The Costs Of Fulltime RVing (Part I) – Budgeting & Planning Your Spend
Pre-Post NOTE/ THANK YOU for all the awesome comments on my last post regarding our NE trip this summer!! We’ve spent lots of time digesting them and will definitely make use of your many tips during our trip. Looking forward to it!
This is a set of posts that have been on my back-burner for a loooong time. My one and only post on fulltime RV costs was done way back in early 2011 and I’ve been wanting to write an update ever since. But I’ve also been very reluctant to do so at the same time.
On the one hand, these are supremely useful posts. Costs are a huge question for anyone who is considering getting on the road and one of the most searched-for items for newbie fulltimers. I remember it was one of the top things we fretted about before we went fulltiming and we had such a hard time figuring it out. Could we afford it? For how long? What kind of budget would we need? We found several blog posts, but no-one seemed to be able to give us an exact number. How are you supposed to work with that??
On the other hand, it’s a VERY individual thing. After 7 years on the road I can honestly tell you there’s a very good reason why no-one ever gives you an exact number. That’s because many of the big fulltime RV expenses are totally flexible! What kind of rig you buy, where you decide to camp, how much you drive, whether you decide workamp, whether you eat out (or in) etc. -> ALL these are flexible costs that can vastly alter your spend numbers. There are ranges (and I’ll go through them below), but there is quite simply no one single number for everyone.
And finally there’s just the whole money thing. Money is a “hot” topic and these kinds of posts almost always generate heated debate about how much it really costs. What one person might consider “a pretty good deal” could be construed as “ridiculously expensive” to some one else (“you spend that much on xxx??” is a common response). So I’m going to say this up front. Don’t take ANY of these numbers as fixed. Rather use these posts as a guide together with other folks who publish their data (which I’ll link to) to create your own, individual financial plan.
With that said, this is a BIG topic so I think it best to split it out into 2 posts. My first post will simply cover general cost & budget considerations for folks looking to get on the road. My second post will go into more detail about our specific spend as well as providing links to other folks & resources on RV budget. Here we go….
Start By Tracking Your Current Spend
Anyone who wants to plan a budget for the future should start by understanding what $$ they are using now. I think this is a critical part of any healthy financial plan, and there’s really no excuse for not doing it.
These days everything is available online and if you’re putting most of your spend on credit or debit cards* it’s super easy to import it into programs (e.g Quicken or Mint) that will summarize and keep track of exactly where your money is going. Not only will this give you a solid idea of your starting point, but it will be key to pointing out places you can possibly save once you change your lifestyle and get on the road.
*If you have any cash spend you’ll obviously need to keep receipts of that in order to record & break down that spend
How do we do it? We do 99% of our spend through credit cards (where we actively collect points too**) and I’m old-fashioned so I import all my bank & card data into an Excel spreadsheet. I do this every month, allocate each line to a category (e.g. entertainment, RV parks, insurance, groceries etc.) and then churn out a pretty pivot table to display it in one place. I’ve been tracking our spend this way for over 13 years and before that I used paper, so I literally have detailed spend numbers going back to when I was around 17 years old (crazy, I know).
**We haven’t paid for air travel to see family in years thanks to our various card points 🙂
Now Tell Me What It Really Costs? Answer: It Varies…!
As I said in the intro there is really no one single number here, but I can give you a general range.
From a baseline perspective, we know RVers who spend anywhere between ~$1500/mo (on the low end) to ~$5000-$7500/mo (on the very upper end) on their lifestyle, with the majority ending up somewhere in the low-middle (~$2500-$3500/mo). These numbers are for two people.
Anything below $1500/mo is tough IMO especially if there’s two of you and you throw health care, insurance and other fixed costs into the mix. The folks on this end of the spectrum are super-budget and generally travel in vans or smaller rigs (= lower maintenance & insurance/registration costs), boondock or workamp most of the time (= ultra-low camping fees), limit their travel (= less gas costs) and cook at home most of the time (= low entertainment costs). It requires some frugal dedication, but it’s do-able. We know several folks traveling this way who absolutely love the freedom of their super-budget lifestyle.
Anything above $5000/mo means you can start to splurge and of course if you have more to spend, you’ll have more opportunities to splurge. The folks at this end of the scale generally travel in larger rigs (= more expensive maintenance/registration/insurance fees), stay in private RV parks most of the time (= higher camping costs), drive more miles and like to eat out. These folks also love their lifestyle.
Around $2500-$3500/mo is a do-able mix of the two extremes IMO. At this level you’ll still have to watch your budget and look for frugal camping options, but you’ll have the flexibility for some looser spending too (e.g. occasionally staying at pricier RV parks, eating out etc.).
Fixed Versus Flexible Costs
When looking at fulltime RV costs I like to separate the budget into fixed and flexible costs and I think it’s helpful to plan your own RV budget in this format too.
Fixed costs are standard items that you pay each month and which you have (somewhat) limited control over. Examples are RV registration & insurance, health insurance, mail service, storage (if you have that), internet/phone and maintenance costs.
