Will Living in a Camper Save You Money?

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With housing prices reaching unfathomable levels and home rentals being snatched up like cash on the highway, you might be wondering, “Will living in a camper save me money? Should I cancel my Netflix subscription? How really necessary is shampoo?”

Let’s split this question into four.

  1. Living in an RV “granny pod”
  2. Becoming a stealth van-dweller
  3. Moving into a mobile home
  4. Adopting the RV lifestyle full-time

This article is about #4 – adopting the RV lifestyle full-time. I’m assuming you’re currently living in an apartment suite or single-family home.

Answers to the first three questions are quick and easy: yes, and yes, and bad idea!

  • Granny Pod: If you can park your RV camper for free in someone’s backyard and piggyback off their utilities, then yes, you’ll save money. However, this is illegal (thanks to zoning codes) in 95 percent of the country. Maybe borrow some tactics from the Appalachian moonshiners to stay under the radar?
  • Van-Dweller: If you can stand living in 30-80 square feet (about the size of a walk-in closet), don’t mind the total lack of privacy, and have a legal domicile so you can participate in society, then yes, living the Van Life will save you money.
  • Mobile Home: Mobiles homes are somewhat poorly constructed and, unlike other residential dwellings, depreciate in value. Mobile home owners rarely own the land the home sits upon (they pay a monthly rent), moving a mobile home costs at least $3,000 to $5,000 and requires professional equipment, and many trailer court investors/owners are not much better than slum lords.

But as I said, this article is really about Question #3. Phrased another way:

Can a somewhat normal family of 1-4 people transition from a single-family home to conventional full-time RVing and save money while doing it?

Short answer: Yes/usually/kinda

Long answer: If you want dollar signs and decimals, we’ll need to do some math.

For the rest of this article, I will assume that you are a reasonable, rational person who has already done some research about campers. So let’s not waste time on common-sense observations like:

  • You’ll need to downsize. That means selling or donating your hoard of goods, not just stockpiling them in a storage unit!
  • Cook meals from scratch. And get an RV convection microwave while you’re at it!
  • Research the best RV for you. Short answer: Class C motorhome, travel trailer (up to 28 ft), or 5th wheel up to 32 feet would be best.

There is a simple 5-step decision-making process to choosing whether you should move into an RV to save money:

  1. Know your current monthly budget.
  2. Estimate your monthly RV budget.
  3. Calculate your upfront costs.
  4. Adjust for risk and sacrifice.
  5. Make a decision!

Let’s run through those steps one at a time. I’ll give you some tips and tricks for each one.

But first, a warning:

I want you to skim-read this article (then come back here!). I don’t usually point fingers at other online writers, but that article is a perfect example of utter nonsense. My two personal favorites are:

  • “Don’t run your RV appliances on propane,” which is actually almost always cheaper than electrical (especially your fridge), and;
  • “Living in a trailer means campfires any day, every day!” which is a good laugh for anyone who’s ever actually lived on the road.

Don’t listen to anyone who promises you living in an RV will automatically, effortlessly save you money! It’s more complicated than that.

1. Know Your Monthly Budget

… You do know your monthly budget, right??

If not, pull out that calculator, print off all those credit card statements, open up your checkbook and –

Wait, sorry, I forgot this isn’t 1995 anymore.

While there’s nothing wrong with tracking all your expenses with a spreadsheet or ledger, technology has made the process a lot easier.

I recommend a budget tracking app. These apps can automatically track, categorize and report on your expenses! They’re like a free bookkeeper.

You can link different bank accounts or credit cards, so all your transactions are captured and analyzed in a central location.

Great options include:

If you’re determined to do it the hard way, GnuCash is a great open-source personal and small business accounting software.

Once you’ve calculated your average monthly expenses (don’t forget to average out those occasional expenses like auto repair!), you can move on to step #2.

2. Estimate Your Monthly RV Budget

You can actually make your own RV lifestyle budget by checking out the interactive calculator at Changing Gears! You can either bring your own numbers or let the calculator estimate based on your spending habits (thrifty – spendthrift).

You can even read from real RVers what they spend every month!

Again, I’m not going to dissect all the associated costs of living in an RV or camper. But, I would like to highlight five expense categories you could easily miss.

  • Internet. There are no fiber-optic ethernet cables into an RV! You’ll probably need a MiFi device like the Verizon Jetpack or (my personal favorite) the SkyRoam Solis. Cellular or satellite internet will ALWAYS be more expensive and less reliable than a landline!
  • Maintenance. You need to budget AT LEAST $100 a month, and that assumes you’re a mechanical quasi-genius who can do all the repair work yourself!
  • Storage. If you didn’t take my advice about downsizing, you’ll need to rent a storage unit. Figure $100 a month for an average 12×14 unit, or 3x that for a climate-controlled unit.
  • Insurance. You’ll want RV insurance, of course. Your auto insurance will likely increase if you plan to drive a lot, too. Plus insurance for storage shed.
  • Dump stations. If you plan to “moochdock” at friends or family, you’ll need to occasional dump your waste tanks. You’ll need to transport a portable waste tank to the dump station, which will likely cost $10-$15 per use.

And lastly … the big variable expense in RV living is fuel and housing.

You can use this free fuel calculator to estimate your costs of gasoline or diesel.

