A while ago I wrote about how we are able to afford this “gap year” (see that post here) and now, well over three months in, 12 states, 12 National Parks & Monuments, and 40+ different camp/overnight locations later, we have a good idea about how our planned budget is/isn’t working. We’d planned on spending about 3k/month, hoped for $2500 and were prepared for $3,500 (ugh). So basic math tells us that our travel budget for the 9-10 months we plan to be on the road is roughly $27,000-30,000. So far we are hitting the 3k mark on the nose with reasonable hopes of being in the $2,500 range in coming months. And if we really cut deep we could reasonably have a $2,000 month this fall if we find a cheap spot we’d like to stay for a few weeks.
Our monthly budget is roughly six items (details on each category below):
1) This includes various insurances, RV and truck payments, cellphones, and our storage unit rent-$1,000
Variable Costs (and they can vary a lot from month-to-month):
4) Entertainment/Dining Out/”Fun” Fees (think kayak rentals, tours, museum entrance fees, etc.)-$200
5) Everything Else (think laundry, medicines, sunscreen, bug spray, camping gear, clothes/shoes, bike gear, etc.)-$350
6) Camping Fees-$550
So, let’s talk frankly about fixed costs. Yes, we bought a brand-spanking-new truck and RV and financed them both at very low interest rates. We negotiated a once-in-a lifetime-deal on the truck and a very fair deal on the RV. We also made fairly sizeable down payments on both. Could we have paid cash for them and still done this trip? The short answer is yes, but we decided we wouldn’t be comfortable with our come-back-home-cushion when we finished our gap year. This is arguably the most questionable part of our financial plan. But we don’t have rent or a house payment. The truck and Moby (the RV) ARE our house. That said, we could pay them both off tomorrow and still continue our journey.
The other questionable fixed cost we have is our health insurance purchased through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Healthcare Exchange. We’d initially planned to purchase a high deductible, catastrophic plan for roughly $100 per month and call it a day. But as it turns out, according to the great minds that lead our country, I’m too old to qualify for this type of plan under the ACA. So, we faced two options: buy the catastrophic plan we wanted, pay for it 100% out-of-pocket, and pay a penalty at the end of the year for not having the “right” coverage OR purchase a more expensive plan with much better coverage and receive a monthly subsidy to help offset the cost. Guess which one we picked.
There are many, many strange things about the ACA. Perhaps the strangest is that eligibility for a subsidy is based solely on your annual Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI). When you apply for ACA coverage, you estimate what your MAGI will be for the year; thus, for us, we estimated our MAGI for 2015. The law doesn’t to take into account money in savings or other assets. So, essentially, you can be a billionaire and if you keep your MAGI under say, 25k per couple for a given year, you can get “free” or significantly reduced-cost, via subsidy, health insurance. Weird. Anyway, we are living on our savings for the year so our MAGI will be very, very low for 2015. Hence, the subsidy. I guess this is what you get when you merge the health insurance companies and the IRS. Government, go figure.
Our other fixed monthly expenses are pretty boring and include: monthly rental of our storage unit (because we’ll head home at some point and need something to sit on), cell phone bill, and truck/RV/life/disability/car insurances (we left our Hyundai sedan with Jessie’s parents).
Feeding “Earl” (our truck):
Gas expenses increase as we get further out west since everything is more spread out and we have to drive longer distances (especially in Texas). So far most gas west of Texas is 85/86 octane so we have to buy “premium” gas to get 87 octane. We’d probably be fine with 85 octane but we aren’t interested in experimenting with new gas while towing our 6,000+ lbs RV up 10-14% grades in the middle-of-nowhere Utah. Earl also requires some basic maintenance and we don’t ignore this. Oil changes and tire rotations aren’t neglected. We also anticipate we’ll need a brake job and maybe some tires before we make it home.
Feeding Us, Cheap:
We buy and eat a lot of groceries. We are doing a lot of hiking so we burn a lot of calories. We prepare almost all of our meals rather than eating out, so buying good groceries and eating well are big priorities. We shop almost exclusively at Wal-Mart and Aldi, with an occasional Trader Joe’s or local farmer’s markets thrown in, though these latter options are much harder to come by. We know by now which stores have the best prices on which items (e.g., nuts and chips are significantly cheaper at Aldi and Trader Joe’s, so we try to skip these items at Wal-Mart and wait to purchase them during our next Aldi/Trader Joe’s trip) and we regularly have several shopping lists going, one for each store. Alcohol is rarely on a list. We also have virtually zero food waste. If something is going bad or we are sick of eating it, we eat it anyway.
Feeding Us, Expensive:
We eat out very rarely and try to limit it to special occasions, times when we need a morale booster, times of utter desperation, or to enjoy local/regional fare, like beignets and oysters in New Orleans. When we do eat out, we try to order on the cheaper side, we never pay for beverages, and we often split a larger entrée. We do tip well for good service, as our servers shouldn’t suffer because of our frugality. It’s not that we don’t enjoy eating out – we just prioritize other things. For the price of one meal out, we can usually buy groceries for 2-3+ days, pay for a night or two of camping, or cover the cost of visiting a cool museum. In short, eating out is a really big deal for us so we savor every-last-bite.
