Every RV lifestyle is unique, so it’s hard to estimate an accurate RV living expenses until you actually get into it. When we first started out, we underestimated the cost and failed to plan properly. We ended up storing the RV and moving into an apartment for a year to regroup. But, that is another story!
When estimating fulltime RV living expenses, it’s important to remember that you are taking on a completely new lifestyle. You can’t expect to recreate your life in a home or apartment, on the road – it is completely different. There is also a common misconception that living in an RV is cheaper than a home or apartment. For us, this was not the case. But, it depends on where you are coming from and the lifestyle you want to build on the road.
First, consider your motivation for living in an RV. Is it to save money? For an adventure? To “find yourself”?
How will you make money on the road? Will you work and travel simultaneously or save up to take long trips without working and then return home to work again?
The answer to these questions guides your decisions along the way.
The beauty of this lifestyle is that you can live as cheaply or as expensively as you want. If you want to go extremely cheap, head west in a van, boondock in the desert and shower at truck stops. For a luxury experience, get a half a million-dollar rig, stay at RV parks and eat out every day.
We fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but constantly adjust things based on current circumstances. This guide will help you avoid the mistakes we made, and provide a peek into one couple’s RV living expenses. To begin, you must first understand a bit about our lifestyle and circumstances.
- “Gus” is a 1999 38-foot class A diesel with one slideout in the kitchen/living room with a 2010 Jeep Liberty in tow.
- We have a sweet, 75lb lab named Jaxon and a tiny, 8lb kitty named Quita
- Time is most important, so we don’t over analyze every expense. Driving out of the way to save a few cents is not a priority. We don’t spend hours looking through 5 apps to find the best gas prices or drive exactly 60 miles an hour to get the best mileage.
- Our RV gas bill is relatively low since we don’t drive every day like some RVers. Since we work during the week, it takes longer to explore one place.
- We only stay at an RV park about one day a week or less.
- Our jobs have no company benefits, so we pay for our own health insurance, investments and retirement planning.
- Most of the activities we do like hiking, biking, swimming, and jeeping are all free. However, we splurge in big cities on nice dinners and local novelty activities like Disneyland tickets, beach RV sites, surfing lessons or scuba diving. (Pro tip: Because you’re living on a perpetual vacation, the tendency is to spend like you’re on vacation. We ran into this right away because we wanted to try every new thing we came across. This will greatly increase RV living expenses and put you on the fast track to going broke. Every day may feel like vacation, but it’s not. This is just your life now and you have to live within a budget.)
All right, now that we’ve set the stage, let’s get into the expenses. For those visual folks, here’s a nice pretty picture summary.
RV Repairs and Maintenance
Things will break…a lot, even with a new RV. Expect this and you will save yourself a lot of stress. If you’re not mechanically minded like us, you can definitely learn online. Plenty of resources exist to get you through almost any repair. But, with no prior knowledge of mechanics, it will definitely be more stressful.
You cannot always count on a mechanic to help because it seems that all of our breakdowns happen in the middle of nowhere with weak cell signal. It’s also really hard to track down a diesel mechanic in a town of 200, and even if you find one, they often have to order the part you need, which adds to the wait time. Go into this planning on fixing things yourself. Also, as with any repair, you can expect to pay a mechanic double or even triple the cost of fixing it yourself.
Here is a list of what we have fixed in the last 3 months alone. It cost around $3,500 and 46 hours of time in total. Aaron fixed everything himself, except for the car transmission, exhaust brake, tire repair, RV oil change and the RV fuel pump. The cost is quantified in dollars and time. But first, pictures!
- New battery $250 and 1.5 hours round trip to nearest auto parts store
- 2 new fuel filters $70 and 2 hours round trip to the nearest auto parts store
- Fuel pump $938 and 22 hours trying/failing to fix it, including 1 hour of help from a New Zealand Tug Boat mechanic who camped next to us
- 2 water heater thermostats $75 and 2 hours to fix
- Water pump switch circuit board $46 and 2 hours on the phone with Monaco RV to diagnose and fix the problem
- Fresh water fill valve $10 and 1.5 hours to fix
- Generator fuel line $20 and 4 hours to diagnose and fix
- Diesel turbo housing clamp $120 and 2 hours to fix
- A/C thermostat circuit board repair $75 and 1 hour to fix
- Tire repair $35
- Exhaust Brake repair $56
- Transmission cooler lines leak $268
- Flat tire $15
- Transmission cooler leak $566
- Transmission shift solenoid $603 and 8 hours attempting unsuccessfully to fix
- Oil change $256
- Generator maintenance $80 and 3 hours to complete
For some RVers, parking amounts to the majority of RV living expenses. We avoid this expense by only staying at a parking about once a week at the most. We prefer to boondock – stay for free without hookups to electricity or water. That being said, you can’t really boondock in the winter unless you want to blast through all the propane and put a ton of hours on the generator. We follow the 65-degree weather around the country to make boondocking more feasible.
Our fresh water tank holds 100 gallons and lasts about 6 days with conservative use. If you’re a shower diva that likes to take long, steaming hot showers, forget it. Our hot water lasts about 20 minutes at most if we shut it off between lathers. Lately we’ve started showering at the gym to avoid using much tank water. I imagine we’ll be able to boondock much longer doing this.
