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
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
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
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
How often will you eat out? How often will you do laundry at a
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
We got full hook-ups and a huge campsite at the
USAF Academy FamCamp
in Colorado Springs for a very reasonable $20/night
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
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.
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
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,
instead of frequently eating out can save a pile of dough over time (pun
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
Early December, 2010 -- our stick
house and our house on wheels
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
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
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
technology, tools, athletic
equipment, etc. Much of it is "hidden" in closets, cupboards, and
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
We've never added up our total costs for any of our trips and we aren't likely to in the future, either.
We keep enough mileage stats on the truck so Jim can keep a
spreadsheet for maintenance purposes but we don't know the exact
mileages we've towed the Cameo since it doesn't have an engine. We will
buy new tires for it when the old ones show enough wear or six to seven
years have elapsed, whichever comes first. He rotates them regularly and
makes sure almost daily on trips that the air pressure is adequate in
the truck and camper tires.
In the last year or two Jim has
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
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,
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Next entry: pulling it all together + some RV lifestyle
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil