Saving for Vanlife (How Much You’ll Need)

saving for vanlife

The most common questions my boyfriend and I get while living full-time on the road are variations of, “How do you afford it?” There are no trust funds here – quite simply, we saved up before we made the transition to vanlife, we live very frugally, and we work from the road.

Finances can be one of the most stressful parts for those looking to make the leap to vanlife, since you most likely will not be earning a steady paycheck like you would when living in a house or apartment. However, you also do not have to pay nearly as many bills every month.

In this article, I’ll share how we financed our bus conversion and two years of travel so far, and we’ll hear from two other couples about their experiences as well.

So, how much should you save before pursuing vanlife? A good rule of thumb is to save at least $10k per person per year that you plan to be on the road doing full time vanlife. There are several factors to take into consideration when budgeting for vanlife, like your level of risk acceptance, whether you will be able to make money on the road, and how expensive repairs will be on your vehicle.

It’s always a good idea to have an emergency fund set aside for repairs, and enough money saved up to cover fuel, food, and fun costs until you plan to have an income again. Van repairs can get expensive quickly and you may be forced to stay in a hotel or other accommodations while your home on wheels is being repaired.

Finance Q&A with Full-Time Vanlifers

I spoke with Nick and Jess (@home.roller) and Natalie and Abigail (@letsplayrideandseek– their van is the featured image at the top of the article). These couples shared their experiences saving up for vanlife and I threw in our two cents as well.

Nick and Jess are from Canada, so they had the added challenge of converting all their dollar amounts to USD, and since they cannot work in the United States, they had to be sure they had more than enough money set aside when they crossed the border.

How much money did you save up before embarking on your vanlife journey?

Nick and Jess:

“We saved around $50k Canadian (about $35,400 USD) before buying the bus as we were still working, and before hitting the road we had $30k Canadian (about $21,200 USD) saved.”

Nick and Jess saved $35K for vanlife

Abigail and Natalie:

Wanting a change in life, we started saving money ambiguously in May 2017. Somehow the idea of vanlife came about and we bought our ’04 Sprinter in August of 2017 on a budget of $6k. Now that the idea became reality and the van was purchased, we made an intentional plan to start saving for life on the road. We spent a little over a year building out the van/saving money. 

We made the decision to split all costs 50/50 which meant reaching the same savings goal of $12k each. We did a general budget breakdown that would help us get an idea of what monthly costs would look like. So together we saved roughly $24k.”

Also read:

How Much Does a Sprinter Van Conversion Cost?

10 Best Sprinter Van Conversion Companies

Abigail and Natalie saved $24K for vanlife

Cat and Aaron:

We had about $14k in savings when we bought the bus for $6k, and the conversion cost about $7k, although we were still working while we did the conversion. All in all, we probably had about $20k between us when we embarked on our vanlife adventure.

We decided to take a few months of “vacation” as we got used to life on the road and to take a break from full-time work and the bus build.

Cat and Aaron saved $20K for vanlife

How did you fund your savings?

Nick and Jess:

“We built up our savings by working a crazy amount of hours. Nick had two individuals with disabilities living with him full-time for over a year. I (Jess) worked multiple jobs putting me at 60-80-hour work weeks. We ended up selling Nick’s house which saved us a lot of money on living expenses, including not having to pay for a mortgage.

We got rid of our vehicles, and with having to downsize into a tiny home, we were able to sell furniture, kitchen supplies, clothes, and so much more. We also donated a lot of stuff as well. We originally had planned on traveling part-time when I had time off from my job at the local college but Nick came in third place in a poker tournament in Vegas, which allowed us to be able to travel full-time.”

@home.roller’s bus interior

Abigail and Natalie:

To reach that goal, Abi and I printed up a physical savings goal chart. We put each of our names down in separate columns that were divided into dollar amounts. Each month we had a $600-700 savings goal. Once that goal was reached and the money was saved, we colored in the slot.

This way we could physically see the savings grow which helped keep us motivated/in check. We decided on that monthly amount based on what we were both making. Between my salary and Abi’s three jobs (she does photography for a living, taught Pole Dance Fitness classes, and picked up a serving job for extra cash), it was feasible to put away a certain amount ($500-$700 per month) outside of regular bills.

We also downgraded from a 1,500-square-foot house to a small studio in a friend’s backyard, which meant selling over half of our belongings via Facebook marketplace, word of mouth, etc. This not only helped make us extra cash but helped us get used to living tiny.  We also were planning our wedding which helped as most of the items we’d need for the interior of the van were put on our registry 🙂 Saved us a ton!

Before taking off we also sold Abi’s truck, moped, and my car.

@letsplayrideandseek’s Sprinter van interior

“Abi currently works a little on the road doing small photography gigs, selling stock photos online, shooting product photography, and has two Patreon accounts for her artwork, one is an empowering-woman photography project (@empowermentviathelens on Instagram and (www.patreon.com/empowermentviathelens) and the other is for a self-portrait series (www.patreon.com/Abigailsartfulnudes).

“She also flew back to our hometown last October for a week to shoot a wedding and some other photo gigs while I did work in Northern Cali, which helped fund us another 6 months on the road.

“I (Nat) am a housewife as of now, although I was able to do some pop up restaurant gigs on the beach during our time in Baja Mexico, which helped us maintain expenses while there.”

Cat and Aaron: 

I lived with my parents for a year after graduating college and was working full-time, which allowed me to buy a car and save up about $12,000. The conversion took us about eight months, and for the first six months we continued to work full-time.

