An RV Adventure—Travel, Save, Live Free
“You’re living my dream,” is the comment my wife, Julie, and I hear most often from people whenever we share that we live, work, and travel full-time in our RV.
In the four-and-a-half years since we waved goodbye to family, friends, and our Colorado town house, we have visited all 50 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, and Australia, while still working full-time. We didn’t set out with a specific goal or bucket list to be checked off, we just traveled to where we wanted to go, stayed as long as we wanted to stay, and kept on moving.
“We visited all 50 states, Canada, and Mexico, and it was still cheaper than staying home.”
The idea of living in an RV came to us back in the fall of 2013 as we sat in our home, planning for the future. Both in our 40s, we realized we didn’t want to wait until retirement age to enjoy a life of freedom. We wanted to explore the country and the world. RVing emerged as the winning solution. Not only would it allow us to bring our dog Coda with us, but we figured it would actually work out to be more cost effective than living where we were. I was already working from home as operations manager for a Texas-based company, so what difference would it make to do it from the road? As long as I had reliable internet, I knew I could still do my job effectively. Julie, on the other hand, was in between jobs, seeking a new career adventure. So there was little to hold us back. We could earn as we traveled, living comfortably on my salary, while Julie did some freelance work, while also writing and making videos for our blog and YouTube channel.
I still vividly remember the day we left Colorado, pointed the motorhome west and headed straight to Lake Tahoe for two weeks to start settling into our new RV life. Before long, we were in our groove, planning our expeditions around my regular work schedule to make the most of our days.
We spent that summer driving all the way up and down the Pacific Coast Highway of California, explored lighthouses and the rugged beauty of the Oregon Coast, and traveled up through Washington, Mt. Rainier National Park, right up to the Canadian border. We would park our RV in a campground—hook up to the conveniences of water and electric—then head out in our MINI Cooper Convertible, top down, wind in our hair, zipping around curvy roads while breathing in the fresh sea air.
In the years that followed, we’ve continued traveling around the country, exploring big cities and small towns, staying at wineries and RV resorts, dry camping by lakes and among cacti in the desert, seeking out fall foliage, watching sunsets by the sea, visiting over 40 National Parks and Monuments, hiking volcanoes, biking scenic byways, taking in waterfalls, and reconnecting with family and friends around the country. We’ve helicoptered over the Grand Canyon, parasailed in the Florida Keys, cruised to Alaska, walked across the border into Mexico, and driven into three Canadian provinces. We even spent a month down under in Australia, combining work with play—snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, swimming at sandy beaches, and hiking through rainforests.
Because we were leaving behind a very nice town home, it was important to us to have an RV that was comfortable, modern, and reliable. We also needed a dedicated workspace for my office. We bought a “bunkhouse” model and converted the bunk area into a fully ergonomic workspace for me. Julie was able to create a second, separate workspace in the front passenger area. It’s very spacious—about 300 square feet—with plenty of storage, a large kitchen, a queen-size bed, and bathroom. And while we don’t have a king-sized bed, dishwasher, or washer/dryer in our RV, we know plenty of folks who do.
RVing is more relaxing and less disruptive than many other forms of travel. We get to sleep in our own bed every night and determine our own route and travel schedule. We can plan to avoid peak traffic and crowds. And if we don’t like the weather prediction, we move. In 2015, while parked near Cape Cod, Hurricane Joaquin was predicted to make its way up the east coast, so we packed up and headed inland to upstate New York where it was drier and safer.
And, we make new friends everywhere we turn: in our campground, sitting at cafés, and on hikes. Our RV community is growing as we meet new, like-minded friends who have also had the courage to embrace the freedoms and adventure of life on the road, whether still working or retired.
We like to say that our “life is a never-ending road trip,” already filled with more travel, fun, and friendship than either of us could have imagined when we first set off in our RV full-time.
RVing Is More Cost Effective Than Staying at Home
It is entirely possible to live an adventurous traveling life in an RV for significantly less than it costs to live a more everyday life in a suburban neighborhood. Of course, like anything, it all depends on how you do it.
When we first started researching RVing, we had no idea how much it would cost us or if it was even viable. But we soon learned how we could make it work. In a nutshell, we traded our fixed expenses—mortgage, homeowner association fees, utility bills—for variable expenses, such as fuel and campgrounds. In our “old life” we spent a little over $19,000 a year on these fixed expenses.
We also had two car payments—on a Subaru WR-X and Mazda Miata— totaling $630 a month ($7,560 a year). We decided to sell both cars, paid off the loans, and then paid cash for a MINI Cooper S Convertible that met our need for a spirited, sporty car, with a back seat for our dog.
We purchased and financed a twoyear-old RV that was new enough to be modern and reliable but old enough to avoid the steepest part of the depreciation curve. It was $93,000 plus tax, with a payment of $569 a month ($6,828 a year) over 20 years.
We used to pay about $200 a month in gas for both cars—mostly commuting to and from work. These days, we spend about $400 per month for both the RV and our tow vehicle combined, and average about 20,000 miles a year between both vehicles.
