How to Start Van Life with No Money: All Our Tips & Tricks

If you’re wondering how to start van life with no money, you’re in the right place! Traveling by caravan has become super popular in the last few years and influencers bombard us with fancy vans that cost more than a condo in Manhattan.

This is enough to put any of us off our dream of living the van life. But fret not. We started van life with no money and so can you. Little by little, you can build it up and change things you want. But there’s no need to go big or nothing.

In this post, I’ll give you all the tips and tricks you need to start van life from zero to live your dream life.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase through one of those links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Beach views from the van with a bikini hanging from a rope drying in the sun.

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How to start van life with no money

Get a van

First things first. You’ll need to get a van. I recommend looking for an affordable van with a good engine over looks.

If you have a car, you can swap out the car for a van, otherwise, see if you have other belongings you don’t need that you can sell, whether it’s your house, bike, electronics (TV, computer, stereo, etc.)

I sold my KIA Rio for 3000 Euros and bought Persi (the van) for 3000 Euros. She is a rusty and bulky Ford Transit from the year 2000, but has a healthy engine which is what we need.

Remember, that an older van also has the benefit of being easier to repair in different countries, and generally, changing pieces is more affordable too when something breaks (because it will, no matter how fancy your van is.)

How to start van life with no money - I sold my car and bought this white Ford Transit van.

Minimize your belongings

The next step is to get rid of as many belongings as possible so you don’t need to pay for storage. Whatever you can sell, contributes to your new life living full-time in a van.

This is where you’ll fill your pockets instead of wasting money when you start your adventure.

It’s one of the hardest things to do as we get so attached to having things in our life. I can’t even count how many rounds of “keep – sell – give away” I’ve had before and after starting full-time van life. I still have some belongings at my friend’s house which I really don’t need.

Cleaning out the van with all our belongings outside.

Keep your most comfortable and versatile clothes and shoes…

… And get rid of the rest.

Seriously, though. You don’t even realize it before you start out. You won’t change clothes every day and you want it comfortable.

Shorts, dresses, and tops that can be used with different outfits and hoodies are winners. Comfy pants (seriously, I’ve tossed all my jeans because they were so worn out) are a winner, any yoga pants or tights will do.

When it comes to shoes – oh dear! I can’t even count how many shoes I had to get rid of. I ended up with hiking boots, hiking shoes, and Converse.

I believe I got rid of my Converse during our last cleanout as they were ugly and dirty and let’s be honest, they’re not ideal for walking around for hours.

Besides, we use flip-flops a lot in the summer, but also the rest of the year as we’re mostly in warm areas.

Make sure you have clothes for all seasons you might be living in the van. It depends a lot on the countries you’re traveling in and how cold the winter is or how hot the summer is.

For us, we’ve been campervanning in Spain for the last two years before starting on our journey through Portugal, France, and Italy. Winters are mild and summers are hot so we didn’t need much winter clothes.

We kept it simple with the thermal underwear I use when hiking and tenting in high altitude, thermal socks, and fleece. Besides, we have a warm down jacket each, beanies, and mittens. We pack this away in a box during the summer and keep the box with summer clothes on top of it for easy access – and vice versa.

Cooking coffee on a small gas cooker outside the van.

Start with a non-build van

Starting your van life journey without any dough in your pocket also means you can’t start with building a fancy van with insulation, a good bed, kitchen, shower, and toilet.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways around these things. You don’t need too much. I basically brought the same things I would bring on a tent trip into the van. All our extra items have come slowly when we’ve had the funds to buy something extra.

I’ll list some tips here based on what we did:

