Living in a camper van is not only a great way to travel but also a way to save money by not paying rent. Why pay that $1,500 dollars in rent when you could live in your own tiny home on wheels? However, some van lifers are surprised to find out, once their travels begin, that van life isn’t as cheap as they thought it would be.
Soon after starting van life, we realized that the money we saved by not paying rent was quickly being spent on gasoline, eating out, and on campsite fees. Was it possible to save money when living out of a camper van?
It was only after the first 6 months of van life that we finally understood how to bring our expenses under control. Now, we spend considerably less during our travels and can confidently say that we spend less than when we did living in our apartment.
In this post, we share 13 money saving tips when traveling in a camper van and offer actionable steps you can take to lower your monthly expenses. So if you’re ready, let’s dive into it.
1. Use Google To Locate Cheap Gas Stations
Depending on how much you drive, the money you will spend on gas (or diesel) can be your largest expense during van life. So knowing how to locate the cheapest gas stations near you can easily save you $1,000 a year.
While we all know that gas prices vary between states (e.g. Texas vs. California), but did you also realize that prices can also differ dramatically in your direct vicinity? Sometimes, if you’re willing to just drive off the highway for a couple miles, you can find significantly lower gas prices.
In the picture below, you can see how the two Chevron gas stations on the main highway charge $3.90 per gallon. But the Chevron (Avenal) station just south of the highway only charges $3.26 per gallon. That’s a 16.5% difference and a $16 savings on a 25 gallon tank of gas.
How did we get this information? We simply typed “Gas” into the Google Maps app. Not only will Google Maps show all the gas stations within a certain area, but they will often display the daily gas price at each station.
2. Join A Fuel Rewards Program
It pays to be loyal to certain brands. And the more you spend with one gas station, the more you can save during van life. That’s why we recommend two of our favorite fuel rewards programs below.
Shell Fuel Rewards: We love this program because the more you fuel up at Shell gas stations, the more you save (up to $.05 per gallon). But the program really shines and provides greater fuel discounts if you shop at certain grocery stores (like Fred Meyer & Kroger). Visit the fuel rewards website for more information. Also, if you use T-Mobile, signing up for T-Mobile Tuesdays can save you an additional 10 cents per gallon.
Pilot & Flying J myRewards: Pilot and Flying J truck stops are only found along major highways, so if you are planning lots of long-distance driving, joining this rewards program can save you lots of money quickly. You can even earn free hot showers at their stations if you spend enough on fuel. Visit the myRewards website for more information.
3. Pay For Gas In Cash
For most places, we use credit cards to make our purchases. But gas stations are one of the few places remaining that offer discounts when paying in cash. These discounts are often for 10 cents per gallon, which translates to a 3-4% savings.
And since credit cards usually give a paltry 1-2% in cash back rewards for gas stations, paying cash when refueling your camper van is a no-brainer.
Gas Station Conclusion:
Each of the above three gas station savings tips may only save you a few dollars by themselves, but the real savings occurs when you combine these tips together. If you use the Google Maps app to locate a cheap gas station that you have a fuel rewards membership with, and use cash to pay for the gas, AND shop at strategic grocery stores that partner with you rewards program, the savings really start to add up.
4. Learn To Cook Simple, Tasty Meals
It’s no secret that cooking in your camper van can save you a substantial amount of money compared to eating out. Even grabbing a cheap burger at McDonald’s will cost you close to $10 per person.
But though we know the financial benefits of making our own meals at home, we still eat out much more than we would like. And that’s because eating out is so darn convenient! When the evening arrives and you’re tired, it’s so much easier and tempting to order a pizza and beer than it is to take out your stove and start chopping vegetables.
That’s why learning how to cook quick & simple, yet delicious, meals can really help to save substantial amounts of money during van life. Whether it’s throwing together a scrambled egg sandwich, diced vegetable burrito, or even a simple bowl of ramen with an egg and lettuce, having a few ‘go to’ meals that are quick to make when you’re tired can help prevent you from eating out when it isn’t necessary.
Check out these online Instant Pot recipes for van life cooking inspiration.
5. Make Enough Food For Leftovers
One of the biggest cooking mistakes you can make during van life is not making enough food for leftovers. You already have the knife and cutting board out, it’s not that much additional effort to cut up another potato or onion. And it’s easy to cook an additional cup of rice, pasta, or lentils.
Think “economies of scale”.
Leftovers can then be placed in storage containers and placed in the fridge for a later time. This becomes especially useful when it’s a driving day and you don’t want to waste time cooking from scratch. Instead of pulling into a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch, just heat up the leftovers instead. There isn’t much different in time between eating out and eating leftovers.
We use these convenient collapsible silicone food containers and use them almost daily to store leftovers. We love that their collapsible because they can easily store away when not needed. Unfortunately, the silicone does stain when storing certain stews and curries, but they’ve been very convenient over the years.
6. Bring Leftover Containers When Eating Out
Before you send us an email to tell us how uncool it is bring food containers to a restaurant, trust us, we know it. But we don’t care because we’ve seen first-hand how much time and money taking home leftovers has saved us over the years.
