How Much Does It Really Cost to Live in an RV for a Year?

Image for article titled How Much Does It Really Cost to Live in an RV for a Year?

Photo: Virrage Images (Shutterstock)

As the global economy increasingly begins to resemble the “this is fine” meme, people are naturally seeking creative solutions to their money challenges. In the past, economic downturns have bolstered ideas like the tiny house movement and the #VanLife subculture, as people try to figure out more flexible and affordable alternatives to borrowing an enormous sum of money to live in a house like their parents did. Like, say, just living in an RV.

With remote work finally becoming a permanent reality for many, living on the road is no longer just for retired folks: a comfortable, mobile living space that can drive down the nation’s highways or stay relatively stationary, depending on your lifestyle and daily mood. RVs can be pretty luxe, but even the basic models offer a well-planned living space complete with kitchen, bathroom, and other amenities.

But although you can most probably buy an RV for less than a traditional house, that doesn’t mean they actually offer a cheaper lifestyle. Gasoline prices, as you may have noticed, are sky-high, and even if they go down significantly, keeping an enormous RV fueled up is going to be pricey—and there are a lot of other costs associated with the RV lifestyle that add up quickly. So is eschewing your dreams of a home and buying an RV a smart financial move? Let’s estimate the costs of living in an RV for a year.

Note: As the price of gas and other non-negotiables is always in flux, consider this a rough estimation; your actual costs for RV living will depend a great deal on three factors:

  1. How mobile are you planning to be? If you’re not driving the RV much, gas might not be a huge part of your budget.
  1. How fancy are you? The fewer amenities and comforts you need to be happy, the cheaper RV living becomes.
  2. How much space do you need? The size of the RV you’ll be living in affects your up-front and monthly costs.

Choosing an RV

First and foremost, you have to figure out what kind of RV you’ll be living in. There is a wide range of options with a broad range of prices. A brand-new Class A RV can run you as much as $500,000, while a used pop-up trailer can often be had for as little as $3,000. If you’re buying a fifth-wheel or other kind of trailer, you’ll also need a vehicle powerful enough to tow it. The average RV financing payment is between $250 and $450 per month. Your monthly cost will vary greatly depending on the interest rate and the amount you’re borrowing—it could be $0 if you buy for cash, or a lot higher than $450. For sake of argument, let’s say the average payment is $350, which would be about $4,200 a year.

Having an RV is one thing, keeping it moving is something else. Just like a car, your RV will need constant maintenance, including regular oil changes, as well as a fund to hedge against breakdowns and damage. Again, depending on the age of your RV and how good you are with mechanical repairs, your actual costs will vary, but you should probably assume about $300 a month ($3,600 annually) if you’re going to be rolling your RV a lot, and a bit less if it’s going to be stationary for long periods. If you buy new or pre-owned from a dealership, you might have a warranty will help lower those costs.

And like any house or vehicle, you’ll need insurance for your RV. The average cost of full-time RV insurance is about $1,500 a year.

Gas: Not cheap

In the U.S., gas prices currently range from just over $4 a gallon to just over $6 a gallon for regular, with diesel ranging from $5 to close to $7 per gallon. Gas prices can change dramatically between states and even areas within states, so it’s worth it to use something like Gas Buddy to locate the cheapest gas available—saving a few cents a gallon can really add up over time.

When shopping for an RV, choosing between diesel and regular gas requires some thought. Generally, diesel will be more expensive per gallon, but give you better mileage. On the other hand, a diesel pump can sometimes be more challenging to find, especially when you get into urban centers. For our purposes, let’s stipulate gas will cost you about $5.50 per gallon.

The next thing to consider is your RV’s mileage and how much you’re going to drive it. The basic equation is simple: The distance divided by the MPG multiplied by the cost per gallon. RVs are not great when it comes to fuel economy—large Class A RVs can get as little as 4 MPG, and average around 6–8 MPG. Smaller Class C RVs are little better at 10-13 MPG. If you’re towing a trailer, it obviously depends on the truck and the load; a good estimate is about 12 MPG. For our purposes, let’s average that all out to 9 MPG.

