How Much Are We Saving by Living in a Van?
Many people dream about van life because they love the idea of not having to pay rent or a mortgage. The average cost of rent is around $1,200 a month, and that's not including utilities and basic needs to live a good life. Most of us are spending the majority of our income on rent alone, leaving us with little money to pay off our student loans and debts, and let alone save for our future.
With our monthly expenses living in Downtown Portland being so high (it’s one of the more expensive areas to live in the US) we felt that van life was the answer to all of our problems. I have student loan debt, and Cody and I both have accrued some credit card debt, so on top of the expensive apartment and our lifestyle… we were left with little to nothing for savings.
Yes, I do know we could have cut back on expenses and lived in a cheaper neighborhood, but that’s not how we wanted to live our life. We don't believe you should settle for less than what makes you happy. We loved Downtown Portland, we love eating organic foods, we love going out to brunch on Sunday. So our expenses were a little high.
Van life was a dreamy option for us to help us pay off our debt and start saving for our future to eventually buy our own property to build a tiny house.
Once we moved into the van, we started to wonder exactly how much we were saving. Was it that much of a difference from when we lived in an apartment?
Below I've shared two images showing our apartment expenses and budget compared to our van life expenses. Before I get into things, I wanted to share that on top of the general expenses we each have our own personal debts, student loans, and business expenses to pay for. But I wanted to keep it simple for you to understand, so I left those things out of the equation here.
The biggest savings we see with van life is the drastic drop in how much we are spending for our living expenses. We lived in Downtown Portland in a more expensive area because we really liked it there at the time, but we did not like paying the $1,700 a month... and that was just the rent, nothing else. By lowering our living expenses, it gives us more money to do other things, like travel. While we don't have rent, we do have a van payment because we decided to buy a brand new 2016 Mercedes Sprinter. You can see how much it cost us to buy and build the van in this post right here. Our rent is now considered our van payment, and $680 is a hell of a lot better than $1,700.
You can choose to go a cheaper route and save even more, but we bought a new van because we liked the fact that it would be better on the environment and have less chance of breaking down or requiring costly maintenance down the road.
Van Expenses & Gas
We still have to pay for expenses on our van like buying DEF every couple months, which is a fluid used in our turbo diesel engine. We also have to buy new tires which will cost us around $800, windshield wipers, regular oil changes, and general maintenance check-ups. We have to do this more often than a regular vehicle because of how much we are driving it.
One thing we didn't realize is how much we would spend on gas. Our van averages about 22-24 MPG which is great, but with the amount of traveling to and from different places we are spending a lot more on gas than we anticipated. A great way to save in this area is to stick around in one spot for a little while instead of driving from California to Colorado in a few days.
Dining Out & Groceries
When we moved into the van, we realized we wouldn't have as much space to store food like we did in our apartment. So everything we buy from the store can only really last us up to 5 days. We discovered that we are more likely to eat healthy and eat in the van because if we let our fruits and veggies go bad and sit in the fridge, we'll have to smell it and clean it up. We also go out to eat less. When we lived in Downtown Portland, we spent a ton of money on happy hour, brunch, and going out to places to eat for dinner when we were too lazy. Sure, it's easy to just dine out somewhere while living in a van, but we've found that cooking healthy meals in beautiful locations is much more fun.
When you live in an apartment, you spend money on electricity, sewer, trash, and water. Once we moved into the van we realized we don't have any of those bills anymore. Which is great because now we have less bills to remember to pay every month. Our van is completely run off solar power, so our electricity is essentially free.
We often find recycling centers to dispose of cardboard and other recyclable materials, but for trash we just find a trash bin to throw away a small bag. For water, we have to fill up our Road Shower 2, and our 15 gallon tank underneath our van so that we can do our dishes, brush our teeth, and wash our hands. We also have a small 2 gallon bottle that we fill up with potable water for drinking. All of this is $10 per month at the most, but sometimes we can get it for free.
Coffee Shops & Internet
When you live in an apartment, you have Netflix, internet, cable. You have unlimited wi-fi. When you live in a van, you have to be more conscious of how much internet you are really using. We have a mobile hotspot which allows us to use our phone data for wi-fi. This is fine for most people, but for us we have a strong online presence, we run a business full time, and we have to upload videos. This requires a ton of data.
The best way to combat that expense is to find coffee shops and use that as an office a few times a week. We normally plan out when we need to use internet, so we'll plan our day around working at a coffee shop. This expense usually is just purchasing a coffee and a snack while you hang out there for the day. Because we do it quite often, we spend a lot of money on coffee.
Parking & Camping
When we first had the idea of van life, I remember being so excited about being able to go wherever I wanted and to park anywhere I wanted.
Turns out, you have to pay to park somewhere and sleep in your van. In fact, there are tons of places that are strongly against people sleeping in their vehicles, so sometimes it turns out to be extremely difficult. If you want to learn more about stealth camping and where to sleep click here to download our Van Life Ultimate Resource Guide.
When we don't feel like stealth camping or we'd like to stay in a specific location, we bite the bullet and pay money to camp somewhere. Depending on where you are, this can cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per night! Also, If you are visiting larger cities, you'll end up paying for street parking eventually.
When we lived in Portland, we spent a lot of money going out with friends, going to the movies, or enjoying the nightlife. This aspect of our spending really hasn't changed, but we are spending a lot less on going out with friends because we don't really like to go to bars alone. It's always more fun with some friends. Most of our entertainment costs go to movies, National Park fees, renting gear, and going to concerts in towns we are visiting. We also love music festivals, so we try to go to one or two a year, which is also a big expense.
Monthly Expense Breakdown
Savings of about $1,091 per month!
We are saving a substantial amount of money every month, but one thing I've noticed that’s even more important than how much you are saving is the fact that your money is going toward more things that you love. We are using the extra income every month to pay for fun activities, or to buy gear to invest in new hobbies we've picked up, or to travel all over the country. That by far beats living in the same place and doing the same thing every day. We are spending more on experiences and less on things. We don't feel the need to shop as much as we used to and we are really figuring out how to put our money toward more things that matter.
Now that we've really figured it all out, we are focusing on how we can use van life as an opportunity to progress forward in our lives, pay off our debt, and eventually invest in a property for our tiny house.