- Guest Post by our Friends Matt and Ali of Owen Your Future
So you have found yourself at the end of your chain with your “normal” life and you're starting to think ...Hey...these Always The Road people (Pete & Tay) have it figured out... I want to find my own stretch of the road and take back my freedom!
But then you get to thinking, How much money do I need? What is my life going to look like with no 9-5? How will I make the ends meet while traveling and enjoying myself?
Well lucky for you, we (Matt & Alli Owen) at Owen Your Future have put together a summary of our expenses for the last 2 months of full time van life! Wonder no more, as we'll spill the beans on just how much we spent on each category of our budget so you can use it as a guide for planning your great escape into van life.
First, a quick introduction. Just a few short years ago, we felt stuck in our corporate jobs and felt like life was passing us by outside the windows of our cubicles. So, we took action, we saved up 70% of our incomes for three years, and in April of 2018, we took the leap. We quit our engineering jobs in California at age 28, self converted our 2006 sprinter van in 6 weeks, and hit the road. We now have dedicated our time to enjoying our travels and helping others prepare financially to live their dream life.
We traveled from California to South Carolina and all the way up the east coast into New Brunswick Canada in our first two months, so we covered quite a lot of ground (which will be reflected in our expenses).
Beforehand, we had some idea of what this lifestyle would cost us but we weren't 100% certain. Hopefully this post can be a guide to you so you can make the jump a bit more prepared. Also, please note, many people spend less than we do to live this lifestyle, and some people spend more. This is merely what we spend, and you may find your expenses will be different.
Largest expense over the last two months was Groceries – Avg. $444.51
We eat almost exclusively fresh foods- mostly vegetables and meat. We eat close to the ketogenic diet, which is a high fat and low carb diet which does tend to be a little bit more expensive than some other diets. We find about $100/wk for the two of us is fairly standard. We always try to buy stuff on sale when we can. We are opportunists in the produce isle and snatch up whatever is overstocked. Just for reference this category was about the same as it was for us before moving into the van which makes sense. Our eating habits haven't really changed at all.
2nd largest was Diesel – Avg. $425.34
We covered a lot of ground when we first finished the van. We finished May 30th and needed to be in South Carolina by June 9th for a family reunion. This is A-typical for sure and not representative of how most people will travel in their van. The second month was a bit more leisurely as we continued up the east coast. Our van's gas mileage has been approximately 19-23mpg over the last 6,000 miles or so. Diesel prices have been right around $3.00/gal or so. If you know about how much you'll be driving you can always estimate your gas budget (#miles) / (MPG) * ($/gal) for example, we've driven 6,000 miles at 20mpg which is 300gal at $3 each or about $900 which is pretty close to what we've spent in the last two months!
3rd expense is Eating Out – Avg. $352.36
This one is a big lever you can use to adjust your spending. July was a crazy high month for us but I'll tell you why and I think you might be able to relate. When we travel in the van we end up visiting with a lot of friends and family along the way. We find that the temptation is strong to go out on the town with them since we're only in town for a little while and to them it feels like a vacation. Of course to us this is real life. So, for us, we've found some ways to fight this temptation but still get the quality time with loved ones. We've offered to cook dinner at their place (or host in our van if our guests are the adventurous type!). We've also met up with friends over hikes instead of drinks. Not only is it healthier for our body, but our budget as well! While we typically follow these suggestions, in July we found ourselves in Maryland and Maine and had a couple very expensive seafood dinners. Even though it was more expensive than we'd typically spend, we also believe in balance! We have to live our lives the way we feel called too and sometimes that means hitting the best spots in town with our friends and family for meals we would have never experienced otherwise. We also know it will balance out down the road when we have less people to visit and do more of our the cooking in the van.
In preparation for van life, I suggest that you take a look at your eating habits now. If you all love to cook in.. Then odds are you'll continue that and your budget will be similar or a bit higher when you are around a concentration of friends. If you love eating out then go for it! There is so much great food to be had on the road. So many new flavors and places to try. Just make sure you account for it in your van life budget.
4th category was Clifford maintenance (our van) – Avg. $286.29
While on the road, we have had pretty minor repairs. We did a set of rear brake pads, air filter, and a fuel filter. We bought a few things for the inside which made it into this category. We bought some new backpacking camp chairs which are awesome for the van. We got a new hatchet because our other one was stolen from one of our campsites. We got a WIFI adapter with an antenna to let us work from the van and still get that McDonalds Wifi (fastest around!).
We also had to replace two pieces of the electrical system. We had a breaker that failed and our battery monitor also failed.
5th category was our phones – Avg. $181.91
We are on Verizon's unlimited plan. Its $170 per month for both of us but we use our unlimited plan a ton for working from the road so its essential. Verizon also has pretty good coverage and while we usually don't have enough service to work from a remote camp site, we almost always can use it anytime we are near a town.
6th category is Health Insurance – Avg. $151.50
Health insurance in the United States is such a tricky area. Your situation might be different than ours, so you will have to do your research here because the marketplace for insurance depends a lot on what state you live in and your income for the year. Since we worked half a year we didn't get any subsidies for health insurance in CA and our rates were going to be $800-1,500 per month! Yikes.
