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The cost of freedom

February 21, 2009—Full-time RVers are different from the majority of people in a number of ways, and I don't just mean our mobile lifestyle. We have fewer taboos, it seems. For example, it's a cliche that "RVers are always talking about crap"—meaning talking about what chemicals work best in our toilets, or about the disasters we've witnessed when careless RVers (never ourselves!) were dumping their tanks. Another taboo we don't have is talking about money. When I lived in an apartment, few people I knew were comfortable discussing their income or expenses. But fulltimers are pretty free and easy with those numbers, and in fact many have posted them on their websites.

It's easy to understand why people are interested in fulltimers' expenses. After all, for every active fulltimer there are probably two or three people wondering "Could I live like that too? What would it cost? How would I pay for it?"

Expense summary

Since the second year of my full-time travels, I've been keeping track of pretty much every penny I spend. It's not hard—I just slip any receipts into my wallet, and at the end of the day, I record the expenditures in a simple text file. (Since 99% of my purchases are made on my credit card, I always have a handy printed record to back me up if questions arise.) And once a year I use a simple program called "MoneyWatch" that I wrote to analyze the previous year's expenses.

All you folks using Quicken or some other fancy commercial money management software are entitled to a hearty snicker at this point. OK, my methods are primitive... but I get the data I want with minimal effort and minimal complications, and that's all I care about.

When I took early retirement and began to travel full-time, I was making a bet that the financial experts who say you should plan to retire on 80%–90% of your salary were wrong. I was going to live on something closer to 30% of my salary... or try, anyway. The fact that I'm still traveling almost four years later (and that I'm living comfortably—no dog food on my menu) shows that I've succeeded so far. So what is my annual cost of living? The window at right shows MoneyWatch's summary for last year.

Breaking it down

Some of those numbers deserve a little more scrutiny, and MoneyWatch is happy to oblige. For example, those computer expenses include a new 24" iMac computer plus several hard drives (for backing up) purchased last year. Normally my computer costs would be much lower. On the other hand, that "$0.00" figure for veterinary care can't be right; I know I took Alix to the vet last fall for her annual checkup.

Everyone wonders about gasoline costs, so let's look at those.

1/9/2008	gasoline (14.3 gallons @ 3.01/gal)	$43.00
1/30/2008	gasoline 15.0 gallons @ 2.90/gal.)	$43.55
1/30/2008	gasoline 20.7 gallons @ 2.95/gal.)	$62.06
3/11/2008	gasoline (25.5 gals @ 3.12/gal.)	$79.64
3/19/2008	gasoline (9.2 gals @3.18/gal)	$29.21
4/7/2008	gasoline (26.4 gals @ 3.44/gal)	$90.92
5/1/2008	gasoline (21.8 gals. @ 3.44/gal.)	$75.00
5/21/2008	gasoline (26.7 gals @ 3.70/gal)	$98.77
5/27/2008	gasoline (22.9 gals @ 3.79/gal)	$86.78
5/28/2008	gasoline (16.2 gals @ 3.78/gal)	$61.11
6/9/2008	gasoline (20 gals @ 3.86/gal)	$77.05
6/19/2008	gasoline (19.2 gals @ 3.80/gal)	$72.96
6/26/2008	gasoline (18.3 gals @ $4.10/gal)	$75.00
7/6/2008	gasoline (12.6 gals @ $3.94/gal)	$49.62
7/7/2008	gasoline (23.8 gals. @ $4.20/gal.)	$100.00
7/8/2008	gasoline (20 gals. @ $4.20/gal.)	$84.06
7/10/2008	gasoline (24.2 gals. @ $4.14/gal.)	$100.00
7/16/2008	gasoline (17 gals @ $4.02/gal.)	$68.41
7/30/2008	gasoline (25.3 gals @ $3.80/gal)	$96.00
8/20/2008	gasoline (13.4 gals @ 3.74/gal)	$50.03
9/11/2008	gasoline (25.3 gals @ 3.55/gal)	$89.52
10/3/2008	gasoline (24.4 gals @ 3.26/gal)	$79.63
10/10/2008	gasoline (12.6 gals @ $3.11/gal)	$39.24
10/15/2008	gasoline (7.3 gals @ $2.88/gal)	$21.11
11/5/2008	gasoline (14.3 gals @ $2.32/gal)	$33.14
11/26/2008	gasoline (11 gals @ $2.02/gal)	$22.46

