For generations of Americans, owning a house and having a steady job has signified success, a reward earned through diligence and hard work. But the astronomical costs of real estate and the ever-expanding hours of the work day have people questioning whether the traditional milestones of adulthood are actually grave markers on a life worth living. By contrast, millennials generally feel down about buying a home and also aren't thrilled about embracing life as desk jockeys.
While some people live with these doubts and continue to chase the same goals pursued by their parents and grandparents as best they can, others are taking a different road—specifically, the highways and state routes crisscrossing the country, on which they travel in their recreational vehicles that they also call home. "A lot of times people view it as running from problems," said Colorado Springs native Dan McKenzie, who along with his wife, Lindsay, (and their two dogs Kyla and Pepper) have embraced full-time RV living. "But it’s actually a strategy for living differently." It's a life free from worries about mortgage payments or keeping up with the rent, and where the glare of the office's fluorescent lighting is replaced by sunshine and open skies.
RV living: finding freedom on the road
RV living isn't a new fad—Americans have done so since around the advent of automobiles—but it’s typically thought of as the ultimate reward for the retiree wanting to satisfy a lifetime of wanderlust after spending decades working indoors, pushing papers at a desk job. What's novel about the recent surge of RV owners—the industry reported more than 9 million Americans owned an RV in 2017, the highest number on record—is that many of the newcomers are still in their prime earning years and view living full time in an RV as a welcome, sustainable way to spend their 20s and 30s rather than as something to fill their golden years. "The decision to start RVing was very much us deciding we didn’t want to settle in one place," said Alyssa Padgett, who, along with her husband Heath, has been a full-time RV living since 2014. "We wanted to do something more with our lives—to see the world and do work that we loved. Neither of those would happen if we stayed working in cubicles in Texas."
Full-time RV-ers Dan and Lindsay also stress the freedom of life on the road as a huge draw to RV living. "For us, the question is, 'What's on the horizon next? What dreams do we want to go after?',’" Dan said. The couple rarely stays in the same spot for longer than a week, and have traveled the breadth and width of the country (as well as parts of Canada and Mexico). While some destinations make more of an impression than others (Glacier National Park in Montana and Acadia National Park in Maine were two favorites of the McKenzies), it's the variety of the country that's truly impressed them. "Every place has their own culture, their own food, their own way of doing things," Dan said. "Wherever there’s good beer, good fishing and good weather is usually where we plot a course," said Lindsay.
Sometimes the only way to win is not to play
Not everyone embraces RV living out of a desire to opt out of life's rat race—some have the decision forced upon them. "You are insane," Jacqueline LaDue remembered telling her fiancé, Josh, when he floated the idea of living full time in an RV. "I will never in my entire life do that." The couple and their 4-year-old son Brayden had left a luxury apartment (complete with swimming pool) in Raleigh, North Carolina, after Josh's sales job didn't pan out and temporarily sought shelter at the home of Jacqueline's father near Boston.
The family spent weekend after weekend looking for apartments, but the high rents in the area left them drained and discouraged. "We needed a two-bedroom apartment, and they were all upward of $1,800 a month," Jacqueline said. After seeing some examples of RV living on her Instagram feed, she softened to the idea of living in an RV. "I thought, 'We either finance a $20,000 trailer, or we go and get an $1,800-a-month apartment and try to save," Jacqueline said. "[An RV] just made way more sense."
The (mostly) upside of RV living
Living in an RV or motorhome can save people plenty of money, but it also provides just as many opportunities to burn through cash. "When we first started RVing, we had no idea how expensive or cheap it could be," Alyssa Padgett said. "We blew through four grand during our first month—way more than our typical monthly spend as 23-year-olds—and kind of freaked out that RVing would bankrupt us."
The Padgetts quickly reined in their spending by ceasing to treat their new RV lifestyle like a vacation, where they could always eat out, go on tours of local points of interest and hit up the night life. Their new frugal habits helped them pay off nearly $30,000 in student debt in four years. Their yearly budget in 2014, during which they visited all 48 states on the continent for a documentary, broke down to the following:
- Gas: $6,593.57
- Lodging: $2,710.84
- Groceries: $2,053.05
- Nationwide gym membership: $344.84
- Phone bill: $1,311.22
- Eating out: $512.88
- Charitable donations: $210
- Maintenance: $1,955.72
- Miscellaneous and entertainment: $3,432.60
- Total cost to visit 48 states: $19,124.72
Today, Alyssa estimates the couple spends between $2,000 to $2,500 on basic RV-living expenses each month, which includes campground fees, paying down the RV loan ($600 per month), groceries and gas.
Dan and Lindsay McKenzie face similar RV-living expenses each month, totaling approximately $3,000. Their monthly budget breaks down into the following:
- Gas: $400
- Lodging: $900
- Maintenance: $50
- Food: $550
- RV and car insurance: $185
- Health insurance: $376
- Cell phone: $177
- Internet: $105
- Laundry: $40
- Entertainment: $250
Both the McKenzies and Padgetts pay for RV living through a variety of income streams. The Padgetts collectively run a film production company, dabble in marketing consulting, write books on how to live the RV lifestyle and more to generate a six-figure annual income. The McKenzies also boast long résumés, with Dan working remotely for a software company and Lindsay freelance writing. The couple also plans on launching a series of online courses on full-time RV living for people interested in taking to the road.
According to a report by real estate database Trulia, the national median price of a starter home is more than $180,000. While the cost of a motorhome can climb into the hundreds of thousands, millennials hoping to save a buck turn to more affordable options, such as the Forest River Grey Wolf Jacqueline purchased used for about $18,000. Even with the expenses unique to RV living, such as RV insurance, or having to change out a septic tank (which costs her between $130 to $140 a month), it's still cheaper than making a down payment on a traditional house and paying for a mortgage. That's particularly true for Jacqueline, who avoids paying camping fees by living in an RV on land owned by her grandmother.
But more important to her than saving money has been the wealth of experiences living in an RV has given her, especially with her son. "We’ve been way more creative about everyday things, making them more fun," she said. "If we lived in a house, I wouldn’t be taking him outside to look at bugs. It's definitely forced me into a whole different level of parenting."