Full-time RVing Budget: What Does It Cost to RV Full-time?
The biggest question I think most people have before they run away to a traveling
lifestyle is: Can I afford it? I spent a lot of time studying other travelers' budgets
online before we left, and I thought it would help future adventurers if I added a
year of our actual expenses to the mix.
This section includes:
• Our monthly "fixed" costs from 9/1/07-8/31/08
• Our monthly "variable" costs in the same time period
• Capital costs & RV depreciation considerations when budgeting for full-timing
People enjoy the full-time RV lifestyle on all kinds of budgets. The military retirees with the dual officers' pensions are living
really really well. The rest of us work with whatever we have. For us, it is cheaper to live this way than it would have been if we
had stayed in our stick-built house, by at least $500 per month. There are no property taxes, no HOA dues, no utilities and we
drive less and have just one vehicle.
Everyone has different priorities and lives differently, making budgeting a highly personal project. My numbers here reflect who
we are. We are young and want to live this way for as long as possible, so we have been frugal in our choices. We spend money
where it needs to be spent and avoid those goodies that would be fun but might shorten our time out here in the long run. We
We have adjusted to a simpler life. At one time, years ago, I ate out everyday. Now, we rarely go to restaurants. Before we left, I
got a venti latte and a muffin at Starbucks almost everyday. Since we started traveling we have been to Starbucks just once, but
now Mark has time to make his sinfully delicious muffins! To avoid monthly bills we don't have a cell phone or satellite
subscription service, and we rely on free wi-fi for internet access. Medical insurance and medication costs are hugely variable
between people, so I have not included anything about that here.
We own our truck and trailer outright and do not carry any debt. This makes it easier to sleep at night. For most people, I think
that is the preferred way to go when they leave home. However, those with a large monthly income could finance a much more
I studied our statements for the twelve months from September, 2007 through August, 2008. This time period begins after we
had completed all our startup costs (driving 1,000 miles to pick up our trailer, returning 1,000 miles without being in the
sightseeing groove yet, and shopping daily at Walmart while we got the trailer outfitted with all the little shelves and hooks and
NuWa Hitchhiker fifth wheel. None of the costs associated with this transition are covered here, as they were one-time costs
rather than ongoing living expenses. So, this is a fair representation of our monthly expenses in the past year.
Budgets for this lifestyle are both easy and difficult to anticipate. Before you leave, you know what you typically spend at the
supermarket, and that stays the same when you travel; you can estimate your gas costs by deciding how many miles you will be
driving; and you can research the RV insurance and registration fees. However, no one could have anticipated oil prices doing
what they did in the spring of 2008. So you will find yourself adapting as the world changes around you -- just like you did at
My plan was to spend about $1,800 per month. I estimated $500 per month for food (which is what we had been spending at
home); $500 per month for gas; $500 per month for campground fees; $100 per month for RV and truck insurance; and I left a
slush of $200 per month for other things.
We ended up spending $1,672 per month during that time period. During those twelve months we saw diesel prices jump by
almost 90% from $2.75 to $5.16 per gallon (in the places where we were buying diesel). We also learned about boondocking
and discovered that we didn't need to spend anything on campgrounds. Those two unexpected events cancelled each other out!
Our expenses can be divided into "fixed costs" that we spent every month regardless of what we were doing, and "variable costs"
that depended on our activities.
Between 9/1/07 and 8/31/08 these were our average monthly fixed costs:
Food & household items
Food & Household Items
This item covers all supermarket purchases, including laundry detergent, cleansers and other household items, as well as the
rare splurge at a restaurant (a handful of times in 12 months). Food costs have risen significantly in the last four months, and I
had never actually sat down and studied what we spent on food before we left -- $500 had been just a shoulder-shrugging guess.
This includes both truck and RV insurance. We pay it annually, but the monthly cost is shown. If we had kept our Arizona home
address, this line item would have been twice as much. There is more detailed info on the selection of a domicile, or home
address, in the fulltiming section.