Total: $1,728.27 ($144.02/month)

Not bad—only about 7% of my budget. That's not really surprising when you consider how little I drive. With my "stay three weeks and then drive a hundred miles" lifestyle, I don't rack up many miles. In fact, in the two and a half years since I bought Skylark, I've only put 10,000 miles on the odometer... and much of that was in the first year. Compared to my friend Tessa, who has averaged more than 2,000 miles a month for the past two years, my 333-mile-a-month overall average is modest. But hey—I enjoy life in the slow lane.

Propane is an even smaller expense: I averaged $12.58 a month last year. Although I love to bake, I really don't go through much propane, in part because during the winter, I camp with electric hookups so I can heat my rig with small electric heaters instead of the noisy propane-fired furnace. With my New Mexico annual camping pass, a water/electric site costs me only $4 a night, so it's no extravagance to camp that way during the coldest months. Even when boondocking, I use my highly efficient catalytic heater instead of the furnace much of the time.

Living cheaply

That annual camping pass has a lot to do with my lodging expenses, which averaged a scant $124.64 a month. Most of that was money paid to state parks; I spent a total of just nine nights in commercial campgrounds last year. I hate their cheek-by-jowl campsites, constant traffic, and scenery that most often consists of your neighbor's slideout seen at close range. I mean, which would you choose: the commercial site on the left ($24 a night)... or the state-park site on the right (free with an annual camping pass)?


Just to drive the point home, that $124.64 a month buys me the same services as the $1,250.51 in mortgage payments, real estate taxes, water, sewer, and trash bills, and electric bills that I used to budget for when I lived in a condo in central New Jersey.

As with most fulltimers, my single largest expense is medical insurance, at $341 a month. At that, I'm lucky: my former employer pays half the cost, a situation that's unfortunately less and less common. If they decided to stop subsidizing retiree medical benefits, as many companies have done in recent years, I'd be paying closer to $700 a month.

My vehicle expenses were abnormally high in 2008, mainly due to a couple of big-ticket items: a $750 major maintenance (routine, no repairs needed) for Skylark's Ford E450 chassis, and a $1,000 rotor replacement for my Onan MicroQuiet generator (not routine, and should not have been needed on a generator with such low hours, they told me—just my bad luck).

Insurance savings

By the way, there's good news on the insurance front, though you can't see it here. When I was preparing to buy my new car at the beginning of 2009, I checked with my insurance agency, Aon Recreation, to see what it would cost to add coverage for it. The answer was just under $1,200... on top of the $1,200 I was already paying to insure Skylark. $2,400 a year seemed a tad steep to me, so on the advice of a friend who had worked in the insurance business, I went to Progressive's website and got a quote from them.

It turned out that by working directly with Progressive, the cost of insurance was about $400 less, and that was true for both the motorhome and the car. In short, I saved $800 a year by cutting middleman Aon out of the deal. Progressive's website is much easier to work with than my previous insuror's, too. The company seems much more customer-oriented. I like that.

Food for thought

My food expenses last year look rather high at $288.54 a month for groceries plus $27.03 a month for meals eaten in restaurants. Part of the reason is that most of my food shopping is done at Walmart, and since Walmart carries a little of everything, the grocery bills tends to get inflated by other items: cat litter, kitchen utensils, holding tank treatment, the occasional $5 DVD, and so on.

I do make an effort to split out the more expensive of these non-food items into separate entries in the proper categories, but it's just too much trouble to do that for every little thing, so non-food items do slip in under the "groceries" heading. It's not as if I eat my way through $300 worth of food every month! That said, I don't normally stint on food. If I crave blueberries, and blueberries are $3.99 a pint, I'll buy the damn blueberries. I long ago decided that if I were forced to scrimp on something, it wouldn't be food—I don't want to impoverish my life in that way. At least I don't smoke or drink, so I don't have those expenses.