  • Put a mattress on the floor to start with. We started off with a double mattress topper folded in two on the floor (yes, it’s way too small for two people, but I was planning on sleeping there alone until Mohammed showed up!) You can also use a comfortable mattress if you have one or just get an inflatable air mattress to start with, there are plenty of comfy ones you can get for a reasonable price.
  • Use a gas cooker. For cooking, you can start off with a hiking or camping gas cooker. You might even have one already. We recently upgraded our camping gas cooker with a single gas stove for camping and bought a frying pan, so our menu has drastically changed since we first started our journey. We can even make pancakes!
  • Get a portable shower bag or a small tub. You find portable camping showers for a reasonable price, but most of our cleaning is done in a small tub. In the same tub, we do our laundry by hand. You can even get collapsible tups so they’re easy to store. I brought two that I had from before and they double as baskets for everything that don’t fit anywhere else.
  • Use boxes for storage. We use IKEA boxes for our clothes and they double as a table. We found some wooden boards by the rubbish bins along our travels that we used as a shelf/table top on top of the boxes for stability. However, we recently got a small table that we can set up inside the van to cook on and that has changed our comfort a lot, including a small camping chair.
  • Get a power inverter. If you work from your laptop, you’ll need a power inverter so that you can charge your laptop in the van. We have one that costs some 50 Euros with two power outlets and 4 USB outlets that is perfect to charge my laptop in the cigarette outlet while driving including phones and powerbanks. If you can’t get this straight away, you can always work from cafes where you can charge your laptop and use free WiFi.
  • Emergency toilet solution. Going to the toilet is easy in petrol stations, some supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. It’s also possible to go in nature, though it totally depends on where you are (just don’t leave paper behind!) We have an emergency toilet solution with a 1.5l water bottle with a funnel. We also got a tip from some other van lifers to use bin bags in a portable toilet to avoid cleaning it. Instead, you could use bin bags in a tub when it’s a crisis. However, out of experience, you’ll mostly have a toilet available somewhere nearby.

As an avid hiker, I already had all the basics so I didn’t buy anything new and my friends gifted me the portable shower and the power inverter.

Cooking in the van

Useful accessories

There are a few useful accessories that you’ll either have at home and can bring with you, or purchase cheap that will make your life on the road a lot easier.

Here are the accessories we’ve found the most helpful when starting van life without money.

  • Rope – I had heaps of rope lying around in my house and brought it all with me. But this is also very affordable to purchase before you start your journey. It’s super useful! We have rope hanging in the front and back of the van and hang up things that we don’t want lying around like our hats. The one in the back is easy to move out when we open the backdoors to hang a blanket over it. This creates an extra room outside, gives airflow on hot days while keeping our privacy, and we can shower and wash. The rope is also brilliant for hanging up clothes when we wash by hand.
  • Clothespins – No need for explanations, use them for everything above and anything else you find them useful for!
  • Hooks – Mohammed got some hooks from his old workplace which have resulted in being incredibly useful. I’m sure you can get some cheap S-hooks or something similar for an affordable price. We hang everything on them from tote bags with dirty clothes to nets with fruit and vegetables (and not to mention our new fryingpan!)
  • USB-chargeable fan – We bought a cheap rechargeable fan for our last dog Ayla so she could stay in the van while we did our shopping when it’s hot. Later, we bought one more because it was so useful for both us and the dog when it was unbearable hot in the summer, especially at night with the doors closed. You might not get it straight away, but I surely recommend putting it on your list of useful things to have.
  • Hot water bottle – On the contrary, in winter, it can get cold and I’m one that can’t sleep if I’m cold and even wake up from the cold. I brought my hot water bottle from home and have eagerly used it every winter. My friend just gifted us a second one so Mohammed has one too (she knows me too well – I don’t really share it haha)
  • Blankets – Blankets are useful for so many things and I might have brought a few too many but I don’t regret it! We use a blanket to cover the bed during the day (we set up the pillows against the wall) to convert it into a sofa), we use a blanket to separate the driving area and the back of the van, we use a blanket to cover the back of the van when we have the back doors open, we use a blanket for picnics in the park and for days at the beach, and probably for a whole lot of other things.
  • Water containers – To store water, we started out buying 8 liters water containers at the supermarkets, they cost as little as 80-something cents. You can store them in the van and refill them whenever you find a free water source. We were also gifted a 15-liter water container that we use for washing water.
Mohammed washing his hair in a tub outside the van.

Create an income stream

After setting up the van, you also need to find an income to get money for gas and food.

This can be online or it can be work you find on the way through platforms like Workaway.

I have a complete blog post about different van life jobs you can consider. But my top tip is to brainstorm your strengths and what you love doing. Ask yourself the question: “What do my friends always come to me for help with?”

That’s a great place to start and figure out how you can create an income from that on the road.

There are so many ways of making a living. We have 4 blogs where we earn from ad income and affiliate sales. We also have a YouTube channel, and besides I do some freelance writing.

But these are just some ideas. This is what Mohammed and I love doing and what we’re good at. For you, it might be something completely different.

Working in the van on my laptop.

Summing up: Starting van life without money

There’s no reason to wait with your van life adventure if it’s what you really want! Starting out living in a van full-time without money does mean you have to put quite a lot of comfort aside and work with what you have.

The key is to be creative and make it work. I hope my tips and experience have been of inspiration and help so you can kickstart your dream life.

Happy travels!