Combing the RV mortgage, our extra gas costs ($2,400 a year), and campground ($2,200 a year) our “new life” costs us approximately $11,428. However, since we sold our first RV this year, and the depreciation was $18,000 (about $4,500 a year over the four years we owned it), this should also be included in the breakdown of costs. But even with that, our RV comes in about $3,000 a year cheaper than the regular life we used to live.
Of course, there is no fixed guide to RV expenses. Every case is different. If you buy a new RV and trade it in later, the real depreciation could end up being much higher. Likewise, if you buy a much older (or less expensive) RV, the depreciation could be much lower.
When we sold our first RV, we ended up changing to a much older, but much higher quality, motorhome, with plans to do a remodel. When it was new back in 1999, this motorhome sold for $230,000. We bought it for $25,000— about one-ninth its original price. This RV has pretty much hit the bottom of the depreciation curve. But even after factoring in $10,000 to $20,000 for our planned remodel and upgrades, our loss will be minimized, and we have a much higher quality RV.
Ultimately, it surprises many to learn that by traveling with a motorhome and tow vehicle, our overall annual expenses are lower than what they were in our regular life. And now we get to have more adventures and live bigger, exploring the country (and world) while doing it.
Saving Money on the Road
Michael and Dee White (76 and 71) are South Africans who migrated to Canada many years ago. To escape the cold Canadian winter, they spend about half the year traveling with their truck and travel trailer throughout the U.S. In summer they stay in their park model trailer, at a permanent location in Ontario.
They have been traveling by RV fulltime since 2010 and are on a very tight budget, yet still manage to save money while traveling. “Campgrounds are expensive for us because the exchange rate is not so favorable for our Canadian dollars, so we keep our camping expenses down by really maximizing the use of campground memberships,” says Dee.
“We bought into a Thousand Trails membership to reduce our accommodation costs. This costs us about $700 per year and allows us to stay in their network of RV parks and campgrounds for up to two weeks at a time, for no nightly fee. We then have to stay ‘out of the network’ for a week and that’s when we’ll usually spend a week ‘boondocking’ (dry camping without utility hookups) on free public lands to keep our costs down. We use a small solar panel or generator to keep us powered up when camping off the grid. We rarely go out to eat, preferring to make our own meals from scratch at home in the RV.
“By being careful with our spending, we have found that our travel and campground fees are less than we used to pay in utilities. We are healthier, happier, and having a wonderful time meeting some of the most generous, fantastic people ever. We travel thousands of miles every year, sometimes going hundreds of miles out of our way to meet up with other RVer friends.”
Former air traffic controllers Bob and Veronica Vaughan (57 and 55) are full-time RVers but love to combine their time on the road with time traveling overseas. “For us, the RV lifestyle has enabled us to travel the way we like, to see our friends and family and to be comfortable at the same time. We have been to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, China, Europe, England, Ireland, and Scotland,” says Veronica.
“We get asked about how much it costs to be a full-timer, but the cost of an RVers lifestyle is completely driven by each individual,” she explains. “In our situation, we sold a house that cost a lot to maintain, especially when you considered New Jersey property and income taxes. When we changed our residence to Florida, we took the money we saved on taxes and started using it on our RV loan. This has allowed us to stay ahead of the RV depreciation. We also balance out the cost of the campgrounds. Our most expensive are the Keys in the winter and Myrtle Beach in the summer. The rest of the time we stay at places that are much less costly. Essentially, you can make this as expensive or inexpensive as you want.”
To fund their travel abroad, Bob and Veronica use travel award miles and credit card points. “Bob is a genius at working with points,” says Veronica. “We took a trip to Australia, first class on Qantas, stayed at the Park Hyatt at Sydney Harbour overlooking the Opera House and another beautiful hotel in Melbourne. For that trip, travel and hotels cost us only about $1,000 cash.
“When we don’t use points, Bob finds extremely discounted airfares. We use loyalty clubs to get discounted or free hotel nights. One of our favorite things is to stay in apartments overseas and to cook at home to save money. This also gives us much more space when compared to a hotel room. We balance our time in the RV with other trips and balance our costs as we go.”
Earning an Income From the Road
Earning an income and living the RV lifestyle are completely compatible. For the first three-and-a-half years of our travels I was doing my job remotely. I didn’t even share with most of my colleagues that I was working remotely. I had my manager’s approval, but nobody else even noticed. I was even more productive in the RV than I was at home, lowered my stress, and was happier.
In 2017, Julie and I transitioned to working for ourselves, which has offered us even more freedoms. And we’ve met tons of folks who’ve found a variety of ways to earn while on the road: accounting, customer service, social media marketing, consulting, web development, photography, and more. You’d be surprised how many jobs are adaptable to the nomadic life.
