Retirement travel and frugal living

Photo of a retro RV camper

Retirement travel is in. Out is the era of spending unending retirement days on a golf course in plaid pants and interminable games of bridge with the blue-rinse set.

The new generation of retirees is looking for more adventure, with more activity … and lower costs. Few strategies deliver like the recreational vehicle (RV) retirement lifestyle.

A few years ago, my wife and I got a glimpse of it in the most unexpected of places: the I-10 freeway somewhere in the vast, empty desert that is western Arizona. Interstates out there tend to be lonely, and the driving boring, except when you do “desert multitasking” — keeping your eyes on the speedometer while scanning the roadside for black and whites.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when, far out in the nothingness, we began encountering more and more traffic — slow traffic. Soon, we were down to around 50. The culprits? RVs of all sizes and descriptions, from old school buses done up in vivid hippie colors to snazzy million-dollar mobile mansions, towing a double garage's worth of luxury vehicles. Every turnoff brought more. On a rare chance to see ahead of us in the relatively fast lane, we could see them: an endless phalanx of behemoths, as far as the eye can see, all trudging west. What was up?

Our answer came when we passed the exit for Quartzsite.

The freeway after that exit cleared up like fog before the hot desert sun, and then we saw the oncoming side of the freeway, solid with another crawling phalanx of big white ants, this group trundling eastward. When we got home, we googled Quartzsite and discovered that the sleepy town in the middle of nowhere has a population of just over 3,000 in summer, when temperatures can hit over 120 degrees. In winter, though, that population swells to around 400,000 every year. Excuse me? That's almost as large as Miami, Oakland, Omaha or New Orleans, according to the latest census numbers. A sliver of exaggeration may have slipped into that number, but there's no doubt that the real population is quite large.

Related >> Retirement Checkup: How are you Doing?

Who can stay in the desert for months at a time? Retirees, that's who. Their numbers are growing as the Baby Boom population reaches retirement age. According to national media like the “New York Times” and “Forbes,” two main reasons fuel the growth of the RV retirement lifestyle:

  • A desire to capitalize on the freedom retirement
  • Surprisingly low cost

I decided to interview an acquaintance named Mike to get an up-close glimpse into the RV retirement lifestyle. He sold his house last year, bought a motor home, and hit the road with his wife.

Finances

RVs can be had for anything from $3,000 to $3 million. The live-in models tend to go from around $40,000 to over $200,000, depending on age and features. Mike and Karen bought theirs used for just over $50,000, less than the equity most people have in their homes when they retire.

Then they joined what amounts to a campground chain called Thousand Trails. Mike: “There is an up-front/one-time fee of $4,900 to join and fees/dues of $499 per year. We can stay in the campgrounds for up to 21 days and move to another campground and start over. There are campgrounds all across the U.S. The campgrounds have full hookups and facilities with WiFi, etc. There is no daily fee for the stays as they are covered in the yearly dues. During the stays, we visit the area around and take in the culture and sites of that area. With the motor home getting nine to 10 mpg, staying somewhere long term is a help. We tow a Toyota Matrix that gets 31 mpg so that is how we save money on fuel. In retirement, we have an income of almost half of what we made prior and we seem to have more money. There is no rent or utilities.”

Preparation

Few people embrace the RV lifestyle for retirement on a whim. Most who do it grew up camping with their families or took up camping along the way. Mike, again: “What we are doing is called ‘full-timing' and my parents did it for 12 years. I have been wanting to adopt this lifestyle for as long as I can remember. We lived in Texas for 35 years and vacationed in Colorado every other year. When I retired from my job in Texas, I wanted to move to Kansas City. After 5 years in KC, I got the opportunity to move to Denver, where I always wanted to live. Six years later and on the third retirement, we got the motor home and started to travel.”

Challenges

According to Mike, phones and WiFi have been the biggest problems in most of the campgrounds. They discovered they need a smartphone for its hotspot capability and bandwidth because most campgrounds do not have good WiFi at the actual sites. You have to go to their office to get Internet access, which prompts many to get smartphones with 4G and hotspot capabilities. They cut the cord and use Internet-streaming for their TV-watching, which “eats up the gigs,” as they quickly discovered.

