14 Tips for Saving Money While Living Full-Time in an RV
If you’re reading this article, you’ve clearly thought a bit about full-time RV living. But you also probably have a fair number of doubts and questions, too. For instance, how are you going to budget? How will you develop a routine? How will you decide where to go?
For many RVers transitioning to full-time RV living, these are some of the biggest questions that you’ll need to answer as you get started. Your answers may—and probably will—change, but having a clear idea of where you are starting is key for setting expectations and avoiding some of the most common problems RVers experience when first transitioning to full-time RV living.
Having clear expectations helps save you from unexpected surprises. Maybe you’ve already sold your house and fully committed. Maybe you’re just weighing your options. Wherever you are in the process of transitioning to full-time RV life, you can always learn more. Consider these lessons we’ve learned from other RVers who have taken the same steps you’re in the process of taking. Learn from them, from both their mistakes and their wisdom.
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How to prepare for full-time RV life: A few pointers
So let’s start with the preparatory steps. When you’re considering living life as a full-time RVer, what steps must you take? Consider this the short list of questions you need to ask yourself before you go any further, for instance:
- Be honest with yourself about what you want. Ask yourself why you want to live on the road full-time. What are your motivations, and what are your goals? Those motivations and goals should inform all the rest of your decisions.
- Be honest with yourself about what your budget is. And then factor in potential emergencies that may arise. As a rule of thumb, you should shoot to live on 50% or less of what you can afford to live on while on the road, at least until you get a better feel for the cost of things.
Those are the two biggest questions you’ll need to answer for yourself. If you are doing this with a partner or even a family, then these are even more important questions to answer carefully and precisely, as the decisions you make will affect more than just you.
And even after you’ve answered those two most important questions, there are still plenty of logistics to consider. Consider even just the following list of some of the most basic logistical questions:
- What RV will you use?
- Does the RV you have in mind have both the living space and amenities you need?
- What are the absolute must-have items you plan on taking with you?
- Will they all fit comfortably in your RV? And in a way that makes it easy to use your storage spaces and living quarters and won’t feel cramped?
- Etc, etc
And try RV living on in a few short bursts before making the full-time commitment. It takes practice to figure out what works for you, so take a few shorter trips, ideally between a week and a month each, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Figure out what kind of travel schedule works best for you, whether that’s moving every day, every few days, or picking somewhere to park and live for a week or longer before moving on to your next location.
Taking shorter trips like this also helps you determine what kind of travel is the best fit for you, and what kind of RV you need for that kind of travel. For instance, if you’re mostly going to be driving interstate freeways and staying in RV-friendly campgrounds, a big rig might be a great fit. If you’re drawn to dirt roads, though, a camper van with clearance might be a better fit. You get the picture.
Similarly, when you first start full-time RV living, give yourself some outs. If you can afford it, don’t sell your house right away. Consider keeping some things in storage while you figure out what needs to be in your RV and what doesn’t.
We’ll explain why keeping some form of permanent address is important later in this article, but there’s no reason you can’t keep a storage unit close to friends or family and then use their address when you are first starting out, or even your current address if you decide to wait to sell your home. Having a base when you first start out can help remove some of the fears of the unknown.
Similarly, as you’re first starting out, considering traveling with friends or family members you may know that have already transitioned to a more full-time RV lifestyle. Learning lessons from watching them in action can help you as you work your way through the transition as well. Beyond learning by watching others, however, there are lots of lessons many full-time RVers wish they had known when they first started out. Let’s look at a few of them here.
14 Tips for Saving Money While Living Full-Time in an RV
So what are the pieces other full-time RVers wish they had known before or as they transitioned to full-time RV living? Let’s look at 15 of the ways first-time full-time RVers sometimes underestimate the difficulties of the transition or the costs.
1.You need way less than you think you do.
In other words: Keep paring down. If you’re serious about full-time RV living, you’ve probably already started downsizing, or at the very least you’ve started making a packing list. Whatever is on that list, know that no matter how much you think you’ve trimmed the fat, you can likely cut back significantly more even.
No matter what RV set-up you decide on for your home, storage space will be at a premium, and the more minimal you can pack, the more functional those spaces will be. Everyone’s had an experience with an overpacked drawer or closet, where you can’t find anything because it is packed too full. You don’t want that in your RV; clutter doesn’t make for enjoyable travels.
