If you have ever slogged through your nine-to-five job while struggling to pay the bills, you may have thought, there must be a better way.
For some, it’s a major career change or moving to a less expensive city. Others ditch their physical address altogether.
That’s the inspiration for vanlife—a lifestyle movement of 20- and 30-somethings who have swapped their cubicle for life on the road.
Their photos show what it’s like to sip coffee in the mountains, wake up on the beach, and sleep under the stars. On Instagram alone, there are almost 5 million #VanLife photos, and the trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
It’s easy to get inspired by the movement, but how much does vanlife actually cost? We spoke to folks who have done it and were happy to get real about the numbers.
Why vanlife is so popular
While nomadic lifestyles have been around for ages, the #vanlife hashtag didn’t appear until 2011. Foster Huntington, a 29-year-old designer, quit his job to live in a 1987 Volkswagen T3 Syncro and started a photoblog to document his journey. The movement exploded soon after.
Since then, vanlife has taken on many different forms.
Some folks want a high-end van for events like Coachella. Others are looking to slash their living expenses and live off the grid.
No one understands the movement better than Dustin Van Ells, owner and field engineer of The Van Plan.
With more than ten years of electrical engineering, building, and design experience, he recently embarked on his own vanlife journey. He bought a ’73 Ford E-100 Club Wagon, spent five months converting it, and shares his adventures on Instagram.
“People are realizing home isn’t necessarily where you pay rent,” he says. Vanlife gives you the opportunity to work less and enjoy life more. He says he has access to the same Southern California lifestyle as everyone else—without paying $2,000 a month for the privilege.
How much vanlife actually costs
Recently, Van Ells started working on camper vehicles for others too.
He adds flooring, kitchenettes, electricity, solar panels, heating, cooling, and more. Due to the popularity of the movement, he get requests from all over the country for converted vans. He even travels outside of Southern California to work on some vehicles.
When you bring Van Ells a vehicle, he typically charges $5,000-7,000 for labor and another $3,000-4,000 for parts.
Obviously, these costs may vary based on exactly what you ask for. His full renovations usually take two to three months to complete.
As for ongoing costs, Van Ells recommends staying on top of routine maintenance like oil and transmission fluid changes. It’s the best way to keep expenses under control. He personally spends about $500 a year on maintenance for his van.
Budget for where to stay
If you are planning to travel long-term, you will need to budget for places to stay.
If you are lucky enough to have friends and family along the way, they may let you camp on their property.
Otherwise, you may have to fork over anywhere up to $100 for a campsite every night.
You may not save money with vanlife
Claudia and Garrett Pennington of Two Cup House spent four months exploring the south in their teardrop camper.
Paying for power and internet made the trip more expensive than their lives back home—which usually costs about $2,100-2,500 per month. But making money from the road kept their one-year emergency fund intact. They also landed some house sitting gigs to cut down on costs.
Even though it wasn’t cheap, she credits the trip for realigning their priorities.
“Living in the camper gave us perspective on our long-term financial goals,” Claudia says. If you are planning a similar trip, she suggests starting with a few days at a time. This makes it easier to be sure you have everything you need to be comfortable on a daily basis.
If you realize the journey will be more costly than expected, you can make adjustments accordingly. “The best tactic is to increase the gap between saving and spending. Find a way to spend less and earn more before leaving,” Claudia recommends.
Don’t attempt vanlife without a plan
Part of what makes vanlife so appealing is it feels accessible.
After seeing a few YouTube videos or someone’s Instagram feed, it’s easy to make a rash decision. “Impulsively buying a van with no plan can be a recipe for disaster,” says Van Ells.
He says it’s critical to consider all potential downsides.
Think about your upfront costs. Consider how much you will need to spend on ongoing maintenance. Costs may add up if you aren’t handling the repairs yourself. You will also need to plan for where you are going to park.
“The biggest challenge is a mental health shift. The lifestyle can be isolating,” Van Ells adds. If you are someone who struggles with mental illness, being alone for extended periods of time may be difficult.
Despite the potential pitfalls, Van Ells is still a huge proponent of the movement. “Sure, having a backyard is cool. But it’s not as cool as waking up on the beach every day and going surfing.”
Kate Dore is a freelance personal finance writer based in Nashville, TN. She is a Candidate for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Certification and serves as the Director of Public Relations for the Financial Planning Association of Middle Tennessee.