Estimating housing … is a little more difficult.

  • Moochdocking is free! But possibly illegal.
  • Boondocking on public lands is free or close to it, but subject to many restrictions (e.g., a maximum 14-day stay in any one area). If you do plan on boondocking, you really need to read the list of free overnight RV parking spots here.
  • Moving to a new campground every night can easily cost $1,500 a month just in campground fees!
  • Reserving a long-term campsite (e.g. monthly, seasonally) can drastically slash costs, but those sites are few and far between.

So here’s where I share some harsh financial honesty.

Unless you’re moving out of San Francisco, traveling in an RV full-time will likely not save you any money compared to a regular house.

Campground fees are just too expensive. There aren’t enough campgrounds to host the massive amounts of RVs produced in recent years. Prices have skyrocketed, especially for full hookup (FHU) and pull-through sites for large rigs.

If you are moving into an RV to pay off debt faster, then you only have two realistic options:

Sign up for a monthly or seasonal rental
Swear off consumerism and embrace a “more is less” mentality

If the second option appeals to you, here’s a blog from someone who did just that and paid off $53,000 in student debt!

3. Calculate Your Upfront Costs

Everyone hates upfront costs.

They ruin the best-laid of plans.

Say you run the numbers and estimate that your average monthly savings from moving into an RV will be $220. Great job! That’s $2,640 a year towards student loans!

But have you considered the upfront costs of moving, such as:

  • What are the costs of moving your stuff? Will you need to rent a UHaul, purchases boxes or containers, or hire a moving crew?
  • What’s the cost of the RV itself? RV financing isn’t like a home mortgage! Rates are much steeper. For competitive rates, you need a 10-20 percent down payment. And what about the opportunity costs of paying, say, $5,000 for an RV that will depreciate rather than investing that $5,000 in a tax-advantaged retirement fund?
  • Will you be boondocking? If plan to take advantage of off-grid camping (without hookups), often on free public land, then you’ll be spending at least another $2,000 upfront for an inverter generator, batteries, solar power, extra water tanks, etc.
  • Does the move affect your commute time? Your personal time has financial value! If moving to an RV campground adds 20 minutes a day to your one-way commute, that’s 166 hours a year! If you value your personal time at a measly $15 an hour, that’s almost $2,500! Plus, more driving means more wear and tear on your vehicle.
  • What are the upfront costs of leaving your current home? Will you need to spend more money on lawn care or re-painting to prepare the home for sale?

If you estimate that your upfront moving costs are $3,400, then it will take almost 16 months for you to begin making any real savings at all!

4. Adjust for Risk and Sacrifice

Everyone has a different response to Step #4.

If you’re a free-wheelin’ remote worker with no spouse, no kids, a devotion to minimalism, and a love for Henry David Thoreau, you might not have any sacrifices to consider! You were made for the RV lifestyle!

However, if you have a family, pets, a garden, multiple vehicles, or you can’t imagine not having an 8-ft tall Christmas tree every December, then living full-time in an RV to save money will require some sacrifice.

Owning dogs, in particular, can be a challenge in a small space. Dogs cannot be left outside during the day unattended at most RV parks.

Many campgrounds only allow one vehicle per campsite. More vehicles = higher fees.

Often, life just isn’t as convenient inside an RV.

  • The fridge isn’t as big, so you have to shop for groceries more.
  • You have to unpack clothes seasonally because there isn’t enough room in your wardrobe closets.
  • If you want acoustic privacy, you have to wear noise-canceling headphones.
  • You have to dump your waste tanks.
  • You can’t run down your batteries all the way.
  • You have to pay for mail forwarding services so you can have a permanent address so you can file your taxes, get a driver’s license, and participate in society.

There’s a reason it’s called “the RV lifestyle.” It will likely require some changes of habit. Life just moves a little slower in an RV.

Plus, adopting the RV lifestyle to save money carries some risk.

5. Make a Decision!

I’m a big fan of numbers. But what if the numbers don’t quite line up?

If your math indicates that you could save $1,600 a month by switching to an RV, then you probably should! Even if you don’t like the lifestyle, isn’t it worth saving $19,200 a year for a few years?

But what if you could save only $200, or $300? Or just $50?

Where’s the line between a good financial decision and a risky one?

Again, since everyone has different risk tolerance and lifestyle ambitions, I can’t point to an exact number, like $250.74 a month, and say, “That’s it!”

But here’s a simple rule of thumb (your mileage may vary):

  • Under $200 a month: Don’t do it unless you’re enamored with the RV lifestyle and don’t have long-term commitments.
  • $200 – $500 a month: Don’t make the move unless you’re willing to commit for at least two to three years. You will need to live frugally in all aspects and be prepared to maintain and repair your RV yourself.
  • $500-$1,000 a month: Hmmm … carefully consider this option! You could save a significant amount of money, but a handful of bad luck experiences (e.g., you need a new RV roof), could cancel out all your savings. What level of risk are you willing to accept?
  • $1,000 – $2,000 a month: Unless you hate the RV lifestyle or find a great deal on a local rental home, this sounds like a good deal! Even just a year of living full-time in an RV could pay off your car!
  • $2,000+ a month: Do it! Or at least look at other housing options. At this price point, you’re probably spending at least $2,500 a month on your current housing. There are likely cheaper options in your area.
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