Going Mobile: Living the Van Life

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There are over 5.1 million photos tagged with #vanlife on Instagram as of this writing. There are photos taken in the backs of vans and showing toes poking out of plush comforters that open up to sweeping beaches. They show dogs wearing handkerchiefs around their necks in converted vans, tiny kitchens, and adorable couples who’ve struck out on their own in rolling tiny spaces.

There’s no real way to tell how many people are actively living a van life, since no van life census exists. But it’s hard to deny that the trend has been growing and more and more folks are taking their tiny house dreams on the road. Maybe you’ve just landed a remote job. Maybe you’re looking for a huge project. Or maybe you’re just looking for a change in scenery (and another change and another change).

Regardless of your motivation, you might be about to make a huge change and you want to give some time and thought to the real cost of van life. Here are some costs and van life essentials to think about.

The Van (Otherwise Known as Your Home)

The urge to live in a van can be driven by a sense of adventure, a wanderlust. A lot of folks who have hit the road are also looking to save money. They don’t want a mortgage. They don’t want to pay steadily rising rents in large cities. Sure, it’s all about living life on your own terms, but many are also driven by an itch to save some cash too.

This could lead to sticker shock when you start to dig into just how high startup costs can get, and the first thing that usually shocks people is the cost of the van.

If you’re going to go top-of-the line, lots of folks agree that the Mercedes Sprinter should be first on your list for a good van life. They are known to be reliable, fuel-efficient for their size, have good space, and are highly
customizable
.

They’re also not cheap. A base model Sprinter van is going to run about $33,000. Most van lifers opt for a higher roof and some other upgrades . A higher ceiling and more leg room will set you back about $43,000.

Obviously not everyone is going to spring for a new van right out the gate. There are plenty of van lifers crisscrossing the country in homes made from 10-year-old work vans they paid $5,000 for on Craigslist . This could be a viable option, but you might need to budget for repairs and the unexpected “eccentricities” of using an older vehicle as your home.

Once you’ve found your dream house on wheels, it might be time to start thinking about the next major cost of van life: making a vehicle a home.

The Conversion

Van life vans typically start their lives as industrial, and sometimes pleasure, vehicles. They’re usually built for hauling. This is good because it means they have sturdy, reliable engines, but it leaves a little to be desired in the creature comfort arena.

There are a few companies that will take your blank slate of a van and turn it into a shiplapped dream home. These van conversions don’t come cheap, though. You could be looking at an additional $15,000 on the low end and probably closer to $30,000 on the high end. You might want to go the DIY route. A lot of van lifers do what they can and hire professionals for the rest.

One van lifer who took a hybrid approach spent about $8,000 to convert a Sprinter. In addition to saving some cash, there’s nothing more #vanlife than knowing you helped build your home. Personal loans might be a great way to kickstart your conversion so you can get on the road faster.

The total cost of the conversion will vary greatly depending on how many adjustments you make. Do you plan to remove the carpeted floors for a more durable laminate material? Are you going to reupholster the interior? There are all sorts of modifications and personalizations you can make to help your van feel like home.

Another expense to consider: electricity. Are you going to invest in solar panels to maintain your digital life while you’re on the road? Planning on using a generator? Or will you rely on electricity at campsites? There are a few options to consider, so be sure to do your due diligence as you get to work creating the van life of your dreams.

The Other Costs

So, what are the other costs associated with van life, and what are some van life essentials? A quick—and totally unscientific—survey of the hashtag and YouTube shows that a lot of van lifers fall into three camps: digital nomads, influencers/content creators, and gap year adventurers.

If you’re lucky enough to work in an industry that lets you work anywhere, you’re probably not going to have as many hidden costs to worry about. A steady paycheck and healthcare can go a long way to making the transition when you think about how to live the van life.

If you are freelancing, you may be responsible for your own healthcare, which can get expensive. Same for gap year road warriors who are over 26 and off their parents’ plan. You’re probably going to need some kind of health insurance, and it’s probably going to cost some money. Healthcare.gov might be a good place to start planning, and budgeting, before you hit the road.

Another cost to consider is internet access and data plans. Are you going to always be close enough to a city with a coffee shop or library with free WiFi? Will you need to work in the middle of Yosemite on a Tuesday? Does your current mobile phone plan allow you to tether a laptop to it or do you need to change providers? If you’re not on an unlimited plan, it may be time to consider switching to one.

Finally, don’t forget that your new home is actually a vehicle, and with that comes regular maintenance. Vans break down, they need oil changes, and sometimes the transmission will go out when you’re on the other side of the country.

Edmunds estimates the five-year maintenance cost on a Ford Transit, another popular van, at about $4,300. So you might want to make sure you budget enough to cover things like oil changes and new brake pads, and keep an emergency fund for catastrophic failures.

The Open Road

Hitting the open road and living the van life could be an extended road trip of a lifetime. And it could be the start of a whole new lifestyle. It might also get expensive real quick, but knowing the realities of what your new van will cost and how you can budget and make smart choices could make your conversion to a tried and true #vanlifer as smooth as possible.

Want to embrace the nomad lifestyle and hit the road? See how a SoFi personal loan could help you get your van life up and running.

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Author: Benton Lind

I have deep passion for supporting the healthy growth of small Utah businesses and I have been invited to speak at several business events. I have eight years of accounting experience and 9 years of business management and consulting experience working with more than 500 small to medium size businesses. Being a successful business owner I take my business very seriously.