Another challenge is space. By the time you retire, you are likely to have accumulated a lot of stuff (or “sh-tuff” as someone said, correcting herself mid-word). Karen is the packrat, while Mike found himself eager to get rid of things. A compromise is a storage unit “somewhere,” for the day when the RV lifestyle will end … which it usually does at some point.

Pleasures

Isn't that what retirement is all about — being able to do the things you want to do? Back to Mike: “Our main desire is to see places we have not seen and to revisit our favorite places, spending more time where we stay and really see, not just look and run. We learned this while … visiting Estes Park, experiencing the place and meeting the people. It was so much fun coming back to a place and having people greet us by name and us knowing their names. Being able to bless and being blessed.”

Related >> Are you Behind on Retirement Savings?

Their family grew, too. “While we were in Lake Whitney, Texas, we found a female cat under our RV. So we checked around and found that she belonged to no one. We had a vet check her out and found out she is about 8 months old. Shots and spayed, and now she is a part of our family. We named her Whitney. She has become our joy to watch and love on. We have talked to other RV'ers who have cats and they say that after time their cats adjusted and traveled without any problems. It is amazing what joy a little four-legged animal can bring to a family.

“We enjoy the freedom and people we meet. I am very outgoing so I am in hog heaven. Karen likes her (spiritual time on the Internet) and walking and listening to me visit with others.”

Downsides

Not all is moonshine and roses. “Least enjoyable is dumping the holding tanks and driving in cities. We try to plan a route that takes us around big cities. This may be hard when we go to the coast in Southern California. Another problem was finding a doctor that we like. While in Colorado, we had Kaiser. Now our mailing address is Texas, where Kaiser has no coverage. We finally found a great doctor in Fort Worth and love her.”

As I said above, this is one person's view and experience, but it does offer a glimpse into something you may not have considered for your retirement.

Have you given any thought to what you want to do when you retire? What do you expect your version of retirement to cost?

More about...Retirement, Travel

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Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

I really like the idea of RVing for slow travel. I can see us going on an extended RV roadtrip. Who knows, maybe that will be our retirement too!

Brian
Brian
5 years ago

The RV lifestyle isn’t just for retirees. My wife and I left our day jobs at the age of 38, took up freelancing (my wife had an already established freelance writing career) and moved into a 34 foot Winnebago. We lived in the motorhome full-time for four years while criss-crossing the U.S. while working from the road. Here are some things I’d add to the article above: 1) We spent less living in the motor home and traveling the country than we did living in our one-bedroom NJ apartment while mostly seeing the inside of an office. ( http://everywhereonce.com/2014/01/31/yes-full-time-travel-really-is-less-expensive-than-staying-home/ )… Read more »

William
William
5 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Good points! Thanks for sharing.

Patrick
Patrick
5 years ago

….And if anyone who reads this is currently living the RV lifestyle, I work at a Corps of Engineers lake in South East Texas named B.A. Steinhagen Lake and I’m always looking for park host volunteers!

Dianecy
Dianecy
5 years ago
Reply to  Patrick

Check out Hitch Itch, a clearinghouse for RV bloggers. One request there and your calendar will be filled in no time!

Sara
Sara
5 years ago

This lifestyle does not need to be full time. Once you have your RV the only costs are fuel and camping ( often very inexpensive or free). We retired a bit early and travel several months of the year. Your food costs are the same whether you eat at home or you eat in the RV, your fuel costs are helped by the reduction in utilities and such in your ” stick and brick” home, and you get to experience some of the greatest places in the country for a fraction of the cost. In the last 3 years we… Read more »

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

This was an interesting, if a bit overly rosy, perspective to read. It’s silly to say that you aren’t paying for rent and utilities; they may be less than what they would be for a house, but you also have a much smaller living space. I don’t need a ton of space, but that downside needs to be considered if you’re going to mention the upside of cheap rent and utilities (which are just rolled up in the dues). It’s also worth noting that you need to dedicate a good deal of time to the RV lifestyle to see significant… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

Memberships can be purchased used and resold.