Obviously these are not the same fixed costs for everyone. What kind of rig you buy, where you insure it, how much maintenance you do (incl. paid versus self-maintenance), whether you keep a storage unit and what kind of internet plan you get are all individual choice. But once you’ve made those decisions they’ll become fixed, recurring expenses that you should expect to pay each month.
Flexible costs are costs that are entirely within your control and this is where RV budget gets exciting 🙂
By far the largest two contributors here are camping costs (what kind of places you decide to stay) and driving costs (how far you chose to drive each year). These can easily contribute 30% of the fulltime RV budget, which means a huge part of your monthly budget is completely controllable!
In our case there are months we pay almost ZERO here (e.g. when we are sitting still in one place and either volunteering or boondocking) and there are months we chose to splurge. Either way we are able to completely manage how much we want to spend and can ramp it down (or up) as needed to match our income. Honestly if we’d fully understood the power of this flexibility we probably wouldn’t have fretted quite so much over costs before we got on the road. This is a BIG DEAL!
There are other flexible costs which are smaller than these two, but can also be managed to match your individual needs. This includes things such as groceries, entertainment, electronics, gifts and clothing. In our case we spend about the same on groceries as we did before we hit the road (we love our food), somewhat less on entertainment and electronics, and way, way less on clothing (we don’t need much of a wardrobe on the road!).
The Influence Of Domicile
Many folks who go fulltime RVing switch their domicile (= legal residence) to a low-cost state.
Now there are a lot of factors that go into domicile choice and there’s not one, single right choice for everyone. But for the purposes of this post what’s important for you to understand is that that domicile DOES have a significant impact on your RV budget. Not only does it affect your take-home $$ (due to state taxes), but it also affects your health insurance costs, RV/car insurance costs, RV/car registration costs and business costs (if you have any). And the difference in these $$ between different states can be significant!
As an example, before we started our RVing journey we lived CA which is a very high cost state both for income taxes, RV/car registration and insurance. When we went fulltime we severed our ties with CA and switched our domicile to SD which reduced those expenses significantly. Our state income tax went from one of the highest in the nation to ZERO while our RV/car registration dropped by around a factor of 5! Talk about instant savings!
Fast forward 7 years and SD is still one of the least expensive states for fulltime RVers to domicile, but some things have also changed in that time frame. For example registration/insurance costs have risen (this was a state-wide thing that happened in SD a few years ago) and health insurance options for our age-group have deteriorated to the point of being abysmal. If we were choosing domicile today, we’d probably chose a different state.
The Impact Of Unexpected Expenses
A critical part of any RV budget plan is unexpected expenses. No matter how confident you feel with your budget you should always keep an emergency fund for unexpected expenses because these WILL happen.
For healthcare we keep $8,000 in our HSA account (tax-free health savings account). This not only covers our regular yearly self-pay checks, but also covers the individual deductible on our health care plan in case we should ever need it. We keep an additional 4-6 months of savings in ready cash (e.g. cash, money market, savings) for unplanned RV, pet & other expenses and regularly add to these savings through our monthly budget.
There are many years we’ve not used any of our emergency fund, but last year we really needed it. First Polly had her TPLO leg operation, then Taggart had her I-131 treatment and finally we got hit with our RV accident. All three were unexpected expenses that went beyond our normal budget.
Stuff Beyond The Regular Budget
There are certain things I won’t be covering in these budget posts, but which you will want to include in your own plan if you’re looking to get one the road. This includes one-time expenses such as the cost of whatever RV you’re going to buy as well as $$ for initial fixes, necessary equipment and upgrades along the way.
For example if you’re buying an older RV, you’ll want to plan for some initial $$ to fix the things that will undoubtedly need to be fixed before you can get on the road (e.g. new tires? oil changes? new hoses? new suspension? broken appliances?). Also you’ll want to buy some basic stuff (e.g. sewer hose, camping chairs, surge protector, TPMS) to set yourself up for starting on the road. Lastly, if you plan to do some upgrades (e.g. buy a cellular booster, install a solar system) you’ll want to plan for those too. These one-time expenses can easily cost $5,000-$20,000 depending on what the condition of your rig is and what you’re planning to do. Some of of them (e.g. upgrades) will likely spread across multiple years too, so include some extra $$ for these in your yearly plan as well.
And Don’t Forget About Income!
One very last thing to think about before you decide whether you can afford to fulltime RV is income. Whether or not you currently have an income, creating some $$ on the road can greatly ease the constraints of a tight budget and radically change your available budget. If you are pre-retirement and have an online job that you can take on the road, then absolutely do that. Otherwise there are lots of opportunities to create some income on the road. We’ve met folks who workamp, edit, write, invest, compose music, create art, make jewelry, tattoo, run online businesses, take on temporary jobs (Amazon, Beet Harvest, Christmas Tree sales etc.) or do a slew of other creative things on the road for money. Some make only a little money while others make pretty significant $$. And these opportunities are not just for young folks, either! We’ve seen all ages making money on the road.
That wraps up the intro post! This is just an overall budgeting post, so please keep any specific $$ questions until my next post. If you have any general questions related to these subjects however, feel free to ask below!
Coming Next -> we delve into some specific spend numbers and link to others who’ve done the same. Click HERE to read part II.