Why Van Life Is More Expensive Than You Thought

Van life — or living and traveling out of your vehicle — has exploded on social media in recent years. Its draw seems to be that it is seen as an inexpensive way to travel across the country to see all your bucket list national parks or, for the extra adventurous, take a long road trip to Alaska (the best place to see the northern lights in the United States). And most of that is true, except for the inexpensive part. Van life, despite its vagabond, just-go-with-the-flow appearance, is much more expensive than you may expect.

In fact, the average monthly cost of living out of a van is often quoted at between $1,500 to $2,000 per person, according to a poster on the van dwellers forum of Reddit. That's about the same as the average price of rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, for two people, the cost of van life is not much better. One full-time van life couple that spoke with Business Insider claimed that their lifestyle costs $2,000 to $3,500 a month, and the only way they can get their costs down to $2,000 is by saving on gas and expenses by working as house sitters. So, what is it about van life that makes it so pricey?

The hidden expenses of living on the road

When making a van life budget, you will need to factor in food, gas, car payments (if you have them), and vehicle and health insurance. For food, you will likely be spending close to the same amount per month that you do already because the types of meals you cook and the number of times you eat out per week are unlikely to change. Gas costs can vary greatly depending on how much you want to travel but are typically around $200 to $600 a month. But — fair warning — according to one van lifer who wrote about his experience in Men's Journal, the highest amount he spent on gas in a month was $1,500.

On top of this, there are some hidden costs of van life that you may not have expected. One of the main ones is paying for campsites. Many RV parks and campgrounds charge an average of around $22 per night (for public campgrounds) and $36 per night (for RV parks). However, some popular scenic sites can cost $100 per night or more. Other hidden expenses include data plans and Internet (Starlink costs $150 per month), paying to shower or for a gym membership to use the showers, laundry, vehicle maintenance, road tolls, and national park fees.

How to save while living in a van

All this doesn't mean that it is impossible to do van life cheaply. Another commenter on the same van dwellers Reddit thread responded to the idea that van life costs $1,500 to $2,000 per month, saying that "it's as expensive as you make it" and that the cost of their lifestyle "averages out between $800 to $1,200 per month for two people." So, how can you do van life on a budget?

The first step would be to reduce gas costs by staying in one area for longer and seeing everything interesting in that locality before moving on. For the best experience living on the road, you can follow the 3-3-3 rule, where you arrive at your destination by 3 p.m., stay in the same place for three days, and drive no more than three hours at a time.

You can also save money on campground fees by using a few popular websites and apps to find free or cheap parking locations. While a little less glamorous, another option is to spend the night in a Walmart parking lot, as some Walmart stores across the nation allow free overnight camping. Lastly, you can practice "stealth" camping; however, this is often illegal and not always safe.