Vanlife Expenses: The Breakdown You Need to Know


The Van Life experience is not just about those fancy Instagram pictures and Youtube worthy travel videos that everybody is accustomed to. It is a way of living, and since it is a way of living, you need to consider a lot of things to make the van life experience worth it. The most important thing for you to consider in living the van life is the financial aspects of it. Van life is expensive, or at least considerably costly, because you will have to spend money on both costs of living and van maintenance. So before you dive right into the van life community, acquaint yourself with the expenses of living on a van, including the costs of having one in the first place.

How much does it cost to live in a van fulltime? The van itself will cost you around $20,000 to $40,000. DIY van conversion may range from $15,000 to $25,000, while professional conversion usually ranges from around $25,000 to $60,000. Living and maintenance expenses may range from $2,000 to $3,500, monthly.

It is important for you to be aware of the financial aspects of living the van life. This is to make sure that you will be living the dream life, not a nightmare. Oftentimes, people are shocked when they realize that living the van life is expensive, especially if you are not careful in preparing your budget and spendings. This is why we should be apprised of what are the specific expenses that we are going to face monthly as we go through the van life experience, including the average budget per expenses and the van’s initial costs.

1. Your Van Brand and Model: The Initial Costs You Need to Think About

Currently, there are a number of manufacturing brands that produce high-quality cargo vans that are perfect for van conversion. Due to the competition of these brand manufacturers, they have understandable levied prices that are different from each other. Famous and well-established brands like Mercedes-Benz and Ford tend to have a relatively high starting price. Other brands have positioned themselves by marketing their cargo vans at a relatively affordable starting price, with cheap add-ons. 

The van can also be more pricey if it’s a relatively new model, even more, if it’s the latest model. Leading van models, like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans and Ford Transit Vans, always have new iterations every year. Their respective prices could also be affected by the number of add-ons, such as adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring driver aids.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans. Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans are said to be the quintessential van for a van conversion, at least according to van lifers. Through the years, the Sprinter Vans have become both the safe choice and the best choice for the van life, especially for beginners.

Sprinter Vans are widely touted to be the most durable and powerful vans in their class. With a maximum payload capacity of 5,000 lbs, it is the most suitable van for conversion because it can carry weight more than any other van. Although there are three types of Sprinter Vans, the cargo van types are what you ideally should choose for van conversion because it is designed for heavy cargo duty.

Currently, there are 21 variations for the Sprinter Cargo Van. The starting price of Sprinter Cargo Vans is usually around $34,000, and it may increase up to around $60,000 depending on the specifications and add-ons you choose.

Ford Transit Vans. The Ford Transit Van is touted by most van lifers to be the best competitor to the Sprinter Vans. Like the Sprinter Vans, the Ford Transit Vans are manufactured by a global company. This means that the Ford Transit Vans are expected to be one of the highest quality. Spare parts are also easily accessible and cheaper when the vehicle is a global brand.

In comparison to the Sprinter Vans, the Ford Transit Vans actually have higher ceilings and wider interior space than the Sprinter Vans. Although, the Ford Transit Vans tend to be a lot shorter in length when compared to the Sprinter Vans. This makes the Ford Transit Vans ideal for tall people because it can accommodate people who are 6’5 Ft in height without much hassle.

When it comes to price, the Ford Transit Vans have just about the same starting price as the Sprinters at around $34,000, although the Sprinter’s price scales higher as the specs and features increase.

Nissan NV, Ram Promaster, and Chevrolet Express. For those who are quite unwilling to spend that much money just for the van, there are a lot of other alternative vans from reputable van manufacturers too. The decision to go for cheaper vans makes sense because you will have to spend on a van conversion, either way. In fact, buying cheaper but reliable vans and investing more in van conversion makes a lot more sense than blowing the budget on the van itself.

You have popular brands that are priced lower than Sprinters and Transits, such as the Ram ProMaster Van, Nissan NV, and Chevrolet Express. The Promaster has a starting price of around $31,000 and can go up to $41,000. This saves you around $10,000 to spend on the conversion if you instead opt for the ProMaster. Nissan NV ranges from $29,000 to $37,000, while the Chevrolet Express ranges from $32,000 to $35,000.

2. Wheelbase: Best to Consider When It Comes to the Cost of Van

There are three basic versions of each van that vary in length, one with a short wheelbase, another with a long wheelbase, and an even longer wheelbase. For starters, a long wheelbase van will give you more space to maximize the living environment. You are guaranteed to have space for a shower area or even install length-wise beds with longer vans. However, the massive trade-off is its lesser maneuverability, not to mention the van’s hanging tail-end.

The pros and cons of long wheelbase vans are even magnified when you choose the long-wheelbase – extended body. For short wheelbase vans or shorter vans, you have better maneuverability, which ultimately means easy parking. However, you do have to manage your space allocation properly as you are most likely to have an interior length of 8’10 feet for Ford Transit and 10’3 feet for Sprinter Vans.

The interior lengths for long wheelbase vans measure up to 10’4 feet for Ford Transit and 13’9 feet for Sprinter Vans, while the extended ones reach up to 13 and 15 feet, respectively.

3. Converting Your Van: Will Get A Big Chunk of Your Budget

Image Source: “Mercedes-Benz JetVan Let the good times roll. Based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, the JetVan is an exotic work of art for the business executive inside all of us. Customized by Becker Automotive Design, the luxury transporter can be outfitted to” by Automotive Rhythms is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The next initial cost you have to prepare is the van conversion cost. The vans need to be converted to make them as livable and comfortable as living in a van could ever be. Some vans are already pre-converted by van traders and are understandable pricier than regular cargo vans.

This option is quite handy because it saves you the time and effort of looking for a conversion company, or perhaps doing it by yourself. If you bought a standard cargo van, whether brand new or second-hand, you have two options to convert it.

You can either go for a van conversion company’s services or convert the van by yourself or with the help of some friends. Each option has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. Generally, going for the services of van conversion companies can be really expensive.

4. DIY Conversion: The Budget-Friendly Alternative

Image Source: “2015 Ram 3500 ProMaster” by Crown Star Images is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Let us start with the cheaper option, doing the conversion DIY. This may be done by yourself alone, or with the help of friends. Some even hire the services of professional labor, as an added assistance. This option gives you maximum flexibility because you can customize your van’s interior layout for as much as you want.

It is cheaper than the other option because you will be personally doing hard labor. Another advantage of this option is that it builds your experience in craftsmanship and the van life experience as a whole. This means that you would be able to know your layout more.

The average cost of going for a DIY conversion is around $15,000 to $25,000, although there are others who managed to convert at even lower costs.

Here comes the negative part, there are a lot of disadvantages in going for a DIY conversion. The most obvious disadvantage in DIY conversion is the relatively weaker end result, as you are not a professional van converter. This option also eats up your precious time because you have to personally do the van conversion, from the layout to the actual creation of each section. It also means that the DIY conversion option is tiring and exhaustive since you will not be as efficient as a professional converter.

The DIY option also requires a lot of skill and experience, which few of us actually do have. For beginners who have never crafted, built, or even fixed a simple cabinet, this option will be impossible and would require a herculean effort and improvement to pull off.

The finished product is also not as valuable or expensive as a professionally converted van would have. You cannot blame second-hand buyers if they prefer to buy from a professionally converted van.

5. Van Conversion Companies: When You Have the Money to Splurge

Image Source: “MercedesBenz_VanCamp_069” by Automotive Rhythms is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Let us now go to the expensive but ideal option. Having a van conversion company do the van conversion makes a lot of sense because it does not require you to have skill, time, or experience. Rather, this option will be available to anyone who has the financial capacity to hire the services of a van conversion company. The average price charged by van conversion companies for their services ranges from $25,000 to $60,000, although high-end conversions may go up to $100,000.

