How much do you need? Full time RV Budget Basics

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How much does your full time RV budget need to be? Figures vary widely, but if you’re thinking of getting into this traveling lifestyle, it’s a good question.

Some people just hit the road and go until the money runs out, but if you hope to make this a long-term arrangement, you may want a better handle on the money side of things!

So what’s the bottom line? Sadly (for your answer), and happily (for the options open to people), there’s no “one size fits all” answer.

There are people whose full time RV budget is only $500 a month, and others who spend $10,000. It all depends on how you travel, how you live, and the choices you make.

Here’s a rundown on some important variables to consider when figuring out what YOUR budget will be.


Variable – Camping style

Full time RV, Expensive camping

Do you want to spend your time in full-service RV resorts? You can stay at campgrounds with full hookups, that give you enough power to run your air conditioner full time, and all the hot water your heart desires.

Big RV parks mean a higher full time RV budget
Big RVs at a big RV park – unlimited power and water

You can have a swimming pool, laundromat, kids playground, shuffleboard, exercise room, and organized activities and outings. With a big RV and full facilities, it’s like having all the comforts of a traditional home, except that you can move when you feel like it. 🙂

Of course, this all comes at a cost! A nice RV park in the US could easily run you $50/day. Some are more than that.


Full time RV, Budget camping

Boondocking is the cheapest way to go, which is camping out on public lands, with no facilities provided at all. The US has a lot of land in the National Forest and BLM systems that is freely available for anybody to use. Typically you can camp for free, with a 14-day limit in a given spot.

Free boondocking sites help your full time RV budget
Boondocking can be beautiful, and it’s free!

For camping this way, you need to be self-sufficient. There’s no power plug, so solar panels are a great way to go. There aren’t any flush toilets or hot showers. You have to carry in all the water and food you’re going to use, because there’s no store out there, either.

Boondocking requires more preparation, but it can get you into some gorgeous and remote places! If you like the feeling of freedom and open space, rather than being in spot #21 between two other RVs, it’s pretty appealing. And for your full time RV budget, this is free!

Camping style
Full time RV budget range = Free to $1,500/month


Variable – Miles covered, pace of travel

Are you planning to cover 300 miles this month or 3,000? Or maybe you just want to stay in one place for the month?

Every mile you cover has a cost. Gas and regular maintenance like oil changes are pretty predictable, and easy to tie to your mileage. Major vehicle repairs are much harder to predict, but still more apt to happen the more miles you’re putting in.

The miles you cover affect your full time RV budget
How much ground are you planning to cover? Miles = Dollars

Full time RV, Expensive travel pace

Sometimes you need to cover a lot of miles. Perhaps you’re planning to travel to Alaska in the summer, and want to do some touring in Canada along the way. There’s just no way to do a trip like this without putting in a lot of miles.


Full time RV, Budget travel pace

On the other hand, if you want to spend the summer in the Rockies, it’s possible to move from gorgeous place to gorgeous place, finding new vistas, towns and hiking trails, without covering many miles at all.

Taking it a step further, some people like to spend several months each winter in a favorite campground, and don’t go much further than the grocery store or the golf course.

Pace of travel
Cost per mile varies by vehicle and location, but the more miles in a month, the higher the expenses. It’s highly variable, but for illustration, say 200 miles/month vs. 2,000 miles/month, at a cost of $0.50/mile.
Full time RV budget range = $100 to $1,000 per month
*Plus vehicle variation below


Variable – Vehicle considerations

People travel full-time in all sorts of vehicles. Big class A RVs, 4-wheel drive truck campers, classic VW buses, monster 5th wheels, and even vintage Toyota motorhomes like Zennie! 🙂

Unique micro camper / RV
People travel with all sorts of vehicles!

Your choice of vehicle obviously affects your experience. How much space do you have, and what level of comfort do you enjoy while you travel?

It also affects your full time RV budget.

