Dreaming of a life of freedom on the road but have no idea where to start with figuring out bus conversion costs? One of the first steps you can take is finding out how to budget for two things including the bus conversion costs and your bus life expenses.

When it comes to budgeting, you’re going to need to at least have some of the general decisions made. Are you planning to convert your bus yourself, hire a professional company, or buy a used rig? What are your absolute necessities in a build? What bus length works for you? And, possibly most importantly, do you have an end date or do you plan to just go where the road takes you? All of these questions will greatly affect how much to budget for bus life and your bus conversion costs.

As for your monthly expenses, you’re going to need to estimate how much you’re expected to spend on average. This will require research and a trial and error approach. However, having somewhat of a general budget for your road expenses will greatly reduce any stress you may encounter on the road.

I know – it may sound like a lot, but I’m here to help you have a better plan. This way, you can focus more on making this dream a reality!

How to Budget for Bus Life

While many people convert their own buses, that may not be an option for you. If you don’t want to do the build-out yourself, you can look into buying an already converted bus or can hire a professional conversion company.

An unconverted, used school bus can cost between $1,000-$10,000 depending on what kind of body, style, and mileage you’re looking for. Whether you’re planning the conversion yourself or hiring another company for your build-out, this is an initial purchase you will need to plan for. The budget for our bus was $5,000. When searching, we did our best to only look into that price range, and eventually, we came across Charlotte!

When choosing a bus for you, some important things to take into consideration include:

-How long do you plan to live out of the bus? 

-Where will you travel? 

-How much maintenance will the bus need over time? How is its longevity? 

-What will the cost of these repairs be? Are parts easy to find for your make and model bus? 

-How large of a rig are you comfortable driving? Are you okay with using air brakes? 

Based on your answers to these questions, you may choose between older and newer vehicles. Generally speaking, older vehicles may only last you a few years whereas a bus with fewer miles and wear could last you for many more years to come.

We went with a 2002 Thomas Built Saf-T Liner that had 85,000 miles when we purchased it. Additionally, the bus had just had an inspection and lived most of its life at a US Air Force base in Georgia, so we were fairly confident in her condition.

Converting Your Own Rig: The Most Affordable Route

Building out your own conversion is the most inexpensive option. This method will require some extra work to figure out your bus conversion costs. But, it allows you to save money by purchasing from thrift stores, Habitat for Humanity Restores, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist.

As a general rule of thumb, the more things you want on your wish list, the more money it’s going to cost. You are more than capable of doing a build-out for $10,000 or $40,000, depending on your needs.

David and I budgeted about $35,000 for our build to include a complete off-grid set up with tons of solar and water, as well as 2 beds, a shower, toilet, full kitchen, “garage” space, 2 sources of heat, radiant system, recirculating shower, and insulation in the ceiling, walls, and floors (to just name a few things).

Let’s break down a few categories to help with your estimations on how much you’re going to need to spend on your bus conversion. These are rough estimates of what we spent on our bus conversion, Charlotte. 

