Money is often a large contributor to people being able to hit the road and explore. It is also a common reason that people choose not to pursue road travel at all.
When individuals start seriously thinking about purchasing a van or moving into some sort of vehicle to travel, money is always a core part of the conversation. Before diving into something, it is important to have some knowledge about the financial aspect of what it is you’re diving into. Budgets are important, but beyond that, using simple tips and tricks to manage your money properly on the road may make all the difference. With a simple Google search, you will easily find that the cost of vanlife can massively vary between individuals. Some vanlifers can live off $500 per month, while others need $2,000+ per month.
So why do these budgets differ so severely? Because budgeting and managing your money is extremely important and will immensely affect your cost of living on the road.
Now, some people are inherently better at managing money than others. This may be because of how you were raised, what your relationship with money looks like, or even how much money you make. Regardless, there are still numerous things you can do to properly budget and save money, especially while on the road. Vanlife can be an extremely cheap form of living if you are careful and wise about your spending. After years of conversations revolving around financials with other vanlifers, these are the recommendations I’ve heard time and time again.
Leave room and money for accidents, mishaps, and maintenance.
Accidents are extremely likely when you are spending a large amount of time driving and moving constantly, especially down bumpy, dirt roads. Be prepared for this! Most vanlifers have had some sort of “uh-oh” experience throughout their years of living on the road. A popped tire, a fender bender, an unexpected veterinary bill, you name it. The more prepared you are for these mistakes or unexpected costs, especially financially, the easier it will be to roll with the punches.
Track all your purchases.
Learn your spending habits. Figure out where you can save by looking back on the previous month and focusing on whatever your “weak spot” is. If you are new to budgeting, a great way to start is to complete an audit on your spending. Save all your receipts, credit card statements, etc. and put them into an Excel spreadsheet. This will give you the chance to look at where you are spending the most money and where you can budget more effectively. You may be totally surprised by what you find!
Utilize apps that will help you budget and manage money.
There are numerous apps that will come in handy when budgeting and managing money. One of the first apps that comes to mind when thinking about budgeting is Mint. Mint is a free app that allows you to track money, manage when bills are due, check your credit score, and more. It also breaks down your spending into different categories, so you can figure out where you can work to improve savings.
Another app that adds functionality to your road travel and allows you to save money is the 76 app. With this app, you can find the nearest 76 gas station and rack up redeemable points when you fill up your tank. These stations also frequently carry propane, where you can fill up a reusable propane tank that many campers have. I personally prefer these gas stations because they are often a one-stop-shop. I can usually rely on them for a full market, ultra-low sulfur diesel (which is required in newer Sprinters) and a propane refill. The fewer stops, the better!
Take the time to find free campsites instead of paying for them.
One of the beautiful things about this world is that free camping is readily available, especially when you are willing to have patience and seek it out. The United States specifically is filled with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forests, both which you are able to legally overnight camp on. Paying for camping, while sometimes necessary, can seriously add up. This is an extremely easy way to cut back on budgets and save money. To learn more about resources for finding free camping, check out our article on 10 things you need to know before living the vanlife!
Keep a financial spreadsheet of your income vs. your expenses each month.
While we would all love to have an abundance of money in our checking and savings accounts, that often isn’t our reality. If your budget is tight, make a financial spreadsheet that includes your monthly income and all of your expenses each month. As the weeks of each month pass, you can mark off each bill as it is paid and ensure that you have enough money in all accounts to pay your bills. This also allows you to track how much excess cash you will have after your bills are paid, allowing you to put that extra money into savings or towards other expenses. This is also another great way to track if you have the ability throughout different months to put extra money towards monthly payments, such as a van payment, student loans, credit card debt, etc.
Over budget rather than under budget.
This piece of advice cannot be stressed enough. Make sure that you have extra money, not just for emergencies, but for the fluctuation of prices and expenses while traveling. If your monthly costs are $1,000 then budget for $1,200. Leave room for location inflation; things in certain areas are going to cost more than other areas. For example, gas and diesel in a National Park you are visiting may be twice as expensive as in a major city. Take these variations into consideration and plan for them. Worst case scenario is that you budgeted more than you need and you can put that extra money into savings!
In your monthly budget, make room for “fun” and “travel” purchases.
Recognize you’ll be visiting new places frequently and you will want to have experiences and mementos of these new places. This may mean stickers, shirts, hats, local beer or coffee, food, etc. Even beyond purchasing physical items, take into consideration the cost of adventures! You’ll likely want to ride the Ferris wheel in Seattle, visit the Four Corners Monument, or explore the Old Idaho Penitentiary Site in Boise. When visiting new places, we all want to make the most out of it. So plan ahead and budget properly. You never know when you’ll be back to visit certain areas again!
Learn which grocery stores have the type of groceries you prefer for cheaper.
This will widely vary based on personal preference and diet but grocery shop with intention. It can be extremely easy to just pull over and grocery shop at any store you may be passing. However, you may end up saving more money by driving an extra 10 minutes to a grocery store that will have cheaper options. Even better? Shop locally at farmers markets for the cheapest produce in town. Pro tip: sign up for a grocery store email list and they will send you online coupons. You may be surprised at how much you will save this way!
Plan ahead during trips.
Some of the fun of road trips is spontaneity. While we completely recognize this, we also understand that the benefits of planning ahead can still be done without taking away the fun. One of the best examples of this is National Parks or specific state lines. If you are heading to a National Park, buy your food and gas before entering the park. If you are crossing between certain borders, waiting an extra 10 minutes might save you an entire dollar on gas. Be aware of where things will cost more. This will come with time and experience, but can also be gained with a little research.
Have an accountability buddy – explain your budget to them and have them check in with you regularly.
One of the greatest parts of vanlife is community. Find a friend that is also trying to budget and manage their money smartly and ask them to be an accountability partner! Brainstorm ideas together on ways to save money, manage your money, and stay on top of your budgets properly. Sometimes, simply checking in with somebody else is that extra push that you need to stay on track.
Live within your means.
While this might be obvious, it never hurts to be reminded. Do yourself a favor and live within your means. Recognize what your income or financial situation is and become comfortable. Learn the ins and outs of what that means for you and what you can afford. Do your very best not to stretch yourself thin financially. You will be substantially less stressed and worried about money!
Don’t forget some of the easier quick-fix options!
- Cook instead of eating out.
- Buy an America the Beautiful parks pass instead of paying for singular park entrances.
- Use libraries for free wifi instead of paying for a drink at a coffee shop to gain access to wifi.
Curious about more details on making money from the road? Check out this video where a group of digital nomads sit down together and discuss this dynamic topic.