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

That wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the article, but it certainly changes the situation.

William
William
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

Good point about the fuel cost. However, that varies all over the map: road warriors will pay a fortune, while those who camp out in a single place for two months will obviously pay a whole lot less.

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago
Reply to  William

Of course it willy vary based on your travel habits, as would the fees and dues for parking somewhere, but since you were giving the numbers for a specific situation I think it would have been appropriate to ask about the interview subject’s fuel budget. It seemed suspicious to me that it was not mentioned at all, especially when other financial specifics were discussed.

Brian
Brian
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

The difficulty in providing a financial analysis for the Fulltime RV lifestyle is that nobody knows how you’ll want to travel. You can camp for free on BLM land or pay $100 per night for a luxury RV resort. You can live in a $3,000 beater or a $1 MM Provost. People live both ways and everything in between. On our site tried to outline an approach for figuring out your unique full-time travel budget. You’ll find it here: http://everywhereonce.com/2012/11/16/how-much-does-long-term-travel-cost/ And yes, as a fulltime traveler you can pretty much chose to live in whatever state you want. There’s lots… Read more »

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago
Reply to  Brian

I’m not asking for an analysis for every possible situation, since of course everyone will be slightly different. I was asking for specifics from the subject of the interview. The price of the RV was vaguely mentioned, and the fees/dues were given, but no mention was made of maintenance, repair, or fuel costs. These seem like huge gaps to leave, especially when the article is aimed at explaining this lifestyle to an audience interested in personal finance.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

Another factor to consider is whether you use a Fifth Wheel or travel trailer. My aunt and uncle moved to this life-style and found a darling Airstream to tow, so vehicle repair costs are the same and they can use most any shop.

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago

I think it’s really cool when people set off traveling across the country (or the world) staying where they want to, for however long they want to, enjoying and soaking up the place. Both sets of my grandparents have camping trailers they use to travel across the country with – hooked onto the back of a truck. They love the freedom it gives them, and I love seeing them take these trips. It’s definitely not a lifestyle I’d be opposed to pre- or post-retirement. I love slow travel myself, but have yet to do it across the US… maybe some… Read more »

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

For me, this sounds interesting, but I must admit that I’m a homebody, so it’s not for me. I enjoy spending time with my friends, my family, and my church family, so I wouldn’t want to be gone for months at a time. I’d just feel too disconnected.

Meg
Meg
5 years ago

My husband and I lived in a 5th wheel to save money while he went to school in an expensive town for 3 years. Honestly we had a ton of problems with our new trailer and I would definitely recommend a strong emergency fund because trailer repairs are very expensive. We were ‘tapped’ while driving and the fiberglass repair was 9k AND we needed to find a place to stay while it was being repaired. Our fridge went out and it turns out the 10 cubic square RV fridge cost $2k. Our electrical box went out, another $500. It rained… Read more »

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  Meg

I lived in a 5th wheel in Florida for a few years. You’re right…trailer repairs are expensive, and they always need repairs of some sort. I had to seal my slide-out after it started to leak in the rain, replace shelving when it broke (shelving in RV’s tends to be extremely flimsy and cheap due to weight constraints), replace the black-water line when it cracked, replace the anode rod in the water heater (a routine thing), etc. I’m sure the fridge would have eventually given out in my trailer too, but I ended up selling it before that happened. And… Read more »

Old Guy
Old Guy
5 years ago

This is pretty much our plan, except change “RV in the USA” to “apartments all over the world.” Six months in each country, and move with the weather so its always warm.

As far as money goes, what difference does it make whether you stay or go as long as the math works? The goal isn’t to live as cheaply as possible, but to live inside the lines while enjoying life.

barb@livingrichlyinretirement
5 years ago

I’ll agree with both Sara and old guy here. In my retirement I spend lots of time on the open road while maintaining a home (albeit in a car and in hotels). That said, most of my retirement friends who RV do so part time, maintaining a home as well, often a downsized home. Were I to RV personally, I imagine six months is the absolute most I could be gone, and would prefer to make those trips about three weeks. I know retirees who take small pop ups to florida and those who have large units as well.