My parents generously let us live with them for four months as we worked on the conversion, so we did not have to pay $1,400 per month in rent during that time and we were still working, so those paychecks went straight into the bus conversion and savings for our travels. 

Just before we hit the road, we both sold our cars, netting us about $15,000. We also sold some of our furniture and sports equipment, and donated carloads full of stuff that we could no longer use. Conveniently, since we spent every weekend working on the bus, we didn’t have time to go out on the town and spend money, which helped us save up.

Did your savings for vanlife end up being enough?

Nick and Jess:

“Is there ever enough? We would like to save more next time as well as spend less on the build.”

Abigail and Natalie:

We definitely felt the amount we saved was enough for a year on the road. We did a lot of research before taking off and noticed everyone does it differently depending on their needs. A lot of people took off and did the build out on the road. We didn’t feel confident enough to handle it that way especially knowing we weren’t digital nomads.

However, how do you truly know what is ‘enough’? Luckily, Abi is very good with money and has excellent credit and taught me a lot about saving. We also both already had some separate emergency-fund savings as well as a separate ‘van mechanic needs’ savings.”

@letsplayrideandseek taking in the beauty of Yosemite

Cat and Aaron:

In our first few months on the road, we spent a lot of money. We hadn’t totally gotten into the groove of vanlife yet and we were so excited to see everything that we basically zigzagged around California at breakneck speed, spending tons of money on diesel. But, we allowed ourselves to relax and have fun those first few months before we worried too much about our finances. 

After that time, we both started working from the road. I do freelance writing and editing, and Aaron plays a suitcase drumset on the street in busy cities for tips.

Our savings and income on the road were enough to support us for a year of travel (including some hefty repairs that I’ll cover later), and once we started getting low on money we took seasonal full-time jobs in Boulder, CO while still living in our bus, which allowed us to replenish our savings. Now, after nearly two years on the road, we can basically sustain ourselves with drumming and writing income.

Exterior of Stu
@stu.the.bus taking in the desert sun

Any surprise expenses?

Nick and Jess:

“For surprise costs, we had to replace the tires on the road as well as our high pressure oil pump our first month into traveling. And we didn’t really realize how expensive fuel was going to be.”

Abigail and Natalie:

“We definitely have put in about $4,600 since hitting the road just on mechanical repairs. Then again that’s the risk you take buying an older van. We will just say once again, thanks for the wedding gifts (we said only money, gas cards, and van related items) and family support.”

@letsplayrideandseek’s cozy eating nook

Cat and Aaron:

We knew that repair costs needed to be factored into our budget, so they weren’t a huge surprise, although in our first year on the road we had to get our turbo sensor and fuel injectors replaced, which totaled about $5,000, so those repairs put a big dent in our savings.

The only actual ‘surprise’ expense was that our fridge did not work nearly as well as we expected it to, so we had to spend about $300 on a new and different fridge after about four months.

Would you do anything different related to funding your jump into vanlife?

Nick and Jess:

“We would have bought a shortie and spent way less on our build.”

“Some days it doesn’t even feel real that this is actually our home.” – @home.roller

Abigail and Natalie:

I truly feel there is not anything we would change in terms of what we saved for the trip.  I was very proud of both of us for saving what we did while planning a wedding (which we spent a good chunk on ourselves).  I think our drive to live this way and our need for a new way of life is all we needed to be disciplined enough to pull it off.  It is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Cat and Aaron:

I don’t think we would do anything different. We felt well-prepared with our savings and had work lined up to do from the road, as well as plans to take seasonal work as necessary, which has worked out well.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about saving for vanlife?

Nick and Jess:

“Have an emergency fund for repairs that won’t affect your traveling costs.”

Abigail and Natalie:

Advice – If you find yourself longing to travel, not happy in your current state of being, and/or just finding a lack of fulfillment, let change become the goal not the fear. Whether that is to quit a job, a relationship, buy a van and travel the country, or personal self-care, it is emphatically necessary to your well being.

Warning – Vanlife will increase your sense of self, make you less concerned with society’s perception of happiness, and lessen your fear of the unknown.  Beware, your personal growth will skyrocket! 😉

Tips – Decide what you value in daily life and make that part of your build. If you are into extreme sports, consider a mudroom. If you can’t imagine going weeks without a proper shower or pooping in nature (oh it happens often) add a shower and compost toilet.

If you love cooking, make sure to have enough solar to run equipment (as a chef, I had to have my Vitamix blender and insta pot). It is a small space and utilizing every inch of your build as efficiently as you can will make life on the road so much more rewarding. Cheers!”

Cat and Aaron:

Definitely have an emergency fund. We keep about $4,000 in a separate account just for emergencies. When our fuel injectors went out, we were in Las Vegas fortunately (as opposed to the middle of nowhere) so we limped to a repair shop and nearly passed out when they told us it would cost $4,200 to fix the problem, and we wouldn’t be able to sleep in the bus for a few nights.

Although it was painful to spend so much money in one go, we were able to get a cheap hotel room and then continue on with our travels right away when the bus was fixed since we had been prepared with our emergency savings.

 

Up Next In Vanlife:

How Much is a Ford Transit Camper Van? (New, Used and DIY)

How do you Insulate a Van Conversion? (7 Best Materials + Our Experience)

Dometic: The Best Fridge for a Campervan?

What do I Need for Vanlife? 25 Essentials for Life on the Road

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