2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   DREAMING ABOUT THE RV LIFESTYLE?
Part 7: Cost Considerations to Make Your Dream a Reality

TUESDAY, JANUARY 4

 
"The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don't define them,
or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable.
Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along
the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them."
~ Dennis Whatley
 
 

In this entry I'll talk about some of the obvious and less obvious expenses involved in traveling most or all of the time in and RV so you can better plan how to make it really happen in your life.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO RV FULL TIME OR ALMOST SO?

Oh, dear. That's just about the toughest question anyone can ask us about the RV lifestyle!

I could flippantly say, "It depends on how badly you want to do it" -- because people can make just about anything happen that they really want to do -- but I'll give you my default response instead:

You aren't really gonna know until you get out there on the road!

Not much better, eh?

There are ways to determine a ball-park monthly or annual figure before you hit the road but gosh, there are a ton of variables. The good thing is that you control a lot of them. I'll give you some ideas of the types of expenses you may incur; you'll have to come up with your own $$ guesstimates based on how you think you'll be living.

Are you a pauper or a prince or somewhere in between?

   
A 44-foot diesel Monaco Signature Class A motorhome starts at $628,900 . . . yikes!!


A 31-foot gasoline Winnebago Aspect Class C motorhome retails for only about $90,000 . . .
and there are many other motorhomes and towable RVs that cost less than that.

Be aware that in addition to the widely varying start-up costs from one person to the next (e.g., some folks already have an RV and some don't), your own expenses will probably vary some from year to year as your particular RV lifestyle morphs over time. You may start out trying to live very frugally and discover that you can actually spend more as time goes on . . . or you may live a little too royally for your budget at first and have to make some cuts later on in order to stay on the road.

It's really not that much different than living in a "stick" house in that regard. Spend too much here and you have to make cuts there -- unlike the federal government!

If you don't have an adequate savings cushion or dependable income from a pension, retirement account, investments, Social Security, or "traveling" job, you'll need to come up with ways to keep your financial head above water while you're on the road. That's easiest, of course, if you're fiscally solvent to start with.

I'll comment on all these things in this entry.

COST VARIABLES ARE LEGION

Here are some basic questions to illustrate why I cannot begin to tell you how much this lifestyle will cost you:

Do you already own an RV? What kind? Are you making payments on it? If you don't have an RV yet, what kind will you buy? How much will it cost? Will you take out a loan on it? Do you also need to purchase a tow vehicle or "toad?" How many miles will you drive each month or year? Will you be driving on flat or mountainous terrain? How many miles per gallon will you get on each tank of gasoline or diesel fuel? How much will a gallon of gas or diesel cost in three, six, or twelve months? (Talk about moving targets!!) How much will you be paying for insurance, registration, taxes, and fees on your RV, tow vehicle, and/or towed vehicle? What will your vehicle maintenance and repair bills be? How much will your vehicle registration(s) cost? Will you have an emergency road service membership? Extended warranty? How much money will you set aside for unexpected expenses?

Where will you camp each day and how much will that cost? Will you join any campground  membership clubs or RV associations like Good Sam or Escapees? How much propane will you use? What about gasoline for your generator? Will you ever have to pay separately for electricity or water or will they be included in all of your campground fees? Will you have to pay a fee to dump your grey and black water tanks occasionally? Will you want to add any features like a generator, solar panels, or space heater to your rig?


 The two solar panels Jim installed on our Cameo 5th-wheel coach last spring.

Do you still have a house, condo, mobile home, or apartment? How much are your monthly payments for mortgage, rent, utilities, insurance, taxes, etc. that you'll still have to pay while you're gone?

Can you keep the same medical insurance you have now if you're traveling around the country? If not, how much will a new policy cost? How much will you spend on routine and emergency medical treatment this year? prescription and OTC drugs?

Will you use a mailing service? cost? How often will you get your mail? What will your mailing costs be? What will all your phone, internet, cable, and/or satellite fees be? Will you want to update your electronic devices and connections as technology improves and you have even more choices to "stay connected?"


A tour of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is one
of many free or inexpensive activities RVers can enjoy in the Pike's Peak Region.

What kinds of entertainment and other activities do you like to do when you travel? How much will all that cost? How many parks, festivals, museums, and other places/events will you visit that charge a fee?

How often will you eat out? How often will you do laundry at a Laundromat?

SEE WHAT I MEAN???

While it's advisable to try to "guesstimate" your basic costs before you dive into an extended-travel or full-time RV lifestyle in order to reduce your chances of going bankrupt, don't drive yourself too crazy with details in the process.

