Just as you would if you were living in a traditional home, you’re probably going to want to establish a budget and understand how much you could expect to spend based upon such circumstances as accommodations or RV payments, RV insurance, travel miles, utilities, food, beverages, and entertainment. Also, we’ll look at some precautionary things to plan on such as maintenance and emergency repairs or problems.
What’s the biggest expense of RV living?
As a rule, your biggest living expenses will be accommodations and fuel. However, some people finance their RVs and that payment could very well be their biggest expense per month. For example, you may choose to finance a top of the line class A motorhome or trailer and your monthly payment may be $500. When you combine this expense with the cost of daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonal lot or site rentals, this expense will in all likelihood become your costliest.
Personally, I never recommend financing an RV unless you have the income to support it as a full-time RVer or even a part-time camper. For the occasional RVer, financing a nice RV in the last few years before they retire and taking good care of it during that time would be the way I would go if you were considering living in an RV full-time or seasonally in your retirement.
What’s the difference between on the road and seasonally?
Many full-time RVers prefer to travel from place-to-place as part of their experience, while others prefer to rent a site seasonally or even rent a few sites at various places and at certain times of the year. In my travels, I have met all these types of RVers and have formed several nice friendships along the way.
If you are traveling from site-to-site on a nearly daily basis, your cost of accommodations is going to be higher that those paying on a weekly or monthly basis at many of the same campgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with this of course and I too have stayed in places for only one or two nights and paid a more premium price for that. However, I prefer to explore where I am at, so when I stay at paid sites or campgrounds, I usually pay for a week or longer as this gives me an opportunity to explore the area and take in the sights.
Another option when RVing full-time is to pay seasonally for your site, and for many, this is a good alternative. For example, this is a great option for those that aren’t looking to travel extensively and just prefer to be in areas based upon the climate. I have met many folks that stay in the northern states during the summer then travel south during the winter. Many of them have sites they stay at in both locations and they pay seasonal fees for each of those sites. This helps to keep their accommodation costs to a minimum because most campground owners prefer to discount a site price than take the chance that they may not make the revenue renting it as a transient site. They also consider such things as security and if you are willing to pay for a seasonal or longer term site then they are usually willing to lower their site fees based upon the assumption that you will be more likely to maintain the sites aesthetics and light maintenance such as proper garbage removal or occasional fire pit upkeep.
All in for lodging and lot rentals, you can expect to pay anywhere from $500-$600 per month.
Travel costs of full-time RV living
If you are traveling more frequently and staying at pay RV parks or even boondocking, you will see that a major cost of that travel will be tied up in fuel costs and vehicle maintenance. This cost will be better refined or determined by factors such as the class of your RV and the distance you are traveling from day-to-day.
For example, if you’re RVing in a class B van conversion it’s unlikely that your fuel costs will be anything near as those that are traveling in larger motorhomes or pulling heavy trailers. However, keep in mind that the more you travel day-to-day the more you are likely to incur additional maintenance costs on your RV’s chassis and suspension system, the drive vehicles engine, oil changes, and any mechanical components such as slide-outs, hitch system, plumbing and electrical parts.
Simply put, if your home is in motion almost daily, you are going to experience some maintenance issues. While the manufacturers of most RVs will offer some warranty on certain components of their product, it’s unlikely that they will cover the cost of something like a bad hinge on a kitchen cupboard or a broken water line to your shower. As a full-time RVer, you need to understand that the more you travel, the more likely you will need to make repairs based upon that constant movement of your home and you should budget for that accordingly.
In total, for fuel and maintenance, monthly costs will typically land somewhere around $100 to $250, depending on how much you travel. Also be sure to account for that big maintenance repair that might pop up every few months.
If you frequent RV parks while traveling, you’ll have to consider the cost of full hookups to shore power as well, which can get expensive quickly if you’re using full hookups at a campsite every night.
We all must eat and drink
Another cost to consider is how much to budget for food and beverages. This also varies by RVer and depends on such things as their preferred diets and whether they cook in their own rig or eat out. Naturally, eating out at restaurants everyday will be more expensive than preparing your own meals and that is not something I would do or even recommend.
Having been in the hospitality business for a few decades I really don’t get much of a thrill anymore by eating in restaurants. However, I do enjoy sampling local cuisine and will always eat at a local restaurant once or twice during a visit to a specific area.
Since I enjoy cooking, I like to absorb the area I am staying at and if possible, buy some of those local foods and cook them myself. I especially enjoy going to farmer’s markets and road side fruit and vegetable stands. The products are always better and, in most cases, less expensive than those sold by high end grocery or discount retail chain stores.
If you like to cook like I do, be sure to check out our recommendations for the best RV grill.
I try to minimize my cost for food by purchasing things such as bottled water, dried pastas, flour, sugar, and other staples at discount grocery outlets. I also prefer to cook larger batches of dishes such as soups, chili, casseroles and some pasta dishes so that I can eat them periodically through the next following days. By doing this, I can save money on my food budget and then use those savings to buy locally produced foods from the area I am traveling such as Maine lobster, Louisiana crawdads, Michigan whitefish, Colorado mountain oysters or a good Texas BBQ rub.
For food, I’d say the average person will spend about $200-$300 per month.
