This is probably the most frequently asked question about full-time RV living, and probably one of the most difficult to answer.
This is because everyone lives life and makes decisions differently. Some people need to blow dry their hair after shower; some need to be able to watch football every day and some don’t watch TV at all; some can’t live without a washer and dryer (perhaps a family that goes through a lot of laundry daily) while others are fine with going to a laundromat. Some people love to eat out every other night while others prefer to eat at home.
Some people want the community and socialization at an RV park or campground, while others prefer the peace and solitude of middle-of-nowhere camping. You get the picture.
There is nothing wrong with any of these decisions, it just changes your RVing needs and the costs associated. Camping in RV Resorts with full hookups, swimming pools, and amenities is going to be more expensive than boondocking out in the wilderness for free, but the boondocking may take a little more effort and a little more “doing without.”
If you’re thinking about going full-time RVing and you want to figure out what it is going to cost you, you need to figure out how YOU want to live, and then try to build your budget and plan around that.
Living Within Your Means
We have met and heard from a lot of people who want to move to full-time RV living to save money. I want to take a moment to address this. My mother always told me that if you don’t learn to live within your means, you never will. Meaning: if you can’t figure out how to life with the money you have, it doesn’t matter how much money you have – you’ll always need more.
Now “never” is a strong word, but the moral is there – you have to look at your lifestyle and spending choices.
If you’re struggling for cash now, should you buy a brand new RV?
Should you be paying $100+ a month for cable TV?
While I’m no financial expert, chances are if you are struggling with money now, moving to Full-Time RVing may be a way out because you CAN reduce your expenses and make some serious life changes, but it also may not. We have met people on the road still living month-to-month, some of whom are even retired. They’ve bought brand new RVs that have monthly payments they struggle to make.
On the other side, we’ve met many people who have finally been able to pay off their student debts by living more simply and are able to work and travel at the same time.
If you’re looking to find financial freedom and are willing to make some significant lifestyle changes to do that, then RVing could be a path to achieve that but it is NOT a golden ticket quick fix – it’s a bit more complicated than that.
I’d suggest checking out Mr. Money Mustache for some good financial tips and tricks if you’re really looking to make some changes in your pocketbook.
Building Your Budget
Regardless of your style of living, you’re going to want to build a budget. This will help you estimate the costs of your RV life, and balance that with your income.
For us, we sold everything and quit our jobs, so we had zero income at the start of our journey. It was important to track all our expenses carefully so that we could stay on the road for as long as possible while not bringing in any income.
We had enough in savings to comfortably go a year or two without making any money. You’ll want to figure out what your limit is so you don’t find yourself hitting the bottom of the bank before you make any changes.
Figuring Out Your Expenses
For your expenses, you’re going to have both fixed and variable expenses.
Fixed expenses are going to be the same every month and HAVE to be paid. These are things like cell phone, internet, and insurance bills. If you have a loan on your RV or vehicle, they would also fit into this category (*Note: we highly recommend eliminating this monthly expense if possible by buying less-expensive used RVs/vehicles.)
Trying to get these Fixed Costs down is key to a low-cost lifestyle, so try to find way to eliminate or reduce these when possible.
Variable expenses are the ones that fluctuate from month to money and in RVLife you actually have a LOT of control over these expenses.
As you’ll see in our Lodging/Camping expenses category, we have been able to significantly decrease this expense over the years by getting better at free boondocking and utilizing RV Clubs like Boondockers Welcome, Harvest Hosts, and Escapees/Xscapers. However, if you decide to park in an RV Resort in downtown San Diego for example, it could cost you upwards of $1000 per month.
Boondockers Welcome – “Be My Guest RV Parking” – we’ve had this membership from the very beginning and it pays for itself so quickly! You also get to meet fabulous people who open their properties for RVers to park on.
Escapees/Xscapers – Join the Total Support Network for All RVers! Enjoy member-only benefits including discounts, mail services, and campgrounds – not to mention a community that travels with you.
Before I get into our specific monthly and yearly costs, there are a few things you need to know about our lifestyle.
- Even before RVing, we were frugal. We only bought things we needed, and even then it was a drawn out research process to get the best bang for the buck.
- We opt for free experiences vs. paid most times.