So no matter how pared down you think your list is, keep paring down. And if you have a storage space where you will be storing items you aren’t taking on the road, be prepared to add items as you get more comfortable with your RV set-up and realize just how little you actually need with you. Another idea? Talk to others who live on the road, and ask them what they thought they couldn’t live without. Odds are good there are plenty of items on your “must have” list that aren’t actually essential, and learning lessons from others who have been there before can help you pare down, too.
2. It’s easy for small costs to snowball.
Perhaps you’ve already considered this when developing your budget, but little costs can add up quickly. Even small things like paying 20% more for groceries because you didn’t plan ahead and stock up appropriately when you had cheaper access to good fresh produce, for instance, can and will add up. As a result, the more organized you can be and disciplined in your spending, the better you will be able to stick to your budget and make your money stretch.
Tracking all of your spending can help you see this, as can budgeting in advance based on your previous spending habits so that you still have some discretionary spending but aren’t spending as much on little things that add up as you might have previously.
For some people, little tricks like putting cash in envelopes may be useful; others may wish to use finance-tracking apps or spreadsheets. Find the system that works for you to help limit those unnecessary little expenses that add up over time.
3. Every bit of mechanical knowledge saves you money.
Are you the sort of person that reads the instructional manuals that come with new gadgets? If you’re not that person naturally, learn to become that person. Learn your RV inside and out, so that you actually understand how all of it works. Spend time with the RV’s user manual. Learn your electrical system and the fuse box. Learn how the plumbing works, so you understand what lines run to and from your various tanks, whether freshwater, greywater, or blackwater. Learn what you can do in the form of general maintenance to help keep everything running smoothly, perhaps even learning how to take various systems apart for regular cleaning and upkeep.
While these may not be particularly enjoyable tasks, they not only help you learn your RV – meaning you’re less likely to be surprised when problems arise – but also help prevent those problems from arising in the first place. The handier you can become around your RV, the better off you will be, and the more affordable your full-time RV lifestyle might prove to be. Otherwise, budgeting for emergency repairs can be a dicey proposition at best.
4. Invest in good insurance, both for unforeseen issues and preventative upkeep.
Yes, becoming more mechanically inclined can help you avoid some issues on the road. But there will still be problems that arise, whether simply the result of wear-and-tear, or arising on account of accidents, theft, or faulty systems. In any of those cases, good insurance is your friend. Not only can it help cover the costs of those surprises, but it’s also a known expense, as opposed to the unknown expenses that may arise when you are surprised by something not covered by insurance. And known expenses are far easier to budget.
In particular, you need insurance that will replace your RV, your belongings, or both, should anything happen to either, much like homeowners’ insurance would. Such policies should cover theft, accidents, and more. You should also consider medical insurance, preferably a substantial policy, for the same reasons. Known expenses are better than unknown expenses because you can budget for them. And in the long run, being able to budget your expenses will save you money, and allow you to live on the road more comfortably.
Take advantage of the networks you already have, and spend focused energy on expanding your network. You have friends around the country most likely, and odds are good some of them live in places you are planning to visit. Staying with them, or even parking your RV on their property, can save you money. While we’re not advocating for taking advantage of your friends in an unbecoming way, you do likely have relationships that you can count on, and that can help make your travels less stressful and help you save money.
Similarly, as you travel, you’ll likely meet other full-time RVers who can use your help, even if only in the form of answering their questions about places you’ve already been. Pass your knowledge forward, and then keep in touch with the friends you meet on the road. Your shared knowledge will help each of you.
Similarly, there are various Facebook groups and other online forums where you can meet like-minded individuals. Building relationships with other people with similar interests can help you find savings, visit special places you might have otherwise missed, and just in general enrich your experiences while traveling.
6. By taking advantage of free wifi networks.
We live in a digital age, and it’s hard to stay connected without social media and internet access. It can also be hard, in transitioning from your normal lives to a life of full-time travel and RV living, to leave behind your family and friends; internet access (Skype, for instance) can be key in helping you stay connected with the people you care about most. Fortunately, finding wifi on the road is becoming increasingly less difficult. If you do need a wifi booster read this review here.
