How Much It Costs to Live in a Van

When I first hopped on the New-Zealand-bound plane, I had no idea how much it costs to live in a van.  I had a work visa in my pocket, $12,000 in my bank account, and my fingers tightly crossed that my ninja frugality would close any gaps I encountered.

Recently, a blogger I follow wrote up his research on van life.  He was trying to decide if he wanted to do his extended road trip in a van or travel in his Honda Civic.

As I chimed in with my van life budget, I realized he might not be the only one who could benefit from getting an idea of…

How Much it Costs to Live in a Van

My figures are for a year of van life in New Zealand – split with a partner.  I spent:

$9,166 for 1 Year

Even if you’re not traveling in New Zealand, I think our figures would still help one think about a similar van lifestyle in other places.

The quick numbers here are my share of the costs, in order of these broad spending areas-

  • the van
  • eating
  • communicating
  • adulting
  • fun
Total Spent
% of overall spending
Fuel & Registration$210723%
Car Insurance$1011%
Car Maintenance$4265%
Cooking Gas$34<1%
Cell Phone$85<1%
Accommodation or Showers$112912%

How Live in a Van on $9,166 a Year

What do all these numbers mean?

Daily cost of living is highly subjective, so I’ll try to give you an idea of how we traveled.  Knowing that, you can decide whether you cost to live in a van would be higher or lower.

This time I put the numbers from above in order of budget bulk, with lifestyle notes and explanations of the kind of expenditures each category includes.

% of overall spending
Total Spent
Groceries25%Food isn't cheap in New Zealand. So how did I eat for $44 a week? Preparing meals is actually very pocketbook friendly. We ate lots of lentil curry, cheese and crackers, eggs... and not a lot of meat.$2311
Fuel & Registration23%When I tracked these numbers, I couldn't see into the future and know I'd be sharing them with y'all one day. Sorry I lumped registration with fuel. In #11 here, I claim a total of $2000 in vehicle expenses outside fuel, so if $1,000 of that is mine, and of that $426 is maintenance, and $101 is insurance, registration must have been between $250 and $400.$2107
Fun16%A big part of our reason for traveling to New Zealand was fun. For us, though, fun meant a lot of backpacking. We partook in plenty of paid fun, too. But probably not quite as much as those who aren't able to have a blast for free in the outdoors.$1454
Accommodation or Showers12%Sometimes we paid to stay in hostels - when we were sick of being in the van, wanted a shower, or wanted to meet other travelers. When we only wanted a shower, we often patronized recreation centers, gyms, or public showers (like trucks stops in America, but cleaner and underused).

Sometimes we paid to camp. If you have to pay to camp in the U.S., this friend referral link for HipCamp - like AirBnb for camping - will cut your cost by $20. See #9 here for free camping options around the globe.
Meals6%We did't go out often. Meals out in New Zealand are expensive... like $20 for a burger. And blowing cash like that wasn't worth it to us.$548
Supplies6%This is everything from storage bins to more toilet paper.$559
Car Maintenance5%Even if the vehicle you buy is in primo condition, word on the street is you better have a repair budget. For those looking at costs of living in a van in New Zealand, you need to budget for WOF. Warrant of Fitness inspections regularly turn up silly things you must fix if you want to keep your perfectly good car on the road.$426
Internet3%New Zealand is a backwater for free wifi, so we paid quite a bit to have USB internet on the go. We made up for it in the cell phone department, though.$290
Car Insurance1%Cheap as. (As the Kiwis would say). Insurance isn't even compulsory in New Zealand, and basic cover is quite cheap. This would be more expensive basically anywhere else.$101
Cell Phone<1%We bought a cheapie Nokia and used pay-as-you-go. We were mostly talking to family from home using Skype and the internet, so we spent our phone savings there.$85
Laundry<1%Not bad for an entire year's worth of laundry!$70
Skype<1%This was before the days of Google Voice, which is free. On our trip, we used Skype to call landlines and cell phones of people who didn't actually have or use Skype itself.$52
Cooking Gas<1%For the amount that we cooked (always... constantly), I'm shocked we didn't spend more on cooking fuel!$34

How Much for the Van?

Van cost ranges enormously, depending on which country you’ll call home when you’re van-living or traveling.  If the van itself hasn’t been built out for travel (which is totally worth it), you’ll have the cost of materials and your time (or that of someone you hire).

Those headed for New Zealand are in luck – van travel there is enormously popular.  Lots and lots of options exist for those looking to live in a van.  If you follow the advice in #11 here, you’ll be in a great negotiating position when you’re ready to buy.

You luck ends there.  Those taking care of the vans all seem to be youngsters without a lot of vehicle ownership experience or maybe just not a lot of give-a-damn.  We looked at maybe a dozen vans, and the oil was black as tar in all but one of them (the one we bought!).  Tires were mismatched on most vans we looked at.  Many of these vehicles had changed hands a huge number of times, and people don’t tend to look after them well.

We bought our van for $4,200.

We split the cost, so we each paid $2,100.
In countries without a van-life culture, initial costs can be much higher.

Hope that helps!

If you care about how much it costs to live in a van, also check out:
How to Live in a Van: Hippie Logistics

If you’re just wildly dreaming about travel, you can see:
How Much My Round-the-World Flights Cost

Feel free to fire off questions in the comments – I dashed this out on a whim.  I’m sure I missed something.

Happy Travels! ♣