I don't know how you could possibly answer many of the questions above with any kind of certainty until you have a particular type of RV and have been on the road long enough in it to determine all of its associated costs and the kind of lifestyle you'll enjoy -- and can afford. Until you've had experience with various kinds of campgrounds, e.g., how will you know which ones you prefer? Costs not only vary widely all the way from no-fee boondocking sites to luxury RV re$ort$, they also vary widely within each of the major categories (public, private, military, etc.).

You could end up spending from zero to $75 or more per night.


We got full hook-ups and a huge campsite at the USAF Academy FamCamp
in Colorado Springs for a very reasonable $20/night last summer. 

The only way I visualize someone getting close to an accurate estimate of total costs for a certain period of time would be if they are going to be spending the entire time at the same destination campground, all utility fees are included in the campground fee, they've already made reservations, and they know that cost. They may already know some of their other fixed expenses (insurance, vehicle fees, clubs or memberships, cell phone bill, etc.) but there will be so many things they won't know that it will be difficult to know for sure how much money it'll cost.

Think about gasoline and diesel costs, for example. There's no way to know how high those are going to go in the future. I can guarantee you a bunch of folks in the oil business, investors, speculators, and consumers would like to know!

Jim and I have no clue how much we'll be paying for diesel in March, let alone for our summer trip. But we'll continue traveling anyway and make adjustments elsewhere, if necessary. Ways we try to save on diesel costs are to drive more slowly, keep the truck and RV tires properly inflated, do regular maintenance on the truck, reduce the weight we're carrying in the camper, and, most importantly, reduce the miles we drive -- both with and without the 5th-wheel attached. That's one of the reasons we generally stay in one region during our winter and summer trips, not all the way from coast to coast.


We've stayed at Guinavah CG in Logan Canyon, UT several times. It's even more reasonable
at $7.50/night with our National Park Senior Pass (younger folks pay $15/night)
but it doesn't have full hook-ups.   (September, 2010)

My advice is to aim for broad estimates at the beginning of your adventure and have enough savings and/or income to provide a cushion for serious cost overrides during your first extended trip (if you still have a house) or your first year living full-time on the road (if you plan to sell your stationary dwelling first).

If you absolutely can't make enough adjustments to live within your means, go back home earlier or start figuring out how to earn extra income while you're traveling.

How's that for pragmatism? I was serious when I said that most people in our country will find a way to do what they really want to do.


There are  numerous free festivals you can attend around the country. This is a scene from
Territory Days in Old Colorado City, CO on Memorial Day Weekend, 2010.

It's very risky financially to dive headlong into this lifestyle, especially full time, without having 1) some savings, 2) a steady, reliable income (pension, retirement account, Social Security, traveling job -- in these times none of these are even guaranteed to be reliable!), and/or 3) the knowledge and skills to earn your way as you go.

All three are even better! If you're willing to do some part time work camping or be a volunteer campground host for a while, for example, you can make a nice dent in the total cost of your RV lifestyle and still have most of your time for yourself. You don't need any special skills for those jobs, just the willingness to work.

IT'S YOUR CHOICE

Keep in mind that many people are able to live quite frugally while they're traveling. Some make it entirely on their Social Security check, a little bit of savings, and/or the proceeds from the sale of their house.

A lot depends on the decisions you make, such as where you camp, your choice of RV, how much driving around you do, how much you spend on entertainment, and even what you eat every day. Preparing your own  less-expensive, healthy meals "at home" in your RV, for example, instead of frequently eating out can save a pile of dough over time (pun intended).

An occasional "treat" -- sure. You are traveling to new places with terrific local restaurants and shops and entertainment venues that must be sampled . . . but those occasional treats can become habitual and might just derail your entire dream lifestyle if you're not careful, just the same as impulsive spending can wreck your budget now.


Touring state capitol buildings is educational and free.  (Texas State Capitol in Austin, 12-09)

It's also quite possible that your ideal RV lifestyle will be less expensive than living in a house. But remember that even if you don't have the normal expenses of owning a house any more, many of those expenses are replaced by similar or different ones when you're full-timing in an RV -- your old monthly mortgage payment might become your new motorhome payment, your utility bills are replaced by the cost of hook-ups at campgrounds, property insurance will become vehicle insurance (including the contents of your RV), etc. Some costs may be higher, some lower.

If you still own a house or condo, you'll have all or most of its expenses in addition to your new RV lifestyle expenses. Figure out which ones you will have to keep paying while you're traveling, which ones will be lower, and which ones you can suspend or terminate.

Here's what generally happens in our situation:

  • Our property taxes and insurance on the house are the same whether we're there or not.
  • Vehicle insurance for our 2008 Dodge Ram truck and 2010 Cameo 5th-wheel camper is a little higher when we're on the road with the truck and camper.  The truck coverage is the same all the time. We suspend the collision coverage on the Cameo for about a month when we're at the house each spring and fall ($20/month saved) and reactivate it when we're traveling. We recommend other folks do this if they are extended-travel RVers like us. It does save money.


