In my experience, living and traveling in a bus has provided an unparalleled level of financial flexibility and overall contentment. Similar to the way that the cost of converting a bus ranges wildly depending on size and preference, the cost of actually living on the road can also be quite varied based on factors like your lifestyle, bargain-hunting abilities, and money management skills.
So, how much does it cost to live in a bus? Bus lifers are able to reduce expenses by as much as 80% when compared to typical big city life. Expenses can average from $750 to $1,750 or much more depending on the big variables of diesel, parking and repair expenses. Keep reading for the complete breakdown…
In this article, I’ll share our monthly expenses for living and traveling in Stu (our 22-foot school bus), plus we’ll look at two other bus households’ monthly finances.
Our Monthly Spending BEFORE Bus life: $3,550
Looking back, this seems like an absolutely absurd amount of money. Here’s a brief itemization of what we spent in a typical month when we lived in Seattle.
Rent and utilities: $1,500
Car payments, insurance, and gas: $700
Cable and wifi: $150
Cell phones: $40
Climbing gym memberships: $160
Going out to eat/drink: $400
Miscellaneous (haircuts, clothes, sports gear, etc.): $200
Total: $3,550 per month
Average: $60 per person per day
We decided this wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle for us, and that we wanted more from life, so we made the decision to convert a bus which would, according to our calculations, allow us to work less, travel full-time, and spend more time together.
Our Initial Bus Startup Costs: $13K
All said and done, the cost of Stu and the conversion work came to $13,000, which we were able to pay as we went, thanks to savings, living with my parents for a few months to save on rent, and continuing to work full-time for the first six months of our eight-month conversion. For a detailed breakdown of the conversion costs, check out this article.
Monthly Expenses On The Road: $760
Technically, we are well below the 2019 federal poverty line of $16,910 of annual income for a household of two, but since we have eliminated the vast majority of our bills, we are still able to live quite comfortably in the bus while working far less and maintaining (somewhat counter intuitively) a greater level of stability compared to when we lived in a house in Seattle and both worked 40 hours per week.
Here’s a look at our average monthly expenses now, after living in the bus for more than a year:
Diesel: $150-200 per fill-up (this varies a lot month to month, but on average $300/month)
Fun (mostly visiting local breweries): $100
Cell phones: $50
Bus insurance: $64
Renters insurance: $10
Good Sam’s Club: $2.50
Health insurance: $0
National Parks Pass: $0 (gifted to us, normally $80 for annual pass)
Total: $760 per month
Average: $12.67 per person per day
How We Reduced Our Monthly Expenses By Nearly 80%
Some costs were eliminated naturally as a result of moving into the bus, and some we keep drastically lower through lifestyle changes and new habits. Let me explain in more detail.
Elimination of Bills
Aaron and I both sold our cars when we moved into the bus. Aaron’s car was already paid off, but this eliminated both of our car insurance costs, plus my car payment. We also made $15K from the combined sales of the two cars, which actually covered the entire cost of the bus and conversion, and allowed us to start off with some money in the bank.
Of course, we now pay for bus insurance, but it is significantly less than our regular car insurance was.
Obviously, we no longer needed to pay rent, utility bills, and other house-related expenses like cable and wifi. However, our phone bills increased because we upgraded to unlimited data.
Additionally, since we were traveling, we didn’t have gym memberships for the last year, although currently, we are spending the summer in one place while we work seasonal jobs, so we did opt to get climbing gym memberships for the summer months to stay fit, build strength, and use the showers to be presentable at our jobs.
The memberships are $70 per person per month, but I’m not including it in our average because these months are atypical in many ways (for instance, hardly any diesel purchases, and making relatively a lot of money by working full-time for the summer).
Since we make so little money on the road, we qualify for free health insurance in Washington. This covers all routine care in the state of Washington, and ER and urgent care visits anywhere in the country.
It has saved us a ton of money to be able to take advantage of this program, because although our employers covered most of our health insurance costs back in Seattle, that coverage obviously ended when we left our jobs, and we otherwise would have had to spend hundreds of dollars each month to get coverage.
Lifestyle Changes and New Shopping Habits
We used to go to Starbucks on an almost daily basis (we are from Seattle after all) which would be anywhere from $4 to $10 per person per day, whereas now we go to Starbucks only on special occasions and sometimes if I need wifi to work, when I will order the cheapest drink on the menu and then sit there and work for 8 hours.
Instead, we make our own cold brew coffee in the bus and then add a scoop of protein powder to make a delicious “mocha,” which costs about 50 cents per serving.