- We don’t have debt – after the sale of our house and getting rid of our mortgage we were debt free. We bought our vehicles and RV used with cash.
- We are big Do-It-Yourselfers – we do our own RV & truck maintenance and upgrade projects to save money…and we kind of enjoy it, too : )
- We prefer natural rural places over big cities and attractions.
- We put a big emphasis on eating healthy, so we spend more on food to buy local and organic foods. (You’ll see in our expenses that Grocery is one of our biggest monthly spends.)
- We don’t eat out much. We didn’t even before RVing. We are also vegan, so it’s actually pretty hard for us to eat out.
How Much Full-Time RVing Costs Us
Full-disclosure: this is not a complete list of our expenses. For privacy’s sake, we have omitted business expenses, fees and taxes, and health expenses from these calculations. However, these numbers are very close to actual and should help you get an idea of our expenses.
As I said before, our monthly lodging expense is relatively low because of free boondocking, staying with friends and family, and our use of RV Memberships. We stayed at places owned by family or friends for 142 days in 2017 at no cost to us (THANK YOU!! We love you all!).
Besides Boondocker’s Welcome and Harvest Hosts for the occasional stay, we heavily relied on our Thousand Trails Zone Passes. We received our first one for 2015-2016 for free with the purchase of our RV (perk from dealer), and then we purchased Buy One Get One passes for $545 for the entire West Coast.
The first 30 nights were included, and then it was $3 a night after that. We ended up staying 143 nights in Thousand Trails campgrounds with our NW/SW Zone Pass, which brought our average cost per night staying at these (mostly) full hookup sites for less than $6/night. Pio Pico Thousand Trails, CA .
Honestly, we are pretty happy with averaging less than $100 a month on our camping fees. We’ll be spending more time boondocking once we have our Solar System up and running, so this might even go down, but even now this is a very acceptable number for us.
These are for things like parks, attractions, events, day parking fees, tolls for traveling around, etc. This is the “getting into things” category. If you’re traveling around, you want to go see things, right?
Our $80 Annual National Park Pass is something that is baked into this number…it really should almost fall into our “fixed” yearly costs at this point. Check out our blog about the Pros and Cons of the Interagency Park Pass.
Bridge tolls and Toll Roads are in here as well, and we try to avoid them as much as we can, but sometimes you can’t.
The truck needs regular oil changes, new filters, new tires, alignments, and regular maintenance as it gets older and we put more miles on it. It also occasionally breaks. For us this number is relatively low since Tom and I do so much of the maintenance and repairs ourselves. We estimate that we’ve saved thousands of dollars in labor and parts by doing it ourselves. In 2016 we did have a big breakdown that we had to take it to a shop to get fixed (we can lift transmissions by ourselves) that brought our costs way up. Better to estimate high in this category and be pleasantly surprised than the other way around. Click to watch the video of Tom adjusting the valve lash on our truck
Similarly, your RV is going to need repairs, maintenance, and upgrades. In 2015 and 2016 we were still learning about our RV and slowly replacing things, caulking things, and completing projects we thought it needed from when we bought it. It really didn’t cost us too much until 2017 when we started to put our Solar Installation on.
We use propane for our furnace, refrigerator (when not on electric), and stove/oven (when not on electric). As you can see, this is not a very big expense for us overall – WAY less than the cost to heat our house during the winter when we lived in Michigan! However, the more boondocking we do, the more this may increase.
Before our solar install we used a Honda generator to provide our off-grid power when boondocking. The Honda is so efficient that we hardly spend anything on gas for it.
We boondocked 139 days in 2017 where we did not have electric hookups. At $94 for electricity those day, that costs less than a $1 per day.
Diesel Fuel (for the Truck)
We’ve averaged a little less than $300/month on diesel for our big truck and moving our house around. You’ll notice the increase over the years, and that is partly to do with the general rise in fuel prices, and also because we were in California for a good chunk of 2017 where fuel is notoriously higher. Just want to mention here for sake of forecasting fuel spend that while we do travel “full-time” we actually drive less overall than in our previous life. Below are our miles, and as you can see we are averaging around 20,000 miles a year in the truck.
However, in our previous jobs we did a LOT more driving with commuting to work every day in two vehicles. We averaged 15,000-18,000 miles PER VEHICLE, so in our rvlife we actually drive less.
