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Recreational vehicles (RVs) aren't just for retirees anymore. Digital nomads and Instagram influencers praise the joys of #vanlife, downsizing and seeing the world. But does living full time in an RV really cost less than living in a house or apartment? Costs of living in an RV include fuel, campground fees, vehicle maintenance and more. Here's what you should know to set a realistic budget for the nomadic adventure of your dreams.
Expenses of Living in an RV
Unique expenses of life in an RV include:
- Buying your RV: Average RV costs range from $5,000 for a pop-out trailer to $140,000 or more for a Class A motorhome (the largest class of RV), according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA). RV owners spend an average of $75,000 on their vehicle; as with vehicles, most people finance the cost.
- Fuel: Gas costs vary depending on your location, vehicle and usage. Smaller RVs get better mileage; a Class A RV can gobble a gallon every 6 to 8 miles. You may also need propane for cooking (typically about $20 per tank).
- Maintenance and repairs: Your RV is your home, so keeping its systems—including plumbing and appliances—running smoothly is essential. One survey found full-time RVers spent an average $1,410 annually on maintenance.
- RV insurance: Policies for full-time RV use cost more than recreational RV insurance because they include elements of homeowners insurance, such as coverage for personal property and emergency expenses if your RV is unlivable. Bundling RV and auto insurance often lowers the cost. Agencies specializing in RV insurance, like Good Sam Insurance or National General, can craft a policy covering all the bases.
- Campsite fees: Fees range from free to $100 per night and up depending on campground location, popularity, season and amenities.
- Mail forwarding: Mail forwarding services forward physical mail to your current address for $10 to $50 per month. Many digitally scan mail first so you can decide if it's worth forwarding.
- Laundry: RVs don't have washers and dryers, so plan to pay to do your laundry on the road.
- Equipment: "Boondocking" or dry camping without water, electrical or sewer hookups cuts campground fees, but extras like fans, space heaters, power banks or generators, and a composting toilet make it more pleasant.
Other Costs of RV Living
Some expenses are unavoidable whether at home or in an RV, including:
- Car payment and insurance: You'll need a car for day excursions, so figure car payments and car insurance into your costs.
- Wi-Fi: Those with minimal connectivity needs can use a phone as a mobile hotspot, but most RVers use a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to provide secure Wi-Fi anywhere. Buying a mobile hotspot is like buying a cellphone: Prices range from $40 to $500 and up depending on provider, contract and data plan (you'll want an unlimited plan). To ensure nationwide coverage, many RVers buy plans from more than one cell carrier. Public Wi-Fi on the road is unreliable and vulnerable to hackers, but if you plan to use it, a Wi-Fi booster or extender (typically about $100) can amplify the signal.
- Food: Food may cost more on the road since you can't buy in bulk, and eating out can be tempting after a long day of driving.
- Entertainment: Budget for park entry fees, sightseeing tours, museums, concerts and other travel experiences.
- Health insurance: Health insurance for RVers not covered by Medicare is complicated. Health insurance generally only covers health care in your home state. Some RVers visit their home states annually and schedule all medical appointments then. Accident-only, emergency or telemedicine insurance can provide some coverage outside your home state, but make sure you understand their exclusions and limitations. Companies specializing in health insurance for RVers, such as Nomad Insurance Group, RV Health and RVer Insurance Exchange, can explain your options.
Speaking of home states, your home state, or "domicile," affects everything from your income taxes, insurance coverage and estate plan to your driver's license, vehicle registration and jury duty requirements. If you've sold your home to travel in your RV full time, you may need to establish a new domicile. Domiciling laws are complex, so it's best to consult an attorney if you want to establish a domicile other than your current home state.
How to Save on RV Costs
To reduce the cost of RV life, try these tips.
- Buy used. Like cars, RVs depreciate, so purchasing a slightly used model can mean substantial savings.
- Plan ahead. Research campground fees and discounts; visit popular destinations during the off season when fees are lower.
- Shop smart. Try to buy gas, groceries and other necessities in states with lower prices or no sales taxes (Alaska, Delaware, Oregon, Montana and New Hampshire).
- Do it yourself. Learn to repair your RV yourself; you'll save money and feel confident you can handle a breakdown.
- Camp free. Many businesses allow RV boondocking in their lots, including Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Cabela's and Camping World. Look for free campsites on Bureau of Land Management and National Forest land.
- Join the club. Membership clubs like Good Sam, Thousand Trails, Passport America and the Family Motor Coach Association offer discounted campground fees. Some offer other benefits like roadside assistance or fuel discounts. Review exclusions carefully to ensure a program is worth the cost.
Your Credit Journey
Whether your RV life is permanent or temporary, be sure to maintain your credit score on the road. Sign up for paperless billing and use online banking so you don't miss a payment on your auto loan, student loans or credit cards while on the move. Experian's free credit monitoring lets you track your credit while savoring your RV adventure.