Van life may sound exciting, but it takes a lot of strategy and planning to make it work.
‘Everybody’s trying to get their hands on a van’: #VanLife takes off during COVID-19 as Americans convert vans for a life on the road
#VanLife, which has taken off during the pandemic, may sound like a carefree existence, but it actually requires strategic planning to avoid running into trouble.
From a financial standpoint, it’s drastically different from living in a traditional home and working a normal job. But the remote work revolution that began during COVID-19 has made it possible for many people to embrace life on the road.
Not everybody is able to make it work, as many Americans are struggling during the pandemic. Facing joblessness or reduced income, some have lost their homes and are living in their vehicles because they have no other options.
But many van lifers say they’re saving a lot of money, like married couple JennaLynn and Corey Self, who gave up their Navy Yard apartment near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. They hit the road in October after spending $18,000 to buy a used Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter van and investing $8,000 in upgrades.
“Two-and-a-half days in our apartment in Navy Yard is the entirety of our monthly payment for this van,” JennaLynn says. “Financially it makes so much more sense.”
But before you jump into a new nomadic life, be prepared to stay at national parks, get cheap fitness club memberships, and make some compromises.
Here’s how to make #VanLife work for you:
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1. Consider buying a used van
New commercial vans can cost more than $50,000. But you should be able to get one for half that much or even less on the used market, depending on its condition and mileage.
“That’s way less than some of the (RVs) you see on the road … that are hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Brian Moody, executive editor of car-buying site Autotrader.
When spreading the cost out over time, your monthly payment could be only a few hundred dollars. And keep in mind that although vehicles do depreciate in worth, vans do retain considerable resale value because they often last for hundreds of thousands of miles, so you’ll recoup some costs if you decide to sell it someday.
Married couple Abby and Cody Erler, previously of the Boston area, spent about $25,000 for a 2018 Ram ProMaster van. That was nearly equal to their yearly apartment rent of almost $23,000.
“It’s huge because you’re giving up that rent payment,” Abby says.
Married couple Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez bought a 2004 Sprinter van that had previously been used as a prisoner transit vehicle for $6,000.
2. Budget for upgrades and teach yourself how to do them
Be strategic. You’ll want a water tank and possibly solar panels paired with a battery to provide electricity. Shelves will come in handy and you obviously need a bed, either fixed to the floor or capable of being folded for storage to maximize space during the day.
“We’d been saving up for a while thinking that we’d invest in a house, so we had a little bit of a nest egg, and then we decided we’ll use that to buy the van and build it out,” Abby Erler says.
In general, most van lifers spend several thousand dollars outfitting the interior of their new home before hitting the road. The Selfs spent about $8,000, the Erlers about $10,000 and the Rodriguezes about $10,000.
And many, if not most, teach themselves how to do the work using YouTube videos and other online tutorials.
3. Stay at public campgrounds or national parks.
While some parks will have admission fees, others may not. If you’re not careful, those costs can add up quickly.
The Erlers “try to camp for free 90% of the time,” Abby says.
Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez do the same thing from their Sprinter van.
“We rely on public land,” Abigail says.
4. Make sure you’ve got a bathroom solution
Some van lifers install a toilet. But that can be tricky, it takes up room and it can be undesirable to sleep next to.
Others plan their trips to campgrounds with public bathrooms. And some purchase memberships at fitness centers they can use for showers and toilets.
Planet Fitness, a national chain that advertises $10 monthly memberships, is the destination of choice for many van lifers. Others will use showers at truck stops, and some purchase solar-powered mobile showers.
5. Plan for fixed and unexpected expenses
Maintenance expenses can pile up quickly, so you’ve got to be ready for the unpredictable. The Selfs have spent about $4,000 in maintenance for their van since they began readying it for the road in summer 2020.
Fuel is an obvious one, though you have some control over how much you spend depending on how often you go from place to place.
If you’ll be working remotely, you’ll also need to devise a plan for internet connectivity. Most van lifers use a mobile hotspot device, which often costs around $50.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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