Think being an RV digital nomad will save you money? Not so fast!

RV Retirement

Think being an RV digital nomad will save you money? Not so fast!

My wife and I have spent nearly three years traveling full-time in our Airstream, and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences that we’ve ever had.

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Think being an RV digital nomad will save you money? Not so fast!

We got to change our backyard whenever we wanted. We scooted around the United States with our home in-tow and all of our material possessions, sampled the local food (and drink!), hiked amazing trails and took in as much as we could of this unique and sometimes-quirky country of ours.

While the freedom to travel was amazing, you might be surprised at how expensive it can be to travel the country full-time. Strangely enough, it’s not always cheaper than just staying put in a traditional house. As usual, the devil is in the details.  

Granted, we aren’t #VanLife-ers. We don’t hunker down in a minivan, sleep on folded-down back seats and awkwardly bathe in rivers, lakes and tip-toe around in public shower facilities.

The #VanLife phenomenon is cheap, but it’s also a little too...umm...rustic for our taste.

Instead, we tow our 200sqft home behind us everywhere we go. We sleep in a queen sized bed, cook in a regular kitchen with a stove, oven and sink. We even have a refrigerator and freezer.

Talk about traveling in style. Yup, we’re living a happy and healthy life.

It’s a comfortable way to travel, and it’s quickly emerging as a popular new way of life for many people. Campgrounds are getting more crowded. National Parks are jam-packed with people.

And, the average age of those who are exploring this nomadic way of life is decreasing.

But, here’s the rub: While it’s an incredibly freeing lifestyle, it’s not necessarily cheaper than living a more traditional life in a house or apartment. In fact, you might be surprised at how much MORE money it may cost you to pursue this nomadic life.

Let me explain.

Things that are more expensive when you live on the road

When my wife and I first started traveling full-time, we kept a tight budget. We tracked everything that we spent, and we were surprised to find out how many of our expenses increased after hitting the road. It was an eye-opening experience.  

Here are a few of the most significant spending increases you can expect when you become a digital nomad:  

  • Fuel
  • Food
  • Healthcare
  • Entertainment

Naturally, digital nomads and full-time travelers use fuel to get from place to place.

Depending on the length of your stay at each location, your fuel costs may increase. In some cases, that increase might be dramatic, especially after initially hitting the road. Why? Because you’re excited. You want to keep moving to see everything that you possibly can.

The more we drive, the more fuel we use. And, we’re at the mercy of the gas price at the time, and smaller towns across the nation won’t have cheap gas options. And if you’re in California, well...yeah, CA fuel can quickly eat up your entire travel budget.

Fuel can be expensive, and so can food.

For you Costco shoppers who like to buy in bulk, that might not be possible on the road.

First, your shopping choices will change. While bulk shopping is possible in cities, smaller towns won’t have Costco stores. And, your RV or van won’t have the same storage capabilities that your house did. Believe it or not, you may not be able to store 20 cans of black beans in your van. You just won’t have the space!

Instead, you’re forced to shop at whatever grocery stores are available. You’ll generally pay more for the same foods at grocers in small-town America. That’s just the way it is. Unless you’re spending the majority of your time in big cities, your grocery budget will probably increase.

And, that doesn’t include restaurant spending. My wife and I love to try new restaurants as we travel the country. We love sampling local cuisine (Cajun in Louisiana, anyone?), to drink local beer and wine and just treat ourselves to something different - everywhere we go.

It’s fun, but it also gets expensive.

Healthcare is a confusing mess, especially when you’re a full-time traveler.

Your options for healthcare are limited when you don’t live in one area. You may not be able to select a subsidized health care plan on the Healthcare Marketplace because, depending on your travel plans, you don’t have the luxury of choosing a primary care physician. After all, we no longer have a home base. We’re traveling full-time.

Full-time travelers need to be able to use any hospital at any time.  

To get around this, many full-time travelers use Healthshares instead of traditional healthcare to help keep healthcare costs manageable. Others travel to low-cost countries like Mexico or Thailand for their treatments, and others still may opt for no healthcare, making emergency room visits an expensive ordeal.

Opportunities for adventure aren’t always free

Lastly, the point of full-time travel is seeing and doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. That gondola ride to the top of that 15,000-foot peak in the Tetons? Or, hopping aboard a fishing boat down the Mississippi River? Local museums, parks and tours? Entertainment on the road costs money, and for many of us, it’s tough to say “no” to many of these opportunities.

After all, we’re nomads because we want to see and do. It’s no fun to just sit in our RV all day, right? And unless you live and breathe hiking, there’s only so much hiking we can do in a day.

How to save money as a full-time traveler

Living full-time in an RV won’t automatically save you money. But, there are five crucial techniques that RVers can use to ensure their new lifestyle of travel and freedom doesn’t break the bank. We’ve learned these from experience.

And in some cases, we learned them the hard way.

