Bethany-Jumping-Point-Reyes

A Budgetary Guide to a Nomadic VANlife Summer

Since we started the blog, we’ve had many requests to discuss how is it that we can afford to take what appear to be elaborate and extravagant vacations, and what our travels cost us. We think you’ll be surprised to find that the expense of a cross-country van expedition is not nearly as cost-prohibitive as you may think. In fact, in many ways we spend far less than we do at home during the same period of time. Our food is simpler, and our experiences are richer because we make it a point to live simply and honor our natural environment (totally, 100% free) in the vast majority of our activity choices. Couple that with the savings on things like hotels, and on the exceptional gas mileage VANdal gets when compared to RV’s and 5th wheels, and you have yourself a high-end vacation on a pretty basic budget.

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Olympic National Forest

Much depends, of course, not only on personal spending preferences, but also on your ability to budget and live more on less during the other parts of the year. We tend to budget our time and resources so we can take this time completely off, while others use van travel as a nomadic workmobile in and of itself. In future posts, we’ll offer some advice for the dreamers looking to escape the chains of their jobs and make travel their job of choice sooner than later. In fact, in the near future, we intend to publish a book that lays out a step-by-step, paint-by-the-numbers blueprint on how to achieve financial freedom long before the normal retirement age.

Mirror Lake UT
Mirror Lake, UT

For now, we will try to share with you our actual spending for our latest trip, the total costs, and how we generally allocate our funds.

Pacific Beach, Oregon
Pacific Beach, Oregon

One of the great things about traveling via sprinter van is that you don’t HAVE to spend money to reap the most from your experience. Actually, it was some of the cheapest experiences that were technically our richest as we spent our two-month summer road trip cruising around the western part of the country.

Tacos worth the wait at Por Que No? in Portland
Tacos worth the wait at Por Que No? in Portland

Free from tourist traps and high-ticket adventures that often leave a weary traveler feeling cheated, broke, and disappointed, we took a different road (sometimes a bumpy Forest Service road…and other times a most spectacular scenic highway). For little or no expense other than gas, we felt like we did it all…. Explored mountain peaks by hiking… Tried out new athletic pursuits like outrigger canoe racing & downhill mountain biking… Dropped our jaws along some of the most scenic highways in the country… Savored the best beach sunset meals eating fresh organic food from local farmers markets… Dined in some of the most interesting restaurants our thorough research could invite us to…

Mirror Lake Camping in Utah
Mirror Lake Camping in Utah

Perhaps most significantly, we experienced what it was to “camp” in a much fuller way than any hotel or campground could have allowed. Only once did we need to break down and pay for an actual campground… (totally worth it for the scenery in the Gallatin Gateway south of Yellowstone). The remainder of our nights were spent in neighborhoods, at trailheads, along permissible scenic overlooks, safely along National Forest Service roads, and (when traveling), at convenient rest stops. All free.

Thus, the main reason our adventure vacations are financial feasible? VANdal.

Worlds Oldest Sitka Spruce in the Olympic National Forest
Worlds Oldest Sitka Spruce in the Olympic National Forest

Although a substantial expense upfront, traveling by sprinter allows us to carry sports equipment for multiple sports for multiple people, provides us with luxurious sleeping accommodations at any location of our choosing, and permits us to continue eating an organic, pescatarian, high quality diet without relying on truck stops, fast food restaurants, and overpriced tourist traps.

If you’re currently researching VANlife and trying to justify the expense, you may find this interesting: Since VANdal is a vehicle used for business, it can be depreciated 100% on a five-year schedule. If we sell VANdal in 5 years for 75% of our purchase price, which seems to be the historical trend for used Outside Vans, our cost of ownership after actual cash benefit from depreciation is ZERO.

Take a moment and let that sink in. ZERO. FREE. NADA. That’s how much it costs us to own VANdal.