Early December, 2010 -- our stick house and our house on wheels

  • Our electric bill at the house is about the only thing that is reduced when we're on the road. We have a heat pump that we set on 45 F. in the winter so the furnace kicks on enough to prevent the pipes from freezing. In the summer we leave the air conditioning off entirely; our house is well-insulated, vented, and partially shaded.
  • Our property is out in the country; we don't pay for cable, satellite, DSL, a land-line phone, water, sewer, gas, or garbage pick-up even when we're there. The DSL worked very well but we had to pay $10/month to maintain it when we weren't there. When we got MiFi recently we had the DSL turned off and we hope the MiFi will work when we return to the house in the spring. That's another $10/month saved on DSL, and MiFi is cheaper than the broadband service we used to have when we were traveling.
  • Yard maintenance is higher when we're traveling because we pay a neighbor handsomely for mowing it in the summer and providing some security all year long. Nobody plows the snow in the winter.

Costs for clothing, food, personal care, medications, and medical care are likely to be the same or lower when you're traveling if you maintain the same habits you have when you live in a "stick" house and if your medical insurance is portable.


Another free activity in the Colorado Springs area:  walking or driving through
 Garden of the Gods, a city park featuring beautiful red rock formations.  (July, 2010)

I mentioned some other specific suggestions for saving money on your new RV lifestyle in previous entries about purchasing and operating an RV, choosing camping options, selecting a legal domicile, etc. 

Remember that you have considerable control over almost every expense. Do your homework and save big money.

OTHER TRIP COSTS WE HAVE

Jim and I have been RVing for a long time but we keep learning about new places to camp, new ways to get discounts, new methods of doing things to save money.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean each trip costs less! Our expenses on every trip are different, even if we go back to some of our favorite places to hang out, but they don't vary all that much. We know that our monthly expenses are usually more on our winter trips than our summer trips because campground hook-ups are more important to us in the winter -- and we plan accordingly.

I've seen  at least one RV website where a couple is very specific about their monthly and yearly costs. I'll provide the link to it in the last entry in this series. It's enlightening and it also emphasizes how much costs can vary depending on your choices.


Don't forget to insure the contents in your RV -- clothing, furniture, kitchen items, computers and other
technology, tools, athletic equipment, etc.  Much of it is "hidden" in closets, cupboards, and drawers.

Jim and I don't mind sharing our general travel costs with readers. Problem is, even we don't know what many of them are! Jim and I are frugal, financially responsible people but we aren't anal about it. We've never added up our total costs for any of our trips and we aren't likely to in the future, either.

We do add up our RV mileage for each extended trip. That's not to track fuel costs, however. It's primarily so Jim can keep a spreadsheet for maintenance purposes on the Cameo. We always shake our heads when we see those high mileage totals. The easiest way for us to save money on our RV lifestyle would obviously be to sell our house in Virginia  and stop going back there twice a year from out West to take care of it -- but I've already explained in the January 3 entries why we aren't ready to do that yet.

In the last year or two Jim has also tracked our campground fees. I can tell you that they averaged $11.18/day for our four-month trip last winter and $9.74/day for five months from May to October, 2010. That was for a broad array of no-fee boondocking sites, military campgrounds, public campgrounds (local, state, and national parks and forests), and a couple private campgrounds.

Our current winter trip, which we expect will last until sometime in April, will average a little less -- about $8/day. That's lower than previous trips because we'll volunteer as campground hosts at Brazos Bend State Park for the last two to three months and not have to pay $25/day for our campsite with full hook-ups.


We'll probably be in this campground loop when we host at Brazos Bend this spring.  (March, 2010)

That's it. We don't add up the cost of diesel fuel for the truck, gasoline for the generator, propane to run the stove, oven, furnace, and space heater, vehicle maintenance and repairs, insurance, food, laundry, or anything else.

We have the receipts for everything we spend but as long as we can pay our credit card off every month and continue living within our means, we don't obsess about the total costs of our RV lifestyle. It's how we want to live so we make sacrifices elsewhere when necessary. If campground fees or diesel fuel run more than we thought they would, for example, we cut back on other less important discretionary purchases.

That was a lesson we learned the hard way. In summer 2008 we decided to not go out West because of the high cost of diesel/gas right then and we still regret that decision. We should have just gone and enjoyed ourselves instead of whining about being in Virginia all summer. It wouldn't have cost that much more. In fact, gas and diesel are inching up toward the same prices again now and are  predicted to increase significantly this summer. We won't ever let high fuel costs prevent us from enjoying this lifestyle again.