As we mentioned early, we do not do this often. Maybe once or twice a month, which is why our monthly spend on this is so low at less than $100/month. We prefer to “eat out at home” and make wonderful culinary creations! Okay, this was a potluck sort of deal (Thanks Brett and Danelle!), but it was all home-cooked and oh so good!
An alien in downtown Cottonwood AZ These are things that we do for fun. Maybe rent a movie, go to a theater, buy a new game to play, etc. Again, we tend to find free or cheap things to do in the places we visit.
…It helps that we are pretty easily entertained.
Since we don’t eat out a lot and we try to buy organic, local food that tends to be a little more expensive, our grocery bill is one of our biggest. We shop a lot at Costco (you wouldn’t think a bulk store like this would work, but the prices are right for the things we like!) and Trader Joe’s for most of our groceries. We also lump in here things like cleaners, toilet paper, shampoo, new clothes, etc.
We have two dogs who are ages 10 and 12, and thankfully both are still very healthy. These monthly costs are mostly food (buy from Costco, so gets bunched in with the Grocery/Household category a lot), heartworm preventative, flea and tick treatments, etc. We have had to take them to vets for lump removals and sudden illness (got better fast), and both dogs got dental cleanings done in 2017. We reduce our costs some by doing a lot of home pet care (for skin things, minor cuts, etc) and by going to vaccination clinics where you can get rabies and annual vaccinations for fractions of the cost.
This is our catch-all category for things that don’t fall into the other categories. This could be gifts for family, strange fees that randomly show up, laundromats, etc. In 2017 we allocated a bit of money into a non-RV-or-business related side project, so we see a bit of a rise there.
Cell Phones & Internet
Connectivity is a big topic for full time travel, and we’ve managed to keep ours down. We used cheap pre-paid cell phone plans and use older phones. We are on cheap 15GB/month Total Wireless from Walmart for our phones and were able to get our hands on a AT&T Mobley this past summer (now unavailable) that keeps our internet cost down. Total we spend less than $100/month on this category.
Many RVers still have storage units where they’ve kept stuff they just can’t get rid of. When we initially hit the road we had some stuff in an enclosed trailer that we parked on a storage lot for $20/month, and we also had a boat that we were storing for another $150/year. Now that we are going to be RVing longer term, we wanted a more permanent solution. In 2017 we went in on building a barn at my parent’s house in Michigan to store our trailer and our boat, so that raised our average up to $82 per month but this will slowly come down over time.
When we started out we hired some financial advisors to help us get organized and settled in our new living and financial situation – we really didn’t want to mess up our retirement savings doing this lifestyle change. We ended that agreement in early 2017 to cut down our Fixed Costs.
Our health insurance we have gotten through Healthcare.gov. This cost is relatively low because we enrolled in catastrophic health plans and qualified for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. It has changed every year, and this year they got rid of PPO plans that have in-network doctors across the country and not just in one state. Next year we may be looking into joining a Health Share program if prices continue to rise and coverage drops. Our truck insurance is through USAA and our RV insurance is through Progressive. We are expecting these values to change going into 2018 because we are now Florida residents as opposed to Michigan residents.
Our initial budget estimate was somewhere between $2500 and $2800 per month. We are very happy that we’ve been able to make this lifestyle work at much less, around $2000 per month (not including health costs, business expenses, and paying taxes). We continue to look for ways that we can reduce our overall monthly costs, and are still very frugal about what we buy and when.
Breaking Even – Breaking Free
In January of 2017 we crossed the line of breaking even – we started this adventure with no jobs, no streams of income coming in, so getting to where we were making enough each month to pay off these living expenses was an awesome feeling! Having this budget and being able to track money going out and money going in made it clear when we hit that point and then it was the realization that we could do this long-term. It also makes it easier to say “Yes, we can invest in a solar system now” or “Yes, we can put in new flooring like we’ve wanted for the last 2 years!” While we are still not making a ton, and it’s nowhere near what we were making working corporate jobs, but we have figured out how to make enough to pay for this lifestyle that makes us happier and allows us to see all these amazing places! I hope this breakdown helps you in planning, starting a budget, or tracking your expenses.
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