This is a complex topic, but one that comes up in conversation a lot, so I thought I’d devote a blog post to it. I don’t want to share too much about our financial situation, but here are some basics to set the stage for the discussion to come:
1. If you haven’t already figured it out, I work full-time from the RV, generally keeping a 4 10s schedule Tuesday-Friday every week. I’m in IT and work for a small specialty P&C insurance company. We’re not rich by any stretch, but I make a pretty decent living that provides good wages and benefits. I realize I’m lucky that they let me work remotely. A lot of fulltimers aren't this lucky. The technology to make this possible didn't really exist just 6 or 8 years ago.
2. Pam is watching Crayton full-time at the moment, but with an eye toward some sort of part time work or online business if the time becomes available to her. This was a rough transition for her having worked full-time her entire adult life.
3. We had the traditional suburban life: a big house and all the debt that comes with that. When we sold the house we didn’t make a lot, but what we did make went to pay off virtually every other scrap of debt we had.
4. We financed our new truck and trailer. We could have bought used and traded up as we had the funds or just waited and saved to buy a rig outright, but we were in a hurry to get on the road while Crayton was still pre-school aged. We also chose new over used in an attempt to avoid the potential hassles of maintaining an older rig.
5. The truck and trailer are pretty much the only debt we have, now.
6. Our only other fixed monthly bills are our phones and leased sim cards for internet access, RV and auto insurance and some life insurance policies.
7. We have some annual expenses as well including dues to some organizations we belong to: Thousand Trails, Coach-Net, RVMobileInternet.com, Fulltime Families, Good Sam, Passport America, etc. These are a topic for another post.
Other than the few fixed expenses listed above, virtually every other cent we spend is discretionary or adjustable. We have to eat, we have to park somewhere with utilities for the most part, and we have to put diesel in the truck if we want to move. But what we eat, where we stay and how much we move are up to us. Likewise what touristy things we want to do is up to us. We don't have to visit that aquarium, but we choose to. What these discretionary expenses look like to us and what they might look like to you are likely to be very different. Even for us, some months we spend a lot more than others.
In general the cost of staying in a given RV park depends a lot on location, amenities and length of stay. All other things being equal, daily is more expensive than weekly or monthly, urban is more expensive than rural, touristy is more expensive than humdrum, full hookups are more expensive than no or partial hookups, lots of amenities, bells and whistles and activities for kids are more expensive than plain but functional. So far the least we’ve spent per night has been $20 and the most was $85. We could go even cheaper if we stayed places longer and there are plenty of more expensive places out there. We’ve been averaging about $1100/mo in park fees. We could “boondock” more. Boondocking is the practice of staying on free or nearly free land, whether it’s a Wal-Mart parking lot or way out in the "boonies" on federal BLM land. The one thing boondocking requires, though, is being self-sufficient from a utility standpoint. We’ve found that we can go about 4-7 days with our fresh water tank full, the problem is power. We have a generator, but it's noisy and would have to run nearly all day while I’m working. We looked into having solar panels and a Lithium Ion battery bank installed, but the cost was prohibitive. We’re relatively power hungry, it seems, and the quote we got was in the $25k range, more than half the cost of the camper itself. We'd likely get little of that back if we ever sold the camper so the time to recoup that investment was on the order if several years of constant boondocking. We do plan to install a solar system, but we’re more likely to do it in an incremental do-it-yourself fashion. We’re also looking into other ways to save on camping fees (<cough> Thousand Trails <cough>). Those are both subjects for another post, though.
We’re not foodies, but we love to eat out and try different restaurants. Whether that’s because neither of us is a particularly good cook or we’re just lazy or we consider eating out part of the experience of travel, I’m not sure, but I suspect its all of the above. We could save a lot of money if we didn’t eat out at all, but that would make life pretty dull for us, so we tend to eat out about three times a week on average. We could save probably $600 /month if we didn’t eat out at all. As it is, we probably spend $600/mo on groceries and another $600/mo eating out.
Fuel. We’re on the move a lot. Many folks who do this full-time are more stationary, perhaps staying in just a few place per year or moving from one seasonal site to another with the weather. We’ve decided, at least initially, to move fairly fast. We stay a few days to a few weeks somewhere, move on about 100-300 miles and then do it again. We also want to explore our surrounding and will go out exploring in the evenings or on larger day trips on weekends. This does mean we burn a lot of fuel, putting about 2000 miles per month on our truck. When towing, it gets 8-10 mpg and when not towing it gets about 13-16mpg. That’s not much, but doing the math, we’re burning just a bit more fuel than we did in our ‘old’ life with two cars, two jobs, etc.We spend about $400-$450/mo in fuel now and we used to spend about $300/mo. If we were more stationary, we could easily cut that in half and be spending less than we used to.
Much like in a regular sticks-and-bricks house life, we have maintenance to contend with. We bought new and bought extended warranties on both the truck and camper, so we shouldn’t have any major surprises, but we’ve done some upgrades to the camper and some things simply aren't covered by warranties like tires and oil changes. Our truck holds 13 ½ quarts of oil and we decided to use full synthetic oil from day one, so we have $150-$200 oil changes every 3-4 months and trailer tires wear out more quickly than car or truck tires so we have to set money aside for those inevitable expenses, We figure on $400/mo to put aside for these types of things. That may be high. We’ll see.
We do our laundry in laundromats, now, so that’s been costing us about $40-50/mo in quarters. We replace clothes as they wear out or Crayton outgrows them, tending to buy fewer higher quality items that will last.
Pretty much everything else is discretionary.
We subscribe to Netflix and Amazon prime for streaming video. We go to movies every now and then. We buy books and toys for Crayton on occasion. Ice Cream is a staple treat. We like to indulge in good beer and wine, etc. All of this we could do without, but don’t.
We like to sight-see and visit museums, parks and the like. Crayton (and me too, I admit it) is a bit of a train nut or "Trainiac" as Choo Choo Bob likes to call us. So we’ll jump at the opportunity to ride one or visit a train museum. These things cost money, obviously. We budget about $500/month on them.
One other thing we did that has helped is to get one good credit card with a relatively high limit, but with a good rewards program. We use it for practically everything and then pay off the entire bill every month. We don't pay interest that way and we aren’t using the debit cards associated with our bank accounts so we’re less exposed to fraud. And at the rate we’re going we can buy roughly one round trip flight for the whole family every year with the points we’re earning.
So, how are we making out?
We’re experiencing more and spending less than we did before we hit the road. The way we’re doing it, we’re not likely to get rich anytime soon, but we’re saving money faster than we were before and remaining mostly debt free aside from the truck and camper. We’ve traded the white picket fence for the open road and we wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Not everyone would want to do this the way we do, neither would we want to do it the way many others do. You could live this way in a paid off second hand rig and frugal living on < $1000 month easily and many peopel do. Likewise you could finance a $500,000 Class-A motorhome and live in top-end resorts. I like to think that there should be a fulltime RVing equivalent of the long-distance hiking motto “Hike Your Own Hike”, I just haven’t thought of anything clever, yet.