life often comes with a reduction in many costs like housing and accommodation, but may include some new costs you hadn’t accounted for.

Some examples of annual costs associated with van life are camper van insurance, vehicle registration, and maintenance costs.

Here is a list of common recurring annual costs. It is by no means exhaustive but it gives you an idea of the kinds of costs to consider.

  • Health insurance
  • Travel Insurance
  • Vehicle insurance
  • Vehicle registration (depending on your location)
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Storage
  • Travel costs (flights, shipping costs, etc)
  • Clothes
  • Business expenses
  • Savings/investment/retirement

As part of your recurring costs, don’t forget to include an amount for an emergency fund.

Things are going to go wrong, and you are always going to end up with expenses you didn’t see coming along the way. Don’t forget to set aside a bit of money for those occasions.

Van life emergencies might include things like hospital visits not covered by insurance. Theft. Emergency breakdowns. Possibly even police bribes, depending on where you are traveling.

These all will happen unexpectedly, and you want to make sure you have some spare cash available when they do.

Cost of Living

The final cost that you will need to consider is your day-to-day costs of living.

Like the other expenses, the cost of living is wildly varied and largely dependent upon how much money you have coming in or how much you have already saved.

Maybe you already keep a budget or maybe budgeting is completely new for you and you don’t even know where to start. Heck, how do you even create a budget for how much it is going to cost you to live especially in a different way than you are familiar with?

We go through the steps that we take in calculating a weekly cost of budget and then we will give you an idea of what van life has cost us.

Decide on Where You Are Traveling

Knowing where you will be traveling seems obvious but it is an important step in budgeting as living costs vary significantly from place to place.

You can make your pennies stretch a lot further in Peru than you can in Northern Europe.

How much money you have to spend and how you want to spend it is a personal choice, but knowing where you are going is the first step to creating a solid and realistic budget that will help you anticipate how much money you will need for your van life adventure and allow you to plan accordingly.

Research Cost of Living

Mexican Pesos Money

Once you know where you’re going, the next step is to research how much things cost in your chosen destination or region.

There are a variety of resources online from Wikipedia to travel blogs to purpose-built websites such as numbeo.com that compile living expense data.

While often the data available online may need to be taken with a grain of salt, these resources are a good starting place to begin estimating living costs and expenses.

When researching and creating our cost of living budget, we break our costs down into categories. The categories that we find work best for us are:

  • Groceries
  • Eating out
  • Entertainment / Activities
  • Fuel
  • Mobile / Internet
  • Other / Miscellaneous

While these work for us, they may not work for you. Figure out where you spend most of your money and define a category to capture these general expenses so that you can research accordingly.

Review Your Spending Habits

Now that we know where we are going and how much things are going to cost, we need to determine our spending habits. That means considering questions like

  • Will you be moving slowly using very little fuel or will you be moving more quickly?
  • Will I cook my own meals? If so, what meals and how often?
  • Am I likely to go out to bars or spend my evening reading books?
  • And any other facet of your lifestyle that might cost money.

Taking an honest account of your spending habits, and extrapolating these to life on the road, will give you the basis for your budget and is not something that you can glean from external resources.

Remember to factor in how regional variation in costs of living may influence behavior.

For example, in Mexico, we ate out 5 or 6 times a week. This was impacted by the incredibly low cost of dining out in Mexico where the cost of lunch was typically between $2 – $5 per person compared to Australia where often a single meal out would blow our entire eating out budget.

Set Aside Discretionary Money

There are inevitably going to be some things that you want to see and do that do not fall into your normal day-to-day costs of living.

Things like swimming with whale sharks in the Ningaloo Reef or blowing out the budget for special occasions like birthdays.

You need to remember to set aside a bit of money in your budgeting process for these things. Let’s call it your discretionary funds. The goal here is to set aside some of your total budget for experiences above and beyond what you do each and every day.