Not only do many campgrounds, visitor centers, and even rest stops offer wifi hotspots, but there are numerous sites and even apps that can help you track free wifi. One of our favorites is WiFi Mapper. As you make travel plans, consider whether or not you’ll want wifi access at night or where you are parking, and keep that in mind as you scout potential locations. Additionally, don’t underestimate how nice to can be to Netflix and chill on a cold, rainy day or when you simply need a down day.
7. Track your expenses meticulously.
For many full-time RVers, this can become an obsession. And with good reason: Knowing what you spend where is key to keeping your finances under control. Even if you are the rare full-time RVer that can afford unlimited expenses and doesn’t need to worry about costs or sticking to a budget, knowing how you spend your money can help you understand where you get value, and what choices you can make in the future to get better value. For instance, over time you may learn which brands have lower gasoline prices, or which towns have better grocery prices.
Observations like this can come naturally, but having the data to support it, because you’ve been tracking your expenses, can help you better plan in the future. Similarly, you may misremember how much something cost. Having a record to which you can easily refer can be tremendously helpful in that case.
Every full-time RVer you talk to will have different tips for how they choose to track their expenses, as well as advice as to how you can best save money. We recommend finding a tracking system you like, either via spreadsheets, Quickbooks, or a finance-tracking site like Mint, then adapting as you see fit.
8. Make a plan.
Similarly, when you plan ahead, you can better budget for the expenses ahead. Knowing what to expect because you’ve done your homework can save you money; improvising your plan as you go, while freeing, can also be expensive. And if you have as previously suggested done a thorough job of tracking your expenses, that data can help you plan in a way that both gives you great experiences and costs you less.
Relatedly, planning ahead can help you find events (such as festivals) in towns you’re planning on visiting so that you can best capitalize on those opportunities, or should you so choose, avoid the crowds. Similarly, knowing where you want to be farther in advance can give you a leg up on finding seasonal or temporary jobs if that is something you are interested in. The better you are able to plan, the better you will be able to capitalize on opportunities and research where you want to go, thus giving you a better chance at crafting memories and experiences you might otherwise miss.
9. But also be flexible.
Don’t get so attached to your plan that you can’t change it, though; that’s a recipe for disappointment. There will be things that come up that force you to adapt. Perhaps you will have a mechanical issue that puts you behind your original schedule. Perhaps a friend will mention something in a neighboring town, county, or even state that causes you to reevaluate your travel itinerary. These are things that happen on a regular basis to nearly everyone that spends significant time in an RV, and that’s doubly true of full-time RVers.
You will be forced to adapt on a regular basis. How you handle that will determine your stress levels, as well as your ability to enjoy the experiences you are having. Make the most of each day, regardless of whether or not it sticks to your original plan, and you’ll get far more out of your travels and time on the road.
10. Take advantage of savings programs and memberships.
One of the best ways to save money is with various savings programs, memberships, and taking advantage of tips other RVers might offer you. For instance, there are multiple networks such as Good Sam Club that can open a wide range of savings on campgrounds, gas, and even gear, and most of them are available for a simple yearly fee. Similarly, if you are over the age of 62, you should get a Senior America the Beautiful Pass. For only $80, the Senior Pass offers lifetime admission to thousands of recreation sites in addition to every national park and monument. It may very well pay for itself in a week or less! And that’s hardly the only perk available to you. For instance, AARP and AAA memberships can each save you thousands of dollars each year, and neither is particularly expensive.
Which memberships and saving programs are the best fit for you will depend on where you are traveling and what your goals are for your travel, but with some research, you can pretty quickly identify some of the options that are out there for you.
11. Use apps to your advantage.
Memberships and savings programs are great, but using apps to your advantage can be just as cost-saving. For instance, once upon a time planning your route meant paper maps and sharpies or highlighters and a notebook full of notes. Now, though, there are hundreds if not even thousands of apps that a good RVer can use to help plan their trips and troubleshoot as needed.
Consider this a short primer of some of our favorites, and then do the research to discover what apps work best for you and your travel needs. First, our favorite: RV Trip Wizard.
Not only is RV Trip Wizard a great way to save money—as it tracks the money you’ll spend in advance based on how you tailor your usage of the app and its extensive database of fuel, campground, and other prices around the country—it’s also incredibly customizable. Tailor your usage to match your preferences and you’ll see only the information you want, whether that’s free camping or full-service resorts. Similarly, you can tailor your preferences to take advantage of bigger discounts; if you have both Passport America and Escapees RV Club memberships, for instance, you can prioritize searching for the former before the latter if you so desire, as the former offers bigger discounts.
