Dirtbag Doesn’t Mean Dirt Broke: How to Plan Financially for Vanlife
Some of frequently (un)asked questions about vanlife are those regarding money. Why the hush hush? Money makes people uncomfortable. I grew up being taught that you didn’t talk about money, which I’ve come to believe is an inherently dangerous lesson. That’s why you’ve got a bunch of 20-somethings like us who have no clue how to manage their finances! We learned a lot the hard way and that’s why we’re firm believers in being transparent about money matters.
Contrary to baby boomer opinion, vanlifers don’t sponge off friends and government assistance. We pay our dues, both to fund the van conversion and vanlife itself!
So how do we balance all that in our budgets? How can you both convert a van and make sure you have enough money left to live in it? While we’re not getting into the finances of a van conversion in this article, we are going to talk more about how to plan your future vanlife endeavors through a careful series of considerations and analysis of your spending habits.
Financing full time road travel is daunting to say the least. Prepping for vanlife in other ways is the easy part! So let’s get fiscally fresh here and start talking about preparing for vanlife financially.
How much money do you need for vanlife?
The first step toward vanlife budgeting is figuring out your financial needs. The best way to do that is determine your current baseline by budgeting and tracking your spending (more on that in just a second).
Second, answer the following questions:
How long are you going to be doing vanlife? Is there a definitive timeline or not? Is vanlife a yearlong vacation from your stationary life or do you intend on making it an extended lifestyle as long as you can manage it? If you have a definitive timeline (say 6 months), it’s a lot easier to come up with a numerical goal to save up to. If your vanlife journey is open ended, it’s not as easy to have a savings goal. You’ll likely hit the road knowing that at some point, that money will run out and you’ll have to settle and work a bit, if only temporarily.
How lavishly do you like to live? If you’re voluntarily moving into a van, we think it’s safe to assume probably not too luxuriously. However, even among vehicle dwellers there’s a pretty wide range along standard of living. RV living, for instance, is way more luxurious than a trucktop camper. Maybe you prefer to stay in paid campsites and RV parks with full amenities and security over scavenging for free informal campsites. Even your hygiene preferences come into play here! If you’re paying for showers, whether you shower every day or just once a week can mean some serious cash differences. Write a list of all the things you see as luxuries in your vanlife and how much they’ll cost.
What kind of van are you living in? What kind of van are you living in? This is actually matters a lot. If you bought an old beater or even a van with lots of miles, prepare to spend more money on maintenance and repairs than newer vehicles (the trade-off of course being the van payment of you bought new like us). Mercedes vans also tend to be a bit more of a money suck. While the engines are pretty bomber, the transmissions can be finicky and because it’s a German automaker, parks and those qualified to work on them are harder to come by, and therefore more expensive. American made vans like Dodge and Ford have parts and qualified mechanics that are a dime a dozen.
Are there two of you? Kids? Dogs? A bit self explanatory but these things all require more money.
Are you working while on the road? If you’re a remote worker or a freelancer, you have the cherished ability to be able to make money on the road, no matter where you are. The trouble is, unless you already have an awesome and flexible job that’s stoked for you to work remotely, it’s tough to break into being a full time freelancer (trust me, I’m still inching my way ever so slowly toward it). But even if you can find little ways to make money on the road, it helps. Any little bit offsets the cost of road life meaning you’ll need less saved to start. Get creative and find your side hustle. Take paid surveys, seek cash back opportunities, the possibilities are endless. Stay tuned for an upcoming vanlife hustle article we’ll be writing about all these and more tips for making money on the road.
So answering questions is great and all, but we know you’re all thinking it: let’s get some hard numbers on the table. How much money should you have before jumping into vanlife (without additional income from remote work). Several vanlifers recommend $20,000 per person (so if you’re a couple, set aside $40,000) to live for a year in a van without having to work at all.
If you balked at that number, no worries. We did, too. In fact, in full transparency, we did not have that near much money when we launched into full time road travel. Granted, we do little bits of remote work and take on freelance gigs where we can to help offset travel costs, but definitely not enough to entirely cover them.
Did we still save enough? As of now, that’s a hard question to answer and truthfully, we’re still figuring out what we can expect for our monthly spending. Since our full time life on the road is still in the somewhat early stages, it’s a bit hit and miss. Because we’re still gathering up some bits of gear and things that have long been on our to-buy list (but just weren’t an option to buy living in Alaska), we’re spending a bit more now than we anticipate we will
The safe bet is to always overestimate when it comes to cost. Assume you’ll be spending more than you think you will. Most people do. And if you’re wrong on an overestimation, well boo hoo, you’re a few bucks richer. No one was ever disappointed when they find it they spent less money than they accounted for... the reverse is an entirely different and scary story.
