RV Shrink: “Bean counter” wonders how much the RV lifestyle costs

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Dear RV Shrink:
Can you give me an idea of what the RV lifestyle costs per month? My wife thinks we should buy an RV and start spending months on the road exploring North America. We live on our Social Security checks and small retirement investment. It seems to me owning an RV and traveling all the time is as expensive as living on a cruise ship. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but it makes me nervous to think about traveling around not having a handle on budget costs. My wife says I worry too much, and that millions of people are living this very lifestyle. Any help would be greatly appreciated. —Bean Counter in Boston

Dear Mr. Bean:
The simple answer is “NO,” I can’t tell you. But I will give you some food for thought. Everyone has a personal lifestyle. Some cost much more than others. Your basic cost of living shouldn’t change much – you are just taking it on the road. The unknowns for you are rent, gas, maintenance and entertainment. You are still going to eat, drink and be merry whether you stay home or travel.

It is like taking a cruise. Are you going to stay in a suite, steerage or something in between? Are you going First Class or Coach? Are you buying a Rock Star Bus or a pop-up? Are you paying cash or financing? Do you like to eat out all the time or mostly in? Do you want to boondock or stay at the RV Ritz? 

The RV lifestyle can be whatever you want to make it. You can guesstimate your fuel consumption when you know where you want to go and what you will be driving. You can figure your rent costs when you know where you want to stay and for how long. You can estimate your monthly budget on ownership after you know what you are going to buy and how you are going to pay for it. These are all variables that need to be tweaked constantly. Fuel prices go up and down, camping fees just go up, maintenance issues are unknown, and entertainment is a personal choice. 

Bottom line is, don’t sweat it. If you want to travel badly enough, you can make it fit any budget. 

Do some comparison math. Take a pretend plane or train trip across the country. Include your fares, entertainment, room and board, other transportation, and how you are going to finance it. Then do the same trip in an RV with all its costs included. I think you will discover it is a lot cheaper to take a much longer RV trip than a train or plane ride. 

You have a lot more control over your costs when you have your housing with you. Being frugal, going nuts, or finding some financial middle ground will make all the difference in whether an RV lifestyle will work out for you. 

In my opinion, spending time in an RV exploring is no more expensive than staying home, if all other aspects of income, financing and lifestyle are the same.

There is only one way to find out for sure. Go for it! —Keep Smilin’, Richard Mallery a.k.a. Dr. R.V. Shrink

Can’t get enough of the Shrink? Read his e-books, including Book 2 in his two-book series: Dr. R.V. Shrink: Everything you ever wanted to know about the RV Lifestyle but were afraid to ask or check out his other e-books.

##RVT949

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Bill & Judy
5 months ago

Remember to consider the expenses you have at home that will continue while you travel. Add those expenses to fuel and oil consumption and rent to stay at RV sites. State parks are inexpensive, rest areas are free as are some Wal-Marts and other businesses. You must remember, even though you plan to eat in your camper, you probably will eat out more often than planned. In addition, you undoubtedly will find unknown or unplanned places to visit that will add to spending. Also, always plan for unexpected service and repairs along the way as well as at least $1K, for routine maintenance when you return home. RV ownership isn’t for the faint of heart. And, contrary to popular belief that RV owners all have lots of money, they don’t. It’s usually spent on payments, upkeep, fuel, food, etc., plus maintaining your fixed residence. It’s easy to get over your head in expenses. Plan ahead, budget well, consider the unexpected and then add 20% more. It always costs more than you expect. Otherwise, it’s a lot of fun, you meet some great people and see a lot of God’s beautiful country at your own pace. Happy & safe traveling.

