Is van life cheap?
I spend about $1,200 a month living out of a van full-time. This includes groceries, gas, going out to eat, and miscellaneous purchases. I'm probably going out to eat about once or twice a week. Miscellaneous purchases typically include:
One night in a hotel (monthly), $80
National park pass, $30
Typically van life is expensive up-front but much cheaper in the long-run. Depending on your van build and the lifestyle you want, these are the big ticket items that will be the most expensive during the van buildout:
Mechanical fixes (if necessary)
Buildout materials (tools, panels, appliances, etc.)
Mattress or foam cushions
Solar panel setup (if you go that route)
Total cost of my van build
I can only share what my personal costs were, but everyone's costs will be a little different. But here are estimates on how much my van build cost.
$6,200 for a 1999 Ford E250 van with 170,000 miles (typically this would be cheaper but it was already built out, hence the higher price. But I ended up gutting it anyway).
$3,800 for mechanical fixes for new front and rear brake lines, exhaust manifold bolt replacements, new windshield, and smaller fixes.
$1,500 for build-out materials and appliances.
~$11,500 total cost of van buildout
Van build-out materials and costs
Here is a list of some of the appliances I used and prices (prices may vary slightly):
Maxxair ceiling fan, $250
Self-leveling lap sealant for ceiling fan, $12
Two RV batteries for electric/power, $70 each
Rustoleum leak seal for covering raw fiberglass in van, $10
1/4in. thick four birch plywood sheets for walls/ceiling, $25/board
Rubber mats for flooring, $37/mat
Stainless steel sink, $173 (but mine came from the random findings in our basement)
RV cushions for bench-to-bed conversion, $290 (I found mine on Craigslist for $75 though!)
Jackery portable battery, $250 (not necessary but since I didn't use solar, I needed more power for charging my laptop than my RV batteries can provide)
A lot of materials came from the basement or garage of my parents' house! The cabinet you see in the picture above was built by my childhood friend's dad, who is an incredible wood worker. The fabric side paneling around the top of the walls was from the original shuttle bus design! It was such an awkward area to cover up (since nothing is actually straight in a van) so we reused these panels.
Don't underestimate those random old things floating around your home. The top places where I found most discount deals were:
Hotel Surplus Store (local)
Advanced Auto Parts
I recommend making your dream list of items and then searching for them on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace before making any pricey purchases.
Depending on your lifestyle, there are certain costs that may increase once on the road. For example, if you work remotely then you'll need a way for getting wifi while traveling. I'm on my family's cellphone plan, but I had to increase our data plan (and foot the bill!) in order to get more mobile hotspot data (I use my phone as a mobile hotspot). It's worth checking if your phone can become a mobile hotspot; not all phones have this capability (I have the LG Thinq). This saved me hundreds of dollars in not having to buy a separate mobile hotspot device as well as its own SIM card and data plan.
Another cost that has increased is groceries. Between hanging with friends, living with roommates, and working at a place that offered free snacks, I had it pretty cushy with food costs in my previous lifestyle. Now, I find myself tempted to go out to eat far more because making meals in the van is a lot of work and sometimes I want to just escape the van. Also, if I don't eat my refrigerated items quickly (because I only use a cooler with ice) then they'll spoil and now I've wasted money.
As always, if you have specific questions, don't hesitate to email me at email@example.com! Good luck in achieving your van build dreams!