Two of the most common questions asked of people who travel full time are: “How much does it cost?” and “How do you earn an income while traveling?”. I’ll share my spending details in this quarterly series of posts. This may help you estimate how much you’d spend living a similar lifestyle. In other future posts, I’ll share more about how I saved and invested in order to create (what I hope will be) enough lifelong income to fund all my spending.

I want to show you that a lifestyle like mine – full of travel, adventures, living in beautiful places, meeting fascinating people, and pursuing hobbies that aren’t exactly inexpensive – can be had for quite little money.

First, some clarifications

  • I will share a spending update at the end of each quarter.
  • I track and include every single dollar of spending. These updates are not just the money I spend on travel or my van, it is every dollar I spend.
  • I’ll share the total of how much I spent, and details of what I spent the money on. I’ll differentiate between spending on what I’ll call “essentials” and “extras”. If you’re thinking about how much you’d need to spend for a certain lifestyle, it’s likely my “essential” spending amounts will be more useful than the “extras”. The lists below show what I include in each category. As you’ll see, there are grey areas, and a lot of what’s in the essentials category is not truly essential. But for the sake on simplicity, this is how I’m categorizing them.
    • ESSENTIALS:
      • All Van-related costs (gas, insurance, registration, maintenance, repairs, improvements, tolls, tickets, etc.)
      • Food (including eating out)
      • Healthcare (Insurance, any services, any supplements)
      • Hygiene products, household goods, internet, clothes
      • Anything else that doesn’t fit in the “Extras” category
    • EXTRAS:
      • All spending on hobbies
      • Any extra travel (like if I fly somewhere to see family or friends)
      • Dating
      • Alcohol, tea
      • Books, movies/shows, concerts
      • Any other spending on entertainment
      • When I sell some hobby equipment, I count it here as negative spending
  • I have a more or less fixed income of around $1,600 per month. I spent a decade being a good cog in a large manufacturing machine. I invested much of my income and those investments are now the source of my ongoing income. So far, the $1,600 per month seems like more than enough to fund my lifestyle. I also earn some extra money on top of this from hobbies. I’m motivated to spend less than my income, but I’m not trying to spend as little as possible. Many other travelers are in different situations. Some work full time and need a way to find enough income to cover their spending. Some who travel have saved up some money and are spending that cash. Once they run out of money, they’ll go back to work. These last folks have much more motivation to spend as little as possible because it means traveling longer.   My income will continue no matter what I’m doing, so I don’t have those reasons to reduce my spending as low as possible. Other people who travel or live in a vehicle full time have told me they spend only $200 per month.
  • One of the reasons I’m sharing my spending is to help dispel a common misconception people are indoctrinated with from childhood: that spending money makes you happy. For the most part, there is little connection between spending money and happiness or joy. Recent data currently shows that happiness increases as income increases, but only up to $75,000/year, and then it doesn’t really make a difference. Consider for a moment that this data comes from a population indoctrinated that more money means more fun. Much of the money I’m spending is not to “buy happiness”.  It’s mostly just to exist as I do. My happiness and joy come primarily from the perspective from which I view things, and secondarily from how much I’m learning/growing and how many fun things I’m doing. Much of my spending on “extras” is to buy things that I will use and many many times. It’s not trading money for one-time happiness or entertainment. It is important to break yourself of the common misconception that spending money = entertainment/happiness. I don’t mean to say that spending money on experiences is wrong for absolutely everyone, but I do think many people spend money this way indiscriminately. I’ll surely rant on this in later posts.

Spending Update – 2017 Q3

For Q3 of 2017, my average monthly spending was $1,237.  That is a higher than I’d like, but not so bad considering the extra things I did. I spent an average of $517 per month on essentials, and $720 on extras.

(If I was really trying to spend little, I would’ve averaged under $500/month in total spending)

Cost of Vanlife

In August, I bought a bunch of coffee-making equipment. (a Flair Espresso maker, a Lido 3 E-T Grinder, and a Bellman Stovetop Steamer). I like all of these, especially the espresso maker. If you want a Flair, and it’s before 10/25/17, use code 06101702T at FlairEspresso.com to get $25 off  (and – I get a small commission) 

In September, I had the trip to Toronto and the tattoo, on which I spent $800 total. I also bought a new camera, sold my ‘old’ one,  and bought some new lenses (well, most of them are used and really old actually). The camera changes all netted out to spending $450.  I’m enjoying the new camera. It’s not as good technically as my old one, but I like shooting with it more, and now I have a MUCH wider array of lens lengths, so I can shoot a wider variety of things.

Gas was a little high in September because I drove a lot. I went from southwest Utah out to Los Angeles. Then up to Santa Barbara a couple times, and to various places in LA to buy old lenses.

All that tattoo and camera stuff made my hobby spending the highest category year-to-date.  This is, more-or-less, the way I want it (low total spending, but with hobbies at a significant portion of it). I would like to have lower hobby and total spending over the next ~6 months, and I expect to do so… probably. I might buy another fairly expensive lens.

Here’s a look at how my spending has evolved since starting full-time travel in the van:

(Those big hobby spikes are when I bought new cameras, and the tattoo)

 

Spending Vs. Income

The chart below shows how much I spent each month (the red bars) compared to how much income I had (the green bars) and a running total showing the surplus/deficit (the area). This chart starts when I started traveling full time in the van.

My income ticked up a bit in Q3, and that’s mostly because of some investment changes I made and wrote about in Q2. YAY!

Here’s the same chart, but starting the surplus/deficit from scratch at the start of the year:

(These spending vs income charts ignore the tax refund I got this year. I’m not counting that because it’s related to my full-time employment last year and won’t happen again in the future)

My YTD savings rate is 40%, not counting the tax refund, and 50% including it. (For those not familiar with what this means, it means that I’ve spent only 60% of my income, so the unspent 40% will be reinvested, which will increase my future income a little bit).

 

Q4 Outlook

I will buy health insurance for next year, and with subsidies, that should cost around (only) $500. I think I’ll also pay for 6 months of van insurance. So the fixed costs will bump up.

I might buy another camera lens, and it would be an expensive one ($750). I may also buy some equipment that I’d use in Mexico (snorkeling gear, fishing gear).

So, Q4 will probably be about as high as Q3.

If I go into Mexico for the winter, as I hope, I expect my spending will be quite low while there. But I’ll probably spend less on hobbies while there. That’s really the only way for Mexico to be cheaper for me since don’t spend much on everything else. The only thing that I expect to cost less is food. Gas is about the same there, and I’ll probably drive quite a bit (Baja is 800 miles long). Lower spending would be mainly a result of me not buying more gear for hobbies – which is likely, as I think shipping stuff there would be more complicated.