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Money. Finances. Budget. Spending. Expenses. These are huge factors when you are considering living in an RV.
Stressed out yet? Yup, for whatever reason those words tend to get many of us wrapped up in a tight ball.
And this part I know from personal experience: Dealing with these topics as you face the possibility of living in an RV full-time is even more of a stressor. For me, facing the financial side of this possible adventure nearly broke me in two. (Thank goodness my wife was there to hold me together. She’s kind of like my personal duct tape many times.)
After two years of pouring ourselves into this online resource we call TREKKN, it’s clearer than ever that you desire a detailed picture of how to keep your finances in order when you hit the road.
We are here to help!
Living In An RV Without Going Broke: 21 Essential Tips
But you need to understand that the best we can do is offer potential suggestions for controlling expenses. Not every single suggestion is going to be applicable (or appealing) to you. We get that, but we believe that many of these tips truly will help you see some light at the end of that undefined tunnel in front of you.
So dive in to the tips below, keep an open mind, and figure out which ones will help give you the peace of mind you need to keep moving forward with this crazy dream of living in an RV. (It’s really not so crazy.)
Consider A Smaller RV Than Others Say You “Need”
A smaller RV is not only feasible, it will absolutely save you money in several ways: lower purchase price (and down payment), smaller truck required to tow it (for towables), less fuel required for travel (towable or driveable).
Those three factors can add up to many thousands of dollars in expenses during your RV journey.
If we had listened to the “prevailing wisdom”, we wouldn’t have chosen a 26-foot travel trailer for our family of five. Oh, and we also might never have hit the road at all because of higher down payment requirements on the bigger rigs.
Click here to read more about why we say you can get by with less RV.
Spend Money Upfront To Prepare for Better Boondocking
I know, I’m supposed to be showing you how to save money. But stick with me here, because we averaged about $6,500 per year (over $500/month) in RV park and campground fees. That’s even with our Thousand Trails Camping Pass!
If you chose to spend about half of that $6,500 up front to get a decent solar and battery setup, I’m confident you can reduce your annual expenses by thousands!
Beyond the annual savings, being prepared to boondock opens up many opportunities for you to go “off the beaten path” via inexpensive memberships like Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome. Not to mention BLM land!
Don’t Delay Required Maintenance on Vehicles
Trust me when I say that I have not been good at following this advice for most of my life. If you’re anything like me, don’t feel ashamed…but change your ways.
With as many miles as you will be putting on your RV, whether it’s towable or driveable, periodic maintenance is an absolute necessity to avoid repairs that are far more costly (and disruptive) down the road. Same goes for tow vehicles.
Not only will this tip likely save you buckets o’ money, it will also provide you with additional peace of mind. That’s why you want this lifestyle, right? So don’t shoot yourself in the foot by allowing procrastination to rob you of that peace of mind.
Learn to Embrace Imperfection
Here’s the truth: If you travel for any period of time, you will find yourself in some sketchy RV parks. We absolutely did. Especially when you’re just needing a one night stopover on a longer stretch, you could end up in an “imperfect” situation.
But guess what! Imperfect can save you some big bucks. So you have to ask yourself: Do I really want perfection? Or do I want a sustainable adventure? (I think I know the answer.)
Be careful not to judge that book by its cover too quickly. Some of our best memories were at RV parks we were very uncertain about at first. Embrace it!
Move Slower, Get to Know A Place
This is our #1 piece of advice we would give to anybody hitting the road full-time. Funny enough, it’s the same advice we read from others before we started. Sigh.
Moving fast is not cheap! More fuel, higher nightly park fees compared to weekly or monthly rates, less planning time…it all adds up to more dollars out of your pocket. Speed can easily cost you extra $100s every month, guaranteed.
I also believe there is huge value in getting to know a place better, connecting with it, instead of just breezing through and doing “touristy things”. You will find a better experience and significant savings if you slow things down.