Prices for LP are all over the map, and we haven't been very diligent about shopping around. We just buy it when we need it from
whoever has it in town. We paid $2.99/gallon in southern Nevada in September, 2008 and we paid $3.99/gallon just a month
earlier in southern Utah. We use 11-12 gallons per month, a little more in December/January/February when we use the propane
furnace to heat the trailer.
Prices range from $1.75 to $3.50 to wash and dry a single load. On average we do 3-5 loads a week for about $2.50 per load.
This includes both our mail forwarding service and monthly mail delivery (discussed in more detail in the fulltiming section) as
well as postage we buy to send letters and packages.
My mom was a professional bookkeeper, and she taught me never to have a "miscellaneous" category because things get lost in
there. However, I can't ignore the $36 of cash we spent every month this past year without getting a receipt. These mindless
purchases were things like a quickie coke on the road, a tube of chapstick, USA Today newspapers, and other small things
purchased on the fly. Whatever those purchases are, that much cash sneaks out of our wallets every month, unaccounted for.
As with Vehicle Insurance, this is paid annually, but I show the monthly cost here. The cost is lessened by careful selection of a
home address, discussed in more detail in the fulltiming section.
These are costs that are essentially optional. They can be deferred to a later month, foregone all together, or can make a fun
splash in the current month. I am including the average monthly cost of these items during the twelve months that I studied,
although some represent just one or two purchases made during the year.
Between 9/1/07 and 8/31/08 these were our average monthly variable costs:
Our highest month was $935, in February, while we drove across country from Phoenix, Arizona to Jacksonville, Florida.
Ironically, that was before diesel prices really skyrocketed. Our lowest month was the very next month, March, when we spent
just $275 as we hung around the Naval base in Florida and rode our bikes. We also had one 30 day period (outside Bryce
Canyon, UT) where we didn't put any diesel in the truck at all. The impact of diesel costs on the overall budget depends entirely
on how much you drive. As I write this in August, 2008, it costs about $150 to fill the truck, but we have not put a drop of diesel in
it in almost a month.
This cost dropped as we learned about boondocking in the west. It peaked at $396 in September, 2007, which included some
higher priced campgrounds. It bottomed out at $0 in August, 2008, when we spent the month boondocked outside Bryce
Canyon, UT. The four months from September to December, 2007, averaged $292/month as we stayed mostly at state parks
and national park campgrounds in Wyoming and Utah and in a private RV park for two weeks at Christmas in Phoenix. The next
8 months, January to August, 2008, averaged just $71/month, as we boondocked almost every night, all the way from Arizona to
Florida and back to Arizona and Utah.
We made a few improvements to the Lynx once we had been in it for a while. We purchased a high quality mattress for the bed;
we bought a Yamaha 2400i generator; and we replaced our two 12-volt Group 24 batteries with two 6-volt golf cart batteries. We
also upgraded the computer with an external hard drive and purchased some software. Not included in this item (or anywhere
here) are the costs related to purchasing the trailer, as those are one-time costs that are part of "setting up" the lifestyle rather
than being "part of" the lifestyle. I also did not include the cost of the solar setup, as I consider that part of the purchase price.
This item is hard to predict. Mark maintains everything meticulously, washing and waxing and keeping up on the little things that
break. He doesn't put off any maintenance chores, so we take it as it comes. Both trailers and the truck have been under
warranty the whole time we have owned them, although we got warranty service just once on each vehicle. "Maintenance" also
includes oil changes for the truck. This can run as high as $89 for the new non-polluting diesel trucks that conform to the 2010
EPA "blue tech" emissions standard.
This is generally DVD rentals and purchases, books, and movie dates. As I kid, I snuck on the city bus pretending to be 12 when
I was 16 so I could pay the child's fare. Now I sneak into the movies pretending to be 55 so I can get the senior discount!
We bought a few souvenir T-shirts and some winter clothes because we were freezing in the Arizona desert in January.
