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Living on Less While Full-Time RVing

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

Enjoy the most beautiful spots in the U.S. in your RV (like Glen Canyon Dam!).

Enjoy the most beautiful spots in the U.S. in your RV (like Glen Canyon Dam!).

RVing and Living on Less

It might surprise you to know that approximately 1.5 million people live all or part of the year in their RVs. If you think that one must be wealthy to own and live in an RV, think again. A great many full-time RVers are retirees on fixed or limited incomes. They have learned to have the good life they desire by using their resources wisely and living on less. Through creative budgeting, frugal living and a change in lifestyle, full-time RVers live as well or better than many who have much more disposable income. How do they do it?

In previous articles, I've talked about full-time RVing, why people do it and how to get started. In this article, I'd like to talk about how people on limited incomes live the good life while living on less.

Necessary Lifestyle Changes

Making the move from a sticks and bricks home to living in an RV in order to simplify your life and cut expenses will necessitate a few life style changes. Most will be welcome, while others may take some adjustment. Can you live with these changes:

  • Give up (or put in storage) treasured collections, figurines, large wardrobes, and your vast array of tools and gadgets. Space constraints of living in an RV requires one to drastically pare down belongings and learn to simplify life.
  • Give up shopping as a pastime. One can window shop, but regular purchase of new clothes of other items will destroy your budget, even if you did have room in your RV for them.
  • Go casual. You may have been used to dressing up each day as you went to work or meetings. Full-time RVers life a casual dress life, and dressy clothes are just not important to them. Even if you camp in an expensive resort, you'll find little use for dress-up professional clothes.
  • Learn that other full-time RVers are not impressed by what you did for a living, what you owned or how much you have. Sitting around the campfire with a group of strangers, you'll find that only newbies ask what you did for a living.

How Do Some Retirees Live Well on Less?

They Live in an RV Full-Time.

Very often, the decision to live full-time in an RV is made just before or just after retirement. This explains why a great many of those full-timer RVers you see on the road are between 55 and 75 years old. Some plan to live on the proceeds of selling their home, retirement savings or pension plans, others hope to survive on Social Security income. While it's dangerous to generalize, I think it's safe to say that most full-time RVers are very careful with their money and live better on less money than most people their age. Here are some of their secrets of frugal living:

Full-time RVers Have Fewer Expenses

RVers who sell their homes enjoy the fact that the expenses of owning a home no longer exist. There are no utility bills, land line phone bills, garbage pick-up or water bills.

Gone away are home maintenance expenses like the expense of landscaping, maintaining lawn and garden equipment or paying someone to mow lawn or plow snow out of your driveway. You won't have to spend time and money painting the house, sealing the driveway, or cleaning the chimney. And don't forget to cross off the exterminator and septic cleaning services. There will be no homeowners insurance, either! There are no property taxes when give up your house.

Yes, there is insurance, maintenance and repairs on an RV, but these costs are usually far less than the cost of putting a new roof on your home or replacing air conditioning or heating systems or rugs in a six room house.

Camping in the Arizona Desert

Camping in the Arizona desert.

Camping in the Arizona desert.

Track Spending By First Making a Budget

Making a budget and tracking your spending is a necessary part of managing your money. Start by listing basic monthly expenses that will be the same each month and add in your estimate of food, gas, campground fees and other miscellaneous expenses. Jot down your monthly income and subtract expenses to see how your income compares to your outgo. Because this is a brand new experience, it's a good idea to keep a log of daily spending to see just where your money is going. This will help you manage spending, and you'll have a better idea of where you need to cut back if you are going over your allotted monthly allowance.

Visiting Outer Banks Lighthouses While Full Time RVing

Corolla Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina

Corolla Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina

Tips on How to Save Money

How to Save on Food:

  • Plan ahead. Do not go to the grocery store every day. Make a list and only buy things on the list.
  • Never throw food away. Don't buy more fresh food than you can use. Use what you have on hand before buying more. Make good use of leftovers or freeze them for another time. Save small portions of leftover meat and vegetables to make soup or stir fries.
  • Limit eating out. When going on day trips, pack a lunch and snacks to take with you. If you do want to try a special restaurant, go for lunch instead of dinner as you can often get the same food in smaller servings for a lesser price. When eating out, order only water to drink. Have a glass of wine and crackers and cheese before you go out. Have coffee and desert when you get home. Ordering drinks and desert can easily double your bill.
  • Shop sales and discount stores and buy extra to freeze or store if you have room.
  • Use coupons, but stay away from items you wouldn't normally buy.
  • Buy local fresh foods in season and in the area where they are grown. Strawberries in Florida, apples in New York, grapefruit in Texas, fresh seafood along the coast... the list is long.

How to Save on Clothes:

  • Limit wardrobe to simple, casual clothes, one or two dressy outfits and two or three pairs of comfortable shoes. Most full time RVers find that a more extensive or dressy wardrobe is unnecessary and goes unused.
  • Limit buying new clothes to replacing worn items. Shop sales, and only buy items that you will use often.
  • Shop thrift stores for good quality, lightly used clothes at bargain prices.