SAHMama
SAHMama
5 years ago

Nope. No way. Not for me. First of all, it’s not sustainable or environmentally friendly. Second, how do you establish a strong social network if you’re always on the go? How do you handle chronic health conditions that necessitate having a pharmacist who knows you and a doctor who is there for you? The constant gas cost would be akin to utility costs. Breakdown of the RV, then what? Live in a tent? What’s the insurance run on those things? Because our Hyundai Elantra and our Mazda 5 cost us $600 every 6 months in our large city (no points,… Read more »

Sara
Sara
5 years ago
Reply to  SAHMama

I think that if you check out the carbon footprint of most full time campers you will find it a lot less than a 900 sq foot house. Most have solar, drive infrequently, walk or bike where ever they may go, conserve water and use as little battery power as possible.

Sara
Sara
5 years ago
Reply to  Sara

Forgot to say that the insurance is about $800 per year with collision. But you can remove it, and save$ , when you are not using the motor home.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
5 years ago
Reply to  SAHMama

My aunt and uncle who travel have a really close network of friends who they meet up with each year–they plan to be at the same park at the same time. If you camp at certain campgrounds, you can see it firsthand, with RVers who are clearly stationary for months at a time. Seeing them at the campgrounds, they are having an amazing time with groups of other RVers. Many of the people who adopt this lifestyle are social butterflies, but with my aunt and uncle travel only for 6 months out of the year, spending the rest of the… Read more »

ABSMIL
ABSMIL
4 years ago
Reply to  SAHMama

WOW, sounds like you should keep a casket close by. Don’t forget your food cost to continue living. Oh, and I forgot, some think that cattle ranchers are a threat to the environment. Maybe better to crawl under a rock and just live in chronic fear. Or on the other hand, while in tire with good health, seek adventure, live. When we all pass, we all will spend eternity however or wherever we are planted. Regarding insurance, it is really about the same as a house and your automobile. In some cases even less. I do not think such harsh… Read more »

Dianecy
Dianecy
5 years ago

I realize that the editors write the headlines and not the author, but this one’s just a bit too condescending for my palate. What I know about the RV lifestyle is a LOT, including that Thousand Palms is pricey and limited. A good mention, sure, but number one on the list? How about mentioning that camping at most BLM sites is free? Or that the IRS rules allow an RV to be written off as a second home? This article is not bad, but better headlines right off the top of my head could have been: Is the RV lifestyle… Read more »

i12gohome
i12gohome
3 years ago
Reply to  Dianecy

Just offering a quick thanks for both of those tips, about the second home and about the BLM! I was unaware of either of those

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

“Have you given any thought to what you want to do when you retire? What do you expect your version of retirement to cost?” The real answer is, it depends. Since family members tend to live till well into their 90’s, barring unforeseen illness or an accident, I probably will too, and since I don’t have FI (yet), I plan to work as long as I’m able. My job provides 4-5 weeks/year of vacation time and frankly, I hate to travel and like where I live. So the RV life, while intriguing, is not for me. While married, I expect… Read more »

i12gohome
i12gohome
3 years ago
Reply to  Laura

I’ve always dreamed the lifestyle, but like you’ve mentioned, my family lives well into their hundreds on both sides. I have living uncles and aunts who are literally twice my age and I am 54 years old. I’m more afraid that DH will pre -decease me by decades while we’re out on the road somewhere, as his family does not have such good genetic health. Has anyone here actually continued this lifestyle as a widow or widower? And was it difficult? I guess what I’m asking is, does it get too lonely to continue to be on the road as… Read more »

Fervent Finance
Fervent Finance
5 years ago

I worked at an RV campground all through high school and part of college. It was the best job ever. I got to meet people from all over the US and Canada and people from all different types of careers from blue collar to bankers. Some people drove around terds on wheels which would break down constantly while others had 40 foot mobile homes with 3 A/C’s and a matching trailer towed behind it to pull their luxury car. The people who I met loved the freedom. Some would spend a couple months with their grandkids, then travel a few… Read more »

Debt Hater
Debt Hater
5 years ago

This is actually something I have thought about, as I really enjoy camping. Even if weren’t to be a full time endeavor you can always do something like this X months out of the year. And I know there are plenty of state and national parks that would probably end up being cheaper than that membership fee!

