My husband and I often take work camping jobs that allow us to live in our RV for several months at a time. I’m not going to lie. It took a while to figure out how to budget for us RVers.
Everyone’s different. RVers travel differently. Some folks like to stay put in one spot while others may choose to travel most of the time. Still, other RVers split the difference. That’s why there isn’t a “one size fits all” budget for RVers. With that caveat in mind, there are some tips we’ve learned along the way. Not every tip will apply to your situation. Just adopt the ones that you think might work.
List all of your monthly expenses. Here’s where things can get a bit tricky. We had to figure and refigure for several months until we finally arrived at fairly accurate cost approximates. Be patient with yourself and allow time to finesse your budget.
Campsite. You may already know what the costs of your campsites will be if you’ve made reservations, so that’s a good start. If utilities are charged on top of the site fee, you may have to guess at that amount at first and adjust the amount higher or lower as you go. Remember that as the seasons change, so may your bills. Example, running your RV’s furnace during cold temperatures will cost more in propane than when you need the air conditioner. And it, in turn, will require more electricity.
Food. If you’ve operated off a food budget at home, you may already have a good idea of how much you spend on groceries each month. Go with that figure at first. If you are an RVer who eats out frequently, try and estimate about how much money you spend per month for restaurants/bars and add it to your groceries/food budget amount.
Fuel. We try to budget on the “high side.” That means we take our monthly fuel consumption (gallons used) and multiply it by $4 or more for diesel. As fuel costs fluctuate, you can adjust the fuel allotment on your budget. To figure out your monthly fuel consumption, keep fuel receipts for four weeks. Then, add the gallons purchased, multiply it by a “high side” fuel rate, and you have what you need.
Note: We keep a separate budgeted account for travel miles. Travel miles are the miles we drive to reach our destination. That usually means a cross country trek. By keeping travel miles separate, those figures won’t distort our budget’s monthly fuel expenditures. To keep our travel account strong, we deposit a predetermined amount into this travel miles account every time we’re paid.
Stix-n-brix bills. Unless you’re a full-time RVer, you may still need to pay for items connected with your permanent home. Think: water/sewer, electricity/gas, mortgage/insurance, lawn care, HOA fees, etc.
Discretionary spending. This was a biggie for me. Before we RVed, we’d take one vacation per calendar year. I was accustomed to spending vacation money without much thought. “It’s vacation!” Those were the words I used to justify my sometimes crazy purchases. (They really didn’t seem all that crazy when I bought them. Honestly!)
If I’d kept the “It’s vacation!” mentality while RVing, we’d be broke by now! Every day in our RV seems like “vacation” to me, so I really need a “discretionary spending” line in our budget. It keeps me grounded and really helps our budget. Besides, who has space inside their RV for, say, two gigantic Mexican sombreros? (Just an example, folks. I wasn’t even tempted! Well, maybe a little bit.)
Health care and insurance (vehicle, RV, etc.). Make sure to budget for these expenses even if you pay once yearly. You’ll want to put away money ahead of time so the full amount will be available when the yearly bill(s) arrive.
Maintenance/repairs. Things break down and systems fail. Even when everything works perfectly, you’ll want to perform maintenance on your RV to keep it safely rolling down the road. Give your best guess as to the amount you’ll need to budget. Then adjust that amount as time passes.
Goals. Budget toward your short- and long-term goals. I include birthday and Christmas gifts in this category, but you may want to make another category for gifting. We are also saving for a newer truck. Money for that eventual expense will come from this account.
Emergency fund. My husband and I are big believers in emergency funds. Money set aside for emergencies can ease your mind should unexpected situations arise. (And they will.) Keep in mind the high cost of RV repairs as you set an amount. Replace any spent emergency funds as quickly as you can.
Add all of your monthly expenses together. Remember that some amounts will need to be adjusted over time. Once you’ve determined all your expenses, it’s time to see about your income.