  • Price per mile. A bigger and/or less efficient vehicle uses more gas, and has a higher cost per mile.
  • Maintenance costs. Some vehicle makes are known for pricier maintenance. Also an older vehicle may have more age and use-related problems which require more repairs. And some vehicles just aren’t as reliable as others.
  • What kind of places can you go? A 4WD truck camper can get to off-grid places that other vehicles could never make it. If you’re in a half-million dollar class A, you probably want to stick to nicer roads.
  • Cost for camping. Some places charge more for bigger spaces, so your cost per night in the same campground can vary with your vehicle size.

Vehicle considerations
No price on its own, but it will affect cost per mile and camping expenses.


Variable – Food and drink

Full time RV, Expensive food & drink

If you camp in or near towns, that opens up the possibility of going out for dinner and drinks. It can be a lot of fun checking out the nearby restaurants, and trying the local specialties wherever you happen to be.

It’s also easier. Who wants to cook and do dishes every night, when you could go out to eat?

Fine dining adds expense to your full time RV budget
Looks fabulous! And I didn’t have to cook it, either!

Of course, this is just like when you live in a traditional house. Do you go out to eat every day? Twice a day? Once a month?

And when you do go out, what kind of places to you choose? Tacos from a street vendor, or an upscale seafood restaurant?


Full time RV, Budget food & drink

Cooking for yourself is more work, but it’s also a way to save money. Some people even find it creative and fun, though it may not seem that way every day! 😉

When you do cook for yourself, is it lobster tails or ramen noodles? Do you have a fine vintage wine with it, or a can of cheap beer? There are all different levels of “budget”!

 Cooking steaks over an oven campfire
Do-it-yourself fine dining can taste pretty darn good, too!

This part of the full time RV budget is highly variable, and also entirely within your own control. You can decide how, what and where to eat, depending on what you want to spend. If you’ve gone way over on travel expenses, then it could be time for the ramen noodles… 😉

Food and drink
Unlike the above categories, this part depends on the number of people you have. I’ll use $5 to $40 per day, per person, as a range here (though it’s quite possible to go beyond that).
This gives a full time RV budget range of:
– $150 (single person cooking) to
– $2,400 (couple, eating out at nice places).


Variable – Activities and entertainment

So let’s say you’ve found yourself a sweet little campsite near the ocean, and you decide to settle in for a week or more. Now what?

Full time RV, Expensive activities

Do you rent a jet ski for the day, or go out on the catamaran sailing trip? Sign up for a wine-tasting tour? Take a helicopter sightseeing flight? Costly activities can add a lot to your monthly expenses.

Expensive activities raise your full time RV budget
Jet skis are fun, but they cost more than hiking!

Full time RV, Budget activities

On the other end of the scale, do you go for long walks on the beach every day, looking for seashells? Research the best hiking trails in the area, and go exploring? Set up a hammock, and catch up on some reading (and napping)? 😉 These would put you into the budget end of the range.

Activities
The low end here is free. More expensive activities could average $75 per person = $150 per outing for a couple. If you do that 10 times per month, it’s $1,500.
Full time RV budget range: Free to $1,500


Variable – Location

Let’s face it, some places are just more expensive than others, and this can color the cost of everything in your full time RV budget.

Even if you’re cooking for yourself, the price of fresh veggies is higher in Alaska than in Mexico.

However many miles you’re covering, the price of gas is higher in California than Arizona.

Location
There’s no price for this on its own, but it acts as a multiplier for all of the other expenses above.


Variable – Extras

Regular monthly expenses can include vehicle insurance, health insurance, regular medications, cell phone, Netflix, satellite TV, and other monthly services.

Occasional extra expenses always come up, too. Laundry has to be done. There’s an entrance fee to the national park. You have to pay a toll for a highway or bridge. Except when you’re in the middle of the wilderness, it seems there’s always something! 😉

A cell phone is an absolute essential
My navigator, research assistant, and communications aide 🙂

At the expensive end of the scale, if you’re paying for health insurance, this can be HUGE by itself! The more your vehicle is worth, the higher the vehicle insurance will be. Also, with a big, expensive RV, you’re more likely to have things like satellite TV.