Choose Your Campground Memberships Carefully
When we made it to the West Coast, I purchased a Thousand Trails Camping Pass. If I had purchased this membership when we started, I would have been wasting money because Thousand Trails has VERY few options in the middle of the country (we were in the Rocky Mountains region starting out).
Couple the right membership choices with boondocking, and you are golden! Read more about memberships you will actually use in our detailed post.
Pursue Outdoor Adventures Over Tourist Traps
If you have spent any time at all on our site, you know that we love our National Parks and speak of them every chance we get. The best decision you can make right out of the gate is to get an Annual Pass to our National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands (more than 2,000 locations!). Best $80 you will ever spend, my friend.
When you prioritize opportunities to visit these natural settings over other more touristy options, you will absolutely save money. But it will also help to support these sacred national treasures and hopefully protect them for the next generation. Buying your pass at this link will result in a donation of 10% of proceeds to the National Park Foundation. Highly recommended.
Give Some Extra Attention to Your Tires
If you have spent much time at all in RV forums, discussion boards or FB groups, then you know the number #1 item that seems to cause the most RV nightmare scenarios: travel trailer and fifth wheel tires!
I could go on for days about this tip, because I believe it is so important. But I think it’s best to save space here and just let you read my detailed post about why I spent $600 right away on new tires for my new travel trailer…and a little more on TPMS.
Don’t skip over this one, or I’m afraid you could come to regret it.
Make An Eating Out Contract. Then Sign It In Blood.
Here’s the deal: If it’s just going to be you on the road, or even you and a partner, this one might not carry quite as much weight. But if you are hitting the road as a family of four or more…get that blood ready to go.
If you struggled with the temptation of eating out while in a “normal” living situation, I can guarantee you the temptation will double on the road. The stresses, exhaustion and uncertainties of RV travel (especially early on) can sap your energy reserves and have you scrambling for a simple dinner fix on a regular basis.
Find 8-10 simple and cheap meals everyone loves that you can rely on in the stressful times: start with our top choices. Then put that contract in place (stating a max dollar amount will be spent on eating out per week) and grit your teeth. You can do this, and it can help you avoid unnecessary financial stress.
Avoid Extremely Cold Climates (For the Love of Everything)
About six months into our RV journey, we made the decision to visit Utah and then Colorado…in December. Why? Well, did I mention we were complete newbies to RVing? Needless to say, we paid the price…and not just for propane.
Extreme cold will rule, and complicate, your life when you are living in an RV. If you have a “Four Season” unit that is designed to operate in colder temps, you will probably do fine in the 20s and 30s. Colder than that and the situation quickly gets uncomfortable and potentially hazardous to your RV (repairs aren’t cheap).
Before you decide to ignore me, take a few minutes to read our post called 7 Hard Lessons We Learned about Winter RV Living. Take my advice, please.
Learn to Love Reading
Listen, I loved streaming shows and movies as much as anybody when we were on the road. At least until we started exceeding data limits for our internet HotSpot and had to pay additional charges. Gag me with a coax.
Especially if you will be doing work or running a business from the road, you have to respect those data limits and accept them as a reality of life. If that means you spend more time reading and less time binging, is that so bad?
Between Kindle Unlimited ($9.99/month) and ebooks available for free through your local public library, you and the family should have more than enough to keep you entertained without blowing your budget.
To learn about maximizing your mobile internet options, I strongly encourage you to visit www.RVMobileInternet.com . They rule this space.
Choose a Truck Without All the Bells and Whistles
You could very easily spend $40k-$50k on a tow vehicle. In fact, that would be the quicker and easier path. ¾ ton and 1 ton trucks can get amazingly pricey, if you hadn’t noticed already. It seems challenging to find one without every option on it also. They want you to think this is the norm you should follow.
Take a deep breath, and keep looking. After more than a month of searching, we found the right ¾ ton, 3 year old truck with only 35k miles on it, for under $27k. Where? Oh, about 1.5 miles from our house. Patience pays off here, my friend.