Finally, how far you drive the RV every day is a personal choice. It’s recommended that you drive no more than 500 miles in a day—and probably best to drive much less, with about 200-300 miles a day being ideal. And you shouldn’t drive for more than a few hours at a time. Of course, you might not drive every day—you might settle into a parking site for a few days at a time, or you might have a semi-permanent camping spot for a few weeks or months out of the year. So let’s lowball the daily driving estimate and say 200 miles a week. Applying our equation, your gas costs would be about $500 per month, or $6,000 per year.

Propane

Another consideration is propane, which most rigs rely on for cooking fuel and heating. Propane prices vary just like any other commodity but usually trend between $2 and $5 per gallon; your usage will vary depending on how long you spend on the road as opposed to parked with hookups. In mild weather you might spend just $20 on propane per month, but if you’re wintering in a cold climate you might spend $500. Let’s split the difference and estimate $250 per month for propane, or $3,000 a year.

Park fees

Unless you have a Cannonball Run-esque plan to drive 24 hours a day, you’re going to park your RV from time to time. When you do so, you’ll have a choice of areas that range from completely free to pretty expensive:

  • Free parking. There are many areas in the country where you can park your rig at least for an evening, and often much longer, for free. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, allows “dispersed camping” on its land at no charge for 14 days at a time, and Walmart has a general policy allowing RVs to camp in its parking lots. Keep in mind that these options are what’s known as dry camping or “boondocking”—you’ll have zero hookups or access to water, electricity, or other amenities. But they’re free!
  • State and national parks. For between $10 and $100 a year, you can buy an annual pass to most state and national parks, which typically allow you to camp in your RV as long as the camping sites can accommodate the size of your rig. The per-night camp fees are pretty low, in the $15 to $25 range with hookups for water and electricity and $10 to $15 without, for an average monthly expense of about $450, or $5,400 a year.
  • Private campgrounds. Private campgrounds typically offer the most in terms of amenities, but everything comes at an extra cost. Spots like Kampgrounds of America (KOA) and other private sites offer electricity, water, waste dumps, cable TV, showers, and WiFi, so they’re very comfortable. If you’re going to be on the move and paying a lot of daily fees for campgrounds, you will average about $1,200 per month on rent, or $14,400 a year. You can knock that price down by switching to a monthly rent in many cases.

For the purposes of our estimate, let’s assume you’ll be using a mix of free and paid campsites. You’ll spend about $7,000 a year on parking fees.

Data plans and internet

One cost many people overlook is internet access. When you’re on the move, this can become a very expensive proposition, and even if you stay at a campsite on a semi-permanent basis, they are notorious for having terrible internet service. You can try an unlimited data plan on your phone and use it as an Internet hotspot, which will run you anywhere from $25 ($300 annually) to $200 a month ($2,400 annually), depending on your carrier and how many lines you need. But for a lot of people, the budget options will be maddeningly slow and offer a frustrating lack of coverage.

Another option is a satellite dish that can provide both internet and television for a few hundred dollars up front and about $100 a month ($1,200 annually) for a service like Dish.

Many campsites provide WiFi as part of their fee, but it’s also typically what internet scientists call “terrible,” so you’d do well to have a backup planto remain connected. Splitting the difference, let’s assume you’ll pay about $1,200 a year all-in for internet and phone plans.

The bottom line

So, let’s tally that up. Keeping in mind that we’ve made a lot of assumptions, guesses, and estimates along the way, and your specific experience will vary greatly, you’re looking at about $26,500 a year to live in your RV, not including  stuff like you down payment or the cost of groceries, recreation, or other general living expenses. It could be a lot more or even a lot less, depending on the kind of lifestyle you pursue. There’s no right or wrong way to do the RV thing, after all.

  

Leave a Reply