This includes both annual memberships and magazine subscriptions. For the year I studied we belonged to Escapees and
purchased an America the Beautiful pass to the national parks. Also, our magazine subscriptions kept arriving after we started
traveling, and we found we enjoyed keeping in touch with our hobbies so we renewed them..
Budgets and actual expenditures vary over time. Most fulltimers find that they spend a lot more in the first few months of travel
than they do once they have been out for a while. It takes some time, and quite a few purchases, to make an RV a home, and
most of those costs come in the first few months. These are things like patio mats, camping chairs and tables, tools you used to
own and suddenly discover you still need, area rugs, throw pillows, kitchen utensils you thought you could live without but can't,
campground directories, travel guide books, funky gismos they sell at Camping World that are just so perfect for the RV lifestyle.
Also, it takes a while to figure out how you want to live this life. What kinds of campgrounds do you like? Are you okay with
overnighting in a parking lot? How much do you want to drive each day? How long do you want to stay put in one spot? Most
fulltimers dash all over the country in the first year, and we are no exception. The exhilaration of having the whole continent to
yourself, with no one tapping their watch and expecting you home, is such a thrill that we all run around and try to see as much as
possible. Only when we are utterly exhausted do we start to slow down.
It also takes a long time to let go of old living patterns and establish new ones. When we first started fulltiming we were
accustomed to one- and two-week vacations, and we lived as though that is all the time we had. It was only after a few months
on the road that we began to realize, deep inside, that we didn't have to see all the sights in three days. We could stay three
weeks and see them only when it was sunny and when we were in the mood.
This change in the rhythm of life ultimately affects how you spend your money. You begin to realize that this is not a vacation, so
you can't spend money as if it were. You begin to slow down and appreciate the truly priceless pleasures, like a quiet morning
reading a book, or an afternoon hike that has no other purpose than to smell the fresh air.
When budgeting for a fulltime RV lifestyle, it is probably wise to assume that the first three months will cost about 50% more than
the target monthly figure. Make room in the budget for this, and you won't panic when it happens.
WHAT ARE OTHER PEOPLE SPENDING?
I have done many google searches for "fulltime rv cost" and other mixtures of words and phrases that might conjure up sites where
people discuss RV costs & their fulltime RV budget. Each time I have done this, it has become clear to me, as my eyes start to glaze
over, that expenses and expense categorizations are highly personal, and the discipline with which people keep records is
However, I did find an oniine poll carried out by the Airstream Owners Forum that is helpful. In a simple poll, which received 16
responses from fulltimers, these were their findings:
Number of People
Percentage of Total
$10,000 or less
$835 or less
$835 - $1,250
$1,250 - $1,667
$1,667 - $2,085
$2,085 - $2,500
$30,000 or more
$2,500 or more
So the median group spends $25,000-$30,000 a year, or $2,085-$2,500 per month. Half spend less than $25,000 per year and
half spend more than $30,000. At right around $20,000 per year, we are among the 25% who have the smallest budgets.
CAPITAL COSTS & DEPRECIATION
When forecasting costs for a fulltime RV lifestyle, the monthly living expenses are one part of the equation, but the purchase price
and depreciation of the RV and truck or "toad" (car towed behind a motorhome) are equally important. It is easy to want to
splurge a bit on the RV because you are giving up your stick-built house. However, there is also a good argument for buying a
simpler RV at first to test the waters and see if this lifestyle works for you. Once out on the road, if you like living this way, you can
go anywhere on the continent to check out all the factories and dealerships and RV shows that intrigue you, and you can take
your time finding the RV you want to splurge on. You will also have a much better idea of the features that matter to you.
RVs depreciate really fast. This is an unscientific depreciation schedule and may not be totally accurate, but in studying new and
used RV prices, this seems to be fairly representative. The left column is the age of the RV in years, the middle column is the
percentage of the purchase price that the RV will sell for at that age (inflation and the devaluation of the dollar over time is not
accounted for), and the right columns show how this works for an RV that was purchased new for $150K, $100K, $50K and $20K.