Parking at Walmart
We have spent lots of time camping in Walmart parking lots. It is by far the most convenient way to boondock because it’s in the city, easy to get to, and located practically everywhere. Our experiences have been mostly good, however, some are definitely better than others. I’ve never been nervous or felt unsafe, but we have definitely heard drunken hobo fights and a couple drug deals go down.
The longest we’ve parked in a Walmart parking lot is 3 days, so I’m not sure how long you could go without getting kicked out. Most don’t seem to care at all that you are there. (Pro tip: If you come across a Walmart with a “no overnight parking” policy, ask a cart guy if that rule is actually enforced. The signs and cameras are very intimidating but the most they will usually do is put a note on your door to leave within 24 hours. This means that you get at lease one night.)
Parking on BLM land
The government Bureau of land management owns areas of land that allow people to stay up to 14 nights for free. This is our favorite way to boondock because it is unmanaged, quiet, and desolate and we can let Jax run around off leash.
This site is fairly accurate, but not necessarily inclusive of all available options. The main issue we run into with this site is that it doesn’t always specify if it’s accessible by a 38ft rig like ours. We also find that sometimes the road is too rough to reach the area.
Parking at Truck stops
These are great in a pinch since they are everywhere. The bad thing is that people are always coming and going, so you will hear loud hissing diesel brakes all night long. The highway traffic is also loud. So, if you’re a light sleeper, this may not be the best option.
Parking at Cracker Barrel
We haven’t actually stayed at one yet, but they do allow overnight parking. Plus, if you’re into the greasy spoon, you can just walk to breakfast in the morning! It’s almost like staying at a hotel except the breakfast isn’t free.
We park at an RV site once a week to recharge everything, do laundry, and get a bunch of stuff done without having to conserve water or energy. Parks will range from $35 – $100 per night depending on where you are. The most we spent was at Dockweiler RV park in California for $75 per night. Weekly and monthly rates are much cheaper if you are planning on staying there for an extended period of time, but they are often booked up since these spots are limited and seasonal. If you choose to stay in RV parks often, this will greatly increase your RV living expenses.
Parking at Fairgrounds
This is a hidden gym in the RV world. Fairgrounds often have very cheap and even free camping.
Other RV living expenses
Outside of the major stuff, there are a few other minor RV living expenses.
- Laundry – we usually do laundry when we stay at an RV park because it’s nicer and more private than a Laundromat.
- Diesel Gas – depending on where you are, diesel gas is not cheap. We spend about $400 per month.
- Tow car gas – we do a lot of driving to get to the backwoods hikes, so we use a lot of gas. We recently got a membership to Costco that saves an average of .10 cents on the gallon. We spend around $ per month.
- National park fees – we bought a yearly national park pass for $80. This saved us a lot of money considering it is around $30 per car to enter a national park.
- Memberships – We are members of a few clubs that save us around 10% at RV parks and camping world
- Rv payment – $500 per month
- Wifi – We use wifi every day for our jobs, so we almost always work from coffee shops. This means that we spend an average of $200 per month on coffee. In between coffee shops, we work at the RV from our phones hotspots, so we have the unlimited data plan from Verizon. This costs us $160 per month. If you’re on a budget, working from public libraries or hotel lobbies are great options.
- Dump fees – If we don’t stay at an RV park during the week, we will pay to dump somewhere. Many times you can dump for free at campgrounds, state parks or recreational areas, but if not, it’s usually around $15 to dump and fill up with fresh water. We spend around $30 per month to dump. (Pro tip: when searching for free dumps or boondocking, fairgrounds and recreational areas often don’t come up, so search directly for the fairgrounds and sport fields to find out if they have dump facilities.)
- Bottled Water – we do not drink from the RV tanks because it’s old and the previous owners likely used bleach to clean it, yuck! In the future we will purchase a water filter, but at the moment we just buy jugs of water. This costs around $25 a month.
These are the expenses that we would have no matter where we lived, and are variable depending on how much you personally want to spend. This is what we do.
- Gym membership – We definitely miss our crossfit gym from when we were stationary, but as long as we have some free weights, and a shower, we’re happy. We haven’t bought a membership yet, but have given Anytime Fitness a try and are also looking into Planet Fitness. This is definitely a market that has yet to really be mastered for travelers.
- Pet food – We feed our pets a raw diet, so it’s definitely more expensive than the average pet food. To feed our 75lb dog and 8lb cat costs us about $250 a month. (Pro tip: the cheapest and best raw food we have found is called K9 Natural. Hardly anyone knows about it and it’s not widely available, but if you call a local pet store, they will order it for you.)
- Human Food – This is another area we don’t skimp on since our health is very important to us. Having bare minimum health insurance is a major incentive to stay healthy!
- Health insurance – we belong to a co-op with a very high deductible. It only costs us $190 a month. We’ve been really happy with it and definitely recommend checking out the co-ops.
- Cell – we have the unlimited data plan, so we pay more than the average person at $186 per month
Overall, we have found that we spend more money living in an RV fulltime than when we owned a home or rented an apartment. Our general motto is to keep things simple, and make sure that what we are doing is actually contributing to our happiness. More and more we find that the simplest things are the most rewarding. Money can’t buy a beautiful sunrise over the ocean or watching the stars come out around a campfire. Take your time, enjoy the journey, and don’t sweat the small stuff.