  • Bus Purchase 
    • Found on Craiglist: $5,000
    • Shipping from NC to NJ: $1,450
    • TOTAL: $6,450
  • Electrical
    • DC Wiring: $211
    • AC Wiring: $237
    • Misc (Switches, Plates, Breakers, Breaker Box, etc.): $
    • TOTAL: $739
  • Solar
    • Battery Disconnect (x2): $200
    • Step Down Converter: $20
    • 2000 Watt 48 VDC Pure Sine Inverter Charger: $1,100
    • Victron Battery Monitor: $206
    • Solar Panels: $360
    • Misc (Tesla Battery, etc.):
    • TOTAL: $3,519
  • Plumbing
    • Water Tank #1: $100
    • Gray Water Tank: $37
    • Water Tank #2: $101
    • Shower Basin: $110
    • Water Pump: $10 (Gotten from RV salvage)
    • Misc: $370
    • TOTAL: $728
  • Radiant Heat System
    • Circulation Pump: $50
    • 300 ft. of pex: $135
    • Heat Transfer Plates: $77
    • Valves: $195
    • Copper Pipe Bits: $100
    • Misc: $20
    • TOTAL: $577
  • Insulation
    • Polyiso Boards: $550
    • Spray it Green Foam, 600 sq. ft.: $2,125
    • Misc (Great Stuff, Prep, Furring Strips, Sound Dampener, etc.): $560
    • TOTAL: $3,235
  • Appliances
    • Tankless Water Heater: $129
    • Air Head Composting Toilet: $1,029
    • Magic Chef RV Stove & Oven: $25 (Craigslist find)
    • Danby Freezer: $360
    • TOTAL: $1,543
  • Bathroom
    • Shower Mixer & Faucet: $70
    • Shower Parts: $110
    • Plumbing Fittings: $110
    • Heat Exchanger & Hot Water Pump: $95
    • Tile, Grout, etc.: $250
    • Shower Door: $40
    • TOTAL: $675
  • Recirculating Shower
    • UV Sterilizer: $174
    • Shower Fittings: $22
    • Thermostat Components: $3
    • Shower Round 1: $131
    • Heater Manifold: $99
    • TOTAL: $429
  • Lighting 
    • Outside Lights: $58
    • Additional Lighting: $50
    • Recessed Lighting: $186
    • TOTAL: $294
  • Flooring
    • Subfloor: $500
    • RubberCal Rubber Flooring: $200
    • Vinyl Floor: $400
    • TOTAL: $1,100
  • Heating & Cooling
    • Maxxair Fan: $175
    • Air Conditioner: $429
    • Diesel Heater: $160
    • Propane Heater: $15 (Craigslist find)
    • TOTAL: $779
  • Kitchen
    • Sink: $50 (Habitat for Humanity)
    • MDF for Counter: $50
    • Epoxy Kit: $100
    • Hardware: $59
    • TOTAL: $209
  • Bedroom
    • Plywood: $29
    • 1×4 Wood: $22
    • Foam Mattress: $130
    • 2×4 Wood: $20
    • TOTAL: $201
  • Propane
    • 20lb Propane Tank (x3): $150
    • 25 ft. Piping: $50
    • Tube Fittings for Propane Lines: $50
    • Heater Thermostat: $15
    • Propane Brackets: $62
    • TOTAL: $327
  • Demolition
    • TOTAL: $114
  • Floor Treatment
    • TOTAL: $24
  • Framing
    • TOTAL: $432
  • Plywood for Walls
    • TOTAL: $200
  • Cabinets / Storage
    • TOTAL: $272
  • Custom Plywood Ceiling
    • TOTAL: $307.50 
  • Couch
    • TOTAL: $190
  • Roof Deck
    • TOTAL: $500
  • Misc.
    • Windshield Repair: $1000
    • Turn Light Replacement: $50
    • Trailer Hitch: $200
    • Hitch Weld onto Bus: $500
    • Steel: $805
    • Front Door: $75
    • TOTAL: $2,630

GRAND TOTAL: $25,474 (*including cost of bus) 

Grand total cost about $35k. I will try revisiting this one of these days to fill in some of the missing areas!

We used Google Spreadsheets to help build and organize a realistic build budget. We broke every space in our bus down so that we had a list of materials that we needed to complete. This process will at least give you a rough estimate for the total price of your conversion.

Adventure or Bus published a fantastic and free Google Sheets of their Bus Conversion Costs & Expenses over on their blog. You can also click the click and view it here: https://adventureorbust.com/converted-school-bus-costs/

how to budget for bus life | bus conversion costs

Professional Build Out Bus Conversion Costs

If you’re planning to hire a professional company for your conversion, you’re going to need to factor in a lot more money. Hiring a company requires a reasonable amount of labor. In addition, you can’t just hire any contractor for the conversion since buses and vans are completely different from building a house. Whether it’s a skoolie or van build-out, most professional conversion companies start at $35,000. But, note – this is just a starting point. If you want a full off-grid solar system, a shower, toilet, and custom cabinetry, you’re going to have to expect to spend a lot more. The reason? You have to pay for the labor!