We rarely eat out anymore, although occasionally we will splurge and order an appetizer or a side of fries at a brewery. Our main indulgence on the road is going to local breweries because we’ve found that it’s a great way to get a feel for a new place, and because beer is delicious! These “nights out” usually cost us $10-20, whereas a night out in Seattle would typically involve two $15 Uber rides, several overpriced drinks, and probably food of some kind, which usually totaled to at least $70.
Now, we prefer to spend time with friends (usually other bus- or van-dwellers) in one of our vehicles, drinking cheap boxed wine or sub-$1 cans of beer. Not only is this much cheaper, but it’s so much easier to talk and hear each other while we are sharing stories.
Our grocery shopping habits have also changed. Before the bus, we didn’t give much thought to the price of groceries, buying whatever we felt like eating and often paying the convenience surcharge of pre-made microwaveable food. Now, we have several staple meals that cost less than $2 per meal.
We do the bulk of our shopping at Walmart and occasionally at Costco, although we have limited storage space for bulk items. We have become quite adept at planning meals that are super cheap, don’t require a lot of water for cooking or cleanup, and won’t use many dishes. We don’t have a freezer or a microwave, so all those pre-made meals aren’t possible.
Finally, we very rarely buy anything other than groceries and gas. We don’t have room for any more clothes in the bus and no real need to dress up for anything. Occasionally we will buy climbing gear, but usually we will try to find items on sale, and only buy things that are necessary for our safety. Other than that, there really isn’t much that we justifiably need that we don’t already have on the bus.
We are extremely frugal when it comes to camping-related costs. Since April of 2018, we have not paid for a single campsite. Instead, we find places where we can park overnight or even camp for a few weeks for free.
This saves from $10-50 per night on campsites or RV parks. We planned for this by installing solar panels so we never need to pay for hookups and by using a composting toilet so we don’t have any black water that requires a $15 visit to the dump station every week.
We get our water for free 99.9% of the time at rest stops, friends’ houses, gas stations, and some KOAs. This is more difficult in drought-afflicted states like Arizona, but definitely still possible.
It’s tricky to come up with an average for diesel costs since it can vary a ton month to month depending obviously on how much we drive and where we are in the country. For example, in our first month and a half on the road, we did not yet have our solar panels installed, so we had to drive the bus every day to charge our batteries with the alternator.
We severely underestimated the amount of driving we would have to do to keep the batteries charged, so we ended up driving A LOT. We also were in California for much of that time, so diesel was extremely expensive.
Now that we have our solar panels and have spent some time on the road, we are much more relaxed with our travel pace. We try to plan ahead just enough that we don’t end up driving in circles or excessively backtracking, and then spend as much time as we want somewhere before moving on.
Also, we have been in the southwest part of the country for the last several months, where diesel is much cheaper. If we are running low on money, we can simply stop driving for a while and work. So, some months we hardly spend any money on diesel, but other months we have spent close to $1,000.
Our fuel tank holds 55 gallons, so to fill the entire tank is quite expensive. Usually, we will just fill up $50-75 worth of diesel at a time to spread out the expense a little unless we are driving a very long distance and/or if we find an outrageously cheap gas station.
Other Expenses On The Road
Our average monthly expenses are just that: averages. There are, unfortunately, always going to be some unexpected or one-time purchases to factor in as well.
America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass: A Worthwhile Expense
My mom has been kind enough to gift us a pass two years in a row, but even if she hadn’t, we would definitely have purchased a pass ourselves. They are $80 for the year, but with park entry fees commonly around $20, it is well worth it for us. In our first year on the road, we went to 12 different national parks and spent multiple days at each one, plus we used our pass to get into countless other national monuments, conservation areas, and so forth.
This pass actually encourages us to explore as many parks as we can in order to appreciate the full value of the pass, whereas if we had to pay each day upon entry we might think twice about spending so many days in parks and miss out on incredible experiences.
Vehicle Maintenance and Repair
There is going to come a time when your vehicle breaks down or needs maintenance. We are diligent with our oil changes in order to keep the bus running smoothly as long as possible, which cost about $100. Obviously, the frequency of the oil changes depends on how fast we cover miles. Despite our loving attention, we have still had to endure two major repairs while on the road.
The first was a turbo sensor replacement that cost us $700, and the second was replacing all eight fuel injectors for $4,000. Fortunately, we had enough saved up to cover our repairs, and we keep a chunk of money in reserve at all times for emergency repairs.
Other expenses that fall into this category are tire replacements, which has run us about $200 so far for a spare tire and rim, and two gently used tires that we bought after about nine months on the road. We also had to replace our brake pads before we started out, which was about $200.
How Much Do Other Bus lifers Spend Each Month?
