Costs To Live The Full-timing RV Lifestyle
This article is about the costs that are associated with living a full-time RV lifestyle. Since we do not keep an ongoing budget, I will not be providing a line item budget here, but will rather discuss what we do spend money on. The major cost savings for living this lifestyle is one of not owning a stick-n-bricks home and all of the expenses that come with owning one. When we disposed of our real estate, we eliminated the mortgage payment, home owner's insurance, property taxes, maintenance & repairs, gas, electric, water/trash/sewer, and landscaping. All of these items are very expensive in the state of California, which is where we lived while being employed. Now that we live full-time on the road, and are no longer CA residents, our expenses are much, much less.
A question I often get asked is how much does it cost to live this lifestyle and my answer is, "As much as you are willing to spend." I recently read an article about a man named Glenn Morrissette that is able to full-time in his RV on an annual budget (after tax income) of $11K. He purchased a used Class B RV for cash, travels short distances at a time, stays in each location for longer periods of time, does a lot of boondocking (free camping in the great outdoors), and rarely goes to restaurants. I have also met a full-timing couple that have an annual budget of $150K. The larger the income, the more luxurious the motor coaches they tend to own, and the nicer (more expensive) the campgrounds they tend to frequent. Our income and lifestyle is situated somewhat in between these two extremes at about an $85K (after tax income) annual budget.
Even with our "comfortable" annual income, we spend fairly frugally in many budget categories so we can spend more on things we truly enjoy doing in retirement; we also keep investing about $1,500.00 per month of our after tax income to cover expenses for later years. We refuse to spend more than $30 per night for an RV campground and nearly always camp for $25 nightly or less. We do take advantage of campground memberships, discount RV parks, military campgrounds, and even boondocking. We grocery shop at WalMart Supercenters, find numerous items (including clothes) to purchase at Thrift Shops, frequent yard/garage sales, and nearly always purchase used items rather than new. We tend to compare prices on everything we spend money on and even go as far as selecting 90% of our groceries as generic (no name brands) to squeeze the most value out of every dollar spent.
Now that I have stated that we are fairly frugal in some spending categories, I will also say that "We live a Champagne Lifestyle on a Beer Budget." We do live full-time in a top-of-the-line, luxury motor coach; stay a lot in top rated 4 and 5 star vacation timeshares; and even go on 2 to 4 cruises per year. While I was working 3 jobs at the same time, often 16 to 20 hour days (many times 7 days per week), for 33 years straight, I had the forethought to purchase two large timeshare points memberships for cash. The annual maintenance dues on both of our paid-in-full, timeshares is currently about $6,500.00 per year. This annual expense now allows us to live in timeshares whenever and wherever we want throughout the entire world. I am talking ultimate luxury in huge suites and villas that are located in the best vacation spots imaginable for up to 12 full months per year with no nightly expenses whatsoever. We tend to stay in 2 and 3 bedroom suites about 85% of the time. This allows us to offer free accommodations as an incentive to get our family and friends to take time off from their jobs and join us for a nice vacation stay. As far as the cruises go, we usually grab last minute cruise specials (normally 70% to 80% off of the listed brochure rates) from nearby seaports while we travel; this way we do not need to spend money on airfare and can park our rig in long term parking at the cruise terminal or at a nearby friend's property.
We personally do not work while retired, but many other full-timers do either by necessity or choice. It is very easy to grab "workamping" jobs while traveling to supplement any income shortages while on the road. I always tell family and friends to plan for retirement during your entire working career. That way you will set aside enough money so you can retire as young as possible. My goal, since the first day I went to work, was to set aside enough money for a great retirement, and not to work a single day past the age of 50. This was my work plan, and I stuck to this plan through thick and thin. Life is too short to work your entire life and never get the chance to retire and truly enjoy all that life has to offer. So don't be scared to retire and hit the open road, even if you don't think you have made enough money to do so.
We have found that 75% of all the full-time RVers we have met on the road have a gross annual income (before taxes) somewhere between $25K and $50K per year with about 15% making less than $25K and about 10% making more than $50K. So if you are wondering what it takes for two adults in one RV to live full-time on the road, you can use these figures as a very accurate guideline. Also, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for a 2 person family in 2010 was $49,445.00 gross annual income; the poverty level for a 2 person family in 2010 was $14,218.00 gross annual income. With these figures at hand, we can safely say that 90% of all full-time RVers live on a median household income or less.
