How Can We Help?

How Much Do I Spend a Month?

You are here:
< All Topics

I was on the cheaprvliving forum today and a member posted this question under the title “Monthly Costs?”.

I’m just curious how much living in a van costs on a monthly basis. Also, what sort of hidden costs should I be watching out for? For our budget, I’m figuring it’s going to have CAA, insurance, food, cell phone, & gas.  I don’t know what else we’d need to pay for on a regular basis.

I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a good answer to his question. I’ve never been disciplined enough to keep a record of how much I spend every month. So I gave him this general answer:

The problem is everybody is so very different. I have three vandweller friends who live on $400 a month, $500 a month and $625 a month and are quite happy with it. So it is entirely possible to live on very little money. But, I also have vandweller friends who make $1100 and $1200 a month and are constantly out of money. By the end of every month they are flat broke and barely making it. There is no way to generalize and tell you what you can live on.  If you are frugal and self-disciplined, you can live on very little. If you aren’t, no amount of money will be enough. Bob

I think that is a fairly useful answer, but it could be much better if I kept track of my actual spending. After all the word “Cheap” is right in the title of the blog and all my websites, so if I claim vandwelling is cheap, shouldn’t I be willing to prove it?
So with this post I am making a commitment to you, my readers, to keep a To-The-Penny record of my spending for the next year. I will report here how much I spend and what for. I’m not sure yet exactly how I will do it. I might create a section of the side-bar to record my spending. Or I may look and see if it is possible to put an Excel spreadsheet onto a page and keep record of it there. If worse comes to worse, I’ll post once a week that week’s spending and another post at the end of the month with my monthly totals. I still have to figure that out.
One problem I’ll have is that I tend to stock up on things when they are on sale. I also knew the prices up here in the National Forest were very high, so I stocked up before I came up here. That means I have a bunch of food on hand, so for the first month or two the food budget won’t be very accurate. At the same time, I buy perishables here in the little tourist town of Shaver Lake where they are much more expensive than they would be in a bigger city. But I think it will all average out in the long run. That’s why I mean to keep doing this as long as I am blogging, but at least for the next year. Since we are at the very end of July, I’ll wait to start recording my spending until August 1.
This is all new to me so I want to throw it open to you as to how it can be most useful. Do you have any ideas for categories of spending or exactly where or how you would like me to track my spending? I’m open to any suggestions! Bob


  1. McBe

    I’ve been keeping track of expenses for a few years using Quicken software. I like using it, but there is the initial expense as well as learning. That being said, I think using an Excel spreadsheet would work just fine.
    One suggestion is to keep the categories relatively simple as too many can make you feel lost in a maze of data. Here are the categories I generally use.
    1. AUTO (can be further subdivided into insurance,
    license/tabs, gas, parts, repairs, service)
    3. FOOD
    4. HOUSEHOLD (for me this category includes stuff like toothpaste, tp, otc meds like aspirin, bath items, kitchen items, furniture items, small hardware, etc)
    5. MEDICAL (can include cost of any medical/prescription items and/or medical insurance)
    6. PETS (food, vet, toys)
    7. RECREATION (anything fun or educational which could include hobbies, sports gear, books, dvds, eating out, admission fees, coffee out, booze, etc)
    8. RENT (I presently rent an apartment but this category could include campground fees if/when applicable)
    9. UTILITIES (can be further subdivided to include power, internet, telephone)
    It might feel bothersome at first to track, but once you get used to it, it kind of grows on you. Keeping receipts to enter later and/or a small notebook handy will also help. Good luck!

    • Bob

      McBe, very helpful suggestions for categories, I’ll definitely use some of them. Bob

  2. Larry

    Hi BOB,A dreamer,following your other Web Sites for sometime…Glad to see you Blogging. I wish you the best with your life style.

    • Bob

      Larry, almost every good thing in life starts with a dream, so dreamers are very welcome here! If there is anything we can do to help you make your dreams come true, feel free to ask! Bob

      • Wayne

        Hi Bob, your comment of dreamers are welcome here is heartfelt…..I am 61 and am currently a 24/7 caregiver for my 92yo Parents. It is a labor of love to be sure. My problem is I am in my 5th year of doing this and in that time I have had more dreams than I can tell you…. I have gone from being interested in a tent to a Class A motor home….. It’s so hard to concentrate on one thing when I have no ability to anything at this time…. Van dwelling is my latest interest but will it be tomorrow??? Any suggestions on finding and staying on a particular genre so that I can start putting together what to do when I am able??
        Liking your Blog very much and hope to someday take the pilgrimage to Quartzsite for a Rondevous!! I am back here in 2012 trying to get to the future……Thanks in Advance

