If you search the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram, you’ll be rewarded with more than 7 million images. Common themes include sunsets over the sea, cozy-looking campfires, and interior van designs that could make you drool with longing.
Oh, and dogs. If one thing’s certain about #vanlife, it’s that lots and lots of dogs are living it.
Van life seems to promise an experience that is simultaneously beautiful, liberating and affordable — after all, if you’re living on the road, you probably aren’t paying rent or a mortgage.
But what goes on outside those carefully framed pictures? What does it really cost to live life on four wheels?
How #VanLife Really Works
Although there is some truth to the footloose-and-fancy-free perception of van living, there’s also a lot of work that goes into making the lifestyle feasible.
If you’re considering hitting the road yourself, here are a few things you should know about the realities of van life, both financial and otherwise.
Even on the Road, You Still Have Expenses
Just because you won’t be paying for housing doesn’t mean you won’t have expenses. Just like any other lifestyle, in order to make van life work, you’ll need to create a budget.
Abigail and Natalie Rodriguez have been living on the road full-time since February 2019. Apart from the purchase and conversion of their 2004 Dodge Sprinter van — a project they handled themselves — they have plenty of other regular bills to pay.
Among other things, the couple budgets for:
- Top-notch vehicle insurance with roadside assistance
- Phone bill, including internet hotspot
- Website domain
- Adobe (so they can edit videos)
- Vehicle maintenance — including, eventually, a new transmission since they purchased an older vehicle
These costs, along with their biggest expenses — food and fuel — run the Rodriguezes about $2,000 per month.
That said, one of the coolest things about mobile living is that it’s flexible: You can choose to spend less on gas by not traveling so much for a while, and if you don’t want to pay for a fancy campground, you can boondock on BLM land.
And no matter how or where you hang your hat, it’s almost always possible to save more money on groceries.
You Can — and Probably Should — DIY It, Even if You Don’t Know How
Along with the month-to-month costs of living, there’s also the van itself to consider. If you purchase a custom van brand new, you could easily be looking at $100,000 or more. Most of us don’t have that kind of cash lying around.
Building out your own conversion can help you save a boatload of money while also giving you the opportunity to personalize your home on wheels. That’s why the Rodriguezes spent a year and a half building out their early-aughts Sprinter — which also afforded them time to save up for their new nomadic lifestyle. (More on that in a minute.)
Jeff Chow, another vanlifer who catalogs his stunning travel experiences on Instagram, hacked the system: He purchased a fairly new vehicle — a 2017 Ram ProMaster — and then built out the interior himself.
With its removable insulation, solar wiring and dual-zone refrigerator, his van has a “pretty minimal build.” That is to say, it isn’t as fancy as some of the #vanlife eye candy. But it’s reliable and well-suited to his needs.
Chow spent $28,000 on the van purchase, but only $2,500 or so on upgrades. And because the van is a newer model, he isn’t as worried about major engine maintenance and repair costs.
By the way, if you think you need to be a DIY genius to pull it off, think again. Many vanlifers, including the Rodriguezes, have little in the way of prior construction experience. They figure it out as they go, considering it part of the adventure.
How do you figure it out?
“YouTube University is your friend,” wrote Natalie in an email. “Trust me.”
It’s Not Gonna Happen Overnight
One thing you can’t capture in an Instagram post: the passage of time. And it does take time to turn a van into a villa if you do it yourself.
Unlike the Rodriguezes, who did most of their build before leaving their hometown of Charleston, S.C., Chow began living in his van before making any upgrades, slowly turning it into the home he wanted over the course of his time on the road.
And even if you do get a custom-made van fresh from the manufacturer, if there’s one thing that’s certain about life on the road, it’s that you’re going to run into a few surprises. Building and rebuilding is an ongoing reality for most vanlifers, so don’t expect an effort-free happily ever after.
You Don’t Have to Be Rich, But You Might Have to Sacrifice
There’s a perception that the majority of vanlifers are digital nomads, making their living online — or that they’re young retirees who are independently wealthy.
But that isn’t always the case. The Rodriguezes, for instance, saved up about $25,000 ahead of time so they could enjoy their first year on the road without worrying about working. They’ve only recently started to earn some brand ambassador income through their social media channels.
Of course, saving up that kind of cash is tough, and it takes some tough decision-making. Natalie, who had worked as a sous chef, and Abigail, who owned her own photography studio in Charleston, had to make some pretty radical changes to build their nest egg.
The couple downsized from a 1,500-square-foot house to a small studio, which allowed Natalie to put away half of each paycheck. They also gave up their Comcast internet subscription, restaurant dining habit, and even — gasp — Netflix.
It’s Worth It
Make no mistake: #vanlife takes time, work, and money. But if it’s the lifestyle you want, it’s well worth the effort.
“We get to constantly travel, see new things, experience new landscapes and cultures whenever we want,” wrote Natalie. “It is absolute freedom and constant education.”
Chow, who was motivated in part to take on this lifestyle because of a chronic health issue, said it’s changed the way he experiences his life. “I can be bedridden for months at a time,” he said. “If I’m going to be bedridden, I’d rather be bedridden with — right now, I have a view of the Sierras,” he said by phone.
All of which is to say: if you really want #vanlife, go for it.
“Sit down, do some research, make a plan, make a goal, and act on it,” said Abigail in a recent YouTube video — speaking to the camera from inside the van she’d built alongside her partner with nothing but their four hands, a dream, and a lot of hard work.
Jamie Cattanach is a full-time freelance writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.