Van camping is a very cheap way to live.
Or, more accurately, it can be a very cheap way to live, if you want it to be. Because van camping is so flexible, it is also very variable. It can be as expensive as you like: you can live in a pricey Class B and sleep in an RV campground every night with hot running water, toilets, onshore electricity, TV and a microwave. Or, it can be as inexpensive as you like: you can sleep at a Walmart parking lot every night in a sleeping bag in the back of the van. It’s up to you.
Most of the expenses you will have to pay every month are the same ones you would still have to pay if you lived in a fixed home. You still have to buy food and eat every day, for instance, whether you cook in an apartment kitchen or on a camping stove in the van. The advantage of the camper van lies in those things you do not need to pay for—rent or mortgage, electricity, water/sewer, natural gas/oil for heat, cable TV, high-speed Internet….
To give an idea of the finances involved, here is what I spent for a typical month of living on the road in 2015. These are just rough averages, since prices vary over time (the price of gas in particular goes up and down a lot). And I estimate them a bit high to be conservative.
Food—about $400 per month. This is typically my biggest expense, mostly because I eat out at least once every day. Usually I buy lunch or dinner each day, at a restaurant or cafeteria or in the Walmart deli (or in an all-you-can-eat buffet), and eat small portable meals (sandwiches, candy bars, fruit snacks) that I carry with me in my backpack for the rest of the day. I also cook soups or canned pasta in the van. If I were to cook all my meals in the van, I could cut this expense by at least half.
Gas—about $100 per month. This depends on the current price of gas, and how far I travel. Typically I only drive the van from one city to another, about 600-700 miles, about once every month.
Insurance—for the van, it’s about $100 per month. There is also health insurance, which is another $75 per month.
Bus pass—about $60 per month. This varies from city to city; the cheapest monthly bus pass I’ve seen being $55 and the most expensive being $95.
Admissions to museums, zoos, parks, etc—about $150 per month. Depends a lot on where I go. If I’m going someplace like Disney or Sea World, that can easily be almost $100 just for one day. But most places are around $15-20 admission, and many of the places that I go are free.
Miscellaneous—about $150 per month. Includes everything from the yearly state inspections on the van to my Tracfone cellphone to whatever odds and ends I need to buy, from paper towels to new shoes.
Total average per month: $1035. So it costs me roughly $1000 per month to live on the road. Heck, in places like Washington DC or New York or San Francisco, most people pay that much a month just for rent. And my life in a van isn’t very much different than my life was in an apartment: I wake up each morning, wash, take the bus to do what I want to do, come home, cook dinner, watch TV or read a book, then sleep. The only difference is that my “apartment” now is smaller and more mobile (and there are lots of things, like rent and utilities, that I don’t have to pay to live here). Of course, I am a longtime backpacker so I don’t mind roughing it, but those van dwellers who like their creature comforts can have them too, if they’re willing to pay a bit more to have them.
The initial expenses, to buy the van, add the solar panel system, and equip her for camping, added up to about $14,000. Because I paid cash for the van, I do not need to make any monthly car payments. I also keep an emergency fund of a few thousand bucks in the bank at all times, in case I need to do repairs on the van or the solar power system.