How to Save on Gas and Get Better Gas Mileage:

  • Stay in one place longer. You will have the opportunity to learn more about each area, and cut back on your monthly gas expense.
  • Drive slower. Gas mileage will increase proportionately to the number of miles per hour you slow down.
  • Eliminate some of the extra weight in your RV. (No, I don't mean go on a diet!) The more weight you carry, the less gas mileage you will get.
  • Keep vehicle tuned up and tires at proper pressure for better gas mileage.
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How to Save on Household Items:

  • When starting to RV full time, stock your RV with items from your home that are best quality and most versatile.
  • Buy only replacement items or necessities. Before a purchase, ask yourself, where will I keep this? Does something else have to go before I can make room for it? How often will I use it?
  • Save money by shopping thrift stores and yard sales for household items.
  • Do not purchase decorative items unless you have a particular spot to place it. Wall space is so limited that the number of wall decorations you will be able to use are very few.

How to Save on RV Maintenance:

  • Learn to do simple maintenance and repairs yourself.
  • Invest in an RV repair manual to learn how to fix doors, windows, locate and change fuses and trouble shoot other maintenance problems.
  • Change your own oil (dispose of it properly, please!), especially in your tow vehicle.
  • Fix little things before they become big problems. Tighten loose screws, tape or patch a tiny tear in upholstery, replace worn out parts before they break.
  • Keep good tires on your RV. Even though tires look like they have a lot of life in them, the rubber will deteriorate and breakdown, becoming unsafe after 5-8 years. A blowout while driving could cause serious damage (and/or injury) that will cost much more than new tires.

How to Save on Entertainment:

  • Go to free or very inexpensive local concerts, festivals and activities.
  • Check with the local visitor's bureau for discount tickets or coupons to local attractions.
  • Go to free or low cost entertainment at campgrounds. Attend jam sessions of other campers.
  • Attend free exercise, dance and craft classes at campgrounds.
  • Take advantage of free museums, tours and lectures at National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, State Parks and other recreation areas.

How to Save on Dental Care and Prescription Drugs:

  • Consider dental work in Mexico. Many RVers spend time in border states like Arizona so that they can cross the border in Mexico to get affordable dental care (see Seeking Affordable Dentists in Algodones, Mexico) and buy cheap prescription drugs
  • Buy generic prescription drugs when you can.

How to Save on Miscellaneous Items:

  • Hobbies. It is important to have enjoyable hobbies that will fit into your new lifestyle. Many hobbyists will sell some of their handiwork to help support their interests. Check yard sales and thrift stores for very cheap craft supplies.
  • Books and Magazines. Get reading material at libraries, campground book exchanges and used book stores. Sometimes you can sell or trade your books for books you haven't read. Read on-line newspapers and magazines or download free books on line. Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer a selection of free apps and ebooks to Kindle and Nook owners.
  • Laundry. Wear clothes like jeans several times before laundering. Hand wash light weight items like underwear and t-shirts in between laundromat visits.
  • Take digital pictures, keep them organized on your computer rather than developing expensive film and having to store photo albums.
  • Banking. Choose a bank that offers interest bearing checking accounts, reimburses ATM fees and has free on-line bill paying. It's worth it to research the options.
  • Do not buy water in individual bottles. Fill reusable bottles instead. Save money and the environment.
  • Save on campgrounds (see section below for more details) by choosing free and discount campgrounds.

Live on Less, Enjoy Life More

Full-time RVers have discovered many secrets to living on less so that they can enjoy life more. One of the biggest lessons we learned, and I think many full time RVers agree, is that having lots of "stuff" is not necessary to have a happy life. Full-timers who live in the very small space of a motor home or trailer only carry the basics because there's no storage space for the frills. It may be difficult at first to part with some of the belongings that you enjoyed for years, but those who have done it say that there's a wonderful feeling of freedom in not having all the "stuff" to worry about any longer.

However, there are certain things that you still need to buy, even when living on less. By setting priorities, you can separate the things that are necessary to your happiness from the things that are not. Once you have clearly defined your priorities, you can put a plan into action and really live on less. Here are some ways that RVers live on less:

Visiting National Parks While Full Time RVing

Giant cedar tree in Olympic National Park.

Giant cedar tree in Olympic National Park.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon, Arizona

How to Spend Less on Campground Fees

Once the initial investment in an RV is made, full time RVers can easily adjust their lifestyle to spend less. Some experienced RVers pride themselves on averaging less than $5-$8 a night for camping. How do they do this? There are many ways to get free or cheap camping .

