Dreaming of full-timing in your RV? Living on the road can actually not only be an amazing means of exploring the country and getting outside- but RV living costs can also even be more affordable than living in a traditional brick-and-mortar home.
But living in your RV comes with additional costs you may not normally associate with your day-to-day life, like dumping your holding tanks and increased auto maintenance. My husband, Justin, and I lived in our trailer for two months and tracked every penny we spent, from each can of Monster energy drink to the toll for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
So if you want a real life example of RV living costs, here’s exactly how much we spent on our adventures.
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Before we dive in, I want to provide some context as to my husband’s and my RVing style, as this will wildly change how much it costs to live on the road. There’s plenty of folks who live in their RVs for free on dispersed camping sites- not to travel, but rather as a means of saving money on traditional housing costs.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s other RVers who use their rigs to travel more affordably to expensive locales. For example, you can score a campsite with full hook-ups at Disney World’s RV resort for about $100 a night- still pretty pricey, in my book, but, given that you can fit 10 individuals in a single site, way cheaper than booking a stay in a normal Disney resort.
Justin and I fall somewhere in the middle- we use dispersed camping sites as our base camp, as we explore nearby National Parks and cities. As you’ll see, there’s definitely areas that we could have easily cut back on (and I’m providing tips below on how you can save money on these categories), but also some categories where we’re probably on the thriftiest end of the spectrum.
So while I hope providing our example of RV living costs is a useful data point to help get you out on the road, there’s a ton of wiggle room if you’d like to spend less (or more!).
So with that, let’s get into it- I’m breaking down our RV living costs from the most costly to the least, over a two month period.
1. Gas: $1593.26
I cringe a bit when I look at this number, but in hindsight, I suppose it makes sense. We drove the length of the United States, from Seattle to Sedona, and through six states (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico), totaling approximately 4,300 miles (which does not include the driving we did once we were at a particular destination).
It’s also important to note that four of these states (Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada) are historically ranked as four of the five most expensive states to buy gas in the U.S., so, depending on where you’re traveling, you might be able to cut down this cost pretty significantly.
Ways to save?
- Move less. The less time you spend on long-haul driving days, the less gas you’ll burn through. One of the amazing things about the United States (and, even if you’re not U.S.-based, this applies to the world!) is how densely packed it is with unique landscapes and cities.
Take my home state of Washington, for example- you could drive from the magical fairytale forests of Olympic National Park to a Bavarian-themed town in the Cascade Mountains to the craggy canyons and world-class wineries of central Washington, all in under 400 miles.
We saw some amazing things in our 4,300 miles on the road, but you certainly don’t have to drive that far to experience some incredible sights.
- Drive slower. If you’re new to RVing, you may not know that each RV has a driving speed sweet-spot, usually between 50-60 miles per hour, where you’ll get the best gas mileage.
If you go significantly over this speed, your fuel efficiency can decrease significantly- for example, while we usually get about 17 miles per gallon while towing our trailer at 55 mph, our fuel efficiency drops to about EIGHT miles per gallon while driving at 75 mph. So find your RV’s sweet spot speed and just cruise at that to get the most bang-for-your-buck.
Psssst…. if you’re new to RVing, our article highlighting Tips for towing a travel trailer for the first time may provide some helpful pointers, like the one above, to keep in mind while you’re starting out (even if you’re RVing in something other than a trailer!).
- Plan your gas stops. Gasbuddy is one of the best RVing apps to keep your spending on gas down. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an app where you can either search around your location or along your route to find the most affordable gas stations. There’s also some additional features that can help you save on gas, like signing up for a free gas card that provides a discount (from a couple cents, up to 25 cents off per gallon) at most gas stations.
You can also save quite a bit by paying for gas with cash instead of a card, with cash discounts usually being about 5-10 cents per gallon. If you have a credit card that offers points or cashback, you will have to do some math to figure out whether you’re getting a better deal by paying for gas with your card and racking up those points or, alternatively, paying in cash.
Even if you have a card with a great point system, it’s a good idea to keep some dollar bills on hand, in case you run into one of the stations with a killer cash discount.
2. Groceries: $788.54 (including food, toiletries, and other essentials)
Justin and I tried to make most meals in our trailer, but went out to eat a couple of times a week. We did our shopping at cheaper grocery stores when we could, like Grocery Outlet (which is similar to Aldi) or Wal-Mart, as opposed to pricier chains like Whole Foods. Most of our meals are made out of more affordable ingredients, like fresh vegetables or canned beans, but we do splurge on some items- since we follow a vegan diet, we’d occasionally buy packs of Impossible Meat and vegan cheeses, as well as trying locally-brewed craft beer from the cities we visited.