The burden of materialism

One figure on the list that makes me sigh is $69.50 a month for storage. That money pays for a five by ten foot U-Haul storage room back in New Jersey, mostly full of items such as furniture, cookware, spare clothing, and power tools... things that I won't need as long as I continue full-time RVing—and I plan to keep doing this as long as I can!

Why did I store all this stuff? Well, back in June of 2005 when I sold my condo and started traveling full-time in my old rig, Gertie, I wasn't sure how the lifestyle would suit me. I figured that I might get tired of full-time RVing after awhile and want to settle down, so I wanted to keep my options open. I told my friends that I'd travel full-time for a year or so, see how I liked it... and then I'd either buy a small house in the country somewhere, or I'd upgrade to a larger, newer rig and keep traveling.

So I hedged my bets by saving a bunch of stuff that would come in handy if I ever lived in a house again. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't... but back then, I had no way of knowing that I'd be fulltiming indefinitely. I've been paying ever since... more than $2,000 to date. And of course I haven't been back to New Jersey, so all that stored stuff hasn't done me any good.

Worse, it's probably not in the best of shape by now. The storage facility turned out to be not too well sealed, and New Jersey's humid climate turned my sturdy boxes into limp ones. My friends sent me photos a year and a half after I left...

Storage room

...and it was obvious that serious slumpage had already taken place. I don't even want to think about what the room looks like now, two years later. Now, I did bag everything that went into those boxes, and I put desiccant packets in the bags... but just the same, I suspect there's mold and mildew aplenty by now. I just hope the books aren't ruined.

The Funny Thing

It's mainly the books I care about. If my table saw is rusted, it can be replaced. But my 70-year-old copy of Wanda Gág's "The Funny Thing"...? Oh, I know it's been reprinted... but I like old books, the kind with yellowing pages.

Sooner or later I'm going to have to drive back to New Jersey and clean out that storage room. I'll sell or donate most of the stuff in it, repackage the books, and haul them back out here to the southwest, where I can put them in a small, dry storage area... and be able to actually get to them next time I get a hankering to re-read "Henry and Beezus."

Where the money comes from

Everybody's situation is different, so talking about my income probably won't be very helpful to anybody else... but for the sake of completeness, here's how I met my expenses last year. In a nutshell, I'm in the black (just!) thanks to a small pension annuity, my freelance graphics work, and sales of things I've created such as my Eureka 2 hints and tips CD.) To be specific, here are my main income sources:

  • $11,575—Freelance graphics work, mostly for one steady client (bless their hearts!).
  • $10,792—My pension annuity (this amount will be reduced to $7,770 for 2009, however, due to the current depression).
  • $2,942—Eureka and Eureka 2 sales. More and more people are taking advantage of the lower download price, which is good because it means fewer trips to the post office for me. And of course I'm working on Eureka 3, which will include videos!
  • $759—Royalties from my book "The Mac OS X Lexicon," co-authored with Sharon Zardetto.
  • $731—Amazon referrals. My heartfelt thanks to all those who used my Amazon link to make purchases. It costs you nothing to do this, but Amazon puts a little money in my account every time you do.
  • $19—Blurb books. My two books published by print-on-demand publisher Blurb, "From Camping to Full Time" and "Quiet Waters," didn't sell well, mainly because Blurb's base prices are so high that even with my profits pared down to $2 a book, the books are much more expensive than I'd like.
  • $3—CaféPress merchandise. This was a real downer: although I sold $77 worth of 5-Minute Chocolate Cake Mugs, Full Time: 2009 calendars, and blank books, it cost $74 in fees to maintain my CaféPress "shop"... so the end result was a pitiful three bucks in profits for the year.

TOTAL: $26,820

That's less than a third of my pre-retirement income, so once again I've proven the "80%–90%" retirement rule of thumb isn't iron-clad. If you can get your expenses low enough, you can live very well on far less than that. In fact, I'm living more comfortably now than I ever did when I was earning $75K a year. I have everything material that I could want, my home is perfect for me, and I have the best scenery imaginable!

More information

I mentioned that a number of full-time RVers post information about their finances. One of the most informative such discussions in on the RV-Dreams website. Howard and Linda Payne provide very detailed information about their annual expenses and income (Howard has a degree in accounting, so he really knows his stuff), and you can learn a lot from their website.

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