1. Find free camping.

Believe it or not, not all campgrounds are cheap. In fact, many campgrounds in popular areas of the country (*ahem* Colorado *ahem*) can easily rival a mortgage or rent payment each month.

The moral of this story is campgrounds aren’t necessarily less expensive than a traditional home.

To save money on camping fees, there are several options available. First, ask if the campground has week-long or month-long discounts. The large majority of campgrounds we’ve stayed in offer monthly rates that are significantly cheaper than nightly rates. Of course, this means you’re staying in one place for at least a month, but doing this will both save money on camping as well as fuel costs (more on this in the next section).

Alternatively, use resources like Campendium.com and FreeCampSites.net to find free camping options. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, primarily in the western half of the United States) is a good option for free camping without hookups (no power, water or sewer).

Free rent dramatically reduces your expenses.

2. To help reduce your fuel costs, stay longer at each place.

My wife and I like to stay put for at least a week, for two primary reasons. First, it saved on fuel because we are driving less. And second, we have more time to fully explore the area.

Longer stays not only reduces costs, but it also helps to reduce burn-out from traveling too quickly, a phenomenon that a LOT of RVers face after they first hop into an RV. It might surprise you that all that driving, packing up and setting down in different camp spots takes effort, and many RVers inadvertently travel too quickly, which drains physical and mental energy.

Whenever possible, take your time and stay longer at each place.

3. Learn to cook small.

I love restaurants, especially when we travel. After all, cooking in smaller kitchens when resources like water and sewer are limited can be a challenge, and grabbing a bite at a local eatery seems easier and more fun. But, restaurant spending will nick away at your budget each and every time.

For the record, this was the toughest part of my transition. I hate cooking. Hate it.

But, you might be surprised at how much you can do in a smaller kitchen. Your cooking process might change, but fundamentally, RV kitchens are nearly as capable as the kitchen in your home (everything’s just smaller). You might use fewer pans. Wash dishes using recycled water. Heat up food on the stove rather than in the microwave. Store fewer leftovers in the fridge.

But the more you cook—even in a small space like an RV kitchen—the better you’ll get at streamlining your resources. The less we use, the less we pay for. And, cooking at home is almost always cheaper than going out to restaurants.

Don’t let a smaller kitchen prevent you from cooking, moreso if you actually like to cook!

4. Buy a small RV.

This is never something you’d hear when it comes to buying a traditional home, but it’s a critical component of reducing your expenses as an RV digital nomad.

Why? Because smaller RVs are cheaper (naturally). And, they are typically easier and less expensive to maintain and much more maneuverable during travel.

For example, many campgrounds around the country have a 30’ trailer limit. This means that if your RV is longer than 30’, you might not be permitted to camp in that campground, and this reduces your camping choices and could make it more difficult to find an affordable place to stay. Our 30’ Airstream barely fit into several camping spots, especially in the Pacific northwest where big trees are plentiful!

Additionally, while slide-outs on RVs expand our living area, they are also prone to mechanical problems. A lot. Motors fail. Leaks happen. Maintenance on slide-outs was, by far, the most common problem among the RVers we’ve spoken with over the past three years. Even brand new trailers had problems with their slide-outs. More moving parts.

My advice: Buy as small of an RV as you can comfortably live in.

5. Keep a work schedule.

The freedom of travel comes pre-installed with a potential to become bored. And the more bored that we are, the more likely it is that we’ll start looking at things to spend money on. It happens to all of us.

I’ve found that traveling freedom needs to be appropriately balanced with structure, and a work schedule is a good way to make that happen. In theory, our schedule will keep us focused on enough during the day to ensure we stay focused and busy with things that are productive.

For my wife and I, our most productive hours of the day are in the morning. We get up at around 6:00 or 6:30 am and begin working on our projects—like our YouTube channel, this blog, my other blog or one of our other online projects. After several hours of productive focus, we’d eat lunch and do a little outdoor exploring in the afternoon.

It is the right balance for us and it keeps us from boredom and clumsily adding useless junk to our Amazon shopping cart that we really didn’t need.  :)

Are you a digital nomad?

Digital nomads enjoy an incredibly unique lifestyle. The travel is freeing. The experiences will stay in our memories for the rest of our lives. It’s an incredible lifestyle, but it’s also one that needs to be controlled. Traveling isn’t always cheap, and the longer that we’re on the road, the more likely we’ll run into one of the expensive pitfalls inherent in this life.

Use these techniques to keep your spending in check, and always track your spending to ensure that you’re not overrunning your budget. The last thing that any digital nomad wants to do is be forced back into a traditional way of life due to the costs of full-time travel.

If money is getting tight, slow down. Stay put for longer. Drive less often and start cooking more of your meals. RVing can be an incredibly inexpensive way to live, but we need to make that choice. It doesn’t come automatically.

Do you consider yourself a digital nomad? If not, are you looking to become one? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments!

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Steve Adcock
Steves a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence.