Photograph by Don Shall
Editor's NoteThis post is several years old, though it still largely stands true in its own right. Many people have written to me calling it all a bunch of BS. While their complaints have largely been that my numbers are wrong, etc., I have actually discovered–the more we’ve traveled (going on 7 years now)–that the savings can be far greater, up to $1000 / month, and while I don’t discourage you from reading through the following thought process, you can read that simple comparison of home ownership to living in an RV, and how it can save you $1000 / month, here.
While patiently awaiting the birth of our latest son (exactly a month from today if all goes according to schedule…) we’ve been renting a house in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a small town 17 miles east of Asheville, NC. This has given me a little insight into the cost of fixed-location living vs. full-time travel expenses, and I thought I’d share a little of that with you as for many folks looking to hit the road, the question of “how do I make a living?” is usually followed by something like “well how much does it cost?”
Living on the road can easily be quite a bit cheaper than living in a fixed location.
Firstly, let me say that traveling can obviously be very expensive. But there’s a huge difference between renting a $1500 (or easily much, much more) house for a week on your yearly vacation vs. making a life for yourself on the open road. Let’s look at some of the most common expenses in life and how they compare one way or the other. For the purposes of this post, we’re talking about full-time living on the road as it pertains to owning an RV or campervan vs. those folks who tend to rent other types of accommodations (like couchsurfers, hostelers or those who rent short-term housing while traveling).
Obviously the cost of a home, whether you’re renting or you own, can vary widely. I’ll use the average of real world examples from the past six houses I’ve owned or rented (between the years 2004 – 2007 and a couple of shorter stints since then) so that we’re looking at real numbers. Obviously your costs will vary, but this can give you a great idea of how to take your own expenses and compare them then to various average costs for campgrounds on the road.$680 3BR, 1.5BA Home (owned) in Pittsburgh, PA, 2004 $625 2BR, 1BA Apartment (rented) in Pittsburgh, PA, 2005 $850 2BR, 1BA Townhouse (rented) in Pittsburgh, PA, 2006 $650 2BR, 1BA Apartment (rented) in Manzanita, OR, 2010 $950 3BR, 2BA House (rented) in Nehalem, OR, 2011 $1200 3BR, 2.5BA House (rented) in Black Mountain, NC, 2012
Average Cost of Living in a Stick House: $825 / month
Now let’s look at some real world examples of campground costs. There are multiple scenarios for campgrounds (mostly pertaining to RV Parks vs. state parks), and we’ll look at as many as possible to give us some variety and see how flexible location independence can be.
Monthly RV Park CostsAdvertisement
This is by far the cheapest way to live that doesn’t involve being out in the middle of the desert and relying on a generator and the size of your various water tanks (though we’ll cover that in a moment). These are just various examples of actual places and their costs, as well as generally what comes with each one.$300 One month’s rent for an RV park in Marathon, Texas. Includes full hookups (water, electric, sewage and even TV and Internet in this case) in a small town in the middle of a beautiful nowhere. Basically you’re living in the Old West. $320 One month’s rent in Pecan Grove RV Park, Austin, Texas. You’re in the heart of one of the greatest cities in America, full hookups included but no free Internet. Big city living at 1/10th of the cost of renting an apartment in Austin. $800 One month at the Queen Mine RV Park in Bisbee, Arizona. A short walk from a gorgeous, vibrant small tourist town that’s truly an experience, includes Internet, television and full hookups. People pay big bucks to visit this little tourist town and stay in the hotels, it’s kind of like a scene out of Tombstone (which is about an hour north). $627 A month just outside of Loveland, Colorado, minutes from a cute small city and half an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park. Includes full hookups and Internet. You live at the foot of the Colorado Rockies, among elk and some of the best fishing you could ask for. $930 A month on the shores of Lake Champlain, fifteen minutes north of the beautiful, green city of Burlington, Vermont. Includes water and electricity plus Internet. Hippy living on a gorgeous lake and minutes from downtown.