  • Volunteer and get free camping. By finding volunteer jobs which require just a few hours a week, RVers can usually get a free campsite and utilities. There are volunteering opportunities in state parks, National parks and monuments, historical sites, wildlife refuges and many other places. Volunteers can choose where they want to be and the type of job they would like.
  • Take advantage of free camping. There are many city parks that have free overnight camping. In addition, free overnight camping is available at some beaches, public boat ramps and rest areas. For those only needing one night, it's usually possible to stay in a store parking lot or roadside pull-off. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land offers many opportunities for free camping in the western states. National Forests and State Forests also allow free camping in certain areas. Invest in campground directories for National Parks, Public Lands and National Forest campgrounds.
  • Discount camping. If you are a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident over 62, you can get an America the Beautiful Senior Pass which gets you a 50% discount on camping in National Parks, National Forests, Corps of Engineers' campgrounds and other federally operated campgrounds. Other discount camping is available through camping clubs like Escapees, Passport America, FMCA and others whose members receive discounts of up to 50% at participating campgrounds.
  • Workcamping. Work campers find temporary part time or full time jobs in areas where they would like to stay for a few months. These jobs are often seasonal, pay a salary, and sometime include campsites. Some examples are: Working for theme parks like Disneyland; selling Christmas trees, working at a campground or National Park during the busy season; working in Amazon mailing centers, doing store inventories and others. WorkKamper News lists more specific jobs suitable for full time RVers.

Beautiful Scenery Is Free

Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake National Park.

Wildflowers in Arizona desert.

Wildflowers in Arizona desert.

The Best Things in Life Are Free

You have some ideas of how to live on less, but what is your gain? People say, tongue in cheek, that the best things in life are free. Full time RVers believe it. There are so many wonderful aspects of this lifestyle that make it worth sacrificing in other areas. Here are some of the free things that make this the good life:

  • Bird watch. Are you a birdwatcher? Visit National Wildlife Refuges for free. Go to Merritt Island, Florida or the Rio Grande Valley, Texas to see migrating coastal birds. Follow birding trails in many states to see rare and endangered species in their natural habitat. See bald eagles and golden eagles in Alaska and red cockaded woodpeckers in Georgia. There are unlimited opportunities to pursue a hobby of birdwatching throughout the U.S.
  • Get closer to nature. Enjoy wildflowers in the desert. View wildlife in the Smokey Mountains or Alaska. See alligators in Louisiana and moose in Maine. Watch whales in Cape Cod. Every state has a unique facet of nature to explore and enjoy.

Enjoy Rock Collecting and Other Hobbies

Rock collecting is free

Rock collecting is free

  • Rockhound. Every state has areas of interest, but rockhounding in the desert is especially rewarding for those who have knowledge of rocks. Or go to the shores of Lake Superior to hunt for agates, Arizona to look for turquoise, California to find obsidian. It's all free.
  • Explore Historic Sites: With a little research, one can follow the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Oregon Trail, visit Civil War battlegrounds, or learn about the Gold Rush and the settling of the West. Explore any of hundreds of avenues of historic interest at your leisure, or, to make it even more interesting, volunteer your time to work at one of the National Historic sites.
  • See the giant trees in old growth forests. Walk among the giant redwoods and sequoias in California. See the ancient cedars in Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
  • See petroglyphs, dinosaur tracks and ancient Native American sites in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and other states.
  • Pursue your hobbies. Read. Carve wood. Paint. Make bead jewelry. Devote as much time as you wish to your hobbies or special interests.
  • Park on a beach for free. There are places (you have to look for them) where you can park your RV on a beach or a beautiful forest for free.
  • Take leisurely routes through scenic parts of the U.S. There are so many beautiful places in the U.S. that it's impossible to pick out a favorite. Drive though the Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains or through any of our National Parks. If you are a senior, admission is free with your America the Beautiful pass and you can enjoy the wonders of the U.S. at your leisure.
  • Park on BLM land and explore to your heart's content. We touched dinosaur tracks at Grand Staircase-Escalante, found an abandoned turquoise mine while boondocking in the desert near the Imperial Dam in California and explored abandoned mining camps and an old ghost town while camping in Quartzsite, Arizona.
  • See the areas unique to each state. Drive through the Imperial Valley in California and see date gardens, miles of lettuce fields, and broccoli or flowers being grown for seed. See oil wells and refineries in Texas. Visit the Florida Keys and go snorkeling around the coral reefs. Drive through miles of corn fields or grain fields in the Midwest. See the Arches National Park and the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Drive up to Pike's Peak in Colorado, or see New York State's Finger Lakes, Vermont's quaint villages or Maine's rocky coast. For the really adventurous, go RVing in Alaska! There's something (and many things) in every state.The views are free.

Beautiful Sunsets Are Free!

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, Lake Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, Lake Michigan

What Does "Living Well" Mean to You?

Everyone has a different idea of what living well means. To some it means eating in fine restaurants, to others it means living in luxurious accommodations. To many of the thousands of happy full time RVers, it means almost unlimited travel and meeting new people, freedom from the responsibilities of home ownership and time to devote to favorite causes. It means having time to read and pursue hobbies and other interests. They are willing to make the trade-offs necessary to live live on the road and practice many of the money saving tips above in order to afford their life style. They live well, they live on less, they love it!

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel

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