If you’re interested in vanlife or traveling full-time, then you’re probably trying to build a budget for vanlife.  Budgeting for an entirely different lifestyle can be very difficult.  We want to share our techniques with you, so that you can build a budget that you trust and can rely on for your adventure planning.

We’ll go over how to estimate your costs for traveling and living in a van full time.  In addition, if you’re interested in finding out how much we actually spend while living in our van and traveling full time, you can read our blog How Much Does Vanlife Cost.

Our home on wheels, biking in Flagstaff, AZ

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Building a budget for vanlife is not altogether much different than building a budget for any other type of lifestyle.  The tricky part about building a budget for vanlife is that most people underestimate how much they spend.  The best place to start is by listing categories that describe how you spend your money.  This list is a great place to start:

Budget Categories

  • Gas – gas purchases
  • Groceries – grocery store purchases, including water fills, gas station snacks
  • Food & Drink – going out to eat or drink, includes breweries, ice cream, and street food.
  • Shopping – clothing, shoes, gear, van project supplies, etc.
  • Entertainment – National Parks passes, tours, entry fees, movies, concerts, museums, etc.
  • Auto Maintenance – oil changes, tires, tools, parts, and labor associated with maintaining a vehicle
  •  Camping – campgrounds or parking structures with 24-hour security and access
  • Bills & Utilities – cell phone, Netflix, Amazon Prime, vehicle registration, vehicle insurance, health insurance, storage unit, gym membership, website registration fees, app subscriptions (spotify, adobe), etc.

Ideally, you are starting vanlife debt-free, but if you have other financial obligations like a vehicle payment, student loans, or credit card debt, you need to figure those payments into your budget as well.  Being able to properly categorize your spending is the first step towards building an accurate and attainable budget for vanlife.

budget for vanlife

Estimating your Spend

Now that you have your budget categories identified, you need to assign estimated values to them.  If you have no idea where to start, you should look at your current spending habits.  Although some things will definitely change more or less when traveling full time, your current spending will be a good baseline for building your budget.

Here are a few tips for estimating your budget for vanlife, by category:

Gas

Your gas cost is dependent on how much you drive, and to a certain extent, where you’re going.  Gas is much more expensive in California than it is in Arkansas.  If you want to travel a lot, your gas costs will be much higher than if you cover less ground and stay in places longer.  Try to take a look at the places you want to see and get a good understanding of how much driving that is.  Also try to evaluate your traveling style.  Are you a do-as-much-as-possible person?  Or are you an it’s-ok-that-I-don’t-see-it-all-and-chill person?  Take these factors into consideration when estimating your gas costs.

Groceries

We used to buy in bulk when we lived in a house, making our grocery expenses relatively cheap.  With the small space in a van, that is not possible.  We also don’t buy a lot of meat because we hunt and eat wild game.  Consider the products you buy that are relatively expensive like meat, cheese, hummus, nut butter, and processed foods.  Eating a simple diet of vegetables, whole grains, and a small amount of lean protein is affordable and healthy, but not as much fun.  It’s important to know what you spend on groceries.

Food & Drink

Most people grossly underestimate how much they spend on going out to eat and drink.  We certainly did.  When we lived in a house, we rarely went out to eat or to grab drinks with friends because we enjoyed evenings at home.  Now that we are traveling, we like to sample the local food from street vendors, and restaurants as well as trying local breweries.  This adds up fast, and it is important to pay attention to this kind of spending while traveling.  If you are a foodie and know that you like to eat out, make sure to properly estimate for this in your budget!

Shopping

Hopefully you won’t need to buy much when you’re traveling, simply because when you live in a van there is no room for extras!  But, sometimes you have the occasional home improvement project, torn jeans, or need a new pair of hiking boots.  Or maybe your bike broke and you need to fix it.  The shopping category can be a place where you spend a lot of money if you’re not careful.  Try to be thrifty when purchasing items by buying used or trying to fix what you already have.  In the end, if you are the type of person that has an Amazon package on their porch every day, you’ll need to either curb that habit or make sure to account for it in your budget.

Entertainment

State park entry fees, a National Parks annual pass, tours, movies, concerts, museums, and any other events you go to should be accounted for in this category.  We typically don’t spend a lot on stuff like this except for park entry fees.  But here and there we will see a concert.  What’s important here is that if you don’t budget for it, know that whatever your spend towards entertainment is just going to come out of another category when you’re on the road.