Paul S Goldberg
6 months ago

The ownership costs for an RV do not vary greatly with amount of use. Tires age out over time, lubrication and other service need to be performed routinely whether you use it or not. Even fabrics decay with time – faster if you spend a lot of time. Depreciation happens regardless of use. You also need insurance and any required inspections to be able to use it. Assuming you are not talking full time these expenses are in addition to your current living expenses. Monthly camping costs range from 0 to several hundreds of dollars depending on your choices. figure $500/ month. Food and dining will likely not differ from your current food expense unless you choose to eat out a lot more. You will certainly add “entertainment” expense – museums, park entrance fees etc. again you are in control.
I could show you a spread sheet of every day of ownership of three motorhomes going back to 2001 for camp costs and operating costs for the coach. Meaningless to anyone else because it is our lifestyle. Our gassers ran 7-8 mpg and the diesel is running about 9 mpg. Fuel has cost anywhere from $1.50 to $4.50/gal over the years (actually was closer to $6/gal in Yukon Territory in 2011). We spend a lot on museums, galleries and other venues and we seldom sit still in the campground.
If you own a vehicle that can pull a small trailer and you could be content in a 20′ bumper pull you might start for $20,000 give or take. plus unknown hundreds to outfit it. Don;t forget this is all on top of maintaining your current home.
We love the lifestyle and recommend it to anyone who is interested, but it is not cheap.

Rory R
6 months ago

No one can predict or forecast with any accuracy, a question like “how much does it cost to live in a RV. There are way too many variables. I think the solution in the article was the nicest way of answering the question. A question only you can answer. You know how you eat and cook and shop. You figure out where you will be going, and there are apps which can give you fuel costs (pretty close anyway). MPG and the range of the trip will give you a good estimate on fuel costs. Maintenance, now there’s a good question. new or used RV, mechanical and electrical systems, what shape, and how they were maintained have an effect. Driving habits, one thing I found is that usually a RV will make most people a better driver. And driving habits have an effect on costs. But if you are truly worried about MPG, make sure you take that into consideration. From experience and talking to other RV owners, they/we get anywhere from 6 mpg to 22 mpg. But no one can tell you that it will cost you XXXX dollars a month. You have to do the research and apply the variable parameters that apply to you.

Kathi
6 months ago

It’s a fantastic lifestyle. Great people along the way. No interstate travel….this country is amazing to see. You can live well on small money. Workkamper website has opportunity for you to travel and work at campgrounds

Kathi Hanscom
6 months ago

We lived in our motorhome for 3:years after retirement. Highly recommend it! Many RV areas offer “Workkamper” opportunity. I loved and miss it. This country is amazing…travel the non-highways. It’s not as expensive as you may think

Bill
6 months ago

The numbers I remember, we spend $30,000 a year on our motorhome, including fuel, maintenance, repairs, interest on the loan and depreciation (we use it in business travel) as well as sheets and dishes and camping, for 200 nights on the road. Because we use it for business travel, we have less choice about finding less expensive campsites, and we eat out often. That comes out to $150 a day, which compares well to the government nationwide per diem rate of $80 per day for lodging and $60 per day per person for meals and incidentals, which does not include the cost of travel. So, for business travel for two people, we are saving $50 a day and travelling for free, in comfort.

Mike
6 months ago

We managed a modest RV lifestyle full time for many years. The key word is ‘modest’. To avoid getting wordy, the huge biggest thing you can do to save for all the ‘good stuff’ is AVOID EATING OUT…!!!! This can be your greatest expense….but unfortunately your greatest temptation.. Eat in the trailer or pack a meal for going out….there are picnic options everywhere. If not, make your own. Avoid even fast food…perhaps except for coffee & bathrooms. Even then, be careful….food etc ‘out’ adds up quickly.. For the ‘rich’ RVer, this just doesn’t matter, but for us it was critical….and we got to see ALL the same GREAT things and experience ALL the great places they did on our small income…!!! So….Nyaaa, Nyaaaa…!!! You CAN do it too…..!

Steven Scheinin
6 months ago

I, and my wife, have a 40′ fifth wheel pulled by a RAM 3500 dually truck. We are full time and have been on the road for 1,320 days. Noting all the expenses others have already posted, I keep track of our daily costs. They are, per day, Campground fees $27.71, Food (Walmart, etc) $10.52, Propane (heat, cooking, hot water) .85 cents, Diesel for Truck $10.92, Restaurants $15.05, Hot Spot for communication (I use AT&T and my wife Verizon, one usually works better than the other depending where we are in the Country) $4.57, and Attractions (admission to museums, etc) $8.53.

For monthly or yearly costs, multiply by 30 or 365.
When you add it all up, we are spending less than $80.00 a day to live our dream.

Bill T
6 months ago

Hi Steven, what are your campgrounds like for $27.71/day? Are they clean and decent with full hook ups? Are they state parks or private campgrounds? Do you have some sort of membership? Thanks.

rvgrandma
6 months ago

We did it early on by Workamping. We found jobs that gave us a spot plus salary. We had a MH payment to make so needed some income. Once we retired it was easier and much much easier once the MH was paid off.