Average Cost of Living in an RV Park: $595 / month
Exceptions: Weekly, Nightly & Boondocking
Of course, not everyone who’s traveling, particularly in the beginning when you’re first exploring this new lifestyle, wants to spend a month in one place.
Weekly rates for RV parks are typically closer to $200 / week. This is the general average I’ve found across the country, and of course rates vary as much for weekly spots as they do for the above monthly options. So for weekly movers and shakers, rent is closer to $800 / month.
As for nightly stays, such as doing a weekend here or an overnight there on your way to somewhere else, you can expect to pay $30 average. There are $5 / night spots in the middle of New Mexico and there are $65 / night resort parks, but in general most places run around $30 / night. Discount clubs like Passport America and Good Sam can get you a few bucks off of some of these, but in general if you stay in a different park every night or two, you’d be looking at $900 / month.
Boondocking is when you don’t pay a dime to stay anywhere, because you find a spot where you can (often legally) stay for free. This could be anywhere from a county park in Texas to a Wal-Mart parking lot to a national forest. Of course, for the price you get absolutely nothing but a spot to call home. No electrical hookups (well, almost never anyway), no water or sewage hookups, usually no Internet (unless you can find an open signal nearby). Your particular rig must be able to accommodate any needs you might have (ie, backup batteries powered by solar panels, big ol’ water tanks for drinking, dishes, etc. or a generator to provide power, where acceptable). Boondocking isn’t all that possible on a monthly basis, unless you’re really rugged or very ingenuitive, but if you could, your rent becomes practically $0. More likely though, boondocking is a way to supplement more expensive means of overnighting (such as occasional expensive parks near tourist destinations) with free living to help balance your budget.
Using our own particular traveling style as an example, then, what is the final comparison of rent vs. campground fees:Monthly Stays: 50% @ $595/mo Weekly Stays: 35% @ $800/mo Nightly Stays: 10% @ $900/mo Boondocking: 5% @ $0/mo Average Monthly Campground Fees: $667/mo
Average Monthly Rent/Mortgage: $825/mo
On rent alone, it’s over $150 / month cheaper to live in an RV, plus you get to see the world.
Car and RV/Home Owner’s Insurance Comparison
This is another area where it can be massively cheaper to travel than to live in one place, though again there are a variety of situations:
RV + Toad
A toad is a car you pull behind your RV (where an RV is a Class A or Class C, meaning it’s both the living space and the vehicle all in one). In this case you have two insurance payments: one for the RV (which is typically incredibly cheap) and one for the car you’re towing (ie, the toad). In this situation:
- You pay almost nothing for RV insurance because insurance companies assume it will be driven infrequently. I’ve paid as little as $400 / year for excellent coverage through Geico which also included $1500 of additional insurance to over hotel stays and damage to personal belongings in the event of an accident where we couldn’t live in the vehicle for some amount of time.
- Car insurance on the toad will be close to whatever it would have been if you lived in a stick house, though since you can choose which state is your permanent residence, you can take advantage of cheaper rates in certain states. For example, Vermont has an average car insurance rate that’s about 1/2 of what the rest of America pays.
- Though you’ll now be paying for both car & RV insurance, in all fairness you have to consider the cost of home owner’s insurance, which is currently on average around $850 / year (not to mention taxes, which I don’t discuss in this post at all, and various other expenses as listed below). Renter’s insurance might be a factor for you, though we’ve never purchased it in the houses we’ve rented.
In this scenario you pay $450 / year less when you consider your car insurance (stays the same) and the cost of RV insurance ($400 / year) vs. home owner’s insurance ($850 / year).
Towing Vehicle + trailer
Most of the above stipulations for RV + Toad apply to a towing vehicle and a trailer (ie, you’ve got a big truck or van that carries a fifth wheel or Airstream or something similar behind it). What you’ll pay more for insurance on a big ol’ truck like the one you’ll need to tow your trailer, you’ll hopefully be able to make up for in the lower cost of a trailer that doesn’t have an engine, though typically this cost won’t be enough to balance out the higher insurance for a truck that’s being driven more, so this route will be a bit more expensive.
