The Cost of Full-timing

October 1, 2000
Filed under Travel

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Logically, one of the first — if not the first — questions prospective full-timers have to ask themselves is: “Do I have enough income to be a full-timer?” An obvious corollary question has to be: “What does it cost to be one?”

Like answers to the same questions asked about living in a fixed place, there’s no way to put a price tag on the cost of full-timing. Probably the best answers are: “Yes, you have enough income,” and “It costs what you make.” The
reality is that most people manage to live on whatever their incomes are. Regardless of their basic lifestyle, people who make $1,000 a month live on it; people who make $5,000 a month live on that. As a general rule, people with small incomes live in smaller houses, drive older cars, eat less-choice foods and have fewer discretionary dollars; higher-income families live in larger houses, drive better cars, can be choosy about food and have more dollars to spend on nonessentials. With RVers, the same principles are at work in their RVs, where they camp, what and where they eat, and how many dollars they have to spend on nonessentials.

Actually, full-timing is very democratic in many respects. Although not everyone lives and travels the same way, many of the benefits of the lifestyle are common to all participants. For example, most full-timers are snowbirds; they follow the sun to the South in the winter and to the North in the summer. The rich full-timer might live in a luxurious resort and the poor fellow might be parked in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) boondock camp just a few miles away, but the sun’s rays, which do not consider bank accounts, beam with exactly the same intensity on both of them. Similarly, a rich person cannot enjoy the wonders of the Grand Canyon any more than a poor fellow. However, there are many lifestyle factors that will differ: the rich fellow may dine on steak while the poor man eats beans; the former may make regular cross-country trips in a big diesel pusher, while those with small incomes keep their travel time in 20-year-old small rigs to a minimum. It’s all a matter of adjusting the method to the means.

Some counselors attempt to construct a budget for the lifestyle, but it is impossible to devise a universal template.

A budget begins with income, not expenses. Therefore, to be of any use to an individual, it has to begin with that person’s income, and expenses must be tailored to fit. Almost any income can support the full-timing lifestyle — not necessarily the way one prefers, but in a manner that works.

How do you make an income support the full-time lifestyle? Primarily by considering the “big four” budget factors that are controllable for an RVer:

  1. How much you travel (fuel, oil, etc.);
  2. Where you stay (campgrounds);
  3. What you eat; and
  4. What you spend on nonessentials (admission fees, souvenirs, gifts, etc.).

You should note that this list does not include uncontrollable factors, such as health care, vehicle insurance, breakdowns, emergency trips and unforeseen expenses. The secret to getting by with whatever income you have is to very carefully monitor the “big four” factors when you are trying to achieve a balance between what you’ve got and what you want.

For example, if you travel 1,000 miles in a month at 10 miles per gallon at a cost of $1.30 per gallon, that amount of travel would cost $130 in fuel. If you traveled only 500 miles, the cost would be $65, only half that amount. The
point is that how far you travel is a very significant budgetary factor. To make a budget work, travel only as much as your income permits.

You should also follow practical rules when buying fuel:

  1. Plan your fuel stops for larger towns where there is competition for
    business, rather than at isolated stations whenever possible.
  2. Shop at least two or three stations before you buy.
  3. Keep a record of prices in locations where you regularly travel, and
    fill up accordingly.
  4. Pay cash when there is a price penalty for using a credit card (ATMs
    are available at many large stations). The fact is that travel is
    expensive, and you control this major factor in the budget.

Where you stay is another big factor. To contrast two extremes, you can stay at an elegant resort in Palm Springs or the Florida coast where the cost might be as much as $50 a night and spend as much as $1,000 in a month in one-night fees at luxury parks, or you can boondock on BLM land in Quartzsite, Arizona, all winter for the amount of the resort’s one-night fee. Obviously, we are not comparing apples with apples, but the point is there is a way to make your money fit — not necessarily the way you prefer, but a way that can work for you — and you decide what that way will be.

Several simple rules will help you keep campground costs down:

  1. Try to avoid one-night stops; they are the most expensive. The rule is: The longer you stay, the cheaper the price. The weekly rate usually gives you one free night, monthly rates are usually about half those based on daily rates, and seasonal rates are even less.
  2. Join a membership club, such as the Good Sam Club, and take advantage of their services, such as discounts offered at hundreds of campgrounds.
  3. Don’t pay for anything you don’t need, such as extra-priced hookups that you can do without.
  4. Occasionally take advantage of freebies, such as relatives’ and friends’ driveways.

These days, people eat out a lot. RVers are no exception. In fact, all snowbird havens have a large number of restaurants, many of which are low-priced. If it’s easy and inexpensive, the temptation to skip the cooking often leads to eating out, but that is usually more expensive than eating at home. Eating out, especially in restaurants with cloth napkins and two forks, puts a crimp in a budget rather quickly. Those who must watch their budgets very carefully should avoid restaurants accordingly. Or, if they do eat out, they are wise to choose low-priced establishments and take advantage of early-bird and/or senior prices and coupon specials.

The last of the “big four” factors is the money you spend on things that you don’t really need. It’s amazing how fast the dollars add up when you are visiting the myriad attractions that are available. Visits to historical places and natural wonders, buying gifts for grandchildren, attending special events and collecting knickknacks can be a significant factor in any budget. Obviously, spending must be adjusted to income. Those with low incomes should pick and choose carefully. Again, it isn’t a case of what you would like to do, it’s a case of doing what you have to do.

To reiterate the point about the “big four”: These are controllable budget factors; by controlling them, almost anyone can afford to be a full-timer. For those who want more specific information about the basic cost of the full-time lifestyle, studies made by various individuals and associations indicate that the median income of full-timers is somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 a month. That means half of them have incomes below that amount and half have more. Therefore, it would be safe to presume that anyone who has an income in that range could be a full-time RVer at a comfortable level.

But those who feel that they don’t have enough retirement income to support the full-time RV lifestyle don’t necessarily have to abandon the idea. There are many ways to supplement fixed incomes as you travel. One of the most popular is employment at campgrounds in maintenance or office work. Nearly every campground has seasonal opportunities that usually provide salaries and free campsites. Workamper News (Box 125, Heber Springs, Arkansas 72543) is a great source of information about campground and RV resort job opportunities. Campground host positions — federal or state — usually pay no salary, but do provide free camping space. The elimination of that single expense greatly enhances a limited income.

All kinds of temporary job opportunities abound in this country. Although a listing of all the possibilities is not possible here, it seems reasonable that anyone with a particular job skill should be able to match it up with a demand somewhere. It’s just a matter of pursuing sources.

Many full-timers become merchants; that is, they sell something — often to other RVers. Flea-marketing is popular in snowbird areas; Quartzsite, Arizona, is one giant flea market all winter. Merchandise ranges from rusty “collectibles” to new RV accessories, from 10-cent used books to $500 jewelry, and from beer-can airplanes to superbly crafted turquoise bracelets. Stores often take on seasonal part-time help, so people who have retail sales backgrounds can usually find employment in tourist areas. Some RVers even develop routes for a product that is sold to specialty businesses, such as service stations or convenience stores. As we often hear about society in general, those who want to work can find work. That includes RVers who want to supplement their fixed incomes.

Most people have enough income to support full-timing. It’s a matter of making what they have fit. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with that income, you probably can make extra money as you travel. Tens of thousands of today’s full-timers are doing it, and there’s plenty of room for others to join the trend.

Illustration: Jody Eastman

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