As said in the article it depends on the type of lifestyle you want to live. Are you happy to boondock at times or does every night have to be with full hookups? Staying a month or longer at each place definitely makes it cheaper. Once you see the sites you want, move on. I always figure high on gas. If gas is averaging $2.50 I figure $3 when doing the gas budget. I always have money left over which I just leave in the envelope for next trip. Yes, I pay cash for gas. I am too cheap to pay the fees many stations will charge for using a debit card. Plus, cash helps to keep you aware of finances.

Denise Sweitzer
6 months ago
Reply to  rvgrandma

Hi, could you find workcamping jobs with health care?
Another 10years till we retire! Hubby is getting tired of the rat race!

Cindy
6 months ago

Including maintenance and repairs we have found that camping is not always cheaper than motels. But you can control your eating out better. But the real questions is do you like living out of a suitcase? Or do you prefer your own bed at night? Do you like cramped hotel rooms, or do you prefer your own space? RVs and trailers offer you a comfort and security level you don’t get with motels. That’s why we opt for them.

David Hagen
6 months ago

I was told years ago that being a full time RV’er costs as much as you have. Seems to be true for us. Low on cash? Stay at the cheaper campgrounds and don’t travel as far and don’t eat out as much. When the cash flow is better, we go to Disney World or the like.

Mark B
6 months ago

What a crazy (non)answer. The guy wanted advice. At least give him a template and some order of magnitude guesstimate. Sure glad you aren’t advising people on sex; they’d never figure it out.

First, they are talking “months” on the road. That means their limited budget will still have the rent/HOA/mortgage/taxes…whatever their current fixed expenses are.

Are we buying a new motorhome, or new 5th wheel/trailer? Do we need a new substantial pickup/SUV? Let’s just pick an arbitrary number $40k for used and $110k for new. We are downsized and very modest. You could easily double these numbers and still be accurate.

Do we have any money left in the retirement account? Because you are going to need to pay taxes on that withdrawal (assuming tax deferred retirement account).

If talking motorhome, you need to plan for:
1) yearly preventive maintenance and then a cycle of replacement over a 6 year period that will include tires, shocks, brakes, drive train, engine a/c, radiator, fuel pump, electronic modules. Average $2.5k year after year.
2) Living end repairs or replacement of water pump, furnace, water heater, A/C, frig, generator. Allocate $1k per year, every year.
3) Emergency fails, like a brake caliper locking, can ruin a few days of your life and quickly take $1.5k before you are on the road again. If you are handy, and just do the caliper, then a lot of swearing and $200.
4) Motorhome insurance/registration and some towing plan (maybe part of your insurance), $1k/year.
5) Fuel $3k/year (10k miles).
6) Stay near the sights sometimes, using a variety of other campgrounds, State Parks, some boondocking and Walmarts. 3 months at cheapo-blended rate is another $3.5k.

Motorhome bargain budget for “months” year after year, $12.5k. Pulling the RV with a pickup /SUV – maybe $2k/yr less. This is very conservative.

Do you live in a state with motor vehicle inspections? Put it in the budget.
Toll roads – your mileage may vary. You never save money in an RV taking the other route to avoid tolls. TX, KS, OK, CO, CA, MN, IL, IN, PA, NJ, NY, OH, MA, CT about 28 states. Put it in the budget.
Taking the RV on a Ferry Boat? Fun and expensive. Put it in the budget.
Even the Presidential Museums charge. Allocate no less than $40/wk for attractions (unless you are happy with Flea Markets).
If you have the vision that you’ll be eating most meals in your RV, forget that. If you enjoy liquor, you’ll regularly be out sipping Sangria, downing Dewars and chugging Coronas. If you skip that part of the happy hour you’ll still eat the apps, main course and still want that cheesecake for desert. Put it in the budget.
Going to Kansas City? Ribs. Put it in the budget.
Going to Texas? Every barbecue is the better than the last. Put it in the budget.
Going near a coast? Seafood. Put it in the budget.
Do you like Asian food? Every city under 10,000 has a few good restaurants. Every city over 200,000 has a Chinatown, or Asian Eat Street. Put it in the budget,
Like the variety of unique food you can get from a food truck? Put it in the budget.
Do you like burgers? Every town has the best ever. Put it in the budget.
Plan to tour a winery, brewery, distillery or Tabasco factory? Nobody does, but you will. You’ll walk out with product for you and the family or friends. Put it in the budget.

Review your health insurance and plan accordingly. If Medicare with Medigap/Supplemental, then you can travel without considerations. If on a Medicare Advantage Plan you’ll need to review coverage when you travel, and how you get your medications. For just “months”, on an average Advantage plan, typically not an issue, but you don’t want surprises.

I bought a motorhome where the first owner started a file folder for repairs (and “enhancements”). The following owners meticuously added to it. Trust me, the above numbers wouldn’t cover how much they spent. Some of them got taken for ride. Motorhome repairs can be expensive when you end up at the wrong shop. Pickups/SUVs, not quite so much.

RV Shrink, am I crazy?

Steve Zoller
6 months ago

We’ve made five, 5-month trips putting 70k miles on a Sprinter based camper van. Across all the trips we’ve averaged $100 and 100 miles per day. This does not include cost of the RV nor insurance but it does include campgrounds ( we rarely stay at Walmart et al), food, fuel, and entertainment. And we don’t skimp. We stay and go where we want.

TravelingMan
6 months ago

Maybe this will help. It is our average per month from 2019. 2020 is on par with the exception of CV. We have a 42′ 5th wheel and full time. We tow with a diesel. We are retired. So, for BASE expenses, we spend about $2000-2200 a month. ($24000 annually – BASE). The problem is repair expenses. They can be expensive. We’ve spent a ton because manufacturers don’t/won’t build a quality product. We bought our rig 3 months old in 2014. 2019 was the worst. Yours may vary. You will also vary depending on how you stay. How you eat. How many miles you drive. Can you share a phone. What are your medical expenses. Do you keep insurance. What is your entertainment budget. We like cruising. That’s about $2000-4000 each cruise. I removed a lot of our expenses that are not mandatory. You have to decide how you want to use retirement.

If you are still working, remember…it’s not how much you make. It’s what you spend.

Compare the budget to your existing sticks and bricks.

BUDGET Actual
JUNE
EXPENSES MONTH

Lot Rent $300-400 (We have plans for more boondocking this year. Many places are $600-800. Some can be had for $200. You can work camp to offset this cost.)
Electric $80-120 (depending on time of year and if electric is included or not)
Cell – Verizon/MiFi $119
Satellite TV / Cable $-
Propane $20 (average per month over the year)
Dump Stations $-
Water $-

Medical $35 (Per Month on Obamacare. BUT, you have to know how to play this game)
Dental $-
Eye $-
Life Insurance $50 (average per month)
Prescrips/OTC $20 (average per month)
Med-Air Medical Evac $42 ($500 a year – Use it or loose it)
Care Flight $-
Medical Services $-
Dental Services $-
Eye Services $-
Emergency Services $-

Truck Fuel $300-500 (We drive a lot and fuel prices are down at present)
Truck DEF $10 (average per month)
Truck Wash $20 (average – we take advantage of the Truckers Blue Wash where available)
Truck Insurance $100 (average per month)
Truck Registration $10 (average per month)
Truck Safety Inspect $-
Truck Oil Change $50 (average per month – usually once every 3 months)
Truck Fuel Filter Chg $40 (average per month – usually once every 3-4 months)
Truck Parts $-
Truck Repairs $-
NTTA Tolls $-

RV Safety Inspection $-
RV Registration $10 (average per month – once a year about $120)
RV Insurance $-
RV Parts $-
RV Repairs $-

Truck/RV Scales $-

Groceries $400-500 (average per month)
Pet Food/Products $60 (average per month)
Dining Out $300-400 (average per month)

Clothing $75 (average per month)
Laundry $ (We have a W/D on-board. Rarely use Laundry Svcs)

Mail Service $10 (average per month)
EMail Service $10 (average per month)

Good Sams Club $-
Passport America $-
Escapees Club $-
Campendium $-
All Stays $-
AARP $-

Entertainment $-
Misc $-
Storage $-
SUM $-

TravelingMan
6 months ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

In 2019. We traveled from DFW TX, to OK, NM, AZ, UT, WY, SD, MN, MI, IN, MO, KS, OK, DFW.

We had a lot of overnight stays which cost considerably more than weekly and monthly rates. But we stayed stationary all summer in WY.

We were on a recent cruise and ran into a full time cruiser. We don’t know what they paid but based on a weekly cruise, we don’t see how it can be less unless there is a special pass for monthly sailors. Then, there would be the hassle of moving from ship to ship when you get bored on one in particular. The advantage is that doctors are on board and they usually have pretty good facilities. We were told that doctor fees are a little higher than land but often times they got off board and went to 3rd world doctors that were cheaper.

All of your room and board and most entertainment is taken care of. You might get tired of the same old thing. It could get routine. We do a lot on land that is free as well.

Have you charted out what retirement will be like if you stay at home? We kinda looked at that like a rat trapped in a cage. Not our cup of tea. Many others are ok with that though. How many times can you afford to travel if you stay at home? Every day for us is a new adventure (except for CV…). We don’t like spending a lot of time mowing the yard.

We always thought Michigan was great. But now we know about so many other places. Currently, we are in the hills of OK across from a BBQ place! Beauty abounds in so many strange places.

We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife. We’ve been in totally dark places to see a trillion stars. We’ve met so many new people. The list goes on. If you’re not adventurous, a house might be the place for you. Owning an RV IS (and I repeat IS) a lot of work. You need patience. You need basic mechanical and electrical skills. If you don’t, take classes before setting out. You will need to know how to retract slides and landing gear when they don’t work. You can call mobile services or take it in for work but have a backup plan for a place to stay for months while they have it.

When it comes down to selecting a rig, thats a whole different article…

Jerry X Shea
6 months ago

Dear Bean Counter. My wife and I have 14 years of RVing under our belt. For 8 years we lived fulltime (all 12 months) and traveled to all 49 states and western Canada.
Here are some things to consider:
A large Motorhome (37-40 feet) with a diesel pusher engine will average about 6.5 – 8 miles per gallon.
A gas Motorhome 32-36 feet will get 10-12 mpg
A 28-32 gas cab RV (with a Ford F-450 engine & chassis) will get 8-10 Mpg
A Class B (converted Van with a diesel engine) can get 16+ Mpg.
You may notice a number of smaller RVs with a Mercedes Benz engine and Cab. These RVs get the best mileage of all RV.
We have had 3 different RVs and now own a Leasure Travel Van (25′) with the MB engine. We get 16 mpg towing a car.

Food is food. We cook 95% of our meals in the RV and very rarely eat out. In Maine a lobster dinner was $27. We bought live lobsters at a Lobster shack for $3.99 a lb. That is a big difference and we still enjoyed Maine Lobster. We just buy the foods of the area and cook them ourselves and save $$$.

It’s a big country out there. Go see some of it.

Don
6 months ago

Interesting answer, but I would suggest that there are ways to estimate all of the costs involved, so that they CAN be compared to traveling by other modes. It’s totally correct that your costs vary wildly by the choices you make. But go ahead and make those choices (or take a guess at what you will choose) then use reasonable estimates for the costs involved. They are quantifiable, and you may find that traveling YOUR way will be more or less expensive than the “cruise ship” model.
I just did a SWAG of our net costs over the 4 years we’ve owned our Country Coach, in which we have traveled about 30,000 miles and spent 467 nights on the road to date. The bottom line for all our expenses except food is about $225/night for the two of us, including depreciation and maintenance costs on the Coach. Keep in mind that this is a high end luxury motor coach and that we stay in RV Parks and boondock very little. Your costs may well be a fraction of this, depending on the rig you choose and the way you travel. But my point is they ARE subject to estimation and SHOULD be figured out before you make the leap.

TravelingMan
6 months ago
Reply to  Don

Just checking….$6,750 a month average? $81,000 a year? Is that including your entertainment, medicals, insurance, etc?

tom
6 months ago

The “value” of controlling your living space cannot be ignored. The ability to sleep in your own bed every night, knowing no one else has been there before you, especially in these trying times, is priceless.

Bill T
6 months ago

Good article and I may be a little off base with this reply, but your response assumes adopting a full time RV lifestyle. If “Bean” and his wife are traveling from a home base, as my wife and I do, financial concerns and planning are a whole different story, especially on a fixed income, which include “sticks and bricks” operating costs. Cheers.