The Cost of Van Life Is Highly Variable

As someone who lives this life, I have a pet peeve with inaccurate representations of this lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll call one out, and it’s time to do that again.

A friend just sent me this Insider article by Emily Inson, all about what it costs her to live in a van for a week. “Here’s what I spend in a week on food, showers, and other basics,” reads the title. Some of the things she buys aren’t exactly basic, nor an accurate representation of what the average van lifer will spend.

I’m a solo van lifer, so I’m used to finding ways to save money on costly items and traveling.

It starts off quite promising. We all do this, so it’s definitely setting off on the right foot.

During a week that I spent $730, I showered at several aquatic centers and made coffee in my van.

Aquatic centers are a great place to find a cheap shower if you happen to be in an area where they’re available. Many places don’t have them, so you may have to rely on a gym membership or truck stops. On the other hand, you can sometimes shower for free, such as my setup with a solar shower and a stand-up tent so the whole world doesn’t have to watch.

As for coffee, it’s essential to life, at least for me. Making it in the van saves a ton of money over hitting Dunk’s or Starbucks every day.

But $730 in a week? That number strikes me as wildly inaccurate, or at least somewhat dubious. I certainly don’t spend that much in a week. I can’t afford to, and I work full-time. And she spends this despite taking some cost-cutting measures — sometimes.

Some of the most expensive parts of the week included getting gas and going out with friends.

Well, she’s honest. Gas is definitely one of the biggest expenses of van life. But, I would argue that if you make your living online, as I do and as the author does, you have the luxury of choosing when and where to drive. Therefore, even when gas prices go through the roof like they have these days, you still have some control over how much you spend.

The author chose to drive a round trip from San Diego to Palm Springs, a trip of about 280 miles, during this particular week. That doesn’t include her extra driving around town, either, which will be less efficient than steady highway travel. Given that she’s driving a particularly old Ford van, based on the pictures in the article, I can certainly believe that she spent $200 on gas this particular week. Also, California is one of the most expensive places in the US you can be these days. Based on that, alone, I’d say this is not an accurate representation of the true van life cost of living compared to other places.

I almost chose to skip my summer road trips and stick around Arizona and New Mexico, not driving very far. In the end, I chose to travel anyway, but I’m moving slowly. I’m also driving northwest through Nevada instead of up the California coast like I’d hoped to because California is so darn expensive, especially gas prices.

Going out with friends is fun. But there are affordable ways to do it as well as expensive ones. This, in my opinion, is where this article fails. It doesn’t separate the essential expenses — groceries, water, laundry, showers, etc. — from non-essential expenses — $25 for a resort breakfast, $11 at Starbucks (what happened to making coffee in her van), $150 on dinner and drinks with friends, etc.

There are also expenses, like her $70 oil change, that are realistic and essential but not part of a normal week on the road. During my year on the road so far, I’ve had just three oil changes, one of which I did myself in a friend’s driveway to save some money. Including an oil change in an article about how much a week on the road costs is not accurate.

Similarly, she chose to drive from San Diego to Palm Springs and back, contributing $200 of her $730 weekly expenses. The ability to travel is one of the biggest appeals of van life, as well as one of the biggest expenses. But again, this article strongly implies that you WILL spend $200 a week on gas, each week, every week. That isn’t necessarily true. In many cases, you can control how far you travel, and therefore how much you spend.

Similarly, the average van lifer does not spend $150 on dinner and drinks with friends every week. It is inaccurate to claim that one week of van life costs $730 when $150 of that is a night on the town.

I don’t begrudge the author for partying with friends. One great benefit of van life is that by living inexpensively, you can afford to splurge on luxuries once in a while. I’m certainly not one to throw stones. There are days that I’m lazy and have a meal out instead of cooking for myself. I also just splurged on a trailer, which is absolutely a non-essential expense that many people in this life can’t afford. You can live any way you want as long as you’re not hurting others in the process.

My issue is the false implication that van life costs everyone $730 every week. Take away the $200 in gas, $150 for dinner and drinks, and the $70 oil change, and she’s left with just $310 of normal expenses — less than half of her $730 total. And that still includes a few luxuries like dinner and some coffees she didn’t have to make herself. That’s how variable the cost of van life is, yet this article doesn’t touch on this aspect at all.

This may not even be the author’s fault. I’ve occasionally had articles I’ve written for websites that contain accurate information, but got skewed during the editing process into something different that I don’t necessarily agree with. There isn’t much I can do about that, even though my name is on it, since editors have the final say over what gets published, accurate or otherwise.

I could see a case where the author wrote a factual account of what she spent in a week on the road, and then an editor changed it to be more definitive or authoritative than the author meant it to be. Even in the published version, she’s certainly writing about her personal experience. But in order to get more views, which means more ad revenue, it’s entirely possible that an editor changed this to “this IS what a week of van life costs” instead of “here’s what I spent this week.” People do more Google searches for “cost of van life” than “what did Emily Inson spend last week.”

I will say that one thing this article still nails is how variable each individual day’s expenses are. Particularly over the winter in Quartzsite, I had many days where I spent absolutely nothing. There were other days that were rather expensive, such as a grocery run to Parker where I also got gas. Or maybe I ordered something expensive on Amazon because I could afford it after so many days of not spending anything. Despite its flaws, this article captures that reality well. If only it extended this variability to weeks and months as well, it would be far more accurate overall.

Articles like this are useful, and helpful to people researching this way of life. But they’re only useful if they’re accurate. People should realize that different people have different priorities in how they live, as well as how much they can afford. People who work full-time online jobs can afford to spend more than a retiree who doesn’t work and is trying to stretch their social security check as far as it can possibly go. That national average of $1,563.82 per month would be gone in just two weeks living the way the author of this article does. Again, I’m not judging her for it. She can afford the way she lives, and she should live in a way that makes her happy. Insider should not present this as the definitive answer of how much van life costs, however. This article would scare off that retiree on social security, when in reality I’ve met many retirees on social security who are making this life work well for them.

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