We set aside a specific amount each year which is largely spent on the special things we think we will want to do in each destination we travel and how much money we will have left over after considering recurring expenses, cost of living expenses, and saving.

Compile Your Budget

Now you have all the tools to make a budget. You have already worked out how much you need for start-up costs and recurring costs and have done the research to determine your cost of living costs.

After establishing what you think you will spend, take another look at the budget and trim the fat. In our initial budget, we typically allocate far too much money to some categories.

For example, in creating our Mexico budget, we allocated $50 per week to eating out, but then after further inspection realized this could comfortably be $40 per week (2 people x 5 days x $3.5 per person).

Make sure when creating your budget you don’t forget about incidentals like tolls, subscriptions, or haircuts. These costs, while usually fairly inexpensive, can add up over time.

Example Costs from Our Van Life

Now that you have a little bit of information on how we go about preparing a budget for our vanlife adventures, you may be curious as to how this actually pans out in real life. Here are some real-life examples of costs from our various van life adventures.

Our Start-Up Costs

A woman building a bed frame inside a van
Kelli on the tools building out our second van

Our first van was a tiny Suzuki APV. In 2018, it cost us $6,650, and it was purchased in Santiago, Chile complete with a basic DIY conversion.

Our second van was purchased in the United States in 2019 for $4,500, and we converted this van ourselves for another $5,000.

Our third van was purchased in Australia in 2020 and was a 4WD Land Cruiser Troop Carrier. This van cost approximately $17,000. We spent a further $7,000 completing a DIY conversion for this car.

As you can see, we didn’t spend eye-watering amounts of money on any of our vans, and we still enjoyed our vans just as much as the next van lifer.

Converted vans usually retain their value a lot more than your standard car or truck would, and we’ve recouped a lot of the total costs upon selling our vehicles.

Our Recurring Annual Costs

On our first van life adventure through South America with our little APV our recurring annual costs were about $10,600.

ExpensesBudget
Travel Expenses$3,000
Vehicle Expenses$1,000
Discretionary Spending$2,500
Travel Insurance$600
Health Insurance$3,500
Totals$10,600

Our second van life adventure took us through Mexico, and our annual recurring costs were about $15,700.

ExpensesBudget
Travel Expenses$4,500
Vehicle Expenses$3,000
Discretionary Spending$3,700
Travel Insurance$1,000
Health Insurance$3,500
Total$15,700

In Australia, travelling in our Landcruiser Troop Carrier, our recurring annual costs were about $23,700

ExpensesBudget
Travel Expenses$6,500
Vehicle Expenses$5,000
Discretionary Spending$7,400
Travel Insurance$800
Health Insurance$4,000
Totals$23,700

Our Cost of Living Experience

As we’ve mentioned, living costs will vary depending on where you travel, your budget, and your spending habits.

Interestingly, we have found that our combined living expenses per week have not varied too significantly based on where we are but our habits do change. For example, in Mexico and South America, we tended to eat out more than in Australia where it was really expensive to do so. Conversely, we paid more for accommodation in Mexico where we regularly needed to pay for campgrounds or an Airbnb to have a shower than in Australia where there is a lot of free showers and camping.

Our living cost each week was

  • South America =$360
  • Mexico = $350
  • Australia = $370

What we spend to live each week is less than what we paid in rent living in a major city. Obviously, some people will spend less and some much much more. We rarely stay in accommodation and we hardly ever pay to camp.

For the most part, we choose budget-friendly restaurants, and street food vendors, and cook during the week. Even so, food is our biggest expense (because we take eating very seriously).

Remember, our cost of living does not include anything above and beyond ordinary daily expenses as these extra costs are budgeted separately as discretionary funds.

While our cost of living did not increase when we traveled to different countries, our discretionary funds did. Our discretionary budget in Mexico was approximately $5,500 compared to almost $10,000 when traveling throughout Australia.

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Hopefully, we have given you a starting point to think about the total cost of living in a van per month and helped you start thinking about your very own van life budget.


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