Can you really save money living in an RV?
Cost Considerations of RV Living in Retirement
by Dollar Stretcher Contributors
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Cost Considerations of RV Living in Retirement
My husband is retired and I will be retiring in a year, and we've decided to downsize to a smaller living space. My husband really wants us to consider buying an RV because we intend to travel. He thinks it will be cheaper than buying another home. Can anyone tell me how RV costs and maintenance compare to home costs and maintenance? From what I can tell, we will have to pay monthly at the various RV parks and some are not cheap. Is upkeep expensive? And repairs? We know one couple who says it is the best retirement decision they made and another who says it has been extremely expensive for them to keep up with repairs, especially when they have to pay for a hotel room while their "home" is in the shop. They are actually "upside down" in their RV and cannot sell it now. If any frugal RVers can share their cost experiences, I would greatly appreciate it.
Research Your RV Options
Research your options by looking online and on YouTube. There are many YouTube channels dedicated to inexpensive ways of living in a RV (and not just living in RV parks).
CheapRVliving.com and the YouTube channel by the same name have options for living cheaply in a motorhome (without renting space), but also living out of a renovated van or other vehicles.
He discusses very inexpensive yearly passes to national parks, Bureau of Land Management places, and some Native American lands set aside by the Native governments to rent to vehicle dwellers, such as Quechan tribe land.
Many guests on Bob's videos help round out his 15+ years of experience living this way. They come from all walks of life looking for freedom and cheaper living options.
Since you have a year to plan, spend a number of months studying videos and websites to determine if this looks like the lifestyle for you and what type RV might be best before you buy. Also, learn what signs of problems (water leaks, mold, etc.) to look for when buying a RV and which RV brands have good reputations with customer care and which are not reputable.
You don't have to buy a $100,000 RV to live well. Many have spent $10,000-$20,000 or less on preowned RVs and used their remaining money to live and enjoy retirement.
Footloose and Fancy Free RV Living
I have been considering an RV as well and have talked to a lot of people. Many love it, but I think they love it so much that it's worth the hassle. For the most part, those folks seem to have "real" homes elsewhere. The repair issues tend to be rather large, as most RVs are not especially well built. I also know some folks who sold their homes and bought RVs and are upside down in debt. RVs lose value driving off the lot. One woman I know is so much in debt that she is really struggling and she has no equity anymore. I have other friends who recommend renting one and trying it out first. I have four or five friends who bought RVs intending to travel, and after one or two trips, they realized that it wasn't a lifestyle they wanted full-time. They now have an RV and a house to maintain or are stuck with an RV and no equity. It's definitely a lifestyle that doesn't suit everyone. Lot rents, gas, repairs, and maintenance are all issues. I think that unless you really feel the need to be completely footloose and fancy free, it's not the best choice.
RV Living Not Always Cost Conscious
We inherited a RV, and my husband and I talked about whether we would use it. His experience in traveling with his parents was that it was expensive to maintain. When something breaks, it isn't necessarily easy to find someplace to fix it, the repairs are expensive, and it can be costly to stay in a hotel. We opted out of the RV and decided that it would work out better when we traveled to pay for hotels and restaurant food. I have a sister and brother-in-law that really like their RV and enjoy being snow birds, but I have also heard of their nightmare repairs when something goes wrong. If you are looking to live frugally by living in an RV, you might want to do more research into it and really count the cost.
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Trial Run for RV Lifestyle
The couple should look for a low mileage used RV to try this idea out for a year. There are a lot of used RVs out there, both on consignment and those taken in trade on a bigger unit. It is even better if they could rent one to avoid the financial investment. Talk about the tiny house movement! RVs are tiny and probably not for everyone. There is a multitude of reading material to help prepare them for this adventure, and they should research it carefully in the year before the wife retires and certainly before they make the financial plunge.
Our RV Living Experience
We have lived in a 28' motor home with no slides since 2014. We bought it used, and it is a 1992 model. It is just the two of us and two cats. We dry camp or some call it boondocking. To do this type of camping, we purchased solar panels, six six-volt batteries, a charge controller, a meter for keeping an eye on incoming amps and wattage, and an inverter to change DC storage of energy from our batteries to AC to power electronics such as TV, microwave, toaster, etc. We cannot use the air conditioner because it draws too much power. However, our on-board generator will run the air conditioner as well as any electronics. We are extremely frugal and have found this way of living to be very pleasurable. We purchased Renogy solar panels through Amazon, as well as the charge controller and meter. We purchased our batteries from O'Reilly Auto, but they were ordered from their store and came in two days later. We ordered the inverter online from Lowes.com.
The State of New Mexico has annual passes you can purchase that you can use at any of their state parks for no additional cost for two weeks at a time. If you require electric hookup, that is an additional $4 per night. New Mexico has lower elevation for colder months in the south, mostly around Deming, and higher elevations in the northern part for keeping cool in the summer. There is BLM LTVA (Bureau of Land Management Long Term Visitor Area) north of Winterhaven, CA and at Quartzite, AZ that you can buy a pass for seven months for $180. It is good mid-September through mid-April. It is strictly dry camping but with water and dump station available included in pass price. The winter temperatures are very nice. National Forests have dry camping areas that are not in their campground areas. They call this dispersed camping. The smaller your RV, the easier it is to get into dispersed camping areas as they are off road and may be very primitive.
If you choose to stay in a commercial campground, the monthly rates or annual rates are cheapest, but you normally have to pay electric extra when paying monthly or annually. However, nightly rates include the electric. These campgrounds are the most expensive way to go.
If you can learn the solar route and install and maintain yourself, it will pay for itself quite quickly. Professional purchase and installation is much more expensive, but it would pay off in maybe a year compared to staying in a commercial campground.
Internet Helps the Cost Conscious
Our plan was to travel for a year in an RV. We bought a 1995 van conversion made by Pleasureway. It is a high-end brand and cost us $12,500.
We went to every state in the United States as well as many places in Canada. We went as far north as past the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway.
My husband is handy, and I wouldn't consider doing a trip like this if he wasn't. He was able to fix a lot of things himself and figure out what was wrong when he couldn't. I also have skills like the ability to sew that helped us save money and be self-sufficient.
We spent a total of $35,000, not including the cost of the camper, for the year. This included food, gas, and expensive excursions like the trip between Haines, Alaska and Bellingham, Washington on the Alaska Marine Highway. We did need repairs along the way, but since it was on a Dodge chassis, it was easy to find places to repair it. We actually slept in it at a couple of dealers while it was being repaired. Most were very accommodating and understood our needs. Some of the repairs were routine like new tires, but others were needed because we went down some very bad roads that really rattled the camper.
We didn't park ourselves at RV parks. We boondocked for free in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management land whenever possible. That is our preferred style of travel, but if you must have electricity and water hookups, you will spend a lot more. We have a national parks senior pass, which gets free admission to parks and other federal parks that charge admission as well as half price camping. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds usually offer water and electric hookups. We paid around $10 a night to camp there.
We used a website called FreeCampsites.net to find free and very low-cost campgrounds. Another website called RVParky.com was also helpful. We also found that a lot of towns have free or low cost campgrounds. Some even have hookups. You won't find these in popular tourist areas like around big national parks, but we found a great selection as we crossed the country.
We did stay anywhere from one to three nights a month at Walmart, but it is getting harder and harder to find ones that allow it.
There were times when we had to stay in an RV park. We bought a Passport America membership for about $44 a year. Most parks had time limitations, anywhere from one night to a week, but it cut the price in half.
We also joined a program called Boondockers Welcome that pairs people needing a place to stay for a night or several nights with fellow RVers who have space. Some had hookups and a couple even had a place to dump our tanks. You have to plan a few days ahead to do this since you have to correspond through the Boondockers Welcome website to connect.
We also bought a museum membership for about $100 that got us free admission to many museums across the country.
In short, I do think it's possible to travel in an RV on a budget. While we moved a lot, we have a frugal friend who is currently traveling in his RV but staying in one place for a couple of weeks at a time. The internet is your best friend when it comes to keeping expenses down.
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Work through the Kinks
Rent one for a few months or buy a low priced used one to see if you like it. There are a few challenges. Mail, health insurance (some policies limit you to certain areas), and getting car or camper insurance is difficult if you do not have a permanent address. Costs are going up at campgrounds and repairs to RVs are expensive. Living in a small space for a prolonged time can be difficult. It is not camping. Instead, it is your home. Motor homes are great to travel in, but you will likely want a tow car to see the sights or you have to uproot every time you want to shop or eat out. Fifth wheelers give the most living area but require a big truck. Travel trailers are nice but require a good towing vehicle. The RV life is great for us and many folks, but there are issues to work on.
Consider "Work Camping"
This is my dream, and I have thought about it for years. One thing that can help is "work camping." Be a camp host or work in a RV park. Look it up on the internet. You don't have to be young, just willing. There is so much information available online. I'm on hold for the moment, but it's still on my bucket list. Good luck to you both.
RV Decision About the Present and the Future
I have some experience with RVing full time. My late husband and I half-timed for five years and full timed for five years. It was a wonderful time and we enjoyed it very much. We had a Thousand Trails Membership. We bought the membership from a resale at a Thousand Trails park, but you can buy one various places. I sold mine on eBay after my husband passed. My membership allowed a full-time or a part-time yearly fee. The yearly fee was under $800 and allowed us two weeks at any of their parks. There were many to choose from. After two weeks, we moved on to the next Thousand Trails Park for two more weeks stay, etc. for the full year at no extra charge. We were allowed 365 days a year, all for the price of the yearly fee. In the parks, electricity, trash, and water are all included! It is a very economical way to live. Our expenses were only our food, fuel, and upkeep for the RV. The parks are very nice, have guarded entrances, and provide activities and lodge houses for evening get-togethers. All the memberships are different, read the details carefully. Shop around for the best membership terms. Some provide two weeks in and one week out, which is not very good when you have to find an alternate place. Also, there are differing amounts for yearly fees in different contracts.
Now I must warn you not to fall into the mistake we made. We sold our home and bought a very expensive RV. It was gorgeous! Life was good until my husband died suddenly. I had no home. I couldn't even drive the RV, and I had a huge monthly RV payment. I fortunately sold my RV and tow car for the payoff, but that doesn't always happen. Just be aware of how your decisions today can affect you in the future and plan accordingly.
Take the Next Step:
- If you decide the RV lifestyle is for you, here are some tips on buying a RV.
- Use this tool to maximize your retirement by determining the best age to take your Social Security benefits. Don't leave thousands on the table by taking Social Security at the wrong time.
- Determine if debt could derail your retirement and what you can do about it now. Our checklist can help you. Afterall, one of the most important ingredients for a comfortable retirement is to be debt free when you retire.
Have an idea that we didn't include? Send it to us and we'll add it to the article.