I talked to a few of our friends who also live and travel in buses to see what their monthly expenditures are like, and they generously agreed to share.
Renee and Justin of Mojo Bus: $1,142 per month
We spotted the bright green Mojo Bus in a Walmart parking lot in Arizona, and seeing that it was basically Stu’s twin we decided that we needed to meet the owners. We had a lovely chat with Renee and Justin and toured their beautiful bus, and of course we discussed the subtle differences and remarkable similarities between our two vehicles.
Renee is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Arizona and Justin does freelance digital marketing, including logo design, web design, and online advertising. Like us, they alternate between working on the road as they travel and staying in one place for a bit to replenish their funds.
Their breakdown of average monthly expenses is as follows:
Bus liability insurance: $60
Renter’s insurance: $10
Cell phones: $160
HULU and Netflix: $15
National Parks Pass: $6.66
Total: $1,142 per month
Average: $19 per person per day
Justin and Renee agreed that it was hard to calculate average fuel costs because it varies dramatically for them as well. Justin shared with me that while $400 per month on fuel is a normal average, they have spent up to $1,200 in a month when they are moving around a lot.
He also noted that their phone bill is so high because it includes payment plans of both of their new phones, that they purchased specifically for the nice cameras so they could document their journey — which they have done beautifully I might add, just take a look at their Instagram!
Although Renee and Justin often boondock for free, they occasionally do camp in national or state parks that are just so beautiful that they don’t want to leave! They look for first come first served camping that usually costs about $8-15 per night. Depending on how far you have to drive in and out of the park to find free camping, this can definitely be worth it!
Chris of The Off Grid Skoolie: $1,620 per month
We had been following Chris on Instagram for a quite a while, and we were honored when he messaged us asking if we would be interested in being featured on his Tiny Home Tours YouTube channel. We immediately said yes, and met up with him in Arizona a few weeks later. We toured his bus in progress, a 40-footer that he is working on converting into a fully off-grid home and workspace.
Chris calculated that $54 per day covers his health insurance, vehicle insurance, cell phone bill, wifi, food, water, electricity, and monthly software programs.
Total: $1,620 per month
Average: $54 per person per day
While this might seem like a high cost for one person, there are several significant factors in play. First, Chris runs both the Tiny Home Tours and The Off Grid Skoolie YouTube channels from his bus.
This necessitates having wifi in the bus and the monthly software program subscriptions that he calculated into his average so that he can film, edit, promote, and post videos. He also makes a significant amount of income from YouTube, and has various additional streams of income, including skoolie building manuals and other helpful courses that he has available for purchase.
Next, Chris is actively building out his bus while he lives and works in it, which means that he earns and spends much larger amounts monthly than we or Mojo Bus do, since our builds are already complete. When we met up with him to film the tour, he had just installed his massive solar power system that has enough juice to run a full size refrigerator with a freezer, a second chest freezer, lights, computers, and charge his camera gear, drone, phone, etc.
Finally, since Chris is living in the bus by himself, he does not have the luxury of splitting bills with another person, so things like bus insurance, registration costs, fuel, and so forth are all paid for by him alone, whereas Renee and Justin or Aaron and I can split those bills.
Chris is one of the hardest working bus lifers I’ve ever met and an integral part of the tiny home and skoolie communities. I can’t wait to see his bus when it’s fully built out!
The Bottom Line: Living in a Bus Can Definitely Save You Money
Justin and Renee as well as Chris agreed that living in a bus has saved them money, and you can see from my comparison of monthly expenses that living in a bus has saved Aaron and me money in a big way. I’ve read a few articles that argue that with the cost of food, fuel, and repairs, you really aren’t saving money but I frankly find that argument to be ridiculous and untrue. Regardless of whether you live in a house or a bus or some other kind of living situation, you will always need to buy food.
You probably have a car if you live a house, so you are paying for fuel costs anyway. If that car breaks down, you have to pay for repairs anyway.
The difference for me lies in the ability to go into a sort of spending lock down, where if we have a big repair and run low on money, we can just sit tight in our bus wherever it is, spend the absolute minimum amount of money, and work our butts off to make some more cash. We already own our house/vehicle so we don’t have rent/mortgage/car payments to worry about making each month.
If a huge unexpected expense arose when we lived in a house, we could have very easily become homeless, I could have lost my car because I was still paying off the loan, and we could have lost our jobs. So, while we have much less money now, we are also much less stressed about money and feel more financially secure.
Of course, a lot of it comes down to good planning, a realistic grasp of your personal finances and money management skills, and even dumb luck. I hope that this breakdown of monthly expenses has been helpful to you, and if you have any questions about how we’ve made it work, please let me know in the comments!
Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!