“What’s your favorite place?” is the number one question I get asked on my travels. “But how much does it cost?” is usually the next one. Up until now, I’ve always been very vague because it is such a personal topic. I don’t just mean personal as in private, but personal as in individual and unique. Unlike a home mortgage or apartment rental, the costs of living in a house on wheels can vary drastically from month to month. And even when comparing my living costs with other fulltimers, it is easy to see how different expectations result in different monthly costs.
For me, my goal is to see America with all of the essential modern comforts of home. That means I spend a lot of money on campgrounds and gasoline. For others, limited travel may cut fuel costs. Solar panels, large fresh water tanks, and unlimited patience may lower campground fees. A large number of variables affect the monthly/yearly costs of living in an RV. And many of those variables are entirely up to you. Seriously, it’s possible to live on public land in a beat-up camper that barely moves for almost nothing per month. It’s also possible to travel to every state in a multimillion-dollar diesel-guzzling coach. Trust me, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum; I’m somewhere in the middle.
Enough of the explanations. Let’s start seeing some real numbers! I bought a brand new 2008 23′ Airstream International CCD and a brand new 2009 Volkswagen Touareg V6. Each of them have an MSRP of just under $50,000. So I have a monthly loan payment for each. Other RV and tow vehicle combinations are available for a mere fraction of this cost, but I wanted a ready-to-move-into modern home with a reliable tow vehicle. And each are worth every penny! If I paid only the minimum payment each month, my Airstream payment would be under $500/month. I don’t really count my car payment as an extra cost because I would have one even if I lived in a traditional house. But my gasoline costs are much higher because I am pulling my house behind it.
I spend about $6,500/year (or $540/month) on gas. I average 13 mpg when pulling the 5,200-pound Airstream with extra-expensive premium grade unleaded gasoline in my tanks. Fun, fun!
This graph shows just how my gas costs vary from month to month. There is a general increase each summer simply because I drive more miles in those months. It spiked twice because of the higher than average fuel costs in Canada (around September 2010) and in Alaska (around July 2012). My fuel costs drop drastically in the winter when I tend to stay put for longer periods of time because of a thing called snow. With 110,000 miles traveled in four years, this works out to about 24 cents in gasoline costs for every mile driven.
Campground fees are another major part of living on the road. And, just like gas, they can vary from month to month. In the summer, I spend more time parked in the rent-free yards of friends and family. In the winter, I splurge a bit more on campgrounds with full hookups. On average, I spend about $7,500/year on campground fees. Over the course of a year, this averages out to about $20/day.
But, I seem to be spending a bit more on campgrounds each year. This is probably because campground fees are rising just like other costs. And it’s also because I find I am staying at slightly nicer places as my campground palette gets more refined. Calculating only paid nights, it jumps to about $30/night for an average campground stay.
The other big cost is the oh-so-nice regular maintenance with occasional upgrades. I have a tow vehicle with four tires, and an RV with four tires. Each one is on its third set of tires. At least once a year, the Airstream wheel bearings need to be repacked. It also has brake assemblies that were just replaced. You get the idea. And there are unexpected repairs when you back your home into a brick wall, or a tree, or a cement sidewall. There are also upgrades like solar panels, Wi-Fi/cellular antennas, inverters, generators, converters, and a desk. The Touareg has scheduled maintenance for oil changes, fluids, hoses, etc. And the brakes have been replaced a few times. This all adds up to just over $4,000/year in additional costs. With a combined 200,000 miles (110,000 miles on the Touareg with about 90,000 of those miles towing the Airstream) traveled in four years, this works out to about 8 cents in maintenance and upgrade costs for every mile driven. I realize some of the items listed aren’t directly related to the number of miles driven, but indirectly, they are a result of more time spent on the road in a confined space.
RV insurance is one more thing to remember. I have the Full Timers Package from Progressive Insurance. Much like home owners insurance, it covers items inside, offers full replacement of the Airstream in case of theft/accident, and even provides liability if someone trips and falls on my front step. At $100/month ($1,200/year), it is slightly higher than normal RV insurance.
As a web developer who works on the road, I absolutely need a solid mobile internet connection. Even though I can hop on Wi-Fi at campgrounds or at the local coffee shop, most of the time my own Verizon 3G/4G mobile broadband device is faster and more reliable. As a backup, I can tether my AT&T-based iPhone. Even though mobile broadband speeds have increased significantly in the last couple of years, the costs are still incredibly expensive when compared to typical broadband connections in a home. As such, my average $200/month ($2,400/year) for internet access is probably more than the average fulltimer who only occasionally gets online. I am thankful my current employer reimburses me for internet access!
I use a web-based service called Mint to track all of my finances. I meticulously track every single purchase, and feel pretty confident about the accuracy of my estimates. But remember that these numbers are very specific to how I choose to live full time in my Airstream. I could stay in much nicer campgrounds and easily double my average nightly rate. I could travel less and easily cut my gasoline costs in half. Remember what I said earlier? Many costs are entirely up to you. For me, it takes at least $25,000/year set aside for home and transportation costs to do what I do.
Some may think that is quite a bit of money to live in a 160-square-foot home without permanent electricity or plumbing. But some may totally understand how it is a great way to snorkel in the Florida Keys, land a floatplane on Lake Champlain, sail a boat on the Atlantic, get charged by a grizzly in Alaska, get stuck in snowstorms in the Rockies or on the beaches of the Outer Banks, view Niagara Falls or Mount Rushmore or the Golden Gate Bridge, go off-roading in the Sonoran desert, fly a glider in upstate New York, view the fall colors of New England, take a ferry to Newfoundland or Vancouver or Catalina, experience French Québec or Charleston etiquette, kayak in Lake Tahoe, hike in Yosemite or Acadia or Arches, golf in every state (but Hawaii), eat BBQ in Texas, drink wine in Napa Valley, go to a céilidh in Nova Scotia, watch a space shuttle lift off in Florida, descend through the Carlsbad Caverns, fly high above Denali, drive every mile of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Overseas Highway; the list goes on and on and on.
Best. Decision. Ever.