Prioritization is also key when it comes to our entertainment/fun money. Do we want to pay for museum admission or for a ranger-guided tour in the next national park? There are no right or wrong answers here, and these are easily the toughest decisions we make on the road. It takes compromise, critical thinking, and some planning/thinking ahead. There is SO much to see, and we’d love to see and do it all, but we simply don’t have limitless funds or time. The good news is that hiking is free and we do a lot of hiking. Seriously, A LOT.
The price of camping varies greatly. With the exception of camping at the 4-H campground during our two weeks with Habitat for Humanity Care-A-Vanners in Florida, we’ve paid for camping exclusively at state or federal parks, including national parks/forests. Prices range from $8/night to $43/night, with our average cost running at about $15/night. At state parks, this price usually gets us water and electric hook-ups, a nice campsite with some shade, a spread-out and quiet campground, access to nice bathhouses with flush toilets and showers (should we choose to use them), and cheap no-frills laundry facilities (though the presence of washers/dryers varies pretty widely among state park systems); rarely, state parks will also have wireless. Federal parks (Army Corps of Engineers and National Forests) sometimes offer hook-ups, nice spread-out sites, and decent bathhouses. National parks rarely have hook-ups or bathhouses with showers (they typically have only pit or flush toilets); basically, these campgrounds are without amenities except for a fairly spacious site with a picnic table and fire ring/grill, potable water, and dump station (usually) – you’re paying to stay at the park, which is quite enough for us. So far, our experience is that there are sometimes third-party concessionaires that run more full-service campgrounds within the national parks, or just outside them, at a premium price. We skip those.
We’re learning to take advantage of free “camping” as well, especially when we’re traveling from one destination to another or visiting cities where our interest isn’t tied to enjoying a park. Unless city ordinances state otherwise, most Wal-Mart stores allow overnight RV parking (not camping, don’t get out the grill and lawn chairs); you simply walk in and ask for the manager’s approval. We spend quite enough money at Wal-Mart, so we don’t feel the least bit guilty taking advantage of this for an occasional night. We also found that many casinos out west that allow free overnight RV parking, with no permission required. Overnights at truck stops have happened a couple of times in rural areas, though this isn’t our preferred option due to noise, as many truckers idle their engines all night so they can run their AC. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows free camping at hundreds of locations across the west. Some of these locations are in semi-established “campgrounds” but most are available as “dispersed” camping along BLM roads and recreation areas. Most of the time these locations are amazing but do be aware they can attract the rough-and-tumble crowd and there is rarely a campground host or park ranger to enforce rules about noise or generators, etc. That said, we’ve very much enjoyed all of our BLM camping thus far.
We use an Iphone app called AllStays that we paid roughly $10 for, which shows most free overnight parking options along our route. As a side note, it also shows rest areas, camping and RV stores, some propane dealers, most gas locations, and tons of campgrounds, along with various other useful stores; users regularly write notes or reviews for overnight locations, which is super helpful. In short, we love this app and it saves us a ton of money.
We’ve also used the Harvest Hosts program a couple of times for overnight camping/parking, which has been easy but variable in terms of overnight road noise. We paid less than $50 for an annual membership, which gives us access to park on the lands of farmers, ranchers, and other business or venue owners (e.g., museums). There is an online directory available to members where we can find locations and contact information. We then call ahead to the owner and ask for permission to stay the night. Generally, it’s understood that you arrive during operating business hours, park wherever you’re told, and buy a little something produced at the location (e.g., a bottle of wine, a museum admission pass, etc.). While not exactly free, it’s a good way to save money, see some things “off the beaten path”, and meet local folks while traveling.
Perhaps the least fun category we’ve spent money on is ongoing start-up costs and stuff that needs replacing. Our start-up costs are generally behind us now, but over the first 8-12 weeks on the road we realized we needed new hiking shoes (our treads were more worn than we realized), a few pieces of warmer/cooler clothing, trekking poles, new camp chairs, a few RV items, some more decent water bottles, etc. Many of these items get a lot of tough use and simply wear out over time. We know things will pop up (like broken dishes when a cabinet door flies open in transit) and we’re prepared, just not excited about them. Thrift stores can help take the sting out of this category if you don’t mind wearing someone else’s hiking shorts.
We also need many of the same unsexy items we’d need at home like laundry detergent, soap, toilet paper, gallons of sunscreen, new underwear (not a thrift store item for us), etc. These are not fun items to shop for but very necessary. Laundromat expenses also go in this category. We spend about $30-40 a month at the Laundromat generally doing laundry once a week. Could we stretch it further, sure, but we sweat a lot and our clothes stink and we generally don’t have A/C in the RV and it’s roughly 160 sq ft. Anyway, you get the idea, so we do laundry at least once a week.
So there you have it – our rough but pretty accurate monthly budget and a glimpse into some of our decision making (warts and all). Thus far it’s safe to say that the money we’ve spent on our gap year has been some of the best money we’ve ever spent. As some of the more famous RV bloggers like to say “we are enriching our lives, not our bank accounts”.
We are comfortable with the decisions we’ve made. They might not work for everyone, but they work for us. If you have questions or tips about how we might save money please feel free to drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.