In my experience, and this isn’t my own personal experience but rather that of what I’ve seen on the road, people are usually in this setup. They’ve got their big Ford F350 and a trailer.
Just an RV
This is your best scenario cost-wise, since you could get your insurance down to a few hundred dollars per year. The reality of this is a bit more harsh though, as you’ll be limited to where you can go and how you can get there. For example, most cities don’t have RV parks right in the middle or public transportation that can get you from an RV park to town, so you’ll need to learn to love a bicycle or just not visit certain places that would involve miles and miles of walking to get into town. Or, you pick up the RV and drive it to the grocery store every few days…
In this scenario you pay significantly less. I’ve had car insurance which ranged from over $200 / month on a newer sedan to around $150 / month on a decade old truck, both scenarios included full coverage. So even if you figure your costs would be at the lower end, $150 / month, all in all you save $2250 / year going this route. In my experience though, most people don’t travel this way, and it’s harder to do this full-time than any of the other methods mentioned above. So in all fairness, we’ll just use the RV + Toad scenario above. Of course, if you think you’ve got what it takes to ride bicycles, stock up on food, and live without a car, you could save thousands / year this way.
On insurance, you could expect to save $450 / year, or $38 / month.
That puts our total on-the-road-savings at $188 / month thus far.
As stated above, most RV parks include all of the utilities you need—water, sewage and electric—plus plenty of your wants, such as television and cable. Looking at some averages for these utilities while living in rental houses or owning a home:Water & Sewer We’ve paid around $80 / month for this in a stick house. Electric When also used for heat and AC, this averages out to about $115 / month. Television For the basic cable you could get in your house that’s comparable to what’s available in most RV parks, you’re looking at $30 / month. Internet To be fair, RV Park connectivity is not the quality of what you would expect from your own line via Comcast or a similar cable company’s home service, so we’ll compare it to cheaper DSL, which is around $20 / month
Average Cost of Utilities in a House: $245 / month
In theory, that’s all straight profit as you rarely have to pay any utlities at RV parks. In all reality, though, you’re probably going to need some type of AirCard or tethering plan with your cell phone so that you can get online even when RV Parks (or when you’re boondocking, etc.) don’t offer WiFi (which is rarer these days). So let’s be fair and factor in the $60 / month for one of these plans that you’ll need if you work online.
On utilities, you could expect to save $185 / year, or $38 / month.
That puts our total on-the-road-savings at $373 / month thus far.
I’m not going to specifically quantify groceries, because this is largely a personal issue. If you’re the type of person who purchases in bulk from Costco or Sam’s Club, that’s a lot harder to do with an RV. I suppose you could have a giant plastic bin or two and keep dry goods in it, but for anything that needs frozen or refrigerated, you simply don’t have that kind of space, unless you’re in a rock star Class A tour bus, in which case you might. Personally, we shop once a day or every two or three days, just getting what we need for those meals. This means we have more fresh produce and less preservative laden stuff, but that’s our preference. It doesn’t cost us any more to do our grocery shopping on the road, in fact it probably costs us less, but that’s because when we live in a certain location for a period of time, we find the local/organic type stores and when we’re on the road we tend to eat out more as we want to experience the places we visit.
Seeing the World
This is where things can get more expensive…it’s hard not to visit museums, amusement parks, eat out at as many restaurants as possible and go on kayaking or zip lining or hiking into national parks type things when you’re on the road. So yes, this aspect of travel, the part where you are experiencing the world and having a damn good time doing it, can be much more expensive. On the other hand, you’ve now got $373 / month extra to do that kind of stuff. Oh, and don’t forget to factor in the savings that come naturally with living in a confined space: when you don’t have a garage to fill with every power tool imaginable or a walk in closet to house your weekly shopping sprees, you save tons of cash there as well.
Personally, I’d rather have the extra $4,476 a year to blow on enjoying time with my family and seeing the world than my old tool collection or another night spent with Jay Leno and the folks from Jersey Shore.
Nathan is the Editor-in-Chief around these parts, and has been traveling by train, bike, VW Bus and Airstream since 2008. He's on Instagram.