Below I will list some of the typical items you will need to spend money on before and during full-time RVing. At the end of this page I will list some links to a few different RV websites with actual budgets so you can see line item budgets for several full-time RVers.
Full-time RVer Monthly Expense Items
Your first major expense will be purchasing a RV which can consist of a type A, B, or C motor home; a travel trailer; or a 5th wheel. A person could spend as little or as much as you want for one. I have seen people living full-time in just about every kind of RV imaginable. We opted for a Class A motor coach that could tow a vehicle behind it. We wanted a high-quality, diesel motor coach that could hold up to full-time living and traveling for the next 10 to 20 years or more, and still would have many of the same creature comforts of living in a home. We looked at numerous manufacturers that are known for building quality motor coaches, and then finally purchased our used Newmar Essex. By purchasing used, we saved about 60 to 75% off the cost of a new Newmar Essex with all of the same features and upgrades.
Towed or Tow Vehicle
The second major expense for most people is the purchase of a towed vehicle (if using Class A) or a tow vehicle (if purchasing a travel trailer/5th wheel). Since we already owned a paid-off SUV, we simply made our Ford Explorer dinghy ready by installing a complete tow package and installing a neutral tow kit so it could be towed four wheels down.
This is an expense that gets you no matter where you live or what lifestyle you enjoy. You will need vehicle insurance (full-timers policy). Other types of insurance you may or may not need are medical insurance, life insurance, extended warranty plan on vehicles (Good Sam Extended Warranty, etc), and an emergency road service policy (Coach-Net, Good Sam, AAA, etc.). Always shop around for best available rates and recheck your rates against competitors when it is time to renew your policy each year. Currently some of our yearly insurance costs are as follows: RV insurance with National Interstate is $1,800.00 (2004 Newmar Essex); SUV insurance with National Interstate is $800.00 (2003 Ford Explorer); Good Sam Gold Plan Extended Warranty with Gasket & Seals coverage and $250 deductible is $2,500.00; Coach-Net Emergency Roadside Assistance Premiere Coach Plan (including Assist America) for both vehicles is $358.50 for 3 years or $119.50 per year.
Maintenance and Repairs
RVs just like homes need maintenance and repairs. RVs require annual preventative maintenance services such as oil and filter changes. Proper annual services and upkeep help prevent major breakdowns in the future. About every 7 to 10 years you will need all new tires on both vehicles; much sooner if you do not keep your tires inflated to the proper air pressure. Things tend to break with age, so you will need to keep a separate account funded for unexpected repairs/replacements or at the very least, purchase an extended warranty such as the Good Sam Extended Warranty that was listed in the insurance section above.
Fuel and Electricity
You will need fuel for both the motor coach and the towed vehicle. I know we have all seen how high fuel is these days. If your motor coach is equipped with Liquid Propane (LP) gas appliances, you will also need to periodically fill up the LP tank. To save money on vehicle fuel, the biggest savings can be achieved by traveling shorter distances and staying longer in each place; this will also give you the cheaper campground rates for extended stays and allow you more time to really get to see the local area. You will then use your more fuel efficient towed vehicle as your run around car to go and see all of the sites in each area that you stay. You can also drive more efficiently by driving between 50 to 62 mph, keep tires aired up to proper levels, keep up maintenance on all vehicles, and shop for best fuel prices while traveling. I added electricity to this category since some campgrounds charge separate for electricity; especially extended stay camping for more than 30 days at a time.
Unless you boondock (free camp without hook-ups), you will be paying campground fees. I strongly suggest investing in one or more campground memberships and use them to the maximum. We own a platinum membership in Thousand Trails; a lifetime membership in Good Sam and Passport America; and an annual membership in FMCA. All of these allow free or discounted camping fees throughout the USA and Canada. I am also retired military which allows me to utilize the less expensive, military campgrounds. You may want to also spend some money on adding solar panels and extra batteries to your motor coach to make it more boondocking friendly. Since your RV is your home, you can even get the government tax write-off for adding a solar system. We have an 1100 watt solar system consisting of 6 large solar panels added to the roof of our motor coach as well as 8 AGM house batteries so we can take advantage of boondocking opportunities while in route from one campground to the next.
Everyone needs to eat, so you will either be buying groceries and cooking your own food or eating out in restaurants. We cook at home about two-thirds of time, but we do also like to eat out at restaurants a lot which consists of a few times each week. RVers tend to love to do a lot of BBQing and grilling which is a very economical way to cook at home. I recommend you go buy a nice portable grill and an extra portable LP tank and grill away; besides, it keeps the heat outside the motor coach and the food tastes great. If you like to eat at restaurants as much as we do, keep an eye out for coupons, daily specials, all-you-can eat buffets, and so on.
