Tired of paying the bank, the electric company, the water company, the gas company, and the waste management company? Well prepare to leave all that behind! From here on out you’ll be paying park managers, gas station attendants, and mechanics for all your non-gastrointestinal needs.
Economics really come down to how much you want to travel. It’s common to spend 50 cents or more per mile traveled, not including meals, sightseeing, or nightly lodging. That may not seem like much, but it adds up when you do it full time.
Let’s break down a single day’s comfortable 100-mile land cruise—remember, there’s no house at the end of this trip:
- $50 – Gas
- $11 – Snacks & Drinks at the gas station
- $38 – Lunch at that nice little bistro by the river
- $10 – Bridge toll (a common $5 per-axle motorhome rate)
- $30 – RV Park or Campground for the evening
- $20 – Some basic groceries for dinner
- $10 – A moderate bottle of wine (or a decent 6-pack) to enjoy by the fire
- $7 – Firewood from the camp store
Now, most full-timers will tell you that’s not an average day, especially if they haven’t retired yet. But if that’s what you’re planning on then prepare to spend over $5200 a month—and that’s if you don’t do any sightseeing! By the way, throw in an extra $1 per evening if you cook with propane and an extra monthly loan payment if you bought your RV from a dealer.
Basic sightseeing will probably run between $10 and $20 per person per venue, plus food costs for day-long events. National landmarks will be a little less, amusement parks will be a little more, but you get the idea—even walking tours aren’t cheap.
Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do to cut down on venue costs unless you frequent the area using season passes, but keep your eye out for things like AAA membership discounts. You can also check out the local paper for seasonal coupons. Those pamphlets at State Welcome Centers and RV Parks are another good coupon source.
In any case, sightseeing is often done on a whim and is likely to offer very little in the savings department, so let’s look at some other ways you can bring costs down.
If you’re willing to take your time, you can keep parking costs down with weekly, monthly, or even seasonal rates. Weekly rates usually shave a night’s cost off the price. Monthly rates are often less than half the daily rate, but electricity may be charged separately. Be warned: there is a trade-off for the reduced monthly rate.
We often favor weekly rates. A week is enough time to take in an area without getting too anxious about getting back on the road. It’s also a nice amount of time to stop and get a bit of work done without having to worry about packing up and driving. If you do consider a monthly stay, I recommend staying for a week first. That way you can check out the park in greater detail. A lot of them also have a separate area where they put their monthly guests and that area might not be your cup of tea. In a lot of parks, monthly rates also often come with additional paperwork and sometimes even a credit check. Ask before you dive in.
Very few parks allow stacking extended stay rates and club membership rates, so if you’re an RV club member figure out which rate is cheaper before booking. If you look around in the off-season, you can often get other discounts and coupons to further cut your camping fees.
RV and Auto Club Memberships
Club memberships like Good Sam, Passport America, Escapees, and AAA will save you between 10% and 50% at participating parks, so we highly recommend taking advantage of them. While we often take advantage of weekly rates when we can’t find a participating park, memberships probably save us more on camping than anything else.
Clubs often give their members with other cost-saving benefits as well. Good Sam, for example, grants discounts on shopping, parts, and labor at CampingWorld. Also, AAA has thousands of partnered businesses that offer discounts to their members if you remember to ask.
There’s not a lot to say about gas cards. Fuel will be one of your most expensive “utilities,” so if you frequent a particular station make sure to pick up one of their member’s cards. Some cards, like the Flying-J / Pilot card for example, will also get you discounts on propane fill-ups at stations that carry it.
Grocery Club Cards
If you’re just a casual RVer you can probably get away with stocking up at your local grocer before a week-long getaway, but full timers may find themselves shopping all over the country and food costs can add up big-time. Consider picking up a club card at every major grocery chain you visit. If you visit another participating location it’ll save you down the road, and some will give extra incentives on your first grocery bill as a member. We often save 25% or more on grocery runs thanks to our (several) inch-thick stack of membership cards.
A lot of cards will also work at more than one chain. This may be due to a shared parent company or a regional program. For example, in Michigan we picked up a ‘Yes!‘ card at Glen’s and subsequently used it at Family Fare, and our Von’s card from California works at Safeway stores around the country.
Besides groceries, many grocery chains (such as Giant on the east coast) have a gas program associated with their grocery club card. Besides getting discounts on food, your grocery purchase may take X-number of cents per-gallon off of your next gas purchase at one of their store locations. Of course, whether their gas is any good will vary from store to store. Your mileage may vary (literally).
On a side note, we recommend having a junk email address to use just for this purpose. Most membership forms ask for an email address these days and there are enough sources of spam out there already. For the security-minded, if you have a junk email address and it get compromised, at least you know it’s not attached to anything important.
Set a Budget
Last but not least, keep in mind that as a full-timer you’re not on vacation. Let me repeat that for you because this is the most critical lesson you will learn about RV life: you are not on vacation. You’re out there living life and life costs money; more or less, depending on how you live it.
The more you travel the more you will spend. Make sure you keep track of where your money’s going. Set a budget for eating out, drinking, gambling etc. We track everything including how much it costs for us to drive a single mile on the most recent fuel prices. Over the years, it has cut our spending by well over two-thirds.
Having a wine budget doesn’t necessarily mean drinking budget wine. You can splurge from time to time, just keep tabs on it when you do. While it may be an occasional inconvenience, budgeting your vices will help keep your habits in check. Just as importantly, it’ll get you to try a bottle of something new when that $40 Malbec you want just isn’t in the cards for today.
When we’re not in a hurry to get somewhere, we try to average about $30 to $40 a day. Why? We were averaging between $65 and $100 a day to live in a house—depending on time of year and not including things like health insurance, car repair, vacations, etc.—and we just weren’t prepared for a hike in living expenses. Do we go over budget sometimes? You bet. But we mark it down when we do and we try to make up for it in other areas.
There’s a lot to see out there. So long as you plan ahead and take your time there’s no reason you can’t see all of it. Responsibility will follow you wherever you go. Balancing a checkbook is no walk in the park, regardless of where you start walking, so put your front door on wheels and have your morning coffee on a mountain top.