Ways to save?
- Find discount grocery chains. Discount chains, like Aldi or Grocery Outlet, offer almost everything you’ll need- it’s kind of amazing just how much cheaper they are than “normal” grocery stores and they often have an impressive array of products, even for people with dietary restrictions, like gluten-free or vegan options.
- Save on groceries. Practice the same tips you would at your more traditional home to save costs on groceries- look for coupons, buy in bulk (if it makes sense, given the storage and weight limitations of your trailer), and cut back on higher-priced specialty goods.
3. Eating out: $572.07
Much like lots of other travelers, one of our favorite ways to explore a destination is through our stomachs! Given how pricey going out to eat is, we limited doing so to a couple of times a week, but tried to sneak in some kind of smaller treat, like an ice cream cone, in most of the cities we drove through.
On one hand, I’m a little shocked and disappointed at how high this number is, but, in hindsight, did you really explore San Francisco without grabbing a Mission-style burrito or Portland if you didn’t try some artisanal donuts?
Ways to save?
- Don’t eat out. This is one of the categories that is completely discretionary- you can spend $0 eating out if you so choose!
- Save on eating out. If you do want to go out to eat during your travels, there are definitely ways you can still spend less. Split one entrée between two people; hit up happy hours for discounts; don’t order alcohol while you’re out; and focus on picking up food from more affordable places, like food trucks and hole-in-the-walls (which sometimes have the best food!), as opposed to fancy, sit-down meals.
4. Cell service/ data plan: $508.50
Justin and I each have a cell phone plan with T-Mobile that offers unlimited calls, texts, and data. Additionally, since we were working remotely from our RV, we needed to have mobile hotspot data plans to get Internet connectivity when we were on the road.
For redundancy, we got two plans: we have one plan for 100 GB/month (unthrottled) through T-Mobile for $50 and an unlimited AT&T business plan (throttled to 7Mbps max upload/download speeds) for $75 a month. I was so nervous about not having consistent Internet on the road, but, between these two carriers, we had rock solid connection the entire time.
Ways to save?
- Check the Mobile Internet Resource Center on a daily basis. This is an invaluable resource for all things about getting Internet as an RVer- they’ve literally made it their full-time jobs to stay up-to-date on the latest deals and packages for mobile Internet solutions and put out some incredibly helpful content on how to affordably stay connected on the go. It’s how Justin and I snagged the limited-time $50 for 100 GB/month T-Mobile data plan!
5. Physical goods: $469.29
There were several “surprise” expenses that we weren’t expecting during our adventure.
For example, before our trip, we had purchased a used mobile router from someone on Facebook Marketplace that decided to crap out halfway through our trip, so we had to buy a new one. One time, we forgot to lock the container where our sewer hose is stored on the back end of our trailer and it fell out somewhere along the way in Arizona (RIP, sewer hose)… so we had to get a new one of those, too.
And there were various odds and ends that we simply forgot back at home, like a lid for our cooking pot or an electric shaver for Justin.
Ways to save?
- Make a good packing list. Some of these expenses were unfortunately unavoidable, like when the used mobile router we purchased broke, through no fault of our own. Other unnecessary purchases can be avoided, though, by creating and maintaining a thorough packing list, to make sure you’re not forgetting any essentials at home.
Since this stint living in our RV, we’ve created a much more comprehensive packing list that we run through every time we go out in our trailer (even for just a weekend trip), which has almost eliminated making duplicate purchases of things we accidentally left at home.
6. Vet bills: $442
Continuing on the theme of unexpected expenses, our 16-year old chihuahua got really sick in Arizona and had to be taken to one of the only emergency vets we could find within a 100-mile radius of our campsite.
Obviously, this isn’t going to be a necessary line item for all RVers, but it hopefully serves as a helpful reminder that unexpected, yet necessary expenses are going to pop up here and there during your travels. If you’re trying to come up with a budget for living in your RV, I’d add at least a couple hundred dollars a month (if not more) for these kinds of surprises, from car repairs to medical expenses for yourself.
7. Beer, wine, and cocktails: $277.96
It’s kind of hilarious that we spent more money on booze than we did on campsites, but I have no regrets! Justin and I love trying local breweries, distilleries, and wineries and visited so many unique ones along the way- in fact, we even stayed the night at a couple through the Harvest Hosts program! While I love this aspect of our travels, drinking alcohol is undoubtedly expensive, especially when you imbibe out at restaurants or bars, so this would be an incredibly easy one to cut out completely.