Roadside stopover outside of Squamish, BC, Canada
Roadside stopover outside of Squamish, BC, Canada

Now, we are certain that a CPA or Investment counselor will point out to us that the original investment in VANdal could be earning interest if invested in an interest-bearing financial vehicle. Our counterargument to this is simple. Owning VANdal provides us with a higher quality of life and this, in and of itself, offsets any potential interest income loss.

Covering 62-days, 13,900 miles through 22 states and one Canadian province and loaded down with over 2500 pounds of sports and personal gear, clothing, food, camping supplies, and outdoor equipment, plus five standup paddleboards on top of the roof racks, as well as a Yakima cargo box, here’s our breakdown of costs for the trip.
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  • Bethany stocked up on some of our favorite staple pantry items before we started, burying overstock foods we couldn’t bear to run out of under back seats where there is some storage space adjacent to the water tank.
  • As you can see, diesel was clearly our largest expense. Even with all our gear and paddleboards, VANdal still averaged 17.5 miles to the gallon in combined highway, city, mountain pass, and National Forest Service Road driving. Although $3,058 is a decent chunk of money, do keep in mind that even if you stay at even a very low-end hotel (the kind that you bring your own sheets to and wear flip flops in the shower to avoid nasty foot fungus), plus taxes and fees, you’ll still spend $120 a night.
    • Projected Hotel Bill: $120 x 62 night = $7440
    • VANdal Diesel Bill: $3,058
    • Projected Savings: $4,382
  • Our food expenses in many ways reflect where we were. For instance, we were in LA in July where meals out had a heftier price tag, and Portland in August, conversely home to a myriad of budget-friendly food trucks. In general, we wound up dining out more often than at home so we could take advantage of the opportunity to check out restaurants we had read about in our travel research. We rarely resisted the temptation to fall into a feeding frenzy, especially when it came to Neopolitan pizza. But even then, our orders were small so we could sample the restaurant or food truck’s essence without breaking the bank.
  • The other major expense was our choice of recreational activities. For us, this involved as much athleticism in our surroundings as we could fit into two months. This includes: Several national park entrance fees ($25/each), rafting, gear rental, mountain bike shuttles, downhill mountain biking in Whistler (where, upon the advice of our friend Craig Cleary, we rented top of the line downhill bikes & paid for lift tickets to experience the most incredible downhill mountain biking park in the world), SUP race and outrigger canoe entry fees, hiking permits, and other recreational activities.
    Outrigger Canoe (OC2) on Lake Tahoe
    Outrigger Canoe (OC2) on Lake Tahoe
  • Miscellaneous expenses included things like parking, car washes, & laundry
  • Lastly, we didn’t really have too many VANdal-specific expenses other than regularly scheduled maintenance and new tires, which we would have needed to do anyway. This totaled $1780 for the trip.
    Padden Park Trail Running north of Seattle, Washington
    Padden Park Trail Running north of Seattle, Washington

Excluding the van maintenance, our expenses for the entire two-month duration were under $6,000. That breaks down to less than $47 per person per day, including all food and fun! Just try taking the kiddos to Disney for just a week on that! And we’d argue that we got an enormous amount more value. We didn’t scrimp or pinch pennies, but certainly you could be more frugal than we were.

Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

As we continue with the blog, you’ll hear more about the places we traveled and what we thought. Till then, keep your questions coming and we’d love to share more VANlife insights that are most relevant to you!

2 comments

  1. Hi Bob! Good luck with your trip planning. Martin was an attorney before we started full timing it, and now we both do marketing work from the road. Luckily, it doesn’t really matter what business you’re in. If your vehicle is owned by a corporation and that corporation’s business justifies the use of said vehicle, then it can be depreciated fully within IRS schedules and guidelines. Neither of us is an accountant, though, so we would definitely encourage you to check with your legal and tax professional to make sure you’re doing it correctly.

  2. Hi, my girlfriend, Angela, and I are planning on going on the road full time next year for a while, and I’m wondering what your business is that you could write off the full expense of the van while on the road? Does that still apply with the new big RV truck you all have now?

    Thanks,
    Bob

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