Let’s look at some tips to get you started.
Make a budget sheet to start tracking your spending.
To plan for how much you will be spending, you need to know how much you are currently spending. A budget sheet is the perfect answer! It can be as basic as a chart you sketch in your journal or as fancy as a computer generated spreadsheet. I recommend the latter because it’s easier to utilize formulas and adjust values on a screen than it is on paper. I made my budget sheet in Numbers (or Excel works too) and simply broke it down into section. In one, I listed out every source of income we had.
In the next, we list out all our assets: each bank account, cash, store credit accounts, etc. That way we always know how much money we have in which place at the end of each month. We update these categories after each month’s bills are all paid (which we do all at once for simplicity and consistency).
The last category contained every source of spending. This then connected to a secondary section that broke down spending by category. For instance, for the sake of totaling, my grocery bill was included in a particular credit card. But by tracking groceries separately, I could learn exactly how much I was spending in them. You might surprise to see the total numbers of some categories. Check out the image template of my budget spreadsheet to see the categories I used and tailor it to fit your own lifestyle.
Keeping up with this meant logging my receipts every time I spent something. That can get tedious, I know. It takes some dedication and disciple to follow through, but it will all eventually become habit.
Making a budget spreadsheet was honestly life changing for us in taking control of our finances. We started it right after we bought the van and tracked our spending over the next nine months of the van conversion. That way we could track vanbuild expenses, as well as have a healthy sampling of BEFORE to compare to your AFTER. The idea is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how greatly reduced your spending becomes after starting vanlife!
Predict your future vanlife budget by breaking down your biggest costs.
Once you’ve made up your current budget, start considering what you budget will look like after moving into the van. What will be your biggest consistent expenses? This might be things like a van payment (if you have one), gas, food, parking/campground fees, and van insurance.
You can even make a separate budget spreadsheet if you’d like to actually use as your budget tracking when you live in the van. Start with making a prediction column so you can later compare your actual spending to what you predicted.
If you’ll still be working (whether full time or freelance) when you live in your van, you can have a section for predicted earnings, too. I like to lowball these numbers so I’m not counting on money I don’t know whether or not I’ll actually make!
Start saving money now.
It’s never too soon to start saving and your future vanlife endeavors will thank you. The more you can manage to save, the longer you’ll be able to travel without worrying about money and the less you’ll have to stress about it.
In today’s economy, however, saving is hard, especially for those working hourly or service industry jobs. On minimum wage, sometimes it’s hardly enough to pay rent! That’s why the single biggest way you can do to save is move into a cheaper place. Maybe sublet with roommates to halve rent. Lots of hopeful vanlifers move back in with their parents during the build so save some cash. It’s amazing how much you save when you aren’t dumping upwards of $1,000 a month into a roof over your head.
After you’ve salvaged that huge chunk of monthly income, see what others ways you can start cutting back on more luxury items. not only helps you save more, but gets you in the habit of living more minimally, as you will be in the van. Read on for more ways to start cutting back.
Start changing your spending habits.
We live in a consumer culture dominated world. Spending money is not only a means to acquire things, but almost a hobby! A way to pass time. Vanlife necessitates you change that. Think about it: when you live in a van, you won’t be able to go shopping and impulse buy a bunch of new clothes. Fixed income aside, where you will you put them?
Changing your shopping habits before making the big life change will both make it easier in the long run and help you save money. It’s surprisingly easy to do.
First, stop eating out, or at least do it mess frequently. Make it a treat or reserve it for special occasions. This was already done for Chris and I because we’re such health nuts that we rarely ate out to begin with.
Reducing eating out includes coffee. Maybe you’re planning to buy a French press for van coffee (we bought this inexpensive insulated one and it’s been fantastic). Start using it for your daily coffee instead of going out for coffee. It saves so much money and you get to customize your coffee to your perfect strength. If you’re an espresso guy or gal (like Chris who would happily drink quad shots every morning), they even make handheld espresso makers that are perfect for vanlife. A tiny investment upfront to cut back major cafe costs over time.
Second, implement a buying ban for yourself and allowed exceptions. Exceptions might include materials for your van conversion and new van essentials and appliances. Exceptions are okay, but you should still exercise some control. Include grocery shopping rules in your buying ban. If you’re anything like I was, you buy five boxes of cereal “because it’s on sale!” not even realizing that you’re still spending more money buying things you didn’t need. Plus you can’t store that much cereal in a van! Only replace things when you’ve run out and only go grocery shopping once a week. Write down this ban and its rules on paper and keep it in your wallet so if you feel tempted, you’re at least reminded to resist.
