Planning your full time finances can be difficult because there are so many variables. What part of the country you live in, the amount you travel, the size of your RV or truck/camper combination, and your comfort and ability when it comes to boondocking all factor into your economic calculations. Looking at other full timer expenses is helpful but not always applicable to your situation.
Full timing, like everything else, costs more these days. Only the insane price inflation of renting or buying a home keep the mobile lifestyle financially attractive, and that’s in relative terms. It’s definitely not as cheap as the old days. Most of the time, people underestimate the costs of living on the road.
Outlined below are your major expense categories and the factors that influence each one.
Mo’ Bigger, Mo’ Money
There’s one simple rule when it comes to your camper or RV: The bigger your rig, the higher your expenses. With a 40 foot Class A diesel pusher you’ll have more room than a Bangladesh apartment, more richly appointed than most homes. You will lack for nothing. What you will have are bills. Fuel bills, maintenance bills, and many times you’ll pay more for campsites just because your rig takes up more room and uses more electricity. That’s on top of higher licensing and insurance costs. If you’re trying to live the frugal RV life, a large Class A is going to be a constant source of expense.
The same applies to large 5th wheels and travel trailers. The bigger the unit, the more tow vehicle it takes to drag it around. Big diesel trucks are expensive to buy and even more expensive to maintain. Your fuel bills will be high, even when you’re not towing.
Paying Cash or Financing
The median mortgage payment in the US is $1050.00. At full time rates campsites will run anywhere from $400 to $600 a month, depending on how you shop and the caliber of RV parks you prefer. If you add a $250 to $500 a month camper payment, and maybe a vehicle payment on top of the campground costs, the frugal aspects of RV living vaporize.
If you want to really save money, then buy a smaller, used camper. A used unit is ideally less than 10 years old and in good shape. Pick one you can afford to pay cash. Owning your camper RV and/or tow vehicle is the only way RV living delivers real cost savings.
If you really want the mobile lifestyle to pay off, you’ll need to look at boondocking at least part of the year. Boondocking is staying on undeveloped government land for little or no money. Some people can do it and enjoy it. More power to them. My wife and I did not enjoy our time off grid and that was in a relatively safe state park campground. For us $600 a month for fences and gates, electricity, water, nighttime security, sane neighbors and a pool is a small price to pay.
All the same, those who can boondock for weeks or months at a time, will be able to make their budget stretch nearly to infinity. You’re basically living for the cost of fuel for the generator and food. The payback is hauling your waste to a dump site and hauling in water.
Another option that many fulltimers utilize are park networks like Thousand Trails, Encore, and Passport America. Camping clubs all work a little differently, the price can vary greatly, there are restrictions and the level of service can be wildly inconsistent. That said, people who can make memberships like Thousand Trails work, can save hundreds of dollars. By way of disclosure, we received a promotional TT membership. We booked four days at one of the three TT resorts in Florida and found the campground so deplorable we left the next morning. Our experience is not universal and most campers rate that park higher than we do. All the same, I’d chew my hand off before letting it give my credit card number to Thousand Trails.
Shopping camping clubs competitively can consistently yield both unique experiences, like Harvest Hosts, and steeply discounted stays at some entirely decent parks. Most memberships pay for themselves with just one or two uses and most fulltimers have a drawer full of club cards.
People who live in customized van and small trucks have the best return as far as cost savings. Vandwellers are basically living in their car, customized for comfortable sleeping. They can, literally, park anywhere, camp anywhere, sleep anywhere they can leave a vehicle for a few hours without someone banging on the door.
Like any lifestyle compromise, that savings comes at a cost. One of the costs is space. Van living is incredibly cramped. A couple sleeping in an airspace that small is breathing one another’s sweat all night. Vandwellers have to be particularly careful when heating a van. Even heaters rated for indoor use can be fatal in a well-insulated airspace that small.
Another downside to van living is people who live in vans are being increasingly lumped in with the homeless in many urban areas and occasionally swept up in efforts to relocate vagrants. Added to that are the small number of vandwellers who themselves act like vagrants by leaving a mess behind, setting up tents, or sitting outside their vans in lawn chairs. A relative handful spoil it for the many.
Think It Through
The biggest mistake I see people make is going too big. It’s easier to upsize than downsize once you’re out on the road.