Categorize and prioritize your budget for RVing
Once you’ve listed your expenses, you’ll want to categorize them into fixed and variable categories. Fixed expenses are those that stay the same each month (e.g., mortgage payments), while variable expenses may change each month (e.g., dining out).
Once you’ve determined your fixed and variable expenses, prioritize each expense according to their importance. Later, when comparing your expenses with your income, you’ll better see where adjustments can be made.
Determine your income for the month. Calculate your total income from all sources. Include your salary or Social Security check(s), pensions, rental income, investments, work camping income, etc.
Next, allocate your income to cover your expenses. Track expenses and income each month to make sure you’re staying on budget.
Adjustments to your RVing budget
An RV friend once said, “You’ve gotta’ pay to play!” He meant that RVing is not “free living.” Yes, you enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes with travel, but RVers have responsibilities too. Face it—it’s not fun when a flat tire sidelines your budget as well as your trip! Who can relax in the warm sunshine while worrying about paying the electric bill?
If your expenses outweigh your income, don’t despair. Take a look at your flexible expenses, along with those low-priority ones. Here are some ways we’ve reallocated income to meet our expenses:
Travel. Travel miles mean fuel costs. By traveling fewer miles, you will save. Also, consider your destinations. Some locations are more expensive than others. You may find that lesser-known, out-of-the-way destinations are just as beautiful and perhaps have less of an impact on your budget.
Stays. Campground costs are rising. To save money, try boondocking or check out COE or state park campsites. If you prefer staying in an RV campground, do a little research. It’s still possible to find smaller campgrounds with fewer amenities that are within budget.
It may also save money if you stay longer in one location. Some campgrounds offer a discounted rate for RVers who plan an extended stay.
The time of year can also impact the campground costs. We often RV during the “shoulder seasons” and avoid weekend camping when we can. Costs can be less during those times.
Food. Reducing or eliminating eating out makes a big impact on the budget. We don’t eat out much. Instead, we will occasionally treat ourselves to ice cream.
Take time to shop around for food. The campground store will most likely be more expensive than a local supermarket. Ask locals where to find the best buys. Farmers’ markets offer fresh food in season and are usually well-priced. Food chains like Aldi’s and Walmart also price food at a lower cost. Depending on where you camp, you may want to check out customer clubs. We often shop at Costco and get our fuel at a premium there.
Entertainment. The great thing about RVing is that entertainment is all around you! Hiking, biking, fishing, birding, and other outdoor sports can be done at little to no cost—especially if you already own the necessary equipment.
Smaller historical societies may have locally collected artifacts that you can view for free! Many museums offer special discount days, or you might find discount tickets at the Chamber of Commerce or local tourism bureau.
Income supplement. Another way to stretch your RVing budget is to work as you camp. Many campgrounds need help and will offer work campers a free or reduced-fee campsite. Research this before you sign on. Depending on where you travel, there may be other opportunities to make a little cash, as well.
Careful budgeting can enable you to RV for as long as you want. It’s essential to be realistic about both your expenses and your income sources. Budget adjustments are almost always necessary, so give yourself time to tweak the numbers, and be ready to make changes as you go.
Not every RVer has a bottomless bucket of cash. And even for those that do, I believe we all have a responsibility to take good care of our blessings, demonstrate humble gratitude, and set a good example for those around us. A budget helps.
Do you operate off a budget while RVing? Tell us about it in the comments.
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Nice article, Gail; thank you! I especially liked your closing paragraph. 🙂 😎
How do you do your banking to have cash. Use ing money machines and credit cards can be expensive.
Easy way to get cash, buy a small item at Walmart, pay with your debit/credit card and get $100 cash back. No fee!
Nearly all of our purchases go on a credit card that gives us money back with every dollar spent. The total card balance is paid in full every month to avoid financing fees. When we need cash, we just use cash back option when we buy groceries.
I use Capital One online bank. They have a nationwide network of free ATM machines for withdrawing cash. Note: Depositing cash is much harder/rarer for Capital One as most of the free ATMs are withdrawal only.