The purchase price is assumed to have been a well negotiated deal, about 70%-80% of MSRP, depending on the manufacturer.
RV model years tend to roll over between the spring and the fall, depending on the manufacturer, so a 2008 RV purchased in
March, 2008, will be "a year old" six months later, in September, when the 2009's are out.
Only when the RV is sold or traded will you truly find out what it cost per month to own it. However, this chart can give you an
idea. If you set out in a $100,000 RV and fulltime in it for five years, and then either sell it to change lifestyles, or trade it in for a
new one, the five years in that RV will have cost $47,000, or $783 per month. If you hang onto it for ten years, it will have cost
$68,000, or $566 per month.
Here's where the idea of setting out in a cheaper rig at first starts to make sense. A used RV has already lost much of its value by
the time you buy it, and if your plan is to stay in it just a year or two until you get the "real" rig, you won't take such a big hit.
Likewise, if you don't end up liking fulltiming, the cost for the experience is not too high. If you really want the "new" smell and
have a truck already, you can run away in a new travel trailer for $20,000 and sell it a year later for $16,400, costing you just
$300/month for the year of fulltiming. Or, pick up a two-year-old fifth wheel for $36,000 and sell it a year later for $32,500, costing
you just $292/month.
By doing this double purchase, you end up paying sales tax twice. However, depending on your home state, the sales tax on the
second purchase will not be on the total amount but on the purchase price less the trade-in. So you end up paying slightly more
sales tax than you would have if you bought the "ideal" rig at the outset. This incremental cost may be outweighed by the chance
to spend a year on the road interviewing other fulltimers about their RVs, visiting dealerships, poring over brochures, attending
RV shows, and figuring out how you manage your life in an RV without a home to return to. Your "ideal" rig will likely be quite
different than what you had thought it was before you started. Also, the money that you didn't spend at the outset should be
making money for you -- in interest or other investments -- while it waits for you to decide which "real" rig to buy.
There are other capital expenditures besides the RV that are worth mulling over before you set off. Sales tax and registration
fees can range from negligible to almost 10% of the purchase price of the RV. It is worthwhile to think about where you want to
register the RV ahead of time, and a discussion of home addresses and domiciles is in the fulltiming section. A really valuable
upgrade for the RV, one that can easily pay for itself in six months or less, is a solar setup. We installed one on each of our
fulltime rigs, the first for $975 and the second for $3,900. These were the most important purchases we made, as they gave us
total freedom, and I can't imagine fulltiming in an RV without solar power, as your choices for where to spend the night are so
You may also want a generator which will cost at least $900 for a quiet portable one. Our first RV didn't come with a TV, so we
bought a 19" LCD TV and DVD player for $425. Some people buy a satellite system that requires an upfront fee for the
equipment ($1,500 or so). Others purchase a high-end campground membership that requires a hefty down payment
(campground memberships are discussed in more detail in the fulltiming section). We bought a residential quality mattress for
$300 (even the best RV mattresses are hopelessly inferior). If you choose to live in a travel trailer you may want a cap for you
truck ($500-$1,500). If you live in a motorhome you will probably want a car towed behind so you can get around town easily and
comfortably. Whether you choose to live in a motorhome or a trailer, you will need a hitch ($400-$750)-- either to tow the trailer
behind the truck or to tow the car behind the motorhome.
One item we brought with us from our popup tent trailer that has made cooking very easy is our RVQ grill ($165). It attaches into
the propane line on the outside of the RV with a quick release attachment. You may also want to purchase bicycles (huge
variation in cost) and a bike rack ($150). The RV house batteries may need to be upgraded (details are in the discussion of the
solar setup) for $130-$350. You might also want a vent-free propane heater ($150-$300) for those long cold winter days.
These use no battery power and use half as much propane as the furnace installed in the RV.
These are some of the capital expenditures that we needed or that people we have met found they needed. If you can anticipate
most of these costs before you leave, you will save yourself from the very scary feeling that you are blowing all your money in the
first month on the road.
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