Cost of Vanlife: Spending Update – 2017 Q1

Spending Update

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?”. In this post, I’ll share my spending details for the first three months of 2017. I’ll continue these updates each quarter. This may help you estimate how much you’d spend living a similar lifestyle. In other future posts, I’ll share more details of 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 new people, and even 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.
      • 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 $1,500 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 $1,500 per month seems like more than enough to fund my lifestyle. I’m motivated to spend less than that, but I don’t much desire 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 Q1

For Q1 of 2017, my average monthly spending was $670.  This is right about where I like it.

Spending Update

I spent an average of $500 per month on essentials, and $165 on extras.

My “essentials” spending in Q1 was mostly food and gas, and the level of spending is about what I want and expect. My food spending feels pretty high, but I’m eating very well.

Spending Update

The “extras” spending in March included:

  • Some tea
  • Bike parts – tubeless tires and some parts for setting them up
  • Bike parts – a smaller inner chainring (I’ve been riding up some really steep forest service roads and have to walk sometimes)
  • Drone parts – two batteries and a battery charger

If you remember the last post I made about spending, in which I shared how much I spent over my first 6 months of travel, my spending was much lower these last three months. This chart shows what changed:

Spending Update

I expect my ongoing spending to be close to what I spend over the last three months.


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, with income shown as a running 3 month average to smooth it out), and a running total showing the surplus/deficit (the light red area, which goes negative).

Spending Update

In another month or two I will have gotten back to zero from the big camera purchases I made in October. That was a very uncommonly large purchase for me.

Like all types of numbers, the way this data looks depends a lot on what I select to show. I did my taxes in March and got a fairly big federal return. That money is not shown in the chart above because it’s really essentially just getting back my own 2016 income. It doesn’t apply to what I use the chart for.

If I start this chart at the beginning of the year, and include that tax money, I have a surplus of over $4,500 because I’ve spent only 30% of my income. YEAAH BUDDY!  Got it made.

Spending Update

I’ve wanted to start earning some income from hobbies.  As you can see, as long as I don’t spend a lot, that investment income easily covers all my spending. Months like January and February where I ended up with an extra $1,000 per month don’t motivate me to earn more income.

What about you?

Earlier today, I listened to the latest Mad Fientist podcast. His guest was a personal finance icon: Vicki Robin. She’s the author of “Your Money or Your Life“. If I had to recommend one single personal finance book to the wide population, this is it. In it, she helps you remove unhealthy views of money and spending (feelings of sacrifice, or guilt, or “I deserve it”). She teaches you how to properly quantify and analyze your money as your “life energy” (your time). Also, she shows you how to spend money more intentionally, in line with your personal values and with what brings you joy. She shows you how to take complete control of your spending. No more feelings of guilt or sacrifice.

Near the end of the podcast, the host asked Vicki “If you could share just one piece of advice for our audience, what would it be?”. Her answer was: track and review your spending.

Do you track your spending?

If you do: what do you get out of it? How much do you spend per month on average? Are you happy with that amount?

If you don’t track your spending: Why not? And, if this is you, stop whatever you would’ve done after reading this, and read Your Money or Your Life.

Cost of Vanlife – my first six months

Cost of Vanlife

People often wonder how much full-time vandwellers spend. I’ll share my cost of vanlife over the first 6 months. My average monthly spending was $2,100. This is quite high for me, and much higher than I expect going forward. Control of ones finances is a critical skill in order to live the kind of life they want. I’ll be posting more on this blog about my spending, my income, and sharing some advice on how to move both of those in the directions you want, and most importantly, how to save your money (your life energy) and win your freedom.

Cost of Vanlife: my first 6 months of spending

I’ve read that it’s common for people to increase their spending for a while after retiring – particularly those who launch right into long term travel. Well, me too. I’ve been a naughty boy. The chart below shows how much I spent each month (the red bars) compared to how much income I had (the green bars, with income shown as a running 3 month average to smooth it out), and a running total showing the surplus/deficit I have (the light red area, which goes negative).

Cost of Vanlife

It’s not all that bad. I bought some expensive camera gear in October. I spent more than usual on gas in August and September. I spent more than usual on health insurance in September and December. If all goes as planned, my spending will be quite low in 2017.

Here are some more details on my spending:

Cost of Vanlife

Some of what’s in the “Essentials” category was not actually essential – like using a lot of gas. But to keep it simple I didn’t try to separate ‘extra gas’ from ‘normal/essential gas’.

Cost of Vanlife

The camera spending was a huge bump. If I hadn’t bought that, my average monthly spend would’ve been about $1,100.

The fixed costs were high in September and December from paying health insurance premiums. In September I paid for the rest of 2016, and those were expensive because my income in the first half of the year prevented me from getting subsidies. In December, I paid premiums for all of 2017. I (expect to) get a lot of subsidy because of my low income. Thanks Obama.

Cost of Vanlife

Looking forward, I expect lower spending on hobbies, gas, and fixed costs. I’m hoping to spent $500-$1000 in many months. Maybe even below $500 a few months.