Third, challenge yourself to buy nothing new. Buying used is a great way to save money and greatly reduce waste. Go thrifting or scout yard sales when you’re in need of something. Who doesn’t love popping tags with only $20 in your pocket?! You can even do it online these day! Check out this awesome post by Sustainable Jungle for some great online thrift options. We’ve adopted the amazing catchphrase coined by The Non-Consumer Advocate: “Use it up, wear it out, make it due, or due without.” They’ve got lots of tips for minimizing your consumerist lifestyle (which saves you future van space and money).
For more inspiration to reinforce your buying ban, we recommend the following books, which have all been pretty life-changing through our journey:
Stuffocation: Living More With Less by James Wallman
A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy by Sarah Lazarovic (seriously, read this!)
The Man Who Quit Money by Marc Sundeen (also amazing)
Set aside emergency money.
As you’re saving up money, be sure you’re setting a chunk of it aside from even your typical vanlife allocation. A small bit of whatever you save each month (say, 10%) should go into an untouchable emergency fund. This isn’t to be used for your van conversion or for that really awesome SUP you just had to buy while camping neat the Colorado River. No, this fund it for true emergencies only. Your transmission fails, you or your partner have a medical emergency, a family members gets seriously ill and you need to buy a last minute plane ticket home.
Everyone needs a fallback fund. Having one, shouldn’t affect your daily spending habits in the slightest. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist, and you should operate as such. However, if something catastrophic does happen, you have the peace of mind knowing you at least have some resources to deal with it.
And if you do go broke or have to deplete that emergency fund? It’s okay! Contrary to what we’re lead to believe, bankruptcy is not the end of the world. I love the books The Bag Lady Papers: The Priceless Experience of Losing It All by Alexandra Penney, Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas, and Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha as funny, heartwarming, and honest tales of what it’s like to go broke.
Sell off all your extra stuff.
This hits a whole different level of necessary vanlife prep and we won’t go into too much detail about how to minimize for vanlife here (but we’ll be doing some detailed minimizing guides soon). However, keep in mind that minimizing not only a way to simplify your life, but a potentially lucrative one if you do to right.
Stay tuned for a series of specific minimizing guides that will give you resources and tips for actually doing this. For now, however, the best advice we offer is start selling early. That way you can get the best deals for selling off your old stuff; if you do it last minute, desperation is sure to drive a harder bargain.
Plus, the earlier you know how much money your old stuff is going to put in your wallet, the more accurately you can predict how much money you’ll have at your disposal come V-Day.
Get out of debt if you can.
We know, we know, easier said than done. The ability to get out of debt is certainly a privilege not available to most who are in it. Student loans, mortgages, car payments, medical bills, credit card debt: all pits too easy to fall into and damn near impossible to claw out of. Write down all your debts and interest rates. Which ones are going to be easiest to get off your back? If you can, prioritize that with the highest interest rate.
If you can’t get out of debt, try to minimize it as much as possible, even if it means saving less. Your savings might be smaller, but your monthly bills and racked up interest will also be smaller.
For us, we knew we weren’t going to get totally out of debt; after all, we did just buy a van and sign up for a seven year car payment so.... However, the one thing we definitely wanted to do before moving into the van was pay off Chris’s student loans and since he only had a year’s worth, we knew it was possible. I guess being a bad influence and enticing him to drop out had actually worked out in our favor! I was fortunate enough to get through college on a full ride academic scholarship (which contrary to popular belief does not mean my education was free, but it was greatly discounted). I was student debt free.
We tripled the monthly payments toward his loan debt six months before moving into the van, greatly reducing the compounded monthly interest. And on April 31, our first night in the van, we did it; we submitted the final installment. We had worked hard to get there, and it started our vanlife journey off in a very freeing note.
Money may be green, but unfortunately a green thumb still can’t make it grow on trees. Vanlifers tend to stand at a unique crossroads of wanting to untether themselves from material goods and money minded living, while still being dependent on it to do that very thing. It’s tough out here on the frontiers of financial freedom.
The biggest key to feeling confident in your vanlife finances is to not avoid them. Talk about them; don’t ignore them because they’re scary. We hope this has been a little helpful in figuring out how to finance full time vanlife. As we mentioned above, very soon we’re going to dive more deeply into the relationship between vanlife and money, including money saving tips for vanlife and how to make money on the road through remote work and vanlife side hustles.
In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to us with any specific questions or concerns you have. We’re happy to be honest and transparent (unless you start asking for our bank account numbers, that is).
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