I understand better than most the costs involved in RV living and travel and am happy to share this knowledge in my articles.
Some people assume that they can live in an RV for very little money. They are correct.
However, doing this requires a great deal of creativity and sacrifice.
The average person buys a travel unit, sets it up in a campground and then travels in it from time to time.
By choosing this path, they get to live a settled, comfortable life that, if properly planned, can be less costly and far less work than living in a house.
Those who either cannot afford to live this way or choose not to do so, are taking on an entirely different lifestyle that will cost much less but can force them to live very primitive lifestyles in places that would not be the first choice for other RV owners.
Nonetheless, if you think you want to live on the cheap, below are some tips that will help you to do so.
First Things First
No matter which style of RV living you choose or how carefully you spend, you’re always going to need money.
There is no question that those desiring to do so can live for very little in RVs as compared to other forms of living, but there is no way to live in one for free.
However, this does not mean they can do so without having an income source because it still takes money to buy food, clothing, insurance and other necessities.
For this reason, you should never hit the road unless you can afford to do so.
- If you find work along the way, great.
- If not, you’ve got to be able to pay your travel and living expenses.
Boondock I you like, but always leave yourself a financial escape hatch.
You can never have too much money, but you can always have too little.
Therefore, before you set out on an RVing adventure, you must have some savings or income or some way of earning enough to pay your way.
At the very least you will need to have enough to pay for
- vehicles and their upkeep,
- camping fees,
- incidentals such as haircuts,
- insurance and
- health care.
How much you will need will depend on the deals you will find, what you will buy and the things you will need. These things will vary from person to person.
Vehicles and Gas
Purchasing your vehicles and buying gasoline are the two largest expenses for RV Owners. Here are some thoughts to consider:
Most people who want to pay less to RV buy older, lower quality, previously owned vehicles that they can purchase for cash.
Doing this eliminates monthly payments and also saves money on any interest that they would have to pay had they borrowed money to purchase their RVs and tow vehicles.
Individuals also drive them as little as possible, which saves a great deal of money on gasoline, repairs, and upkeep.
It can easily take 6,000 miles to drive a vehicle across the US. If gas costs $2.50 per gallon and a coach gets 10 miles per gallon, a person can save $1500 per year simply by not traveling such a long way.
The point here is that the more you travel, the more you’ll pay for gasoline.
For this reason, those who want to live on the least amount of money possible generally settle in one spot for long periods of time and travel very little. These are some of the sacrifices people need to be willing to make if they want to achieve their financial cost of living goals.
Camping costs rank third when it comes to spending money on full-time RV living.
Therefore, it’s important to search out camping options that will save you the most money.
How much you choose to spend will depend largely on how much sacrifice you can tolerate because the cheapest choices can be quite primitive and may not be suited to your needs or desires.
Below are some of the options you have.
Off Grid Living
The most severe form of cheap living is called off-grid recreational vehicle living. Is Off Grid RV Living the Best Choice for You? provides a good overview of this lifestyle choice.
People who follow this path choose to live either on public lands supplied by the Bureau of Land Management or in places like Quartzite, Arizona because they pay little or nothing to stay in such places long term.
You can purchase a long term pass for winter use of these lands for $180 and another one for summer use for $300. You can use this pass for some or all of each season and can move from spot to spot while staying there.
There are designated camping areas, most of which require self contained RVs. These are very primitive. Many only provide dumpsters and trash collection while others may provide vault toilets, picnic tables, grills, hand-pumped potable water and dump stations.
If you want detailed information about their locations and amenities, click here.
There are no hookups, which mean no electricity, water or sewer.
Therefore, people who camp in these areas must
- either find ways to provide heat or air conditioning,
- cook, bathe and take care of other basics,
- refrigerate food,
- pump water or carry it in from outside and
- drive their coaches to dump stations wherever they may be.
There is no way to retrieve mail other than using a local post office, which can be located many miles away.
Shopping also requires careful planning and long trips into town. Even then, it might be limited.
Work opportunities are limited due to location, so people do need some form of income in order to sustain themselves.
However, only having to pay $40 per month to camp kind of balances these hardships, at least in the minds of people who choose to live this way.
Quartzite, AZ Info
Quartzite, AZ is an extremely well-known and popular area of the US because although it’s located right in the middle of the desert, people can park their campers, travel trailers and motor homes there at no charge.
They normally only do this in the winter due to the climate. However, Quartzite actually has a normal population of 200 hardy souls.
While this type of camping is similar to BLM visits, there are some notable differences that make it more palatable.
- People are staying in an actual town that offers all sorts of services,
- Dump stations with water fills are close by,
- In the winter months, there are all sorts of fun activities for RV visitors,
- Shopping is convenient and
- Medical care is quickly available if needed.
It’s not much fun in the summer due to the extreme heat, but the price is definitely right.
Another benefit is that for those who tire of dry camping, there also are some regular campgrounds in town!
The bottom line on camping facilities such as those mentioned above is that they are long term and cost little or nothing for people who want to stay in them with their recreational vehicles.