Thanks for sharing the interview.

Big-D
Big-D
5 years ago

I love the open road, going town to town, and love to travel. I an definitely looking at doing something like this long term. However my options might be different. Get a pickup truck and a trailer. Getting a full RV might be a lot more expensive. When you get to town, drop the RV off and then you are in a pickup truck around town. I am looking at renting one this summer to see if I want to do this longer term.

Rail
Rail
5 years ago
Reply to  Big-D

I’m on the same page as Big D as far as what type of trailer/RV to have. I’m about 15 years from retirement (hopefully) and while I don’t want to be a constant traveler or sell my home and move to Florida, I would like to have a 20-25 Ft. trailer to tow behind the pickup. I could see going to Texas for a month or so after the Holliday season and with a bumper hitch trailer one can put a motorcycle, bicycles, and other gear in the box of the truck and still haul the trailer. Get to where… Read more »

Julie
Julie
5 years ago
Reply to  Rail

We owned a trailer for 10 years and totally agree. It is much more affordable than an RV, depreciated much less and our overall gas mileage was better. We took our 3 kids to the 48 continental states in our beloved trailer, then sold it. Hoping to replace it with a new model in retirement.

SavenoSpend
SavenoSpend
5 years ago

Wow, a bunch of gas hogs churning out the CO2, ruining the delicate balance that is the topsoil/crust on a desert, and patting themselves on the back for doing so.

Ugh.

Horrible article.

read:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/belnap-degradation-desert-topsoil-human-havoc-environment/

I can’t fathom how frugalism/savings condones any serious investment in a vehicle that is overpriced, depreciates, and isn’t designed for long term habitation.

Fred
Fred
4 years ago
Reply to  SavenoSpend

Trucks deliver goods to where you shop. You are likely buying all of your needs delivered by a diesel engine.

SAVENOSPEND, are you completely self sufficient?

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

This was EXACTLY the article I needed to read today! My husband and I are actually considering doing this for 6-9 months next year with our two kids in tow! We’re not retired so it would just be an extended vacation. We haven’t fully committed to the idea – still in the brainstorming phase – but we are definitely highly considering it. For us, the downsides are putting my husband’s career on hold and traveling with our two little kids, who might not do well with the traveling lifestyle for that long of a time. Definitely some things to consider.… Read more »

JDS
JDS
5 years ago

Speaking as a Floridian who gets to see LOTS of those RV’s on the road and in campgrounds, there is one thing I’d like to mention: do you realize how many folks with limited abilities are driving those things when they shouldn’t? Moseying along I-10 at 45-50 miles an hour in an RV while cars cruising at 70 to 80 mph are trying to avoid a collision when they round a curve and suddenly come upon the RV; pulling across lanes and running cars on their left off the road; pulling into parking lots and realizing too late that they… Read more »

Rita
Rita
5 years ago

What about renting an RV for travel? Then you could see if this is the lifestyle for you instead of committing. Does anyone have an experience with doing this?

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

I must confess that this RV retirement lifestyle seems very appealing. The freedom to roam while not having to worry about lots of payments seems to make an ideal retirement. This has definitely planted a seed in my head. Thanks for sharing.

It's a lifestyle
It's a lifestyle
5 years ago

We love RVing in our 20 year old class A motor home, our first and in about a year we will upgrade to a newer unit and go full time. What many commentors seem to not understand is most RVers enjoy the lifestyle and it’s not about saving money, although that can be done. Just like apartments or houses you can live within your means while enjoying the RV lifestyle if you make good decisions. PS-we tow a car to use when the RV is parked.

