What It's Really Like to Retire in an RV
Ever daydreamed about hitting the road in a recreational vehicle for your retirement? If so, you’re not alone. An estimated 1 million Americans have chosen to retire in an RV, spending at least part of the year on the road. It’s not just Baby Boomer retirees doing this, either; Millennials, some with kids, are also embracing life on the road and living a minimalist lifestyle. Cheapism consulted several RVers, many of whom live on the road-year round, and asked them to tell us what advice they’d give to someone considering whether retirement in an RV is the way to go.
Not surprisingly, the biggest initial expense of RV living is the RV itself. The largest RVs, Class A motorhomes, range in length from 29 to 40 feet or more. They resemble tour busses and have price tags to match, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million. Class B motorhomes, which are factory-modified cargo vans 18 to 24 feet long, range from $40,000 to $60,000 or more. Class C motorhomes also ride on a cargo van platform, but are longer (around 30 to 33 feet) and have a more traditional camper form with a sleeping nook above the cab. Retail prices are similar to Class B motorhomes.
There are several accounts from people like writer Jan Wesner Childs, who said in her blog that her family bought an RV that was too large and later had to downsize. “We thought we couldn’t survive unless we had the maximum space possible,” said Childs, who spent a year in an RV after her husband retired from the military. “If you want to travel, stick with 38 feet or under. Anything bigger is hard to tow and won’t fit in older campgrounds like national parks.”
Travel trailers are cheaper and smaller than other RVs. A used trailer that can accommodate two people (albeit snugly) can be had for $10,000 or less. While the trailer will spare your budget, you’ll still need a vehicle that’s powerful enough to tow it like a crossover, SUV, or truck. If you choose to go with a motorhome, you’ll also need secondary transportation as well unless you want to drive your RV everywhere (including on mundane errands, which no one recommends doing). That could mean towing a car behind an RV, in which case you’ll also need to invest in a towing rig, or commit to bicycling or walking everywhere when you’re camping.
With diesel (which most larger RVs run on) currently about $3.30 a gallon, fuel costs can add up quickly. “The RV lifestyle can also negatively impact the environment, which is something we struggle with frequently,” says Millennial blogger Nathan Hengst. He and his wife Ashley were living in Newark, Del., when they decided to quit the rat race and hit the road in 2017. His advice? Limit your mileage and choose your RV wisely. “Seriously ask yourself why you're considering full-time RV life, and then after you feel confident in your answer, choose the smallest-wheeled home you think you can tolerate,” he says.
Monthly expenses depend on factors including the number of people you’re traveling with, where you’re staying, food, insurance, and maintenance. Some bloggers boast of spending less than $1,000 per month, while others say they spend three times that or more.
Retired blogger Jim Morgan says he spent about a year researching the RV lifestyle, getting his personal affairs in order, and selling his home in Oregon before hitting the road in 2004. “Study, read, learn. Join all the RVing groups on the Internet and on Facebook and find out what people are having trouble with and how much things cost,” he says. “I had a pretty good idea what it would cost me per month to be on the road with no income long before I started the engine.”
Regardless of how much you spend, you will need to have some reliable source of income established beforehand, RVers say. For retirees like Jim Morgan, that means selling the house, cashing in a life-insurance policy, and relying on Social Security. Younger people like Ashley Hengst often have jobs that allow them to work remotely either part- or full-time. Sticking to a budget is essential, many RVers point out.
Jim Morgan and the Hengsts both say having a nest egg set aside before traveling is essential. “We saved a significant portion of our income during our traditional working careers while at the same time choosing to live a relatively frugal lifestyle,” Nathan Hengst says. “Our current daily expenses are covered by the savings we've invested over the years, and we continue to maintain a reasonable level of frugality in our travels.”
An option some RVers choose to supplement income is seasonal work, whether it’s a temp gig at an Amazon warehouse (the company actively solicits RVers to join their CamperForce) or the park where they’re staying. “I was up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and made friends with the owners of Ice Alaska RV Park,” Jim Morgan says. “I worked at that park as a camp host and they gave me free rent all year-round.”
Once you’ve got your ducks in a row, it’s time to hit the road. Some advantages are obvious like no home or yard maintenance, plus there’s the freedom to pick and and go whenever you please. “Don't like the neighbors? I just move onto the next park. Don't like the RV park? Just move to another one. Big ass storm heading my way? Just move on,” Jim Morgan says.
Another benefit of living in an RV is being forced to downsize. “Living out of an RV full-time forces you to get rid of excess material things that tend to accumulate in a more sedentary lifestyle,” Nathan Hengst says. “After spending days to weeks on end without reliable cell phone or internet service this past summer, we focused on how to fill our days with meaningful activities and personal improvement.”
Living in an RV and traveling means your social life will change. “We've discovered in our travels that we desire a fixed community, something constant travel can't provide,” Nathan Hengst says. “While a digital online community is certainly helpful and something other full-time travelers love, it doesn't serve as a legitimate replacement to a physical neighborhood for either of us.”
While it may seem like a minor inconvenience, using the toilet is no longer as easy as just flushing when you’re living in an RV. Emptying holding tanks can be a laborious process and must be done with care in order to avoid pathogens and unpleasant spills.
Living in an RV will force you to prioritize your possessions unless you maintain a part-time residence or a storage unit. Some practical considerations include a safe place to store valuables and important papers, as well as ample supplies of whatever prescription medications you may rely on, tools for making repairs to your RV as needed, and a reliable smartphone.
While many RV parks now have Wifi, it’s possible to go completely low-tech. If you want to live off the grid (something RVers call boondocking), a gas-powered generator or solar panels are essential, as are manual appliances like a can opener, and — if you really want to rough it — a solar-powered water heater for showers. And don’t forget to stock up on emergency roadside supplies as well.
Few current or former RVers say they regret choosing to retire on the road, but even staunch RV advocates say this isn’t a lifestyle for everyone. Experts recommend getting a taste of life on the road by renting an RV for a week or longer. Expect to spend at least $1,000 for a one-week rental, plus several hundred to $1,000 or more for fuel, campground rental, food, and miscellaneous expenses.It’s pricey, but you may just get hooked. “It does wear on you, maintaining this big box on wheels,” Jim Morgan says, “but I get so much enjoyment doing it, that it's hard to just give it up.”
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