        • Bob

          Wayne, I so admire your devotion to family, it’s extremely admirable! If by genre you mean which rig to live in I can’t even begin to guess what would be bet for you. It’s such an individual choice determined by so many individual variables you would have to tell me all about yourself before I could even begin to guess.
          I’d strongly suggest you join my forum, you’ll get all the ideas, help, encouragement and friends you could ever need. Find it here:

  3. MichaelinOK

    ‘Sounds like you’ll be providing another good type of information for vandwellers present and future.
    In response to your call for suggestions, here’s one: Perhaps you could itemize the expenses you’ve already incurred (or one would likely have to spend) for your current equipment–such as truck, trailer, solar setup, stove, generator, etc. (and perhaps indicating how relatively necessary vs. how much of a luxury is each item).
    This “Start-up cost” information can be especially helpful to those first contemplating, or in the early steps of preparing for, the lifestyle. Then, the ongoing expenses you’re planning to track would be understood better in context of existing equipment…and people would have a more complete sense of costs involved in the lifestyle from its starting point.

    • Bob

      Michael, that is a great idea! Lots of people have the idea they need tons of money to start vandwelling which really isn’t true. My next post will be on “Budgeting: Basic Start-up Costs” which will be just the bare-bone essentials. Then we will start covering items that are really good to have, but not essential. Finally we’ll talk about luxuries. Thanks for the suggestion, I think it will help a lot of people. Bob

      • MichaelinOK

        I appreciate your receptivity to input. And I like your idea of dividing equipment into the three categories of essentials, good to have, and luxuries. I look forward to the post.

    • McBe

      I’m really glad you made this suggestion as I find the potential start-up costs way more intimidating than the ongoing expenses. Also super glad that Bob will be addressing these issues!

  4. Tim McDougall

    Hi Bob. I’ve found a great way to track expenses is to simply write down on a daily basis every penne I spend in what I call my Penny Book. Everything spent including tax.
    EX: food $5.00
    Sales Tax $0 .50
    Cup of coffee$1.00
    Sales Tax $0.10
    Tip 20% $0.20
    At the end of the month you will notice what catagories you need to set up on a regular basis. Once you get used to this pencil and paper method it is really quite simple and accurate. Everything on a page at a glance. You will be surprised at how much you spend in sales tax.
    Just what works for me. Hope this helps.

    • Bob

      Thanks for the suggestion, but I have to admit, I find that very intimidating! I am not a detail person so getting it down to the penny may be very, very hard for me. I will do the best I can but I’m pretty sure it won’t be that detailed. We shall see! Bob

  5. Kevin

    To control costs look for items on AMAZON.COM that keep well as shipped dry goods. As soon as you meet their $25 free shipping limit, for AMAZON ONLY goods you can get it sent to you.
    Am sure there are various meal plans for the long distance hiking community that can be used for planning.
    Then you only need a store run for fruit, meat, drink.

    • Bob

      Good idea Kevin. I have ordered food products from Amazon and it worked well. Generally you have to order a fairly large amount, but sometimes the price is so good it is worth it. Bob

  6. Edie

    Hi Bob,
    I’ve been keeping track of my spending or a long time. In the old days , I had a small spiral notebook where I just wrote in everyday the date, mount and hat it was. At the end of the month I just totaled it in general categories. I was always surprised at how much I spent eating out.
    Nowadays, I have an iPhone so I got an app called iExpenseit and just enter the info right into the rogram. It already has the categories and does the math and you can set up a budget. It also beeps every day at 6 pm to remind me to enter the days expenses. It’s fun.
    No matter which way you do it, it will eventually become a habit and an eye opener as to where your money goes. Good luck,

    • Bob

      Hey Edie, thanks for the tip on the iPhone app. I am in the process of looking for a new phone and i have been looking really hard at the iPhone. Best Buy has it now for $50 with a new plan, which I need. I already have a MIFI so I don’t need data, but I would love to have a smartphone with internet all the time. Just not sure I want another big monthly payment.
      The iExpense app may push me over the edge and force me to get one! Thanks for the idea, Bob

      • Edie

        I bought the iPhone for .99 cents at the AT&T store with a 2 year contract. It’s an iPhone 2, but has everything I need. The Internet costs me $30/month but I get it wherever I am for email and I can google everything and I use it like a mini computer. And I listen to any song I wish on you tube while driving, so it acts like a radio, you just type in the search line the song you want. I don’t know how I lived without this toy before…

  7. dave

    I’m often surprised van dwellers and cheap rv’ers don’t take more advice from the likes of Kevin. There is almost NO need for refrigeration thanks to the amazing amount of dehydrated dry goods out there. Name a perishable product and there is a dehydrated version of it, thanks to the mormons and the prepper’s (what we used to call “survivalists”. Milk, eggs, cheese (yes, cheese!), dehydrated meats and meat substitutes like TVP all exist from places like honeyville farms. Combine that with some fresh produce (most of which does not also REQUIRE refrigeration) and you’re set!