Ways to save?
- Don’t drink alcohol while you’re out. Alcoholic beverages, especially things like cocktails, are so much more pricier than if you were just going to partake at home. Plus what could be better than enjoying a craft beer snuggled up around a campfire?
- Save on drinking. If you do want to have a drink or two out, stick to beer, as opposed to wine or cocktails, which tend to be pricier and try to find happy hours or other similar deals.
8. Accommodations: $266.75
As mentioned above, Justin and I primarily camp at free dispersed camping areas. In fact, throughout our two month journey, we only paid for three campsites: a total of $46 for two campsites in the California Redwoods for four days and $104 for a four-day stay on the beach along the Oregon coast (which, word to the wise, has very little free camping spots!). We also had to stay one night at an Airbnb in Flagstaff, due to extreme weather ($118.75). I desperately wanted to keep costs in this category under $100 (solely for bragging rights), but all in all, spending $242.75 across 60 days of having spectacularly beautiful landscapes as my backyard isn’t so bad!
Ways to save?
- Camp at free sites. The United States has a ridiculous amount of gorgeous free camping areas, especially in the western half. We saved a TON of money by leveraging camping apps, like Campendium, iOverlander, and The Dyrt. For more information on these apps, check out our Best RVing apps post for all of my favorite ways to find free or affordable campsites.
- Join the right membership programs. Research different camping membership programs, like Boondockers Welcome, Harvest Hosts, or Passport America. Each of these programs are better-suited for different kinds of RVers (and ultimately, may not make sense for your camping style), but can ultimately save you a ton of money if you invest in the right membership for you.
9. Auto maintenance and repair: $190.76
When you’re driving more, you’re inherently going to need to spend more on maintaining your car. We didn’t have any big, necessary repairs on the road, but between a couple of oil changes and buying new filters, we still spent almost $200 on servicing our car.
Ways to save?
- Buy bulk oil changes. You can sign up for email alerts from Jiffy Lube, which occasionally sends out offers for package deals with some decent savings (e.g., purchase three oil changes for $90), especially around holidays like Father’s Day.
- Get handy! Instead of paying someone else a handsome fee to change the cabin air filters on our vehicle, Justin watched a YouTube video and did it himself in 5 minutes. It won’t make sense to always do maintenance or repair work on your vehicle, but there are smaller projects that are relatively straightforward to DIY.
10. Subscriptions: $169.16
We have several subscriptions, like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, as well as a handful of other things we use to run this blog, like Adobe Lightroom and Squarespace.
Ways to save?
- Cut back on the subscriptions. It’s easy to spend a ton of money on subscriptions, especially these days with all of the streaming services out there (Apple TV, HBO Go, Disney +… I could go on). Evaluate which ones provide the most content that you enjoy and only subscribe to a few of them at a time (if you’re living in your RV, you should be out exploring, not sitting around and watching a ton of TV!).
It’s also helpful to see if there are any deals through your cell phone carrier- many of them include a streaming service in their cell phone plans for free.
11. House sitting: $120
If you’re planning on permanently full-timing, then you won’t have to worry about house-sitting expenses, but, since we just live in our RV intermittently, we found someone on Rover to check in on our house, clear out our mailbox every other week and run a few errands for us, like sending us some important documents from our home that we didn’t think we needed on the road.
Ways to save?
- Ask a friend or neighbor to check in on your home a couple of times a month. Assuming you’re diligent about turning off the water and gas before you leave, there’s not too many things that can go haywire while you’re gone (obviously, use your judgement and adjust accordingly, depending on your home and its location, if you have other risks to consider, like burglary or inclement weather).
12. Museums and other attractions: $75.06
We try to stick with free entertainment while we’re out exploring, like hiking or kayaking, checking out farmers markets, or just moseying around a city, but every once in a while, it’s worth splurging on an experience, like a museum or taking a tour. We bought tickets to Meow Wolf, an interactive art exhibit in Santa Fe, and the Museum of Western Film History in the Alabama Hills.
Ways to save?
- Save on fees. Again, this one is totally discretionary- you can easily spend no money on this category, if you so choose. That being said, if you want to visit attractions, there are some handy sites, like Groupon, that offer discounts on popular tours and attractions and you can also try research whether your point-of-interest offers free or discounted admission.
