13 Tips for Saving Money During Van Life

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 spent on gasoline, eating out, and campsite fees. Was it possible to save money when living out of a camper van?

Only after the first six months of van life did we finally understand how to control our expenses. Now, we spend considerably less during our travels and can confidently say we pay less than when 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 get to 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 most significant 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), did you also realize that prices can also differ dramatically in your direct vicinity? Sometimes, if you’re willing to drive off the highway for a couple of miles, you can find significantly lower gas prices.

The picture below shows 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 gas tank.

Reducing Van Life Expenses - Google Maps Gas Search Results
Search results with gas prices

How did we get this information? We typed “Gas” into the Google Maps app. Google Maps will show all the gas stations within a specific area and 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 more significant fuel discounts if you shop at certain grocery stores (like Fred Meyer & Kroger).

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.

3. Pay for Gas in Cash

In most places, we use credit cards to make our purchases. But gas stations are one of the few places that offer discounts when paying in cash. These discounts are often for 10 cents per gallon, translating to 3-4% savings.

Cash vs credit gas station
Paying cash vs. credit card at the pump

And since credit cards usually give a paltry 1-2% 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 occur 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 your 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 more money than eating out. Even grabbing a cheap burger at McDonald’s will cost nearly $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.

Reduce Van Life Expenses - Cook Own Food
Itadakimasu!

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.

Top Tip: If you didn’t already know, an Instant Pot is a huge game changer when cooking quick meals. Throw your favorite ingredients into the pot, press the ‘start’ button, and a delicious meal is ready in half an hour. An Instant Pot does cost money, but it will pay for itself after just a few meals.

Instant Pot Duo Mini (3QT)

The perfect companion when cooking in a van. Throw in your favorite meats, vegetables, and spices, and press the 'start' button when ready. It's that easy. You must have at least a 2000-watt inverter to power this device.

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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, heat up the leftovers instead. There isn’t much difference in time between eating out and eating a portion of leftovers.

Food container in camper van
Our food containers

We use these convenient collapsible silicone food containers almost daily to store leftovers. We love that they are collapsible because they can easily be stored away when not needed. Unfortunately, the silicone stains when keeping certain stews and curries, but they’ve been very convenient.

Collapsible Food Containers

Space efficient, collapsible food containers. Minimal footprint when not needed, but larger containers can hold a good amount of leftovers. Lightweight and easy to wash.

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6. Bring Leftover Containers When Eating Out

Before you email us to tell us how uncool it is to 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.

You don’t need to be reminded of how big American restaurant portions are. Before bringing our Tupperware, we used to either over-stuff ourselves to finish our plates or waste the food by leaving it on the plate. Now, even if we have a half-eaten sandwich and a few sticks of fries left over, 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 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.

Van Life Mexico Guide - Buying Food in Market
Vegetable shopping at a market in Mexico

We purchase from the ‘non-essential’ food group all the time. But we know just how much our food bill jumps when we do. $8 for a six-pack of beer? $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, learn to live without many of these non-essential comfort foods. While Yuko still picks up that one chocolate bar every time 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 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. Our blog provides free PDFS showing you how you can DIY your 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 build their dream camper vans. While we may earn a commission if you make a purchase, there is no additional cost. 

9. Learn To Identify Safe Places To Sleep for Free

Two camper vans parked at a Walmart parking lot
Free overnight parking at Walmart

Money spent on campsites and RV parks can be one of your most significant expenses during van life. But if you know how to find them, many free options are available that allow you to camp and sleep for free.

Our three favorite resources for locating free camping and overnighting places are:

  1. Official BLM & National Forest Websites – Camping within BLM and National Forest boundaries is almost always possible. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. iOverlander – This is a fantastic app to help you locate wild camping locations and 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 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 more expensive in these places than elsewhere, and visiting these areas can quickly eat into your monthly budget. Also, 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 compiled a Baja California guide for those interested in venturing 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, 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 quickly add up. We were spending more than $10 for every trip to a coffee shop. That’s $100 monthly 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 can do work more often without visiting the cafes. Yes, an unlimited plan will cost you money upfront, but we’ve discovered that it gives us net savings by the end of the month. Unfortunately, we eat a lot fewer 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 thousands of dollars by switching your residency to a cheaper state, like South Dakota.

You will benefit from lower vehicle registration costs, inspection costs, and insurance rates, and 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 money stays in your bank account.

13. Learn How To Maintain Your Camper Van

Spray washing the underside of a camper van's chassis
Cleaning the underside of our camper van

Ugh! We know van maintenance isn’t a sexy topic. However, learning how to conduct proper maintenance and services can help you save a substantial amount of money during the life of a van. 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 an anti-rust coat
  • Changing window wipers & air filters
  • Brake pad inspection
  • Keeping the starting battery charged

* Did you know 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 not to have a breakdown isn’t a viable plan. 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.

Conclusion

Over the years, we’ve grown passionate about saving money while traveling in our camper van, and we hope you learn from each of our tips.

Please let us know in the comments section below if you have any questions.

Happy traveling!

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