My husband and I transitioned to full-time RV living around three years ago. But before that, we actually built our first RV ourselves from scratch, though we insisted nobody call it a tiny house. We bought a stripped-down RV frame and constructed a stick-built house on top of it. We spent a lot of money doing it, and we lived in it, fully off-grid, for about six months.
These days a very nice lady in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington still lives in it, parked in a mobile home community. We sold it to her at a loss when we realized our “RV” wasn’t quite right for our desired lifestyle.
Our example is a bit extreme, but even if you purchase a manufactured RV, and even if you sell your sticks-and-bricks house, the truth is that going tiny is not guaranteed to be the answer to how to save money.
If you don’t pay attention, living in an RV full time can actually cost you a lot of money. So, if you’re dreaming of downsizing, here are three instances in which you’ll be faced with financial decisions — and when living in an RV full time can cost you if you’re not careful.
When you buy your RV
RV dealers often make it very easy to purchase your new house from them. They may not require much of a down payment, and you can be offered very long repayment terms. Additionally, the APR you’re offered when you finance your RV might be relatively high because RVs are typically considered a luxury purchase. All of that means you could be paying a lot of interest over a lot of years.
Follow that up with the fact that your RV will need repairs. Even brand-new RVs will need work done (every single new RV owner I’ve ever met has stories about everything that went wrong with their very new and very expensive RV). In our experience, even issues that fell under our RV’s warranty ended up being our problem. To get the warranty work done, we would have had to drive our house from where we were in Texas all the way up to Oregon where the manufacturer was located — and that cost would have been all on us.
And, finally, don’t forget that you’re not replacing your old mortgage payment with just your new RV payment — you also have to park your new home. So if you’ve allotted $800 per month to RV housing, you shouldn't be paying $800 per month on your RV loan. Some of that money should be allocated for spending on RV parks and campgrounds. Forgetting this fact can cause you to miscalculate and suddenly end up with higher monthly overhead than you originally anticipated.
How do you save money when you buy an RV?
- Consider buying a used vehicle. An RV that’s just one or two years old will drop in price considerably, already have all the kinks and initial repairs worked out, and still be in good shape. RV Trader is a great website for window shopping and research.
- Do your research and get a good RV loan. Put down as much money as you can and don’t opt for the longest terms. Make sure you’ve got a great credit score going in so you can get the best interest rate possible.
- Don’t forget you have to park your RV. Remember that your house payment won’t be just for your RV, but the cost to park it, too. Make sure that total is less than your current house payment if you’re trying to reduce overall expenses.
When you rent your RV spot
When people picture living in an RV full time, many picture themselves moving around a lot, spending a day or two here before jaunting off on a roadtrip to a National Park or a weekend getaway. That sounds good in theory, but the reality is that moving frequently is a great way to spend a ton of money.
Daily fees at RV parks are typically the highest rates, and state and national parks tend to have high rates as well. According to research by Wand’rly Magazine, the average nightly cost at a privately owned RV park is $38.50 per night. Personally, I’ve paid as little as $20 per night at a privately owned RV park and as high as $90.
Weekly rates are usually discounted some, with many RV parks offering your seventh night free, but state and national parks rarely offer a weekly rate. State and national parks also typically limit you to either seven or 14 days. And, often if you camp in state and national parks, you also won’t have any hookups, which means you won’t have water, sewer, and/or electricity at your RV site.
You could opt to “boondock” on free public lands and camp without any utility hookups (which is actually what my husband and I do these days), but then you’re looking at putting a lot of money down upfront to build an off-grid utility system — and that’s dangerous to do when you might not even be sure that RV life is for you for the long haul.
The best answer for how to save money at RV parks is to consider staying in one place for a month at a time. Monthly rates are typically deeply discounted, and you also get the time to really explore an area. So if you’re considering full-time RV living and you want to know how to manage your money well, then consider slowing down. Isn’t that part of the appeal anyway?
How do you save money on an RV spot?
- Slow down. Consider staying in one spot for a month at a time instead of a few days. You’ll get better rates at the RV parks, and you’ll also spend a lot less on gas as you’ll be driving less.
- Look for city and county parks. State and national parks can be expensive, but city and county parks are often less crowded and less expensive (sometimes even totally free). Websites such as Campendium can be helpful in finding these locations.
- Use a travel rewards credit card. As RVing gains popularity, more and more credit cards are including campgrounds in their travel category. So make sure you use one of these cards when paying for your RV park reservations. I love to use the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card so I can earn 3X points per dollar spent on travel, and there’s a $0 annual fee.
When you purchase your everyday expenses
Depending on the size of your RV, it can be hard to save money on groceries and household items because you can't stock up or buy in bulk.
Instead, I save money by using a cashback credit card with high earnings on groceries. With my Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, I get 6% cash back on all my shopping at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year, after that 1X) and select U.S. streaming services. This same card will also get you 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and eligible transit, and fuel is likely going to be your second biggest everyday expense after food once you take on full-time RV living. Cash back arrives as a statement credit.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you can’t always count on small towns to carry RV-specific supplies (such as RV toilet paper or, in our case, the one type of cat food our cat will actually eat). I take advantage of the fact that most RV parks will allow you to get packages delivered, and I shop online at Walmart for my hard-to-find supplies.
I always make sure to order enough to get free shipping, and I use a credit card that has Walmart as a bonus cashback category if I can. A card with a rotating category that sometimes includes PayPal, Chase Pay, or other electronic payment options — such as the Chase Freedom Card — can also be great for saving money when you’re shopping online.
How do you save money on your RV life expenses?
- Use a cashback credit card. If you’re new to rewards credit cards, consider getting one card that rewards you for both groceries and gas.
- Have a rewards card for restaurants. We try to lower our expenses by not eating out very often, but one of the fun aspects of travel is exploring local cuisine and visiting new restaurants. So make sure you have a credit card that rewards you for dining out as well.
The bottom line on saving money with full-time RV living
No matter what it looks like on TV or Instagram, living full time in an RV has pros and cons, ups and downs, just as any other path in life. Your finances will be no exception. RV life won’t automatically be more economical — but with some thought and planning, it can be.
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