How to budget for living in your car to get out of debt (Plus a spreadsheet to help you plan)

TL;DR: I created an all-inclusive spreadsheet to teach you how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt—a tool that will save you hours (and possibly thousands of dollars) as you plan your vandwelling adventure. Scroll to the end of this post to pick up your copy.


You need to get out of debt, and you’re getting desperate.

You’ve sized up your options and the “make money fast” schemes like selling on Amazon, investing in Bitcoin, or joining an MLM. This solution for getting out of debt is not like the others. It’s all on you–and it’s something you can start doing right now. You can try living in your car.

But if you want to live in your car, you need to learn how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt. I was in the same situation: My third year of medical school was going great. I had just scored excellent on the USMLE Step 1 (the end-all-be-all test score for medical students) and my family and I had moved to Cincinnati. We were living off of school loans, which was fine because my wife had an awesome job that allowed her to work from anywhere with an internet connection. We were rooming with other medical students to save money, and my son enjoyed an excellent in-home daycare. We had zero credit card debt!

Learn how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt: plan the costs of living in your vehicle, pay off debt, and get an all-in-one spreadsheet to help you plan.

How quickly it all changes!

As the leaves began to change that year, so did our lives. Amanda got laid off unexpectedly–and a week later, we found out she was pregnant with our daughter. Soon, credit card debt was a reality.

Unknowingly, I received the same amount of loans as an unmarried, child-free medical student. In my mind, asking for more money was not an option. I was soon struggling to stay focused in the hospital, constantly thinking about what I could do to provide for my family with no job.

“If I were single, this would be simple,” I would think to myself. Having camped as a scout for a lot of my youth and picked tomatoes in the fields of California, I was not afraid of hard work or getting a little dirty. If I could make any more money, or just reduce the expenses…

The solution became clear: I would live in my car to get out of debt.

If you choose the same route, I have to warn you: you must be single, or have a partner who is just as committed as you are to get out of debt. You must want, need, and have resolved to do whatever it takes to get out of debt. This isn’t a quick fix: it takes time, commitment… and a budget.

How to budget for living in your car to get out of debt: The basics

For a lot of us, our largest monthly expense is our rent and everything that comes with it (electricity, gas, water, furniture, entertainment), and the cost of keeping up with such things.  Why not just eliminate those costs altogether? Radical thought, right? I had a goal, and if you have one, you should first think about what is possible, before you shoot it down with all the doubts the world will put in your head.

Then I ran the numbers. Always run the numbers. Radical ideas should be backed up with solid projections. So think of EVERYTHING! Sometimes, there are monthly costs that cannot be made to go away.

I compared my current budget and expenses to what I projected they would be if I lived out of my car. I saw a massive difference. The problem: I had a wife and a toddler that could not live in a car. I also had a move coming up to a very cold place to continue my hospital rotations for school–Wisconsin.

If it’s possible, you may just consider moving into a family member’s house temporarily until you are out of debt. If you can do this and keep your job, stop reading this post and pick up the phone. This resource wasn’t available to me, but my wife and son were able to live with her parents. They moved back to sunny California while I prepared for a snowy Wisconsin. I looked at it as being on deployment, a concept my family members (many of whom are in the military) had been familiar with for generations.

If this kind of separation seems strange and terrifying, I don’t blame you. However, crushing debt scared me more. A poor credit score could prevent me from taking more federal school loans, which would have ended my career before it started, leaving me with a mountain of school debt with nothing to show for it.

The surprising costs of living in your car

If you want to learn how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt, you should also know that living in a car does come with upfront costs–especially for me who was moving somewhere cold. I painstakingly worked through the costs and benefits in Excel to see if it all made sense. Other expenses still caught me by surprise when I was actually out on the road.

Initial Costs

Outfitting your car: Many of these things you can save on if you already have them: a sleeping bag, a cot, a blackout curtain, etc. Other things you will have to buy. The biggest initial costs will come from how you will sleep, stealth and security, paying for your transportation, and modifying your vehicle.

Moving to somewhere cold required me to spend a little more on cold weather pieces. Sadly, it does not come cheap, but with some creativity you can make it work. If you are in this situation, have no fear. You may have things around the house that you may not need anymore, like a bedroom set, couch or TV. Just selling these pieces at the low end can get you cold weather gear that will last you a lifetime, long after you have reintegrated with society. 😉

I actually made tons of money through Ebay and Craigslist in the initial weeks when selling most of my things. I was able to buy what I needed, plus some extra things like a car alarm, back-up camera, small mattress… and I still had extra money to pay some of my debts.

Extra costs on the road

Food: If you don’t have a way to cook daily, you will be paying quite a bit for prepared food. On a good day, I practiced intermittent fasting and would eat one meal per day. My go-to meal would be a Panda Express bowl which was 1/3 rice, 1/3 vegetables, and 1/3 protein. This would cost me around 6-7 dollars per day, plus my morning coffee (an americano with heavy cream). The cream provided mostly fat to suspend my hunger for longer and provide calories. An average home budget might frown on a daily Starbucks drink, but in my case it required no food storage and helped satiate my hunger. (I tried following a ketogenic diet whenever possible, which you can learn more about by visiting my other website!)

Total monthly cost for food? 300 dollars. Fasting takes discipline, though, so be prepared. You may find yourself grabbing food here and there when you’re hungry. I found myself eating more on the weekends because I was less busy and could think about food. Stay busy every day, and you will eat less.

Gas: You will travel more and spend more money on gas then you would usually spend. Just to use the bathroom, you are going to drive. The price of gas will vary between person to person based on their situation, so my monthly cost has no value here… but just be ready. My day consisted of driving to the gym in the morning, then to coffee, then to work, then to the library to study, then the gym, then I would scout out a parking spot for the night. So much gasoline! Not to mention the where and tear on your vehicle.

Is your head spinning yet?

If you’re learning how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt, you have a lot to consider and plan for. The reality is, you must think of all of it, and very carefully. It’s better to hear it from me, so when that naysayer rattles off, “Have you thought of this? Or this?” You can respond confidently, “Yes!”

So sit down and plan it out, whether it’s in your notebook, Excel, Google Sheets, or whatever tools you can get your hands on.

I have a tool for you to make it easier

Budgeting to live out of my car to get out of debt cost me hours of planning and accounting. I took the insights I found and transferred them into a premade Excel worksheet that will do all the calculations for you–just plug and chug.

How did I format this spreadsheet? One of the most tried-and-true methods for successfully paying off debt is “the snowball method.” I’ve heard this mentioned from the news to the plethora of budget blogs out there, but I am not sure who originally came up with it (Dave Ramsey?). In short, it’s a way to line up your debts from smallest to largest to gather momentum, knocking them off one by one. Research has shown that even though ordering debts by interest costs less money in the long run, more people follow through with the snowball method.

In the spreadsheet, I show you how to use the snowball method and exactly how many months it will take to pay off your debts with it, either in your current situation or if you had some extra money by ditching the rent and utilities. The spreadsheet also will show you the sum of money you need to begin the adventure by providing a premade checklist of common vandwelling necessities.

I put painstaking detail into this sheet to save you hours and create a valuable tool for vandwellers that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’d hate for anyone to jump into “van life” if it leads to financial ruin. If you believe this workbook can help you prepare, you can have it as an instant download for $1.99. (This workbook only works for Microsoft Excel). **

However, I know some of you are going through difficult times. If you cannot afford the spreadsheet at this time, email me at jacobthenomad@gmail.com. You can ask me specific questions and I can direct you to free (not as comprehensive) resources depending on what you are looking for. Or perhaps I’ll make a lite version if the demand is there.

For many people, living in your car is a lifestyle choice. For others, it can be a last resort. Either way, let’s be there for each other.

*The workbook ONLY WORKS FOR MICROSOFT EXCEL..Want to learn how to budget for living in your car to get out of debt? Check out this spreadsheet to help you plan.*The workbook only works for Microsoft Excel. I am working on a version that will work for numbers and Google Sheets.

How did you budget for living in your car? Did you use it to get out of debt? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Further reading:

Dave Ramsey’s explanation of the snowball method: https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/how-the-debt-snowball-method-works

**The workbook is intended for entertainment purposes only and is not to be used as investment advice or fortune telling.

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