The Cost of Living on the Road

The Cost of Full Time RVing

Before we embarked on our journey, one of the uncertainties for Bruce and I was the cost of living on the road.  When we lived in a sticks and bricks house, we were a two income family of two (plus fur-babies) with a mortgage, two vehicles, monthly payments on an RV and all of the associated bills that come with maintaining a household.  We are now a one income family of two (plus fur-babies) with no mortgage, one vehicle and no monthly RV payments.   But what about the rest???

Over the first couple of months we watched our expenses closely.  As full time RVers, we do still have a few regular monthly bills: insurance, a satellite TV bill and a bill for our cell phones and data plan.  These are all set up as automatic payments… a must when you are moving around.  The rest of our expenses are all variable.

RV Site Rental
The cost of an RV site is the most variable expense of a full time RVer.  The price you pay to park your RV depends on a multitude of factors including the type of campground, the length of your stay, the type of site you stay in, and the location and amenities offered by the campground.

Public campgrounds (USFS, NF, COE, State and county parks, or municipal campgrounds) are generally less expensive to stay at than privately owned campgrounds, but you may have to sacrifice on onsite utilities and park amenities.  Another low cost option is staying at casino campgrounds.  Many casino campgrounds offer full hookup sites with all of the amenities you find at high end resorts for a fraction of the cost.  As long as you don’t lose the money you saved on your site at the casino, these campgrounds are a great deal.

For most campgrounds, the longer you stay, the less you pay for your site when averaged out on a daily basis.  Many campgrounds offer special rates for weekly or monthly stays.  Taking advantage of these specials can reduce your monthly expenses, so it pays to plan ahead and stay in one place for a week or more.  Just remember… if you stay for a month or more, some campgrounds will meter your electric usage and charge you for it.  In a warm locale, running your AC will make the electric meter spin.  Before you make the reservation, be sure to ask these campgrounds what you can expect to pay for electric per month and use the cost of the site + electric to compare the cost of staying there to other campgrounds in the area.

A bare bones RV park will generally cost less than a resort with lots of amenities.  If you aren’t going to use the pool or exercise room, finding a park without these amenities will save you money in the long run.  You will also pay a premium for concrete or asphalt pads as opposed to grass or gravel sites.  Many also charge extra for the convenience of a pull-through site.  If you are staying for longer than a night and you are comfortable with your backing-in skills, a back-in site may save you a few bucks a night – not much, but it adds up for longer stays.

Another way to save some money on your site rentals is to take advantage of discount clubs.  There are several different clubs out there, some are for a particular campground chain, others are available at any campground that chooses to participate in the plan.  Most of these clubs require a yearly fee that must be paid up front.  If you carefully choose your destinations based on campgrounds that offer the discount for a particular club, you can make up the cost of the yearly fee and save money on your site fees.  The typical discount is 10%, but some offer up to 50% off of your stay.  Just be sure to read the fine print and do some research on the campgrounds that offer the discount for the plan before you sign up to see if it will be a good fit for you.

Fuel
Unless you are going to full time RV in one place, budgeting for fuel costs is a necessary evil.  How much you spend monthly for fuel will depend on two things.  The type of RV you have and how much you move around.

Hauling around your whole home and everything you own takes fuel.  Lots of it…  Unless you plan to live full time in a popup, you can expect gas mileage somewhere in the 6-11mpg range.  While smaller motorhomes get somewhat better gas mileage than larger ones, a gas model motorhome large enough to live in full time will probably get mileage somewhere in middle of the above range.  Diesel powered motorhomes do get better mpg than gas models of the same size, but since diesel fuel is more expensive than gas, the savings are pretty much a wash.  Unfortunately gas mileage towing a trailer or fifth wheel isn’t much better, but it will generally fall into the higher end of the above range with fifth wheels getting slightly better gas mileage than tow behind trailers because they are more aerodynamic.

Your driving habits will also have an effect on your gas mileage.  If you keep the speed down you will get better mileage than you will by letting your lead foot personality shine through.  Give yourself plenty of travel time between destinations and slow down and enjoy the scenery along the way to save some bucks.

Moving around increases your cost of living as a full time RVer.  The only way to avoid this monthly expense is to stay in one place.  Fortunately though, fuel costs are something that you can budget for if you know the average mpg that your RV gets and the distance you are going to travel during the month.  To calculate the approximate cost of fuel for a leg of your journey, you can use the following formula:
(Miles / Vehicle MPG) * $ Per Gallon = Fuel Cost

RV and Vehicle Maintenance
Just like a house, your RV will require periodic maintenance.  Things will wear out and break, and repairs will need to be made.  You will be putting lots of miles on as you move around, so vehicle maintenance will need to be performed fairly frequently.  As with fuel costs, the more that you move around and the farther that you travel, the higher that the expenses in this category will be.  If you budget for the regular maintenance and try to set aside a little money each month for unexpected repairs, then you will be prepared for these expenses as they pop up.

Groceries and Incidentals
You still have to eat while you are living on the road.  The only thing that has changed for us when grocery shopping is that we buy less at one time and we go more often.  If you are used to buying in bulk, your grocery bill may be a bit higher than it was in a sticks and bricks house.  When you have limited storage space, there just aren’t enough places to put the economy sized boxes of food.

When it comes to incidental purchases, limited storage will actually help you save money as a full time RVer.  You simply can’t buy as much ‘stuff’ when you live on the road.  When we left our sticks and bricks house, our RV had been carefully packed, using nearly all of the available storage space.  There simply isn’t room for much more.  Because of this, we have a rule in our motorhome:  Anything that comes in must be replacing something of equal size that is going out.  When we lived in a sticks and bricks house, a quick stop at Target or Wal-Mart to pick up an item or two would often result in a full shopping cart once we left the store.  Now we shop with a list and since buying something new also requires getting rid of something else we are much less likely to fall victim to those impulse buys.

Seeing the Sights
You can’t travel the country without spending some time taking in the local attractions.  Depending on your interests, seeing the sights can be a cost that adds up quickly.  The phrase ‘the best things in life are free’ apparently does not apply to sightseeing.  Whether it is the local amusement park or a national monument, there is a cost of admission for almost everything.  Fortunately in this internet age, you can find out ahead of time what the cost of admission is for most attractions in the area you will be visiting and budget accordingly.  And if you do a little research on the area before you get there, you can also find some low or no cost activities wherever you go.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to full time RVers, Bruce and I are the exception, not the norm.  For many, living full time in an RV while earning a full time salary is just not an option and that means that most full time RVers are retired and living on a fixed income.  Thankfully, many of the costs of living on the road are things that can be controlled through careful planning and a frugal mindset.  One of the things that drew us into the full time lifestyle was the promise of a ‘simpler’ life – one without all of the ‘stuff’ that fills your life and steals your time and money when you live in a sticks and bricks house.  Now that we are on the road, we have found that a simpler life is a perfect fit for us, both for our budget and in general.  With careful planning it can be for you too!