If you are traveling day-to-day or staying in paid campgrounds for short periods of time, it’s unlikely that you will have to incur utility costs such as electric, sewer, water, or cable charges as these costs are usually included in your fee as a short time visitor. However, many campgrounds have sites with electric meters and if you stay there for longer than a week, they will read your site meter when you check-in and then again upon check-out and charge you accordingly. Some campgrounds may also charge you a fee for TV or internet access, so these are all things you should research before staying at a campground.
Even if you choose not to stay at a paid site, you will still have to consider some utility costs such as propane for your heat and cooking needs. If you’re in colder climates you made need to run a heater or furnace and this will also affect the cost of your utility usage.
In total for utilities, this will run you about $30-$80 for non-digital services and a little over $100 a month typically for stuff like your cell phone bill and internet service (if you want it).
RV insurance, healthcare, prescriptions and even pet care
Another major expense to consider is healthcare. This can sometimes become confusing because most people have varied circumstances. For example, you or your partner are retired and have differing healthcare options offered by your retirement programs. Which program will best work for you as a couple? Sometimes one person has a better prescription plan yet the other has a lower overall deductible than their partner’s policy. I recommend that any couple traveling full-time that find themselves in a situation such as this consult a financial advisor or an insurance specialist to best determine what works for them.
Another thing to consider when living the RV lifestyle is whether your healthcare program will work in other states than your declared home state. As a single traveler that purchases my own healthcare, I have encountered this problem several times and in a future article I will share some of the ways I have minimized this problem as well as a healthcare insurance underwriter that gladly insures full-time RVers for a reasonable cost.
I also recommend purchasing a pet insurance plan if you are like me and traveling the country with a furry friend. Most veterinarians will not accept your policy as a payment, but if you have a good pet insurance policy in place, you should get some reimbursements based upon the circumstances of the visit to the vet.
Healthcare premiums are going to differ by person, but budgeting for around $100 a month is a good average to shoot for.
Entertainment and Wi-Fi
Whenever I travel, I plan on entertainment. If that means I have to pay $3 to get into a small local museum in Iowa to witness the history of harvesting corn, or pay $15 to take a tour of a shipyard in New Hampshire that supplied the original colonists with wooden pegs to repair their ships to fight the British…then I’m all for that cost.
Another entertainment cost is the occasional dinners or meals at local restaurants or sites. I love local cuisine and I cherish eating locally grown foods. For that reason, I often seek out locally grown foods and I try to enhance my visit to that region by purchasing some of those foods from local growers or harvesters.
Entertainment doesn’t have to be about paying for activities, sometimes the best entertainment can be walking through the woods and collecting morel and oyster mushrooms to sauté with a bit of butter and a breast of duck raised and harvested by a local farmer. Other times it can be taking an airboat ride in the Everglades or just seeing a movie in some old town theatre in a place like McCook, Nebraska.
There are other costs associated with the cost of RVing such as toiletries or cleaning supplies, internet, and cell phone costs, so you will find that your expenditures will include other things that I have not mentioned here. However, there is one last item I want to share with you and that is the importance of having an emergency fund.
For entertainment, I might spend $100 to $200 per month here, but obviously this differs a lot by person. If you have more than 1-2 devices you need to hook up, consider an RV WiFi Extender.
The nest egg: remember to save
Probably one of the most important costs for an RVer is having a savings account that is a dedicated emergency fund. RVs (and especially motorhomes) are always in need of maintenance and it’s best that you plan for these costs. Some can be inexpensive, but others can run in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. In addition to repairs, you may need to find another place to live while those repairs are made so it’s best to have a nest egg set aside for such emergencies.
RV budget worksheet
Having a budget when RVing is an important tool for understanding what your monthly expenses will be and how they can vary by different circumstances. In this sample worksheet are some examples of what you may need to consider when creating your own budget for full-time RVing.
You may find that some of these expenditures apply to your situation while others may not. For example, I don’t have a monthly RV payment, but many people do, so I wanted to include in this worksheet if you’re currently paying off a new RV or used RV.
6-month RV monthly budget sample worksheet
In this worksheet you will also see that I have included items such as healthcare, utilities, cell phone, internet costs, and lot rent or the average cost of campground fees. As you can see, using the figures in this sample budget, the RVer usually comes out ahead, but in the month of March you will see a spike in fuel costs but a drop in the cost of lot rent. I did this to represent what a month of boondocking yet driving long distances may cost you.
All situations can be different. Just because you may not have to pay for camping one month, you may still find that the added fuel costs or eating out more often may actually cost you more that month than if you had stayed in one or two different locations for more extended periods than nightly.
For me, boondocking is usually the way I travel and since I have a solar energy system in my RV, I spend very little on campsites or utilities. However, I sometimes will stay at a campground seasonally if I am work camping. In a future article, I will share some of my experiences working and camping and how it might work for you too.
Free camping near national parks and state parks are a great way to boondock and save money from the usual RV park full hookup fees. My colleague Lindsey wrote a great article on the best free campsites near national parks that you can check out.
Also, you will notice that I included a 10% cost for savings. This is an important thing to do if you are a full-time RVer because you never know when you may experience a costly breakdown that could mean a lengthy repair where you may be forced to temporarily find other accommodations such as a motel or a rental unit to stay while your RV is being repaired.
As I said earlier, this is merely an example of some costs you may have as a full-time RVer. Not all circumstances are the same so yours may vary, but this some give you an idea of how best to layout a budget while RVing.
Until next time, safe travels to you and I hope to see you out there sometime during your journey on the open roads of America.