Many things can fall into this category such as a monthly satellite TV service, internet service, movie theatres, DVD rentals, museums, amusement parks, and many more. Additionally you could add RV caravans and RV rallies which bridge the gap between entertainment and campground fees by covering both costs together. You can spend as much or as little as you want in this category. Since we are retired and are trying to truly enjoy life, we tend to spend quite a bit in this category. As mentioned before, we love timesharing as well as cruising, so this is really a major category for us. Currently our monthly entertainment costs are as follows: DirecTV Premier Package with HiDef (HD) and National Network Access (includes 285+ digital channels including every premium movie channel DirecTV offers) for $145.00 per month. Since we live full-time on the road, we cherish our access to premium satellite service and thus pay for the best TV package DirecTV offers. A person could easily get by with only free local channels using an off-air antenna, occasional free cable TV at RV parks, or get the cheapest satellite plan offered by DirecTV or DISH.
This is a normal yearly expense that varies from state to state. Simply be aware of it and plan for it.
Everyone needs some kind of a phone nowadays. Most RVers get one or two cell phones. Our two Sprint 4G cell phones on a 1500 anytime minutes family plan including unlimited night/weekend minutes, texting, video, roaming minutes, roaming data, laptop tethering, internet, etc., as well as unlimited internet service for both of our phones and our laptop computers. Currently our monthly phone costs are as follows: Sprint Everything Data Share Plan for two 4G phones including 1500 shared anytime minutes and unlimited everything else is $133.02 per month. Since we live full-time on the road, we cherish our access to premium phone and internet service and thus pay for one of the best phone/internet packages Sprint offers. A person could easily get by with a super low-cost, prepaid phone plan from WalMart, or get the cheapest cell phone plans offered by Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T.
This expense is minimal, but still present while full-timing. Many RVs nowadays have washers and dryers that are built-in; our motor coach has a combo washer/dryer and we love it. If you don't have a washer/dryer in the coach, then you will need to budget for laundromat services. Nearly all RV parks have laundromats on there facilities, but if not you will need to drive into to town with a pocket full of quarters. Our RV has a washer/dryer combo unit so we do not budget for laundry expenses.
This expense is also fairly minimal, especially if you have online banking with free bill pay. You can also opt for the "no paper" billing option with most companies and even select the "digital copy" for magazines. As far as mail forwarding services go, we utilize the Escapees Mail Service, but several other companies are also available throughout the country. The cost varies between about $100 to $200 per year plus the cost of postage.
This expense is also very minimal. Most RVers can get by with a small wardrobe of seasonal clothing. We are very frugal clothing shoppers and can now find all of our stuff at local thrift stores for $1 to $3 per item as we need to replace something. Living in shorts or blue jeans along with t-shirts and polo shirts isn't going to break anyone's budget.
There are always some expenses that really don't fit into any category above and you have to budget for them. They may not be a monthly expense but rather a one-time expense or even an emergency only expense, but you need to plan for them just in case. I strongly suggest all full-time RVers have at least a few hundred to as much as a few thousand dollars set aside in a bank account for unexpected or one-time expenses that always do occur in life.
Full-time RVer Budget Links
See Ya Down The Road - Actual expenses and monthly budgets for full-timers Norm and Linda Payne since 2000.
Roaming America - Actual expenses and monthly budgets for full-timers Rich and Diane Emond since 2001.
Kirk & Pam's RV Adventure - Several years of actual living expenses are shown for this full-timing RV couple.
RV Dreams.com - Sample full-timing budgets as well as actual full-timing budgets for Howard and Lynda Payne since 2006.
Mark's Fulltime RV Resource - Here's some facts and figures about the costs of going fulltime.
The Adventures of Jerry and Cynthia - Living full-time in a 24 ft. Class C, here is their 2010 annual expense summary consisting of $14,823.00. They are living proof that you can live at the U.S. poverty level and enjoy a "quality lifestyle" as a full-time RVer.
To Simplify - Here is the budget of Glenn Morrissette that lives and travels full-time in his Class B RV for $11K per year. He is also living proof that you can live under the U.S. poverty level and enjoy a "quality lifestyle" as a full-time RVer.
Tioga & George Adventure Blog - TiogaRV Team Expense Information.
Roads Less Traveled - Full-timing RV budget.
Your RV Lifestyle - Fulltimer expenses.
D & D World Travel