We didn’t have bluetooth, leather or a big shiny screen up front to entertain us. We “struggled through” with just an AUX cord to connect to phones for playing music. Avoiding luxury will help you keep your payment manageable.
Stay with Friends and Family for Short Breaks from the RV
I know, I know. The idea is to have your own self-contained “hotel on wheels” when you visit folks. But trust me: a few days here and there outside of your adventure capsule will do everyone some good! (Especially parents.)
Instead of spending extra cash on a hotel or Airbnb stay, consider splitting up and having some family members stay in the house while others stay in the RV. This will give everyone the space they need without overwhelming your hosts.
But don’t be afraid to splurge here and there in special destinations, if possible. We had two Airbnb stays: Banff National Park and coastal Maryland. While not cheap, they were fantastic. We don’t look back and regret those choices!
Make $3 Vehicle Stickers Your Memento of Choice
Kids can be relentless. (Duh.) Especially when it comes to requests to buy “stuff” at each touristy shop you pop your head into. Deal with this ahead of time.
Make it clear to kids that they will be using their own money to purchase any mementos at special stops on your journey. Tshirts, coffee mugs and a thousand other things quickly add up in terms of cost and weight. You must avoid both.
The perfect “memory jogger” is a $3 vinyl sticker available at nearly every stop you will make. They are cheap, lightweight, and perfect as a visual reminder to display on your RV or truck. Our “sticker clinic” turned plenty of heads and created smiles for us and for others. You can’t go wrong here.
Make Friends, Stay Longer
Remember in #5 how I said that moving fast isn’t cheap? Well, another way to help the family slow down is to always encourage your kids (and yourselves) to get out there and make friends. Don’t be shy! RVers are good folks.
We found that when the whole family made friends, we were much more likely to stay put in a spot instead of getting bored and just wanting to move on to “the next thing”. And friends on the road will absolutely enrich your RVing experience!
On top of that, friends will keep you in a spot so you can take advantage of the savings associated with moving slower. Save money, build relationships, and get the chance to know a place better. It’s a win-win-win for the whole family.
Limit Alcohol and Soda Consumption (Gasp)
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You just lost me, fella.” Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But you just can’t ignore the added costs of constant soda consumption and alcohol habits that get a little too…indulgent. We must have limits.
Just like any other expense, keeping beverage purchases under control is essential if you are going to stay on track financially on the road. Your top priority is to not go broke, right? Well, alcohol especially can add up very quickly.
Consider a “one beverage per day” rule or even an “only on the weekends” rule for both soda and alcohol. It’s easy to lose track of the days while traveling, so having a weekend ritual could help with both costs and remembering the day of the week. Not knowing what day it is can be surprisingly disorienting!
Become an “Instant Pot Ninja”
During our travels, we relied heavily on our Instant Pot to provide quick and easy meals the whole family enjoyed. If you don’t have any experience with one yet, get started with it before you hit the road so your skills will be honed already.
Not only will great Instant Pot meals help you avoid eating out too much (as discussed in #9), it will also save you money by not using propane to cook in the oven or on the stove top. Especially in cold climates, propane costs add up fast.
For about the cost of one nice family dinner out, you can grab this small appliance and be prepared to create meals your family will crave. We promise!
Make Your Campfire An Evening Ritual
You know as well as I do that there is just nothing quite like sitting around a good campfire. It encourages relaxation, conversation, great stories and even better memories for the entire family. We treasure our campfire memories.
If you are having to buy firewood for $5-$8 per bundle, however, it can start to get pricey. But if you limit your campfire time to an hour or so, instead of just having it burn all evening, you will control your costs and still establish a ritual.
So if you spend $100 per month or so on firewood, just remember that you are probably saving at least that much in terms of avoiding alternative forms of entertainment away from camp. You win again with savings and memories.