It may not give you as much flexibility as the DIY conversion does, van conversion companies still give you a lot of freedom because they let you customize the layout. They may either give you brochures of sample layouts to choose from or straight up as for your preferences.

Generally, choosing a customization layout that is not within their brochures will be a bit more pricey. This means that for persons who have no idea how to customize their van or what they would want their van to look like, van conversion companies are the right choice.

This option gives you professionally done results and would be more valuable than a DIY converted van. Aside from the customization and add-on options, the price would also depend on the van conversion company’s reputation.

Van conversion companies like Outside Van, Vanworks, RB Components, and Colorado Camper Van are expected to be a bit more pricey than others because of their good reputation. Some companies also have specific specialties when it comes to van conversion.

Image Source: “Leisure Travel Van 2019” by Michael & Sherry Martin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Obviously, the most obvious disadvantage to this option is that it gets to be really expensive and it is expected because all the hard work will be done by the conversion company, including the procurement of things like beds, mattresses, cabinets, etc.

Aside from the high expense of this option, you will also have the disadvantage of having difficulty changing the layout once it’s done. You will not have the liberty of tweaking things because you do not know how things were arranged, bolted, or attached.

The flexibility of this option is also limited. Miscommunication between the customer and the van conversion company can likely happen which means that the ideal van in your imagination may not necessarily translate into the finished product. When choosing this option, make sure to make your preferences and choices very clear to the van conversion company.

6. Living Monthly Expenses: May Range From $2,000 to $2,500

Image Spurce: “A campervan pulls into Lake Taylor campsite.” by Spaceships Rentals is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

Now that we are done with the initial one-time costs let us go through the monthly expenses that you will have to manage. Monthly living expenses involve fuel, insurance, food and groceries, campground rent, and internet expenses. On average, you will have to set aside around $2,000 to $2,500 per month for these expenses.

It is important that you set aside enough money for each expense. Whenever you come short in each of these expenses, you are messing up your monthly budget. To ensure that your monthly budget is kept at bay, have a checklist of your necessary expenses. It would also be ideal to compare your actual spending with your projected ideal monthly expenses.

7. Monthly Fuel Expenses: May Range From $300 to $500 

Image Source: “Expensive.” by ianmunroe is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

This expense may fluctuate because there are months when van lifers do not travel. However, as you save up on fuel expenses by not traveling much, you are incurring additional expenses on the campground rent. Unless you are always boondocking or leeching off of friends’ driveways or parking areas, you have to pay rent more whenever you are not traveling much. Aside from not getting much on your van life, less travels means you are likely to irregularly refuel your tanks.

Do not make a habit of drying your gas tanks because it damages the tank and the van. Fuel expenses for van lifers who moderately travel will usually range from around $300 to $500 per month. Since fuel prices rarely change, you can expect just about the same monthly expense on refueling if you travel consistently. Of course, if you are non-stop traveling from state to state, you will likely incur more fuel expenses.

8. Insurance Expenses: May Range From $200 to $300

You are on the road, so it is very important that you apply for insurance. This refers to personal health insurance and vehicular insurance on the van. Personal health insurance would likely cost you around $50 to $100 per month. As for the vehicular insurance for the van, it may range from $100 to $200, depending on the insurance company.

It is important to be covered by insurance because you are constantly traveling. Even when you are camping at campgrounds, accidents can still happen and so it’s best to be covered by insurance. Getting into accidents without insurance can actually cost you more.

9. Food And Groceries: May Usually Range From $600 to $2000

This is by far the most important monthly budget on this list. You cannot survive on the road without eating or drinking. To save up on expenses, try to always buy food and groceries in bulk. This saves you the expense of constantly driving to the mart for groceries. However, do not buy so much that some of them go stale and rot.

Go for long-lasting food such as canned goods. Stack up on drinkable water because, in times of emergency, water can sustain you for weeks. Lastly, minimize your trip to the restaurants because they only increase your expenses, go for fast food if you don’t have the time to cook.