You don’t need reminding on how big American portions at restaurants can be. And before bringing our Tupperware, we used to either over-stuff ourselves to finish our plates or simply waste the food by leaving it on the plate. Now, even if we have a half eaten sandwich and few sticks of fries leftover, you can be sure that we’re bringing the leftovers back to our van.
7. Shop For Only Essential Items
Fruits, vegetables, cereals, dairy, and meat; these are the primary food groups we focus on when we visit the grocery store. Almost everything outside this group is considered an extra expense. These non-essential items include beer, chips, chocolate bars, trail mix, juices/sodas, etc.
We purchase from the ‘non-essential’ food group all the time. But we are aware by just how much our food bill jumps when we do. $8 for a six pack? $4 for Doritos? $2 for that Cliff Bar? It all adds up and it can make the final grocery bill swell from $70 to well over $100.
If saving money during van life is important to you, learn to live without many of these non-essential, comfort foods. While Yuko still picks up that one chocolate bar everytime we visit the grocery store, we’ve gotten much better at paring down our junk food and alcohol purchases and focusing on buying what we really need.
8. Take Advantage Of Free Conversion Guides
If you haven’t already converted your camper van, you can save money by searching online for free van conversion guides and electrical diagrams. On our blog, we provide ebooks that show you how you can DIY you own electrical, solar, and plumbing systems. They’re 100% free to use without any pesky email signups.
Our free guides have helped hundreds of van lifers successfully build their dream camper vans. While we may earn a commission if you make a purchase, there is no additional cost to you.
Building a camper van? Download our free e-Books with intuitive electrical, solar, and plumbing diagrams.
9. Learn To Identify Safe Places To Sleep For Free
Money spent on campsites and RV parks can be one of your biggest expenses during van life. But if you know how to find them, there are lots of free options available that allow you to camp and sleep for free.
Our three favorite resources for locating free camping and over-nighting places are:
- Official BLM & National Forest Websites – Camping within BLM and National Forest boundaries is almost always free to do. And if you check the official BLM and National Forest websites, you can often find a free camp spot near you using their interactive maps.
- FreeCampsites.Net – Though the user interface of their website is getting old, there is still lots of great content on their database to help you locate free camping near your location.
- iOverlander – This is a fantastic app to help you not only locate wild camping locations but also find truck stops and Walmarts that allow overnight van parking.
10. Avoid Popular & Expensive Areas
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s completely true and is worth repeating. To really save money during van life, you should avoid staying in pricey areas for long periods of time. Though we all want to camp along the beaches of Los Angeles or under the red rocks of Sedona, AZ, these places are popular for a reason and, as a result, are expensive to stay.
Groceries, gas, and restaurants are all more expensive in these places than elsewhere and visiting these areas can quickly eat into your monthly budget. Not only that, but free camping can be notoriously more difficult with local police actively looking for and kicking out van dwellers.
Instead, look for similar environments just outside popular tourist towns. And if you love the beach, consider heading down to Baja California, which is just a short hop across the border from San Diego. We put together a Baja guide for those interested in venturing down into Mexico.
11. Get A Dependable Internet Solution
When we first started van life, we were surprised to learn that one of our largest expenses was at cafes. We needed WIFI for work and so we often sought out a local cafe or Starbucks to hunker down for a few hours of work.
But two coffees and a cinnamon roll every time you visit a cafe adds up. In fact, we were spending in excess of $10 for every trip to a coffee shop. That’s $100 every month if you go once every three days, which we did.
Several months later, we switched one of our phones to an unlimited data plan and now we’re able to do work more often without visits to the cafes. Yes, an unlimited plan will cost you money up front, but we’ve discovered that it gives us a net savings by the end of the month. Unfortunately, we do eat a lot less cinnamon rolls as a result.
Check out our van life internet post for more.
12. Change Residency To A Cheaper State
If you still plan to work while traveling, you can save literally thousands of dollars by switching your residency to a cheaper state, like South Dakota.
Not only will you benefit from lower vehicle registration costs, inspection costs, and insurance rates, but you won’t have to pay any state income tax.
For example, if you are a California state resident and earn roughly $50,000 per year, you’d be paying almost $2,000 just in state income tax every year. But if you switched your residency to South Dakota, that’s money that stays in your bank account.
Check out DakotaPost’s website for more information on how to switch residency.
13. Learn How To Maintain Your Camper Van
Ugh! We know, van maintenance isn’t a sexy topic. But learning how to conduct proper maintenance and services can help you save a substantial amount of money during van life. Below is a list of easy-to-learn services to keep your van running smoothly.
- Engine oil inspection
- Ensuring appropriate tire pressure*
- Tire changing & rotation
- Washing chassis and applying anti-rust coat
- Changing window wipers & air filters
- Brake pad inspection
- Keeping starting battery charged
* Did you know that you can improve your fuel economy by up to 0.2% for every additional PSI of air pressure in your tires?
Simply ignoring van maintenance and hoping to not have a breakdown isn’t a viable plan. And in our experience, prolonging small maintenance jobs only increases the cost later when a larger problem occurs. So get ahead of the problem and start learning how to fix and maintain your vehicle.
Read our camper van maintenance post for more information.
Over the years, we’ve grown passionate about saving money while traveling in our camper van and hope you learn from each of our tips. Check out this post for a month-by-month breakdown of our van life expenses.
If you have any questions, please send us an email through our contact page.