**Pro Tip**: In some areas, they don’t allow open campfires but they do allow propane fire pits! We received one as a gift from good friends while on the road and we loved having this option in dryer areas with moderately strict fire rules. Seriously consider it.
Limit Your Stays Near the Coasts
I hear you, this probably isn’t going to be one of your favorite tips…right down there with less alcohol. I’m putting it near the end of the list because, honestly, it’s not one of my favorite tips either. I mean, the coasts are just spectacular!
But facts are facts: Your costs across the board will rise as you get closer to the coasts. From fuel to food to park fees, you will begin to feel the pinch in a hurry. We had a great time in California, but I was so ready to leave there and stop hemorrhaging cash! For my cheapskate soul, it was particularly scarring.
So please, don’t avoid the coasts but realize that your stays there will likely be an assault on your budget and bank account. Consider limiting stays to a week or two if you need to preserve your cash. Just soak it all up a little faster. 🙂
**Pro Tip**: Refer back to tip #2. If you have set yourself up to boondock (off the grid), this can help a great deal to control costs near the coasts. Do your research on BLM land and other free camping options in coastal areas and then plan accordingly.
Embrace Simplicity in Stunning Locations
When you’re on the road for a long time, it can be easy to “lose the plot” of your adventure altogether. But I want you to stop and think about this: When you remember that you chose this because it is a simpler life, a slower life, a better life, it will allow you to live that life for longer and avoid regrets.
Your travels will allow you to see many of the most spectacular and breathtaking locations on the continent. What an amazing freaking gift! In my book, it is literally priceless. Embracing that gift and being content with it is key to extending it. When that gift itself is enough, your expenses will naturally decrease.
Make a conscious choice to turn your attention away from thrills and entertainment and toward the natural wonder that envelops you. If you don’t think it’s easy to miss that on this type of adventure, please think again.
Get Really Good at Cooking Over the Campfire
Remember all that campfire talk in tip #18? Well, here is how you can get even more bang for your firewood buck: Use that fire not just for family time, but also for preparing some unforgettable campfire food (desserts take priority).
The same thing goes for propane fire pits as well. You can easily get yourself set up to cook over either type of fire and become a fire master. Taking advantage of both will help to stretch your dollars further and expand your culinary horizons.
Memorable family time + awesome campfire grub = PERFECTION. If you don’t agree…well, you may just be pursuing the wrong lifestyle!
Explore Options for Supplementing Income On the Road
Controlling expenses is absolutely necessary, and I hope we have given you more than you bargained for with the 21 tips above. But there are limits to how much you can cut back before it begins to negatively impact your travels.
But in this day and age, opportunities are endless for working while you travel if you are open to learning some new things and possibly getting your hands a little dirty, in some instances.
Check out our blog post about how to make money while full-time RVing. It covers remote work options and seasonal job opportunities, but focuses mostly on exploring the possibility of blogging to support your travel habit (like we did). Blogging isn’t a fit for everyone, but maybe it is for you.
When you can work from almost anywhere, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities and makes ongoing full-time RVing much more feasible for the average person. Take some time to explore the idea of working remotely and see if it might be a fit for you!
Do You Think Living In An RV Without Going Broke Is Possible?
I’m not sure what you felt like when you clicked on this post to read it. But I hope that you are breathing a little easier after reading through our top 21 tips!
There’s very little chance that you will need to implement every single one of these tips while you are on the road, but choosing the right ones for you could make all the difference in the world. Making that decision could help you stay on the road much longer or reduce your stress level during the time you do spend out there adventuring.
Both of those are great outcomes in my book! I hope you agree.
Please let us know how these tips helped you in the comments below! And if you have any questions at all, drop those in as well.
Todd Bonner is the slightly quieter half of the dynamic TREKKN duo. He spends most of his time sharing information about RV travel and safety, RV accessories and tips, and the National Parks he has visited and still desperately craves. When he’s not busy working on TREKKN, you will often find him staring at breathtaking pictures of Glacier National Park, probably his favorite spot on earth.