A similarly incredible RV trip-planning app is Good Sam’s Trip Planner. While Good Sam doesn’t offer as many camping locations in its database, it does offer a quality guarantee; RV campgrounds have to pass a test in order to even be considered for inclusion in the database. Additionally, membership in the Good Sam Club offers perks RV Trip Wizard cannot, including savings or discounts at Camping World, Overton’s, Gander Outdoors, Good Sam Parks, and Pilot Flying J locations—all of roughly the same (or even a little less) annual cost as RV Trip Wizard.
If you’re not looking for a subscription-necessary service, then consider RV Park Reviews (available in app form as part of RV Life). Not only is RV Park Reviews the oldest, largest, and likely most comprehensive resource for RV parking and campground reviews, it’s website is incredibly mobile-friendly and the app version bundled with RV Life is incredibly feature-laden, with filters for finding the setting you want to options as detailed as hot tub temperatures.
Like RV Park Reviews and RV Life, AllStays has both free and paid versions. In addition to the vast repository of information available on the mobile-friendly site, AllStays also offers a wide range of add-on apps, many of which may prove quite helpful for you.
Lastly, as mentioned previously, we love WiFi Mapper, the world’s largest wifi database.
12. Take advantage of your skills and experiences.
Many full-time RVers take on seasonal or otherwise temporary jobs to help them pay the bills as they travel. While many full-time RVers may choose to take seasonal jobs at parks or as campground hosts, that’s hardly the only way you can pick up work experiences in new places and with new people. There are plenty of sites out there that advertise temporary and seasonal positions, some of which even cater to traveling or otherwise mobile workforces. Think of the work experience and skills you have and how you can translate that into new opportunities.
Perhaps you can be a visiting instructor somewhere, or if you have experience as a contractor, consider looking at carpentry opportunities or other work that might fit with those skills. You may even look into consulting work, or digital work that can be done remotely. Life on the road doesn’t have to mean eating your savings; taking advantage of your skills to find seasonal, temporary, or other work can help pay for your travels and other living costs.
13. Be smart about your permanent address.
Even if you are living full-time on the road as a full-time RVer, you will still need a permanent legal address for things like drivers’ licenses, taxes, and more. Do your research, because not every state has the same legal requirements, and where you pick for a home address while on the road can have major financial ramifications. For instance, the state you choose will determine your tax rates, insurance rates, and even how well your mail forwards. So do your research.
Similarly, you will need to return to your permanent address at least periodically for things such as vehicle inspections, renewing your driver’s license, and more, so it may work to your advantage to pick a more central location. Some RVers pick a family address, for instance, as their permanent legal address while on the road. Others prioritize the financial side of things. What works best for you will depend on your values and goals.
For reference, consider that some of the most popular choices for full-time RVers are Florida, South Dakota, and Texas, mostly on account of tax and insurance rates.
14. Keep the weather and seasons in mind.
For many full-timers, weather patterns are a huge influence in how and where they travel. As spring turns to summer, many full-timers start heading north and to cooler temperatures; in the fall and winter, they head south, to more temperate winter weather. You don’t have to follow this pattern, of course; some full-time RVers are huge fans of winter, and if you’re a skier, for instance, maybe that’s what you want to do, too. But no matter your seasonal preferences, weather should be a consideration.
For instance, you cannot drive safely at the same speeds when driving through a winter storm. Nor are there as many hours of light in the winter, so if night driving is difficult for you—as it is for many drivers—that should also be a consideration when you make your travel plans.
Similarly, some destinations are just better at certain times of the year. If you’re visiting Washington DC, for instance, being there to see the cherry blossoms in the spring can be absolutely fantastic. If you’re visiting Glacier, Grand Teton, or Yellowstone National Park, there are plenty of areas that are only accessible in the height of summer. So as you make your plan, keep weather and seasons in mind. This may seem like common sense, but for many newly full-time RVers, it’s a lesson learned the hard way.
We hope these lessons are helpful, and that as you make your plan to transition into full-time RV living you keep the resources available to you here in mind.