At the budget end of the spectrum, insurance isn’t as expensive for lower-price vehicles, and it’s possible to do without a lot of those extras. (But not the cell phone – that’s absolutely mandatory for me!) And if you have Medicare or VA health insurance, that can save you an enormous amount.

Extras
This one is hard to estimate. Insurance alone is an enormous expense for some people, while barely a factor for others. I’ll pull numbers out of a hat here for illustration.
Full time RV budget range:
– Budget end is minimal insurance costs, minimal monthly extras, and a handful of occasional expenses = $150.
– High end is expensive insurance and plenty of extras = $2,000.


Variable – Surprises

This category includes unexpected expenses that you didn’t realize you’d have. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good way to budget for these!

The biggest category in my experience is vehicle repairs. For instance, when I was in Idaho, Zennie’s engine blew up and I needed to spend thousands of dollars on a new engine.

Losing an engine was a big blow to my full time RV budget
Zennie’s looking awfully forlorn without her engine

While it’s possible to estimate maintenance and have a slush fund to cover repairs, there’s no way that I ever expected anything of this magnitude.

I’m also still trying to find the best way to allocate such expenses. It did happen in October in Idaho, but it could just as easily have been August in Wyoming. I don’t want it to look like Idaho is an exceptionally expensive place to go! 🙁


So how does it all shake out?

These are extreme examples, and just for illustration, but they will give you an idea of the wide range of full time RV budget figures.

Unless you’re truly exceptional (well, of course you are, but maybe not in this respect!), your own budget numbers will fall somewhere in the middle. Where exactly depends on your choices.


Camping $0 $1500
Miles traveled 200 2,000
Cost / mile 0.40 0.80
Mileage costs $80 $1,600
Food & drink $150 $2,400
Activities $0 $1,500
 Extras $150 $2,000
 Total per month $380 $9,000

How about my own full time RV budget with Zennie?

I usually travel on a shoestring, and my own expenses are much closer to the low end of this budget range. (Except for Idaho – it’s super expensive there!) 😉

I like to boondock when possible, and stay in cheap campgrounds (e.g. National Parks) the rest of the time. It’s very rare for me to stay in a full-service campground.

I greatly prefer slow travel, where I don’t need to cover a lot of miles, and can spend the time to explore and enjoy one place before moving on. That said, sometimes I find myself zooming from one place to another because I’m meeting people, or snow is coming! When that happens, I see my travel expenses go way up for awhile.

I cook for myself about 95% of the time, and I’m fairly thrifty with the extra activities. I’m not taking any helicopter tours, but if there’s a charge to get into a special park or attraction, I’ll pay it.

Climbing a Toltec pyramid at Tula, Mexico
I skimp on many things, but I won’t miss a pyramid!

So I try to keep my full time RV budget near the low end of the range when possible, but I’m not quite as cheap as the imaginary person above. 🙂

In addition to this “Budget Basics” post, I’m creating another series of “money” posts, where I break down my actual expenses, showing exactly how much living in an RV full time cost me during different road trips.

But now you know… your results WILL vary!


Questions? Comments?

Are you a full-time traveler, with some of your own full time RV budget numbers to share? Or do you have questions about the budget factors I looked at above (or something I forgot)? Please leave your thoughts, contributions and questions in the Reply section below. Thanks!

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PHOTO CREDITS: RV resort – Daniel Lobo, Unique camper – Andrew Bone, Luxurious food – Alpha, Campfire cooking – Ryan Harvey, Jet ski – Don DeBold, Cell phone – https://www.actionlinkwireless.com, All others – Deanna Keahey
All images licensed under Creative Commons for Commercial Use.

Follow Deanna:

Hi! I'm Deanna, creator of Uphill Zen. I'm currently yondering around North America with my 1986 Toyota motorhome, Zennie. What makes my heart sing is travel, adventure, and the awe-inspiring wonders of nature. Finding ways to share that joyous spirit is what this is all about.

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