Whether you are already a vehicle dweller, are planning to do so out of necessity, or perhaps you're a restless spirit seeking some adventure, you might have wondered how much money you can save living in a car. If so...
This article is for you!
Times are tight, and many folks are being financially squeezed to the breaking point. Rents and mortgages are unaffordable. Inflation is out of control. People are working 2 or 3 jobs just to get by. But there is an easier way.
While living in a vehicle isn't for everybody, the good news is, if you want or need to call a car your home, saving cash (even a lot of it) can be easily done, provided you follow my simple, common-sense advice, which I've been practicing as a full-time nomad since the beginning of 2022.
So let's get to it...
HOW TO SAVE MONEY WHILE LIVING IN A CAR
CONTAIN YOUR FUEL COSTS
This one is first on the list for a reason. For most people who live in a car, fuel costs are going to be the #1 biggest expense they'll have.
You absolutely MUST cut this cost as much as possible. Doing so will enable you to save money much more quickly. Here's how...
Try to restrict travel if absolutely not needed. Yes, we're nomads, and the fun of living in a car is the opportunity to roam around and discover new places. But you need to find a happy medium between enjoying yourself and going broke because of gas expenditures. With fuel prices at an all-time high, too much aimless wandering will drain your wallet very fast.
Reduce idling. I get it. Sometimes we might have to leave the car running to charge our electronic devices via the 12V port. Or it's brutally hot or cold outside, and you need to have the vehicle on for multiple hours to use the air conditioner/heater. These habits will burn your money away though. Try regularly charging your gear in a Starbucks or similar venue instead. Maybe invest in a cheap power bank to help fire up your devices.
Daytime parking in shaded areas during the warmer months will reduce your a/c usage, as will cooling the vehicle down for 30 minutes before bedtime at night, then shutting the car and sleeping in a slightly damp t-shirt. A small battery powered fan is another great option.
For the cooler seasons, vehicle isulation is key! Use reflectix on the windows (or similar materials) to help prevent drafts and cold air from entering the car. Dress in multiple layers, and heat the vehicle up for 30 minutes before sleeping, then shut the car. A battery powered heated blanket is a great thing to have! Or even a rubber hot water bottle that you can place under your body.
Use gas station discount/reward cards. Almost every service station has a discount card of some sort. Use these to your advantage! If you fill your car up with 50-100 gallons of gas every month (or more), and you can save thirty, forty or fifty cents per gallon. That's like getting free money. Some cards also offer cash back rebates and other promotions to boot.
Join a shopping club. Consider joining a discount shopping club like Costco, BJ's or Sam's Club, all of which sell gasoline. While some of these memberships can be pricey, the money you'll save on fuel alone in the long run can be well worth it. Factor in other savings on food, electronics, etc., and the advantages really add up.
CONTAIN YOUR FOOD COSTS
Next to fuel, food is going to be the second biggest expense while living in a car.
Admittedly, this one might be tougher for some people to control, as eating is a highly individual activity, and we all have different tastes, quality of products we enjoy, portion amounts that bring us satisfaction, etc. But the better that you can reduce your food expenditures, the faster you'll save money.
- Plan your meals. Some people might not have the time to do this week in & week out, and others just don't like planning anything, much less what they eat. But if you can create a weekly meal plan for breakfast, lunch & dinner, this trick can save you tons of cash.
We've all gone grocery shopping while hungry before, and you know that's never good! Same with not having your meals planned. You'll tend to buy too much, and overspend on things that aren't really needed.
A weekly meal planner doesn't need to be fancy, and is simple to create. Here's mine for this week, as an example. Feel free to use it for inspiration...
Buy generic or store brand. In my opinion, for 99% of food items, you're better off buying the generic/store brand options whenever possible. They're just as tasty, cost much less, and you get more bang for your buck. If you shop 4 times per month, and save just $10 per week by getting the store brands, that's an extra $40 in your pocket every month for doing nothing!
Use coupons and/or supermarket rewards cards. Coupons aren't just for grannies! If you need to stretch a buck, coupons are a god-send. Saving 30-40% (or more) off your grocery bill should encourage you to get clipping.
Add to the coupon savings by getting a rewards card at the supermarkets you usually frequent. Not only will you enjoy further savings, but you'll also get cash back, BOGO offers, and other amazing perks.
- Stop eating out. As I consider myself a foodie, I enjoy the occasional take-out burger or burrito from time to time, like most others. Doing this on a regular basis however while living in your car is a recipe (no pun intented:) for disaster.
Not only is routinely spending money on fast food a waste of money, it's also really unhealthy. You can cook yourself a meal just as delicious in 10 or 15 minutes, and your body won't hate you later for it.
I'm not suggesting to live like a saint, or to cut out EVERY enjoyable food experience you crave. I'm simply stressing to be mindful of going overboard on wants versus needs. You can definitely have that Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino from Starbucks as treat once-in-a-while, but don't go crazy.
- Churches and community pantries.
If you're REALLY tight on cash and simply cannot afford food at all, don't overlook these valuable resources. Most towns throughout the country have some type of food bank set up for the less-fortunate. They're there for a reason, make use of them if you must.
