How to Afford Van Life: Tips for Saving Money on the Road

When you first move into a van or start traveling full time, it can be quite easy to fall into the trap of spending loads of money as if you are on vacation full time.  But being able to afford van life comes with learning a few money saving tips so that you can have fun without breaking the bank.

Stretching Your Travel Dollars

Think about this for a second: when you go on vacation, how much money do you spend eating at restaurants, drinking at bars, and paying for extra adventures?  Multiply that out over a full month, then extrapolate how much you’d spend each year if you continued living that way.  Of course, we want to have fun while we travel; why else would we do it?  So we have to find ways to save money but still have fun and make the van life worthwhile.

How do we make money in the first place? Check out this post to find out!  Click Here

Limit Extra Spending to Passion Purchases

It would be easy for me to say that you should not eat at restaurants to save money, but what if you are passionate about food?  We aren’t, so we don’t eat out very often.  We cook in the van most meals.  Rather than tell you not do eat out, I’ll say this: think about what you are passionate about and limit your extra spending to that.  Whether that is finding the best burger joint in each town, ranking ice cream shops at each stop, or finding a perfect microbrew, make your purchases intentional rather than simply convenient.

Purchase with a Purpose

The rare occasions when we do decide to eat at a restaurant or have a beer at a brewery, we are very intentional.  Networking makes up about 80% of our purchases of food and drinks, because it is important to connect with people.  We enjoy having a beer at a brewery, and we love meeting new friends and business contacts at breweries to connect.  It’s very intentional and not something we do just to go have a beer.  The other 20% of our brewery purchases are when we need a mental reset, so we go into a brewery, have a beer, leave our phones off, and just talk to each other and the locals at the bar.  Again, very intentional with these purchases.

Look for Sales and be Flexible on Groceries

This one honestly doesn’t work for everyone.  When we go grocery shopping, we go in with a very rough, vague list and shop based on sales.  We know how many nights of dinners we need, so we go to the meat counter and see what sales they have.  We then plan our meals around the protein we have purchased and look for in-season fruits and veggies to go with it.  However, if you know you will over purchased without a list, skip this one.  This only works for some people.

Additionally on this one, be flexible on your lists and remember that certain staples in your diet may not be readily available everywhere.  For instance, we once found milk for $7 for a half-gallon in Alaska.  Even though we were out of milk, we absolutely would not spend that much money for milk, so we skipped it.  Don’t be too rigid on your list if it ends up being too pricey to do so.

Don’t Buy Snacks at Convenience Stores

While it can be very tempting to grab a quick bag of chips or a candy bar at a gas station at each fuel up, these purchases add up quickly.  Conveniences stores come at a huge premium.  Rather than buying a quick snack at 7-Eleven, run over to the local grocery store and buy an even healthier snack for less money – or buy the same snack for less money.  Either way, you will save money by taking a tad more time to go to the grocery store.

Troubleshoot Repairs

Repairs on the road can add up fast.  Having some form of ability to research and troubleshoot your own repairs can save you thousands of dollars when you are traveling.  A great investment for the van life is an OBD II Scanner to pull your own “trouble codes” when a light comes on the dash.  If you have one of these scanners, you can easily tell where to start looking for any issues without having to pay for diagnostics at a dealership or mechanic.

DSC09638 01 - How to Afford Van Life: Tips for Saving Money on the Road

Don’t Stay at Campgrounds

Campgrounds also add up quickly when you are on the road full time, at $20-50 per night depending on the area and amenities.  It is actually quite rare for us to spend money at campgrounds, unless we have to be in a particular place that doesn’t offer free camping.  Otherwise, we use several different techniques to find free camping.  We’ll be posting about our methods of finding free camping in the near future. 

Find Cheaper Gas Prices

Gas prices on the Interstates are notoriously higher than in cities, but they are admittedly much more convenient.  Besides, you don’t want to drive all over town looking for a 2-cent difference in price.  We use an app called Gas Buddy, which shows you prices at gas stations all around you or on your route.  You can then decide if it is worth driving a mile off course to save 20, 30, or sometimes even 70-cents per gallon.  When you’re driving around in your house, every bit helps in fuel!

Avoid Nickel and Dime Spending

“Oh, it’s just $5 to go to this lake for the day? No problem!”  If you do this every single day, $5 quickly becomes a problem, and $5 turns into $10 here and there.  To cut down on our expenses, we tend to avoid places that have day-use fees, even if it’s just a few dollars.  There are usually free options in the vicinity (often that are less crowded) if you just do a little more research to find them.  Be very intentional about where you spend your money and decide if the activity is actually worth the extra few dollars.

Seek Out Cheaper Alternatives

There are some occasions when you do want to spend some money on an adventure or experience – and that’s totally fine!  But be sure to shop around for cheaper alternatives and don’t always go with the first hit on your Google search results.  Check around to more places, ask some locals for suggestions, and get off the beaten path to find other alternatives for your adventure. 

Be Realistic in your Travel Goals and Spend Accordingly

When you are planning your travels, be realistic with yourself.  If you are only going to make it to one national park this year, don’t spend the extra money on the season pass.  If you won’t go tent camping but one time in the next few years, rent or borrow a tent rather than buy new gear.  Think about how your purchases will be used over the next year or so before committing money to them, and be frank with yourself!  You know yourself better than anyone else!

Have a Plan but Be Flexible

I can’t stress flexibility enough when traveling.  No trip will ever go off without a hitch, no matter how much planning goes into it.  That’s the joy of the adventure!  But there is also a lot to be said about having something of a plan in place to ensure you know what you are getting into.  Be flexible and go with the flow, but know which direction the river runs at the very least.

This is really important when you are looking for free campsites, as they are usually first come first served.  It’s best to have a few options in mind when you are arriving in an area so that you aren’t out of a campsite and looking for a place to sleep at midnight on a windy, narrow road (yes, we know this from experience). 

Learning How to Afford Van Life

By now you probably think we are total cheapskates – which isn’t entirely false – but we do have our passion products that we spend our money on.  I hope this helps you think about the things that you truly value enough to spend money on while keeping “fluff” purchases to a minimum.  Thinking about all of this will help you be able to afford van life, or any nomadic lifestyle, much easier.

Did I miss anything?  What tips do you have for saving money while traveling full time?  Let us know in the comments!

How to afford van life: tips for saving money on the road and stretching your dollar to make the most of van living.