In this series, I explore some of the practicalities of living in a van in the United States. For context, I am relatively privileged: white, perceived as male, raised middle class, able-bodied, in good physical shape. My advice may or may not be useful for others in my or similar situations.
Money is probably one of the first things on people’s minds when they ponder living in a vehicle. How much does it cost? Most people who move into vans are probably saving money. Me, I’m spending it, because it’s a hell of a lot more expensive than living out of a backpack. But that said, my expenses are pretty low. A good running used van likely costs in the 3-10k range. After that, it’s insurance, gas, repairs, increased cost of food, and the occasional short-term rent.
Insurance: this apparently varies a lot from person to person and state to state. I hear rumors about RV insurance being a lot cheaper. I pay roughly $80 a month, with a clean driving record.
Gas: My van gets about 15mpg. My minivan got 22-23. Other people get better mileage—particularly diesel engines. Some people convert to veggie oil, but that is its own huge can of worms. I personally estimate that it costs me $15 an hour to drive anywhere. This is based on paying $4 a gallon and driving 60mph. In reality, it’s a little bit cheaper, probably $12-15 an hour, but I estimate at $15 when I decide whether I can afford a given trip.
Repairs: This is the big one, and the always-unexpected one. Actually, I can reliably estimate when I will need repairs: as soon as I get a decent paycheck. As soon as I get a decent paycheck, something breaks on my van and eats all my money. DIY work helps a lot, of course, though vans are harder to work on than trucks, because the engines are more compact.
Food: When I live in punk houses instead of in vans, I pay barely anything for food, because we buy in bulk, dumpster, and generally just share and eat communally. But I’m really lazy about cooking for myself, so I eat out a lot. Usually cheap food, like burritos, but not always. I pay more for food living in my van than otherwise—probably twice as much. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. I have a pretty functional kitchen, just no fridge to store vegetables or leftovers.
Rent: What? Rent? This is about living in a van! I know, but if you’re parked in someone’s driveway for a month you might want to kick down for rent and utilities. And if you pay your share, you can often run an extension cord out to your van. Also, when you move to Minneapolis in December, you’re better off subletting a room for the month and parking.
It’s hard to hold down a “regular” job while living in a vehicle, particularly if you’re on the move. But plenty of people do it anyway. You can get gym memberships for showers, or have your own shower in your RV-converted vehicle, or “bird bath” in public bathrooms, or take showers at friends’ houses, etc. and then just use a friend’s address for a legal address.
But a lot of people, like me, live in a van because we’d rather be nomadic. Regular work is out. What’s left? Getting money can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. I’ll stick to legal methods of getting money herein.
Freelancing: This is what I do, for most of my work. I’m a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and editor, so most of my work can be done anywhere. Nothing beats settling down in a town’s anarchist cafe to get some work done. If you want to support me, you could buy some of my books. Other people freelance with skills that aren’t telecommuting, like tutoring; teaching music or language classes; dancing; modeling; or housecleaning.
Seasonal work: This is really classy, because it fits the 100+ year old definition of hobo. Most of the time, people work intensely for a few months and then live off the proceeds for the rest of the year. Agricultural work is common at harvest time. Other people work summers at or near national parks, or work in fisheries in Alaska. Apparently a lot of people with RVs do something called workamping (or workcamping… they are two different things I guess?), where they work part- or full-time as campground hosts in exchange for a place to park and maybe some money.
Odd jobs: Odd jobs are your friend. Get paid for the day to plant strawberries or tear down a house. Housesit, petsit, or babysit. Paint some walls. Whatever. I mostly get my odd jobs by letting my friends in town know I’m broke, and they usually let me know if they hear about something.
Medical studies: Some people sell their bodies to medical science. There’s good money in it, sometimes, but it’s not always easy and it’s not always safe.
Crafts: Make things and sell them. I make jewelry and buttons and sell them on Etsy or while I’m tabling.
Other Van Life posts