As most nomads either work or get a regular monthly income through SSI, the vast majority of readers should be able to buy their own food and still live relatively comfortably, provided you follow my simple tips. Please use this option only as a last resort. Food banks are for those with no other means, and taking goods that you don't really need is cheating both the system, and other people that are truly in dire straits.
FIND THE RIGHT PLACES TO SLEEP IN YOUR CAR
When I say the "right places", I mean FREE!
There are only two types of locations where vehicle dwellers and nomads can sleep in their car: FREE & PAID.
You absolutely MUST find the free spots as often as possible, or you'll basically be paying rent while living in your vehicle. And you'll go broke pretty fast.
Examples of paid spots include: campgrounds, private rentals through sites like Hipcamp & Tentrr, state/federal parks, staying long-term at developed nomad communities, etc.
While there's nothing particularly wrong with any of these choices, they ARE pricey! And if your ultimate goal is to save money while living in your car, these types of destinations will quickly burn a hole in your pocket.
Outside of occasional usage to take a much needed shower, enjoy the heat or a/c for a few nights during the harsh winter/summer months, or perhaps even a short break from the tough realities of road life, these locations should be avoided like the plague.
Examples of free spots are: truck stops, highway rest stops, state welcome centers, big box store parking lots, beaches, hotel/motel parking lots, etc.
I myself sleep exclusively at free spots, mainly truck stops and big box stores. Almost all nomads by default opt for the free areas, since being on a tight, controlled budget is really important in this lifestyle. Simply put, the less you spend, the more you'll save.
While free is always the goal, realize that this gift DOES come with a price...and I don't mean monetarily.
Living full-time at free spots means you'll be moving around a lot. This could be state-to-state, or city-by-city within one or two states, which is what I prefer.
Like most of us full-time nomads, once you've been doing this for awhile, you'll develop your own list of preferred free sleeping spots. This list will continue growing the longer you're on the road, through trial & error. The trick is to cycle through these different spots every few days, weeks and months. Remember, never overstay your welcome at any one area or location.
CLOTHES CONSIDERATIONS WHILE LIVING IN A CAR
When it comes to clothes while living in a car, there's one general rule...
Own and use as little as possible!
No, I don't suggest becoming a nudist. What I do mean though, is the following...
Don't worry about being "fashionable", or keeping up with the latest trends. It's a complete waste of money.
Re-use, re-use, reuse! I wear the same pair of jeans or shorts for a week, and just swap out my t-shirt & underwear daily. This cuts down a LOT on my laundry bill. The purpose of a sweater is to keep you warm. So why not use the same one for a few days straight? I do this often in the colder months. You get the idea.
Buy ONLY what you need. Most people own WAY too many clothes. You obviously can't do this while living in a car. You will not have the space for them, and you'll never save any money. Only buy what you NEED, the barest of minimums. If you live in Florida for example, don't waste money on jackets, lots of sweaters, etc.
My entire wardrobe consists of only the following, and I get by just fine...
1 heavy winter jacket
3 pairs of jeans
3 pairs of shorts
1 set of thermal undergarments (upper & lower)
Multiple sets of socks & underwear
You obviously don't need to be as strict as I am, and you might have different requirements than I do, like; working in a office and needing a shirt & tie each day, having a job that requires a special uniform, etc.
You need to figure out what suits YOUR situation best, and then go from there. But again, always think FEWER ITEMS when it comes to clothes.
TRACK YOUR EXPENSES WHILE LIVING IN A CAR
If you truly wish to save money while living in a car, it is ESSENTIAL that you track your expenses.
Same as if you live in a house or apartment, it's important to know what you're taking in every month (income), and what's going out (expenditures).
Doing this will enable you to easily track & monitor what you're spending too much on, so you can make any cuts that are necessary.
You can create a simple income/expense log in numerous ways: using a spreadsheet, via an accounting program like QuickBooks, or even just with a pencil & paper. It doesn't need to be fancy.
Track everything. Make sure to itemize ALL of your expenses, no matter how big or small. Even little things that are purchased often can add up quickly.
Save your monthly reports. This way you can review them every 3 or 4 months, see what spending you have under control, and what needs adjusting.
Don't overlook debt, credit card payments & other monthly obligations. Yes, this stuff has to be factored in too! As well as any child support payments, alimony, etc. if you have them.
Living in a car - or other vehicle - to save money can be done by almost anybody. Yes, it does take some work and sacrifices, but it IS doable.
Not having to pay a large rent or mortgage payment alone takes care of most of the battle, and by simply following my other key tips, you too can can salt away a big chunk of cash for whatever you'd like!
Breakdown of the key tips...
CONTAIN YOUR GAS COSTS
CONTAIN YOUR FOOD COSTS
FIND THE RIGHT (FREE) PLACES TO SLEEP IN YOUR CAR
GO LIGHT ON BUYING & STORING CLOTHES
TRACK YOUR EXPENSES
Living on the cheap doesn't mean living poorly. I get to travel almost anytime I'd like, see exciting, new places constantly, meet tons of wonderful people, and enjoy so many other luxuries.
I do this all while holding down a job and dealing with other life commitments. Living out of a car has MANY advantages. And saving money is just one of them.
Now that you know the "secrets", follow my lead and do the same!
LIVE WISELY, LIVE WELL!