QWERTY
QWERTY
4 years ago

Appreciate all of the great input here – my wife would love to retire and I can work anywhere there is Internet, so the lower cost of RVing is a great fantasy. Motels are cheaper and don’t require the buy-in but I have anxiety about sleeping in a bed 1000 people have already occupied. “Buyers clubs” are BS. Anything that demands thousands down is either an outright rip off or akin to time-sharing (meaning you never get your money’s worth and can’t sell the darned thing) I think the truck/trailer combo is the right compromise. You can resell or upgrade… Read more »

Brent Shetley
Brent Shetley
4 years ago
Reply to  QWERTY

The RV lifestyle, whether fulltiming or weekend warrior, can be fairly inexpensive and cheaper than a second home or staying in a motel and eating out all the time. Insurance is super cheap and the nice thing about having an RV, you are never shut out for accomodations when attending a big event, like a bowl game or college graduation. RV parks, Walmart parking lots, don’t normally fill up, even for the biggest events we have attended.

Just remember though, you are trading your motel cost, with higher travel costs, like gasoline.

Part timer
Part timer
4 years ago

We are about 6 years out from retirement, but hubby can retire anytime and I can go early in 2016. We purchased our 5th Wheel in 2007 and are weekenders/vacationers right now in anticipation of possibly becoming full timers or snowbirds. Someone spoke of going through expensive truck tires, but really when you are driving the truck to work and back every day anyway, and family vacations, etc. etc. the tires really haven’t worn out any quicker. Gas costs? Well, with a truck and a van that we currently maintain and drive daily since we both work different directions from… Read more »

Kate
Kate
4 years ago

As a trucker approaching retirement, I was considering a small house. Then, I thought how much I like this life and how much more I would like it if no one chose my itenerary for me. I fully understand the challenges of herding a large vehicle through streets that do not accomodate them! I can live comfortably in a small space and am considering an SUV with a small trailer. A tip for internet: 2 phones, different service providers; at least one with unlimited, no throttled service. I keep a “burner phone” prepaid that can make a phone call from… Read more »

Jane Taylor
Jane Taylor
4 years ago

I am a 67 year old widow and it one year I am planing to sell my home (manufactured) and hit the road. I have traveled a lot since my husband passed just me and my wolfhound mix. We have never had problems and I have driven an 17 ft. U-Haul cross country pulling my PT Cruiser. My children are very upset about my decision so that is hard but I have worked all of my life and cared for others so I feel I should do what I want. I need to know if I have to stop at… Read more »

sandra Jones
sandra Jones
4 years ago
Reply to  Jane Taylor

To Jane, No you dont have to show your concelled carry permit at state borders. I assume you meant state and not national, like Canada or Mexico. You do need to check for each state you travel in or through, if you are following their laws. Some states I have to unload and put gun and ammo in separate areas of my car, out of my reach. Its you responsibility to know and follow the laws. Also make sure if you get pulled over by an officer, that you give both drivers licence and CWP to him or her. Then… Read more »

Greg
Greg
4 years ago

Nice information,thanks.I retired to Mexico over 7 years ago at 60,now,the idea of traveling the highways back in the states is
appealing.The over all cost looks like it will be a lot more than living south of the border.Is there a site that can break it down.

Team Gillis Realtor
Team Gillis Realtor
3 years ago

Wow, that is something! Adventure seems like someone we all want when we retire. So, RV living can be ideal for those who want some adventure on their old age.

The Holiday Retirement
The Holiday Retirement
3 years ago

Steve thanks for sharing your experience about retirement in Malaysia and fact why you considered reiring in south east asia. I like how you have compared your experiences in different countries there and why Malaysia seemed like the best place to settle.

Bryan
Bryan
2 years ago

We had several RV’s while our children were growing up. Buying our first RV (Pop Up) was one of the best decisions we ever made. We camped in state parks in many states over the years. We made some great memories that my now grown children still talk about today. Now they are interested in buying their own RV’s so that their children can have the same experiences. Now that we are empty nesters we are looking forward to expanding our travels touring the country at least part time. I have to say that if you haven’t experienced the RV… Read more »

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