    • Bob

      Dave, of course you are right, but let me ask you one thing, do they have a powdered Ice-Cold Adult Beverage? I’m just kidding, but life just isn’t as good without cold Diet Cola(I’m drinking one right now!). That alone makes a cooler worthwhile to me. Not only that but how would I make Tuna Salad without Miracle Whip (yes, I am one of them!) Buying ice was a pain, so I got rid of my cooler and bought a Dometic 12 volt Compressor cooler. With my solar, refrigeration is free and trouble-free.
      But if you are on a really tight budget, going without a cooler will save you some money.

      • Dawn

        Bob, you may have been kidding about the ‘dehydrated adult beverages’ but they’re a thing now. Of course, I’ve also seen ‘dehydrated water’, so there’s that 🙂
        I agree about the Miracle Whip and tuna salads, just wouldn’t be the same with mayonnaise.
        I’m surprised about your views on ice; it’s super filtrated by law and tastes great melted; I’m planning on rigging up something where it immediately goes into the cooler but in a separate container with a spigot; it would go from cooling duty to drinking water.

        • Bob

          Dawn, this is a very old post! I’m surprised anyone is reading it!
          My concern about the ice water is not the ice, it’s what may be growing in the cooler. Over the months and years food spills and and who knows what’s going on in there. It just skeeves me out to even think about it. But if you were very careful to bleach the cooler often, it could be okay I guess. Not for me though.

  8. Jen

    I’m on a year-long RV journey and have it in mind to write something up at the end about what I spent money on, and so forth. I’m not diligent enough to write down what I spend the moment I spent it (although I applaud people who can maintain a penny book). I’m more worried about categories than specifics.
    What I do is insist on a receipt for EVERYTHING. I keep the receipts in one place, and once they get irritatingly thick (which might be once every three days, if I’m out and about, or might be once every two weeks, if I’m holed up in one place), I transcribe the values into the appropriate day of a free month-view calendar I received a while back. In it go my spend for the various categories: groceries, pet stuff, restaurants, supplies (cleaning items/Reflectix/skillet/toothpaste/bungee cords/whatever), RV maintenance (fortunately not too frequently), campground fees along with location (the nights I boondock, no value goes in), tolls/parking, clothes, gifts (souvs but also b-day and such for friends/family), postage, internet access (coffee at McD’s to use their internet will fall under this category rather than dining) and entertainment (museums/movies/etc). I account for monthly items like insurance, phone, etc, in the notes column.
    I keep gas data in a special mileage book where I track fill up amount/location/number of gallons/distance travelled/heavy generator use/mileage, so I didn’t feel the need to duplicate that effort.
    It’s a system that’s worked for me for nearly 8 months now (and for any system to work for me, it must be simple/rememberable/easy). It won’t be that difficult later on to figure a monthly spend, when I’m ready to write up my costs, and it won’t be that hard to figure not just a food bill but also to segregate out restaurant spending from grocery store spending.
    To be clear, I’m not keeping track with an eye on decreasing expenses; if I were, this system would be too vague. I’m just concerned about a general “where’s my money going?” explanation for later.
    BTW, I’m glad you started this blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your other sites and have learned quite a bit from them. Thanks for making the effort!

    • Bob

      Great tips Jen. Very practical way to keep track of expenses. I think I will be doing something very much like it. I am debating setting up an Excel file with simple categories just so it will do the math for me. Now that’s lazy! But I think your idea of accumulating reciepts then entering them periodically is a great one and I think I’ll do that. I’m glad you are here! Bob

      • Wendy

        I keep track of every single penny I spend….and have for years. Since all I have is my disability check, no savings, no credit cards, I HAVE to stay within my budget. I can do pretty well on $700/month but just lately had months with much less. I don’t spend money on anything but absolute basics. I cook from scratch, don’t eat out or go to movies. I rarely stay put more than a few days and love to travel. So far more than 13,000 miles since November.

        • Bob

          Wendy, if I had the choice of your life, or a life with a fine house and a big salary, I’d take yours!! I’m honored to have you read my blog, it sounds like I should be reading yours! Bob

  9. Fred

    Hi Bob,
    I have a very detailed excel spreadsheet template you or anyone else can use if you wish. I, as many on this site, am on a limited income. I FORCED myself to make sure I recorded every dollar to make sure my spending did not outrun my income. This sheet also keeps a running balance of my bank account as each item is entered. I also have included (because sometimes I’m anal) a running total of my gas and the mileage and mpg as I travel, truck only, as well as truck and trailer. Use or change the categories as you see fit. Let me know and I’ll send it to you or anyone else along with a simple explanation of how to use it. See you at RTR in Jan. 2013.

    • Bob

      Hi Fred, that sounds like a great spreadsheet, can you send me a copy?

Table of Contents