We have an exhilarating annual tradition for the first day of the new year: watching the sun rise to confirm that there will indeed be another year ahead, followed by a joint financial review to make sure we are prepared for the year and to solidify our long-term financial and personal goals. Our favorite place to watch the sun rise is on the beach, and happily on January 1, 2020 we found ourselves on a gorgeous white sand beach with east-facing views. The low ceiling of clouds made for an interesting sunrise, with the sun only briefly peeking through a narrow band between sea and clouds before disappearing again.
Enjoying the sunrise was easy compared to finalizing our projected budget for 2020. The project of full-time RVing is an interesting challenge for budgeting because there are so many unknowns. We had never owned an RV prior to buying our Airstream, so we didn’t necessarily know what our travel style would be. There is also the question of where to travel in any given year, which can dramatically change costs. Gleaning information from other travel bloggers was critical for determining how much this lifestyle might cost us, so just as we did at the end of 2018, we share our actual financial info for 2019 in the hopes of assisting others who may want to pursue this type of adventure.
Your Mileage May Vary
The biggest caveat about this spending information is that it is our information. It’s a direct result of the choices we make, how we like to travel, our priorities. The costs of RVing vary considerably depending on the style of travel that people adopt. Camping costs can run from $0 per night for boondocking to $100+ per night at RV resorts with pools and recreation amenities. Some people stay in one spot for months at a time while others cover tens of thousands of miles every year. These are very different styles of travel and have different cost profiles. You can get a sense of our camping and traveling style from our 2019 year in review. Our most expensive and least expensive stays of the year, on a per-night basis:
To summarize other details that are pertinent to our expenses: We lived full time in our Airstream for the entirety of 2019. Other than a small 5×5 storage unit in Florida, we do not own or rent any property. We did not camp host or have any other arrangements that provided us with free camping in exchange for working at any point during the year. We stay overwhelmingly at public parks, which typically have stay limits of 7 to 14 days, so we are constantly on the move. We don’t work, so we leave camp most days to visit trails, museums, and other destinations, which means we put a lot of non-towing miles on our truck and we also pay admission fees at attractions. We rarely eat out for meals, and when we do it’s usually pizza. But we spend big on high quality groceries, eating organic products whenever we can get them. We also enjoy visiting breweries and tasting local beer.
Got it? OK, Here It Is, the Actual Spend
The table below provides, to the best of our ability, a complete picture of our spending in 2019, other than as noted below.
|Category||Total Spend||Interval Average
|Gas||$3,259||$271.58/month||We reduced our total mileage this year and our gas spend reflects this.|
|Includes all sales and lodging taxes, reservation fees, and cancellation fees.|
|Other Travel and Lodging||$2,493||$207.75/month||Three trips to the east coast for me: one for jury duty and two to attend volunteer board meetings.|
|Vehicle Maintenance||$2,564||$213.67/month||Service and repairs on the truck (new tires, packrat related repairs) and the Airstream (wheel repair)|
|Vehicle Insurance & Registration||$1,609||$134.08/month||Coverage for both the truck and Airstream, including AAA|
|Health Insurance||$11,892||$991.00/month||Ugh! See below.|
|Medical Expenses||$9,717||$809.75/month||Double ugh!|
|Entertainment: General||$2,168||$180.67/month||Includes museum and park admission fees, annual park passes, subscriptions to publications we read, souvenir purchases, small charitable contributions, and gifts for friends and family.|
|Entertainment: Restaurants||$841||$70.08/month||What exactly is a restaurant? We barely know. This should increase in 2020 with visits to areas with lots of friends and family, and actual restaurants.|
|Groceries||$10,911||$909.25/month||As mentioned, we like to eat well at home. Includes a lot of beer and wine as well.|
|Household Supplies and Services||$3,565||$297.08/month||Laundromats, haircuts, propane, new clothing and gear, cleaners, paper towels, etc., and fees for our storage unit in Florida.|
|Connectivity||$3,489||$290.75/month||Unlimited data plan on AT&T for many devices, SiriusXM for the truck, Amazon Prime|
|Total:||$62,442||$5,203.50/month||Last year our total spend, pre-tax credit, was $49,734. The biggest driver of the increase was an unexpected $10,000 increase in medical expenses.|
|Minus Tax Credit for Health Insurance Premium||[TBD when we file income taxes]|
|Net Total:||$ [TBD]
What’s Not Included
This list comprehensively includes every expense we incurred in the course of 2019, from propane to car repairs to groceries to a new hat for me, with a few exceptions.