However, they are primitive. Living without full facilities or conveniences are the sacrifices people must be willing to make if they want to live year round for almost nothing.
The good news is that there are other ways people can live “on the cheap” that aren’t quite as severe.
Staying With Friends and Family
Some people are fortunate enough to have relatives or good friends who own property that already has RV slabs and hookups or has room to install them and who are willing to let friends and family members use them long term for the cost of electricity.
Some people even set their units up in people’s backyards if room permits them to do so.
My own brother lives in a mobile home community (not park) in Nevada. He owns the land his home sits on and, fortunately for my husband and me; it has water, electric and sewer connections on the side of the house!
I also know a man who is permitted to live in his coach on the lot of a repair shop for free. The owner lets him do this to deter thieves. He basically doesn’t have to do a thing except stay in his coach at night, and he lives there with full hookups for free!
Situations like this exist all over the country, and while not ideal, they certainly are good ways for people to live in their travel units for little or no money.
As long as local zoning laws permit these kinds of setups, they can be a win-win situation for those who take part in them.
For example, someone with elderly parents who is able to stay on their property in their unit can live for very little without having to interrupt the privacy of their family while at the same time being available to help their parents when the need to do so arises.
Another way to live on the cheap is to trade your labor for a free site, utilities, and minimum wage by working full or part-time in a campground.
In this scenario, you can either stay put in one facility (weather permitting) or move back and forth between two different ones to catch the seasons for each.
Doing this differs from setting up camp and then working on a regular job because when you go this route, you have to pay for lot rent and utilities which can be expensive.
If you’re not working in the campground, you’re not getting the full benefit of work camping because the idea is to live for free, not have to pay rent!
What You Need to Know About Work Camping Jobs provides in-depth information about this issue.
Cost of Living Issues
Regardless of which situation you choose, you still will have to pay for other items such as incidentals, insurance, and health care.
Living in an RV does not eliminate these costs, but those who want to live for less can find ways to reduce them.
For example, you can
- buy less costly insurance,e
- eat inexpensive foods and
- learn to cut your own hair
Doing things like this can reduce your spending by hundreds of dollars every year.
Campsites That Save You Money
It will be up to you to decide just how far you are willing to go to save money.
In addition to the options noted above, there are thousands of campgrounds, both public and private, in the US where you can stay for reasonable amounts of money.
There also are many where you can stay for short periods of time with hookups at no charge plus businesses such as Walmart and Pilot-Flying J truck stops that allow you to dry camp temporarily for free.
If you join a good discount camping club such as Passport America, you can cut your camping costs in half at any of their 1900 affiliated parks. A one-year membership costs $44. Your average nightly cost would be around $20, but there are some you can visit long term for as little as $420 per month. Some places charge even less!
Through cost averaging, negotiating and research, you can be safe, comfortable and have all the basic amenities you desire.
For example, a few years ago my husband and I stayed at a casino campground in Louisiana that had wide, paved, well-manicured sites, a golf course, a movie theater, a bus that would carry us to and from the casino, full hookups with 50 amp service, cable TV and WIFI. We paid $11 per night.
Of course, to take advantage of opportunities like these, you may have to move often, which means your gas expenses will rise.
Therefore, it is up to you to weigh your options so that you can decide how and where you want to live for the dollars you spend to do so.
The Importance of Insurance
Many people take big risks by ignoring their needs for insurance. It may seem a waste of money, but in the long run, can save you thousands of dollars if problems arise.
You don’t have to go crazy, but you do need to protect yourself with enough coverage to pay for vehicle and health problems that may arise while you’re on the road.
Nobody ever expects to get sick, but one accident or one health problem can happen to anybody. In such instances, people who don’t have insurance can sometimes lose everything!
Several years ago I fell and broke my wrist. The bill was $64,000. My insurance paid for all of it, but without that coverage, the cost would have come out of my pocket!
Be Realistic About the RV Lifestyle
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking RV living will be inexpensive, but not understand the sacrifices people have to make to live for less.
Some people love dry camping and cheap living, but others cannot tolerate the lack of services and comforts that go along with this type of lifestyle.
So, while it is true that you can live in an RV for practically nothing, it is up to you to decide if this is something you really want to do.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: My husband wants to buy a used RV to hook up to his daughter's trailer home six months a year in Humboldt, Arizona, but we live in Ohio. He has never owned an RV and is unable to do any repairs himself. His daughters have never owned an RV either. We are retired and living off a fixed income. Is this a good idea?
Answer: Absolutely not. RVs require lots of upkeep, and the older they are, the more they need. It's not a good idea for someone who knows nothing about them and is on a fixed income, especially when the distance is so great between where you live and where the RV would be located.
© 2018 Sondra Rochelle
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 16, 2018:
I'm sure many have dreamed, or at least thought, of doing this. Most have not considered all of the realities.
It's easier to see the euphoric upside than to face the facts of everyday living.
I'm sure it can be done if you are prepared and informed, your balanced view is very helpful to those who are only looking at one side.