Auto Maintenance

You’re vehicle is your ticket to freedom.  Oil changes, tires, tools, parts, and labor associated with maintaining a vehicle are an absolute requirement to budget for.  Not only should you account for regular maintenance costs, but you should also save a little on the side as a buffer in case anything major happens.  This is where most people forget to account for these costs and end up having to stop somewhere to work and save up for vehicle maintenance and/or give up on vanlife altogether.

Camping

We really try not to pay for camping, and so far it’s been a success.  We’ve never paid for a campground in the USA, but we did pay for  a few parking structures with 24-hour security and access when we staying in cities.  Try to determine if you prefer places with free camping, or if you prefer to stay in campgrounds with facilities and estimate that cost into your budget.

Bills & Utilities

This category will include a wide range of items that are a monthly fixed cost.  Your cell phone, Netflix, Amazon Prime, vehicle registration, vehicle insurance, health insurance, storage unit, gym membership, etc. should all be included in this category.  Your Vehicle registration and insurance, which is not a monthly fee, take your total and average the cost across the whole year so that it is factored into your monthly budget.  For example, if your vehicle registration and insurance costs you $1200 per year, you will average that across the year by assigning $100 per month for that cost.

Budget for Vanlife 

Now that you have assigned estimated values to your budget categories, you should have a table that looks something this:

CateogoryEstimated Cost
Gas$500.00
Groceries$500.00
Food & Drink$500.00
Shopping$100.00
Entertainment$100.00
Auto Maintenance$150.00
Camping$50.00
Bills & Utilities$500.00

Grand Total

$2,400.00

budget for vanlife

Building a budget for Vanlife

Obviously, there are a lot of levers you can pull within your budget to spend more or less.  With the example budget above, you would need just under $30,000 to live a comfortable life traveling in a van full time.  You can spend a lot less money on several categories if you are intentional about it and live a simple life.  The Bills & Utilities category can get paired down to just the essentials in order to save money as well.

Like I wrote at the beginning, building a budget for vanlife or traveling full time is dependent on your  daily habits.  There is a whole spectrum of spending.  You will have to analyze yourself to build the most realistic budget.  Then, once you start traveling, it’s important to look back at your actual spending and make any adjustments necessary so that you’re on track.  If you’d like to see how much money we spend on the road, check out our blog “How Much Does Vanlife Cost?”

Please comment below if you have tips and tricks for budgeting that you would like to share!  We’d love to hear from you!

Happy Travels!

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for a very interesting and well-written article. I have thought about buying or renting a van someday and travelling with it at least for a few months. This article provides great information for budgeting!

  2. Hi, Jess and Greg,

    I loved reading your article. It gave me more insight into what vanlife budgeting is like.
    I do have experience budgeting for house expenses or traveling, but I had no idea what it would be like for vanlife. I’m not that adventurous, but it’s always good to know.
    You covered some important points above and I’m pretty sure they will help whoever is interested in it.
    It’s important to prepare for the unexpected as things don’t always go as planned. Thanks for reminding us of that.
    I will share this with my friends. Thanks for writing this up.

    • Hi Enrique, thanks for reading! You are right, it is similar to budgeting for living in a home, but different in a few aspects! You gave such a unique perspective and we appreciate your feedback!

      Jess & Greg

  3. Thanks for putting this budget for vanlife together. I am planning on doing this in the future with our little one and drive across America, following the sun. To be honest I am only now learning about budgeting. They don’t teach this stuff at school, so you got to teach yourself.
    Compared to living in a house it seems quite a bit cheaper. I think we will put our house on Airbnb and then hit the road for a year. That way we still got some money coming in and get to offset some of the cost.
    Great advice and I am going to set up an account and start saving 🙂

    • It’s very unfortunate that they don’t teach how to budget in school. Living in a van is quite a bit cheaper than a house, which makes it a lot easier to sustain as a lifestyle. I’m glad to hear that you’re planning a trip across America, that will be an epic adventure! Putting your house up is an awesome way to make a passive income, we have thought about rental properties as well. That seems like a smart way to go!

      Happy Travels,
      Jess & Greg

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