Bee feeding on nectar; one good thing about being home that summer
was getting to see the flowers we usually miss in our yard.  (June, 2008)

Bottom line re: how much it will cost to enjoy your particular dream RV lifestyle can vary widely but you're the one that controls the decisions that affect how much it costs. There are ways to lower most of the expenses and/or earn additional income on the road, if necessary . . . if you're willing to do them. 

EARNING AS YOU GO

The ways in which people finance their RV lifestyles are almost as varied and interesting as the ways in which they live them.

Some people live in their RVs because their job requires them to travel. They already have the job and choose the RV lifestyle to make it more comfortable and/or practical.

Some people chuck their old jobs and lifestyles to have the freedom to travel but they aren't old enough yet to collect Social Security, draw a pension, or withdraw money from their retirement account without a penalty. If they aren't independently wealthy and don't have enough in savings or the sale of their house to tide them over until they can draw on those income sources, they will need to find ways to supplement their income.

Even folks who are old enough to retire and have one or more relatively stable sources of income may not be able to enjoy the RV lifestyle they want without some supplemental income along the way.

 
Modeling our campground host volunteer shirts at Brazos Bend SP. 
Maybe we can get Cody a hat this time!   (March, 2010)

There are many ways to earn a living on the road, right inside your camper, especially with all the technology available to us today. You've probably got skills and knowledge that can be translated into a way to earn a living on the internet -- or you can learn something new. Think creatively!

There a bunch of extended-travelers and full-timers out there who are at least partially financing their own RV dreams by providing information to other people who want to do the same thing. They write books and newsletters, produce DVDs, conduct seminars, etc. about the many different aspects of RVing.

Other resourceful RVers turn hobbies or interests into cash by crafting items to sell or providing services people need.

Another way RVers earn or supplement their income is "Work Camping." Plug that into an internet search engine and you'll come up with all sorts of jobs, many of them in or near public and private campgrounds. This is one popular site. If you click on "Let the Dream Begin" and "What is Workamping?" you'll find their definition of the term and a list of many types of jobs that work campers do. Some folks do seasonal work for a local business in an area where they want to stay for several months. Others find jobs in a campground or RV park and work part time for pay and/or free camping by doing various jobs like maintenance of the grounds or equipment, construction, mowing, or working in the campground office.


Jim and Ben erect new signs we pained at Brazos Bend SP last March.

Then there's volunteering as a campground host in return for free camping. Jim and I did this for the first time last spring when we were at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas. Although we kind of fell into that particular role for three weeks, we'd already had some discussions about hosting at other parks. We spend a lot of time in Texas in the winter and love their park system. For 25 hours of fairly easy work per week (total between the two of us) we received a campsite with full hookups at no charge. We enjoyed the people, the scenery and trails, the cool alligators, and the "free" camping so much that we volunteered to return this spring to camp-host again.

Two months' worth of "free" camping at this park in February and March = over $1,500.00 we'll save in campground fees, even more if we stay longer. It's not exactly free because we have to work for it . . . at not much over minimum wage, if they were actually paying us!


Our host site with full hook-ups at Brazos Bend (March, 2010)

But we prefer to look at it this way: we're getting more monetary value in return for our volunteer efforts than we usually do.

This is a win-win situation for us and the park. They get two responsible adults to do some work and they don't have to put us on the payroll. (Even Texas has budget deficits, but the well-run park system is somehow separate.) And Jim and I receive all sorts of benefits by volunteering. We have the privilege of meeting some very interesting  people from all over the world, we get to help keep one of America's top parks open and in pristine condition, we save a pile of money on campground fees, and we get to enjoy a beautiful setting in WARM WEATHER while most of the rest of the country is still suffering from the winter doldrums!

Did I mention it is relatively warm at Brazos Bend in the winter??


Red Buckeye Trail at Brazos Bend is very colorful in March.

Snagging a camp hosting or work camping position isn't easy in desirable locations at desirable times of the year. Yeah, we'd love to be campground hosts at Yellowstone or Denali NP in the summer . . . but there are hundreds of applicants in line ahead of us. Ditto with any popular public park or private resort during their prime seasons.

Because we filled in last year at Brazos Bend when they had an unexpected vacancy -- and we did a good job -- we have the opportunity to return this winter. We've heard from other Texas SP hosts that we're very lucky because BBSP is one of the "crown jewels" of the park system in the entire country, not just Texas, and it's difficult to get a hosting job there during the winter when the weather is mild (the park is located between Houston and the Gulf coast).

I don't know if we'll want to work there a third time, but we'll do a good job again this year so we'll maximize our chances of being invited back in the future -- and because that's just the kind of people we are.

Next entry:  pulling it all together + some RV lifestyle links

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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