A common choice for retirement-age travelers is to take on work/camping roles at public or private RV parks, campgrounds, and other recreational facilities. This might include being a campground host, checking other travelers in, or light maintenance work around the campground. These are usually exchanged for free stays at the location, but some camping work is paid (usually hourly rates ranging from $7 to $12). These roles are usually part-time and offer the opportunity to meet others and stay active. It is a great choice for those wanting to travel slowly and immerse themselves in a particular area. You can find these types of jobs listed online at Workamper and Workamping Jobs.
Seasonal jobs are a popular option for RVers. With so many people traveling to tourist areas in peak seasons, there is need for additional services to meet demand.
Taking a seasonal income in a tourist area is an economical way to stay in more expensive destinations and even earn some money. This could include hospitality, tours, or even nursing.
Becky Olesh and her husband, Tom, live and travel full-time in their RV. “I have been a nurse since 1977, working at a medical center in Hershey, Pennsylvania the last 10 years,” says Becky. “I wasn’t old enough to retire, and I still needed to work some to fund our lifestyle. I got my nursing license in Arizona and Pennsylvania and get work through agencies by posting my resume up on Monster.com and Indeed.com.
A lot of people do travel nursing in 13-week stints where they are locked into weekends and shifts. By working for an agency, I can pick and choose hours and choose not to work weekends or nights, so Tom and I can spend time together.
“I think we are better off financially than if we had stayed in the house because we would both still be working. But now we can get by with me working part-time six months of the year. We couldn’t have done that before, with bills going up and up.” Of course, you can also use your existing home as a source of revenue while you travel. Take the example of Brett and Danelle Hays, empty nesters who retired young from their careers. Brett is a disabled veteran Air Force flight engineer, and Danelle is a former hairdresser.
“Our hometown of Enterprise, Oregon is a great place to spend the summer, but winters are harsh,” says Brett. In 2016, they bought an older motorhome to travel south to escape the cold and add more travel to their lives. When they return to their Oregon property in the summer, they don’t move back into their home; they simply park their RV on an RV pad on the property, which is hooked up to electricity, water, and the sewage system. Brett even built a patio and bathhouse—complete with a clawfoot tub and laundry—to make it more homey.
“We had leased our home to a longterm tenant. But when they gave notice last October, we decided to do some upgrades and change it to an Airbnb,” says Brett. “In doing that, we have been able to double our annual income from the property, renting it out for six months of the year instead of 12.”
Brett handles the customer relationships, and Danelle does the business management and cleaning. “While there is more work involved— cleaning and taking care of our guests— the financial gain is well worth it,” says Brett. “This income enables us to spend the summers in a place we love, enjoying our family, friends, and community. And our house is being paid for the whole time.”
When the weather starts to turn cold, they either find a winter tenant for the home, or simply close up the house for the season. This allows them to travel around the southern states, free from the worries or hassles of maintaining their property while enjoying the warm weather year-round.
“You could say it was the perfect storm of travel and finances,” says Brett. “It’s working out really well for us.”
Editor’s note: Marc and Julie Bennett of RV Love have been full-time RVers, content creators, and educators since 2014 and are the authors of Living the RV Life: Your Ultimate Guide to Life on the Road, set to be released November 2018 and now available for pre-order. They also run online courses and offer private consulting at RV Success School and appear in the movie RV Nomads which premieres this fall.
What You Need to Know About Buying an RV
When choosing to become an RVer, the biggest decision you’ll have to make is which RV to buy. There’s an enormous amount of choices of models, styles, and layout of RVs— whether it’s a motorhome or a towable (usually called a fifth wheel or travel trailer). The thing to keep in mind is there’s no one size fits all when it comes to RVs, just the type and size that will best suit you, your needs, and your budget.
We know people who RV in a modest 16-foot vintage camper, and we know people who RV in a 45-foot luxury motorhome. They are all happy and enjoy the lifestyle in a way that works for them.
When deciding to buy a motorized or towable RV, one of the first places to look in guiding that decision is your own garage. If you already have a big truck that can tow, you may lean towards buying a trailer. You are clearly used to driving a larger truck for your daily drive, and trucks are often more expensive than the trailers they tow. If, on the other hand, you drive a regular car, you know you will be changing your vehicle, or intend for the RV to be your only vehicle, you should start by looking at motorized RVs.
Two of the best ways to start your research on RV types are to visit an RV show in your area or search from thousands of RVs on websites like RV Trader and RVT.com. Be sure to consider all RV types on your first searches. Being thorough with your research will increase the odds of making a decision you will be happy with for many miles. Focus on quality, floor plans, and capacities (weight, storage, and holding tanks) more than nifty gadgets. RVs built with the intention of extended use will be built very differently than one intended for occasional weekend use and will hold up better over time.
Remember that RVs are more like cars than traditional homes and will generally depreciate 10% per year (sometimes more), so be sure to factor that depreciation into your overall budget. This also means that if you purchase an older RV, you can pick it up for a fraction of the original price. Just be sure to have it inspected by a professional to reduce surprises.
If you still decide to purchase a new RV, it is also important to note that the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) is only a starting point for pricing. It is not uncommon to purchase new RVs for 20% to 30% off of the MSRP.
Written by Marc Bennett