Income Taxes. This is obviously not a cost of RV living, and is based on the level and type of household income. Since we don’t work, our federal taxes are minimal and as Florida residents we don’t pay state income tax.
Major Charitable Contributions. Back when tax deductions mattered to us, we set up and funded a donor-advised fund which is the source of all our major philanthropy so it doesn’t appear in our list of household expenses. But we do include normal gifts for friends and family in this accounting.
Blog Expenses. These only amount to a few hundred dollars per year for domain registration, hosting, and some paid plug-ins. But I pay them from a separate business account so they don’t show up in household expenses.
Professional Fees. For the time being, I am keeping my law license active by continuing to pay dues to the Florida Bar, which is not an expense most people would have. If this applies to you, you know who you are and what this costs.
Here are photos of approximately 10% of all our dining out experiences for the entire year:
Health Insurance and Medical Expenses. We actually like our health insurance, since our Blue Cross / Blue Shield plan gives us access to a massive nationwide network of providers and the insurance company has never quibbled with us over paying any claims. What we don’t like is the high cost. In 2019 we paid almost $1,000 per month in premiums for what is essentially a catastrophic plan, with a family deductible of $15,800 ($7,900 per person). During Ken’s hospitalization we obviously ended up paying the full deductible for him, and we paid another $1,800 out of pocket for me, mostly for dermatology visits.
We believe we will qualify for a substantial premium tax credit when we file our taxes; last year our tax credit covered 100% of the premium cost. But even with the tax credit we are still looking at spending close to 20% of our annual budget on healthcare expenses in 2019. It’s simply not tenable to go without insurance, as our experiences this year show. There are plenty of risks involved in the things we encounter when traveling the country: loose rocks on trails, microbes, my wedding ring, etc. Even with quality insurance and tax credits (which could disappear at any time if the Affordable Care Act goes away, as has been threatened for years), deductibles alone are enough to significantly impact the budget when medical services are needed.
Activity Costs. In 2019 we spent most of the year in rural areas and our main activities were free: hiking, wildlife viewing, star photography. In 2020, our travel itinerary has us visiting many more cities, so museum admissions will probably increase. Similarly, our long visits in rural areas meant we were not tempted to visit lots of restaurants, because they simply didn’t exist. Focusing our year on outdoor activities did mean we spent money on gear like new day packs, hiking pants, and hats, and we are overdue for new hiking shoes. We rarely buy souvenirs (living in a tiny space will definitely put a damper on collecting tchotchkes) but since we hit the road I’ve been collecting lapel pins from places we visit. I make them into magnets by clipping off the post and attaching a stick-on craft magnet. A significant part of our cost for souvenirs ends up on our magnetic memory board in the rig.
Expenses We Have / Don’t Have. As mentioned above, our expenses reflect our particular circumstances. For example, our home address is the home of a family member, so we don’t pay for a mail forwarding service. On the other hand, having a sticks-and-bricks home address means there is no chance of getting out of flying back for jury duty, as I discovered this year. I also choose to participate in a volunteer board with my university, and traveling for meetings twice each year adds expenses as well as plenty of hassle. We’ve chosen to get routine medical care (dentist visits, dermatology visits) in places we happen to be visiting, like Tucson, and we don’t fly back to Florida for those appointments.
Overall. Really the most significant cost feature of our entire budget is medical expenses — whether we have to spend our (high) deductible and whether we qualify for a premium tax credit represents a potential swing of over $25,000 in costs for the year (premiums + full deductible). It’s no wonder that many families in America face severe financial crises as a result of medical issues, even when they have insurance. For 2020, we expect our camping cost will be higher, because camping in more developed / populated areas tends to be more expensive, but we expect overall costs will go down so long as we return to our lifetime average of extremely low medical expenses. We’ll let you know in a year whether our predictions come true.