Housing is one of the biggest expenses for the average person or family.
While the standard measure for determining your housing affordability is 30% of your pretax income, the average American spends closer to 37% of their income on housing, and many spend even more.
With a shortage of affordable housing throughout the country, many people are getting creative in order to save on their living expenses. From tiny homes to renting rooms, Americans are looking to cut housing costs.
One option that hasn’t gotten as much attention is living in a van or recreational vehicle. Although this option costs a bit up front, your ongoing expenses are significantly reduced, and you have the added bonus of increased mobility.
Those looking to travel extensively may also benefit from van life, as it is the perfect road trip vehicle.
Living in a van or other similar vehicle has been especially popular with the FIRE crowd (financially independent, retire early) who are looking to be location independent and save money.
But, should you consider living in a van?
To find out, we talked with two individuals who have made van/RV living their norm. Michelle runs the blog Making Sense of Cents and has been traveling full-time for several years with her husband, first via RV, and now via boat. They also recently bought a van for traveling when the boat is at dock.
Similarly, Lauren and her husband Steven retired at 29 and have been traveling around the country in their van ever since. They document their travels and offer personal finance/travel tips on their blog, Trip of a Lifestyle.
The following will cover everything you need to know about living in a van, from the why, to the how, and everything in between.
Table of Contents
Why Might Someone Consider Living in a Van?
Aside from the fact that a van costs less than a house, one of the main reasons someone might consider living in a van is the mobility it offers.
Michelle and her husband had previously lived in an RV full-time and had missed the land-based side of travel ever since transitioning to living on a sailboat full-time. For them, “getting a van seemed like a fun way to be able to continue our land adventures without getting a huge RV again.”
Lauren and Steven were also drawn to the mobility and cost-savings of living in a van, but were initially motivated by their goal of visiting every National Park in the US.
“Mapping it out, we knew we’d be on the road for at least 6 months, if not more, which would definitely cost a lot if every night we were staying in hotels, AirBnBs, or even tent camping. We decided a minimalist approach was more our style (and cheaper, too), so we did some digging and found a surplus of van life ideas. We were sold.”
The two biggest reasons someone might consider living in a van is to save money on housing costs, having mobility, and to save on travel costs.
Choosing a Van
You’ll need to take some time to consider what is most important to you before buying your van and getting it set up.
Lauren and Steven prioritized gas mileage, which left them considering more compact styles.
“The most popular model is the Ford Transit Connect, but we opted for a lesser-known compact cargo van — the Nissan NV200 — because we’d had good experiences with other Nissan vehicles in the past. It’s extremely fuel-efficient (26 MPG) and extremely maneuverable.”
If you’re not in a hurry, Lauren and Steven would recommend keeping an eye on local listings and waiting for a good deal. They were able to get their van used for $12,300 with low miles, which is at least half the cost of the same van new.
They chose to go with a minimalist design to save money and work with the compact nature of their van.
”Our goal was to sink as little money and effort into the build of our cheap camper van as possible while still making it a comfortable place to sleep. And, to be honest, there wasn’t too much space to optimize anyway, since we went with such a compact model. However, if you want to add more bells and whistles, whether you build one out yourself or hire a van conversion company, make sure you plan for the extra time and money it will take to get set up.”
Decide what your priorities are, as these will drive the type of van you purchase. A more compact model will offer increased maneuverability, get better gas mileage, and help you save money on the build. If you want more space, you’ll need to spend a bit more on gas and the build out.
What Are the Setup Costs?
Vans do not typically come equipped to live in, so most will need to spend extra to get their van set up for full-time traveling and living.
Setup costs will depend on the type of van you have and whether or not it will become your permanent home or just a place to lay your head while traveling.
Lauren and Steven kept their van build simple because their goal was to create a safe and comfortable place to sleep during their long trip.
“For about $100 of wood from Lowe’s, we were able to build a storage platform for the back cargo area of our van that took all of a couple hours to complete and “install.” Then, the next step was finding a cheap yet cozy mattress. We were able to snag a full size hybrid mattress from Allswell Home for $285 (with a coupon), and we were blown away by its comfort and durability.”
Additional costs for the build out will depend on the size of the van and the function. Simple build out’s will likely be able to be completed for a few hundred, while more complex build out’s may require professional help and could add thousands to your upfront costs.
What’s it Like Living in a Van?
Both Michelle and Lauren/Steven love living in their van because of the convenient and simple life it affords.
For Michelle, “it’s easier to drive than a bigger RV and can fit in more places. So, this means that we aren’t limited by size as much and can get to some really amazing places. Being able to get in the outdoors all around the world right from your home is an amazing thing.”
Lauren and Steven also like the convenience and simplicity of van life.
“The best part of our particular setup was the fact that we could just pull over at any time and climb in the back to unwind or nap. We used the front cabin area for most other living — like setting up a makeshift TV with an iPad and eating dinner on our laps. But when it was time to get some shuteye, we could just crawl to the back and go to sleep without any setup, since it’s literally just a bed back there.”
However, the simplistic nature of the van life can mean that you need to get creative in order to fulfill some necessities. Lauren writes, “we mostly just used the van for sleeping (and driving, of course). The world was where we lived. We were near towns often enough to use their amenities (like a coffee shop doubling as our office or showering at gyms) while still being able to get away for outdoor fun in remote parkland.
Compact van life affords a simple and convenient lifestyle but does require some creativity to meet basic necessities like showering. Thus, it is convenient in a lot of ways but can be somewhat inconvenient in others. Some may want a larger setup to avoid the need to rely on public facilities for toileting and bathing needs.
What Are the Ongoing Costs of Living in a Van?
The costs of living in a van include normal living costs such as food and insurance. Michelle also mentioned that the ongoing maintenance costs of your vehicle will likely be higher due to increased use. Recreational passes or hobby gear may also contribute to ongoing costs.
Lauren and Steven agree that the costs are comparable to what they’d usually be spending at home for some things like cell, health insurance, personal items, and entertainment. They concur that maintenance costs are higher when living in a van, especially oil changes and gas.
“The only other thing that increased budget-wise was food because we didn’t have a lot of space for storage. We tend to eat out more while on the road, although we still try to get a good deal by menu hacking.”
Many of the ongoing costs are comparable to living in a typical housing situation. The costs that increase include vehicle maintenance and repairs, along with food.
What Are the Parking Options?
Luckily, there are tons of options for parking, including RV parks, campgrounds, State and National Park campgrounds, public land, wineries, and more.
Michelle’s favorite is “public land as there’s a whole lot of space and another benefit is that it is free! We also like that the van is small enough so that we can park in friends and family members driveways and visit them more often.”
Lauren and Steven focused on free parking spaces for the majority of their travels to save even more.
“When we travel, we choose to park overnight at travel centers (Flying J, Pilot, TA, Love’s) and Walmart parking lots (it’s a sort of unwritten rule that Walmart allows overnight parking, but just know that they can ask you to leave at any time). Another great free option is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and National Forests, both of which allow “dispersed camping” at no cost — just pull off on the side of the road in a safe place.”
There are a lot of options for parking, and the majority of the time you can find something for free. BLM land, National Forests, and other public land offer free overnight parking. You can also park for free at travel centers. With a little planning, you should be able to find places to stay overnight for free when traveling.
What Are the Advantages of Living in a Van?
Both Michelle and Lauren/Steven agree that there are a plethora of advantages to living in a van.
Michelle writes: “There are so many advantages of living in a van. I love the freedom to choose where I want to live and travel. I love having my belongings with me, because we like to do a lot of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and climbing. I also love that living in a van allows me to spend more time outside, as all I have to do is open my door and I’m in some amazing places. Living in a van also means that I can travel full-time much more easily with my dogs, and we have two of them.”
Lauren writes: “The cost savings of being able to sleep in the van was huge. It probably saved us upwards of $15,000 over seven months, compared to hotels. It’s great to just have your stuff with you all the time rather than having to go back to a hotel or campsite for something you forgot to pack. It’s kind of like being a turtle — your home is right over your shoulder! We also really enjoyed being able to go basically anywhere we wanted with our van. Probably one of the biggest advantages to our particular van is the fact that it’s so small and looks like a commercial vehicle, so no one ever assumes there are people living inside. We can hide in plain sight whenever we need to park for the night.”
The main advantages to living in a van are the ability to travel and live where you want, having your belongings with you, the ability to spend more time outside, cost savings on travel, and the ability to hide in plain sight because no one assumes people are living inside.
What Are the Disadvantages of Living in a Van?
Like anything, living in a van also has its downsides.
Michelle writes: “Living in a van isn’t perfect. For us, we can only carry so much water, so we are limited to the 21 gallons of water. With 2 people and 2 dogs, 21 gallons can’t last forever. We also have a very small fridge. And, of course, living in a van is a very small space. For us, being able to get outdoors is a great trade off to that, though.”
Lauren writes: “Since we didn’t insulate the cargo area of our van, outside temperature was important. If it was between 25-70 degrees Fahrenheit, we could sleep in the back without heat, A/C, a fan, or a vent (we did crack the front windows a tiny bit most nights).”
The main disadvantages are limited space, limited ability to carry or keep supplies, and limited utilities.
Who Should Consider Living in a Van?
Living in a van isn’t perfect, but it can be a great option for a lot of different people.
Michelle recommends living in a van for:
– Anyone who is interested in seeing more of the world, but wants to have their home with them.
– Someone who wants to get outdoors and be closer to the trails
– Someone who wants to travel more small/minimalist
Lauren thinks that a lot of people could make this low-maintenance, affordable style of travel and living work for them.
“There’s definitely a mindset shift — you have to be comfortable going into a Planet Fitness just to shower, pulling up to a Pilot Travel Center so you can run in and brush your teeth, or circling the Walmart parking lot to find a good place to park for the night.”
Living in a van is a great option for those looking to partake in extended travel and who are looking to cut costs and willing to lead a minimalist lifestyle. Van life may also be a good option for those looking to permanently cut housing costs, although upfront costs for building out the van may be more in order to better meet basic needs.
Other Thoughts on Van Life
Lauren included some other information for those considering living in a van that she feels are important to know going in.
“Be prepared for spotty cell service and internet connectivity. We regularly downloaded Netflix episodes, offline maps, and podcasts to listen to without using data. Keep in mind that more places offer free Wi-Fi than you might think — from restaurants, like Denny’s and McDonalds, to stores, like Walmart and Target, and of course coffee shops. Go ahead and spend a few minutes catching up on social media and emails whenever you can do so for free to save your data for those times you really need it.
Offline maps are useful, and our van even has an old navigation system built in, both of which come in handy any time you’re going to cross borders without an international phone plan. We also always keep a paper map in the van. You never know when technology might malfunction, so it’s always safe to have a backup.”
Moral of the Story
Van life has become an option for those looking for extended travel opportunities and to permanently cut housing costs.
However, some may be hesitant to jump into van life without fully understanding the why, the how, and everything in between.
We talked with two van life experts to get the answers to what life is like living in a van and how to get set up. Both Michelle and Lauren/Steven have spent extended time traveling in their vans and both love the simplicity and convenience of the lifestyle.
Our interview covered everything from why someone might consider living in a van, to the setup and costs, parking, advantages and disadvantages, and who should consider this lifestyle.
After reading their thoughts, we’d like to hear yours.
Do you see yourself living in a van?
Talk about Money Saved and Mobility Earned.