This monthly expense depends if you have a companion or not. Two persons can likely be sustained by a monthly budget of $600 to $2000, depending on your food preferences. Although, in general, $2000 on food and groceries is already a bit too much. If you have kids, this monthly budget will likely be more than $2000 per month.

10. Campground Rent Expenses: May Reach $500

Image Source: “Madison Campground” by YellowstoneNPS is marked with CC PDM 1.0 

Campground rent expenses depend on where you camp. State parks and National Parks are often free or really cheap, while privately-owned RV parks get really expensive. Private RV parks can charge you up to $900 to $1500 per month, especially if you go for a lot of overnight stays. Most RVers and Van lifers tend to avoid spending so much on RV parks and hover around $500 to $900 for RV Park rent.

Ideally, you should mix things up and keep the campground rent around $500. You can alternate between state parks, private RV parks, and boondocking. Boondocking is free, but it comes with a lot of discomforts. It’s free because you are not hooking up on the internet, sewage, or water supply; in fact, you have no one around you!

11. Internet And Mail Expenses: May Usually Range From $800 to $1,500

This monthly expense depends on what internet connection you use. Usually, this expense may range from $800 to $1,500, depending on your monthly data consumption. However, most campgrounds have an internet connection. They include the wifi connection with the rent package that you are paying for.

However, on the road, you will definitely need a wireless connection. This means you will have to avail of monthly internet subscriptions from companies like AT&T and Verizon. No one can live without an internet connection as much of our current jobs and activities involve the internet.

12. Repair Expenses: May At The Very Least Cost $500

Image Source: “VW T5 Camper furniture fitted” by Vanguard Campervan Conversions is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Repairs may actually vary from month to month. For instance, months, where you traveled a lot, can cost you more money on repairs than months when you just camped in campgrounds. In fact, your spending on repairs may sometimes be $100 in a given month while it may become $1,000 in another given month. 

Ideally, the van life experience requires you to be constantly on the road. So monthly spending on the tune-up, reconditioning, and repairs may at least cost you $500. If you are on the road 24/7, you will likely be spending more than that! Remember that the more you delay the repairs, the more expensive it gets because the damage and deterioration worsen.

13. Repainting Expenses: Will Cost Around $10 to $50

Image Source: “painted van” by subsetsum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Painting your van protects it from the weather inclement, such as extreme cold and hot temperatures. Sometimes the intense cold of the winter weather deteriorates your van’s pain protection, while there are times when constant exposure to the sun’s UV rays creates cracks on the paint. Without the paint that protects your van, the van’s outer surface can deteriorate faster.

Repainting your van can cost you around $10 to $50. It all depends on how frequent you travel or how harsh the weather gets to be. When you travel from state to state with varying weather conditions, the damage and deterioration on the paint magnify, and so you need to always check for signs when the van needs repainting. 

14. Resealing Expenses Are Really Expensive

Image Source: “Toyota Van – For Sale” by Hugo-90 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

This is one of the most expensive on this list. Resealing a van can cost you up to $1,200 per resealing. However, you are not expected to reseal your van on a monthly basis; sometimes, there are years when you are not required to reseal. If you reseal properly, the sealant can last up to years, which means you do not have to save money for the next resealing anytime soon.

However, when you do need to reseal the van, such as when cracks and crevices are evident on the current sealant, make sure to do so as soon as possible. Cracks and crevices can allow water to leak inside the van. These leakages can cause holes in the van’s roof, which means more money needs to be spent on repairing it. 

Conclusion

The van life experience requires you to keep in mind a lot of expenses. Without proper planning and budgeting, these expenses can mess things up and incur debts that you normally would not incur. The van itself is expensive, and the van conversion can be equally expensive. Now, it may be expensive but not as expensive as buying a home. Rent for houses and apartments are so expensive nowadays that the expenses of living in vans and RVs pale in comparison. So, living in a van is the best way to go, if you want to save on living expenses. If you want to know the pros and cons when it comes to van living, here is an article that I have written for you.

Ash

Hi! this is a filling profile to remind me to make a better one AND figure out how to get my pic on gravatar ;)

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