13. Snacks and drinks from gas stations: $69.05
Listen, everyone has their gas station poison- ours just happens to be Takis and Monster energy drinks. Am I slightly embarrassed we spent almost $70 on energy drinks and tortilla chips over the course of two months? Maybe. Do I regret it? Not a chance.
Ways to save?
- Stock up on snacks. It’s much cheaper to buy in bulk at grocery stores, rather than impulse buy snacks (and probably unhealthy ones at that) at gas stations. Instead, stock up on snackable fruits, veggies, and nuts at grocery stores before any drive days- not only will your wallet be happier, but so will your cardiovascular system!
14. Propane: $50.53
Our trip was in the cooler months, so we kept our propane-fueled heater running pretty frequently, as well as cooked most of our meals with our propane-fueled stove using food stored in our propane-fueled fridge. This frankly seems like a lot to spend on just propane, but considering this averaged out to be $0.84 a day, it’s waaaay less than what we spend on natural gas to heat our home in Seattle.
Ways to save?
- Plan your propane refill stops. We found propane-refill stations using the iOverlander app and tried to stick with refilling our tanks at RV stores, which tend to have cheaper propane than gas stations or U-hauls (and bonus- they oftentimes have a free dump station to use as well!).
15. Parking fees, permits, and tolls: $48.10
Honestly, the majority of this was spent on merely driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (which, for three axles, costs a whopping $26), which we could have easily avoided but wanted to anyway (it was our inherent millennial sense of YOLO-ing that drove us to do it). We also stopped at a variety of state and national parks that charged nominal fees.
Ways to save?
- Avoid tolls. There’s a handy setting on the Google Maps app to avoid tolls- here’s a tutorial if you don’t know how to turn it on.
- Buy a park pass. If you’re a national and state parks enthusiast like me, evaluate which parks you’re going to be stopping at along the way and see if there’s a pass you can buy that will save you any money on entrance fees.
For example, the America the Beautiful Pass costs just $80 and gets you into all of the U.S. National Parks, as well as 2,000 other national forests, shorelines (and on and on). Since we stopped at Death Valley, Petrified Forest, and the Redwoods National Parks during our two-month excursion (in addition to the three in Washington that we visit multiple times each year), purchasing an America the Beautiful pass saves us a ton of money in park fees we’d otherwise pay.
Similar programs exist for state parks in Oregon, with awesome gems like the Trail of Ten Falls in Silver Falls State Park and Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach, as well as for Washington state parks.
16. Coffee: $39.97
Justin and I both LOVE bougie coffee, but those oat milk lattes add up QUICK, so we almost always brewed our own back at the trailer. I’m actually pretty proud of the fact that we only got coffee out three times in a two month span!
Ways to save?
- Don’t buy coffee out. ‘Nuff said.
17. Dump stations and water refills: $17
We mostly use free dump and water refill stations we find through apps, but there’s a few places where we either couldn’t find free sites or it would have cost us more in gas money to drive with full tanks to the dump station, than to just pay a few bucks to both dump and refill our tanks.
Ways to save?
- Plan your dump sites and water refill stations. Use the iOverlander or AllStays apps to find free dump and water refill stations along the way! There’s a surprising amount of free ones scattered about, from gas stations, rest stops, RV stores, and sometimes even water treatment facilities.
So, in sum, for two months of exploring the country in our trailer, we spent a grand total of $5,725. Given how frugal we tried to be during our trip, I’m a little surprised at how expensive that is. On the other hand, to put that figure in perspective, that’s less than what we pay for just our mortgage for our house in Seattle over the course of two months. So the cost of living in an RV can definitely be an affordable way to not only see and explore the country, but also to just live!
As a small aside, there’s a handful of line items you’ll have to pay for that I didn’t include on this list- think things like health, car, and RV insurance, as you’ll have to pay for these regardless of whether you live in an RV or in a brick-and-mortar home. I also excluded costs associated with our mortgage and utilities at the time, given this will be incredibly variable on where you live, as well as whether you maintain a traditional home while you’re living in your RV.
So if you’re trying to put together an accurate budget for your RV living costs, try tracking what purchases you make in a month. If there’s categories that you’ll need to continue to spend on while living in your RV that I didn’t list in this post (like health care, prescription costs or expenses associated with a hobby, like ski lift passes), be sure to include that in your overall budget.
I hope this is a helpful data point in planning your RV living costs. Are there any categories or budget tips I forgot? Let me know if you have any comments or questions below!