Getting a professional to work on your conversion is a great option for getting your dream rig without doing any of the dirty work. In addition, many professionals will work directly with you to get the design of your choosing.

Looking to work with someone for your upcoming build? Aimless Travels is now offering custom build work! Shoot us an email at [email protected] to see if we’ll be in your area. 

Purchasing a Used Skoolie

Buying an already converted bus completely eliminates the wait during the conversion process. You can get up and out on your adventure before you know it!

If this sounds like the option for you, there are multiple resources including Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Tiny House Listings, Conversion Trader, and Skoolie Livin for you to get started. As long as the bus is within your price range and contains exactly what you’re looking for, you’re pretty much good to go! Most used skoolie conversions generally cost between $10,000-$70,000.

Even if you don’t plan to use your new rig for full-time travel, it’s important to ensure that all of its mechanical components are properly functioning. Before purchasing a used conversion or bus, make sure you arrange for a Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI). This will give you a third-party evaluation of the condition of the bus.

Now that we have an idea of what it’s going to cost for the build-out of your skoolie, it’s time to start getting into monthly expenses.

How to Budget for Monthly Bus Life Expenses

Creating a realistic budget for our everyday living expenses was probably one of the most difficult processes for me. Your monthly expenses while living on the road aren’t going to be the same as when you’re living in an apartment, house, college dorm, your parent’s house, or whatever. This can be positive and negative depending on how you look at it.

The positive? You aren’t going to have to deal with typical expenses like rent, electricity, and water (depending on your setup). And, the negative…well, you’re going to have to factor in a lot more for fuel, potential campsites, etc.

With that being said, you ultimately have the freedom to decide what’s necessary and not necessary for you while budgeting. A few of our “set-in-stone” monthly expenses include:

  • Gym Membership
  • WiFi
  • Cell Phone Bill
  • Health Insurance
  • Bus / Car Insurance

Our annual expenses include:

  • Bus Registration
  • America the Beautiful Pass

And, finally, our monthly expenses that change:

  • Laundry
  • Car Gas
  • Bus Diesel
  • Groceries
  • Bus / Car Repairs
  • Eating Out
  • Parking / Campsites
  • Shopping / Clothing
  • Gifts (Birthdays, holidays, etc.)
  • “Fun” Money
  • Dog Stuff (food, toys, etc.)

With 2 people and a dog, our monthly expenses range between $600-$1,200 per month. Depending on your needs, you can certainly add to this or reduce it. David and I love to live comfortably, so we do our best to get high-quality, healthy foods ($400 grocery budget), save some time for date nights ($100 out to eat budget), and adding a little extra for some fun monthly activities (or emergencies…like needing to get a tow when you get stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere). We are living the dream, after all!

I utilize Google Spreadsheets to manage and monitor our monthly expenses. It’s nothing too specific or crazy, but it works for us.

Click the following link to see our Monthly Expense / Budget Calculation Sheet. This will let you get an overview as to what you can expect when living and traveling on a bus.

So, You Have a Budget for Bus Life & Know Your Bus Conversion Costs: Now What?

People do bus life for a number of reasons. Some people may only travel for a short period of time while balancing another job while others work full-time from the comfort of their skoolies. Budgeting is great because it’ll help you learn the minimum amount that you should be bringing in (or have) for a month worth of bus life costs.

Don’t know what you want to do for work or how to find it on the road? Don’t worry – I’m in the process of writing a nice in-depth article about how we make money and what we find works best. Stay tuned – and sign up for our newsletter or notifications so that you don’t miss an upcoming article!

how to budget for bus life | bus conversion costs

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