So we ended up going with a health sharing ministry. We are with Medi-Share and we have a high deductible plan. There are 3 or 4 big companies that offer this type of insurance so you can shop around for pricing depending on what type of plan you need. Alli and I are both 28 and generally pretty healthy so we decided to go with a “catastrophic” plan. I call it that because we cover everything up to $10,000 per year. At that point is when we start being eligible to get expenses covered. Seeing how we haven't had to use our program yet (we haven't paid anything for doctors yet, knock on wood) I can't truly recommend them or not. All of the research we did beforehand led us to believe we would be taken care of if something happened to us like a car accident but YMMV (your mileage may vary)
The 7th category is Auto Insurance – Avg. $101.52
It was a bit tricky getting Clifford insured after we finished our build out. We tried to use our regular insurance company (Liberty Mutual) that had been insuring our house but they weren't able to put the van on our policy. We ended up with AAA and find the pricing to be pretty reasonable. We insured the van with comprehensive coverage for $30k and pay right around $100 per month. Worth it to know that if something happened to the van we would have the funds to build a new van.
The 8th category is campsites. – Avg. $23.50
We have only used 2 camp sites since we left California. One in Georgia right at the beginning of our trip and another in Maine because we REALLY wanted a shower after a tough hike and there were no Planet Finesses around. There are so many free campsites around and even more on the west half of the country. Any national forest land you can dry camp on for free and we were able to find enough to get us by on the east. There were a few evenings of Walmart parking lots, but sometimes you just need cell service and convenience. To find free campsites, we use Freecampsites.net and Ioverlander. If you are going to be hitting the road they are a must!
The 9th category was parking and travel – Avg. $22.50
I put these together but really we have had almost zero expenses for parking or tolls outside of NY city. To take a bridge to get into the city it was $15 and we had some subway and ferry tickets to get around the city once we were there. All in all, NYC cost around $45 for a day touring the city. Pretty pricey and it was HOT when we were there, so we moved on pretty quickly. Outside of NYC, we've parked the van at street meters a few other times to use wifi at a coffee shop. All in all I think we have been doing great at keeping the costs down by boondocking as much as possible! Staying in the woods is way more our style anyway.
The 10th category is our gym membership – Avg. $20
We have a planet fitness black membership. It has been AMAZING so far. Every location we have been to has been really nice and clean, Plus, they have locations all over the place. We only have one membership because the black card lets you bring unlimited guests and we always are there together. In one instance where it was really hot, only one of us could go in at once because we wanted to stay with the dog in the van. Alli showered and then checked me in so I could shower and there was no issue. I definitely recommend this as a shower option for those traveling full time if you don't have one in your rig. One shower at a truck stop is $10 and the few coin showers we've found run around $4-6 each.
The 11th category is alcohol and bars. – Avg. $18.68
This is going to be different for everyone but we don't drink a whole lot. We rarely have drinks out because they are so expensive, although there are a few drinks that snuck in on the restaurants bill since we had them with dinner. We get Black Box wine which is the best for the van. Its un-breakable when it falls off the counter because we forgot to put it up. Its super inexpensive for 4 bottles of pretty decent wine. One usually lasts us the better part of a month. And you don't have to keep it cold which frees up room in the fridge for more food!
The 12th category is Laundry - $17.75
Laundromats can be super expensive! I had no idea and had never used a laundromat until staring van life. A load of laundry can cost you anywhere from $5 to $10 depending on where you are. We do our best to try and do some laundry when we visit with friends and we have enough clothes to last us around 2 weeks. But when you're out of undies... its not up for negotiation. We usually can do all our clothes in 2 loads of wash and be back on the road in a couple of hours. One laundromat we went to in NY state even had a donut shop attached... they were delicious.
Our 13th category was fast food – Avg. $9.24
We eat pretty healthy as we touched on in the grocery section above but sometimes the convenience is just worth it. We found that with the McDonald's app, we can get any of their sandwiches for $1... so when we do have a hankering for something quick we usually end up with one or two chicken sandwiches for a couple bucks. I never thought we would be McDonald's people (we never ate their before van life), but every now and then a chicken sandwich is delicious (avoid the fries and coke though!)
That's about it! If you add all these up you get $1,975.42 the first month, and $2,116.28 the second month for an average of $2,045.85. The cost makes van life pretty accessible and I think its one of the major things that is making it so appealing during times of record high housing prices. With our budget you could easily trim off another $500 or more if you are really trying to mind the pocket book.
Living in a van does come with compromises though so I don't want to paint it as the key to financial freedom. Doing basic things (like laundry, showering, and using the bathroom) are just harder in a van and you don't really recognize what things you take for granted until you get here. Showers take planning and if you're constantly on the move you catch them when you can or purposely take a bit longer route to pass through a city with a gym.
For Alli and I, it has caused some challenges when working for ourselves and building our own businesses. Balancing work and play can be tough and its a constant compromise between missing out on the location we are in or falling behind on our goals for the businesses. Also, there is a decent amount of time and mental bandwidth spent planning the day or the next few days. Selecting a route, where we'll sleep, what activities we'll do, where we'll pick up supplies or catch a shower. All things that when you live in a house are all second nature. So if you are like us... Overachievers who like to do everything all at the same time... Just beware that trying to build businesses and work from the road has its trade offs.
All in all the last couple months of van life have been incredible. We love the lifestyle and all of the amazing people we have been able to meet and connect with. We've truly made some lifelong friends as we've traveled the country. We love all of the places we have gotten the opportunity to explore and hike and bike in. We will be slowing down and settling in Colorado for the winter so we can really focus on growing businesses and getting into a routine! But if you have any questions about money, expenses, and vanlife feel free to send them our way.
Wondering where to start financially? Start here by downloading our “How to Save Enough Money to Travel the World” pdf. We also talk a lot about specific money strategies and all things van life on our YouTube channel and Instagram, Owen Your Future! We are here to help you Own Your Financial Future so you can have more freedom in your life!
Looking to try to save up for your first big van purchase? Follow this checklist that takes only 10 minutes per week- it helped us save 70% of our incomes!