The Economy of the Wanderlife

Milepost 4-7-14   Fillmore, California

Some days I can’t believe where we are.  In fact, some days I don’t know where we are.  I wake up in the morning and open my eyes with a bit of surprise to see the inside of my fifth wheel bedroom loft and see the California sun peeking in through the mini-blinds – and I remember again.  We moved out of our big house after the kids all grew up and left.  We sold or gave away much of our furniture and tools and extra clothes.  And we hit the road.

It had been a dream of ours for a long time, but we’d been anchored to a large property by debt and a mortgage.  There was no money for traveling more than a few miles from home.  Having raised our three daughters – as well as 17 foster kids, 5 foreign exchange kids, and a few other extras –  all on a solitary public school teacher’s income, we reached retirement age still carrying a mortgage.  And we still had liabilities from my log home construction company that had closed when the housing market tanked in Michigan in 2006.

Here’s how we were finally able to realize the impossible dream:

Downsizing the property.  Many of our friends have had two-income households pretty much all of their lives.  They are able to keep the home place and still afford another place in Florida.  Or a brand new RV.  Not us.  We had to be willing to part with our homestead of 40 years.  There was just no way around it.  And it was pretty much empty with the kids gone anyway.  Every time the furnace kicked on in the wintertime I cringed at how much it was costing to heat a 10-room house with only two people in it.

Bunkhouse porchWhen we couldn’t sell after two years, we put renters in the big house and moved ourselves into a one-room log cabin on the same 30-acre property.  Finally, we split the property, sold 10 acres to a neighbor, paid off the last of our credit card debt,  sold the farm tractor, and then bought a strong 10-year old pickup and a used RV.

Downsizing  the possessions.  We sold the construction equipment on Craigslist along with the extra furniture and the SUV, and then we took many loads of extra clothing and housewares to the local thrift store.  We gave as many of the family heirlooms to our kids as they would take.  They finally told us we didn’t have anything left that they wanted.  We put the rest in storage.

Buying depreciated vehicles.  Did you know that a car loses about half its value in the first 5 years?  And the quality of American-made vehicles is so much improved over the last 30 years that a diesel pickup may well go a half-million miles before it’s done.  We were able to find an RV that had been given much TLC by the previous owner – he even waxed the outside – and even buying from a dealer, we paid $8,000 for a 12-year-old RV that had cost $27,000 new (That’s 70% depreciated).  It had been parked much of the time, had new tires, and no roof leaks ever.  It is probably the last RV we will ever buy, ’cause with standard maintenance it will last longer than we will.

Okay, that was all just to get started.  But how could we afford the gypsy life?  We looked at campground costs and freaked.  A one-night stay in a typical KOA was $45.  At this rate a month in the same park would cost $1,350!  Yow!   And then we discovered the monthly rate.

Stay long-term.    The same private campground almost certainly has a weekly, monthly, and seasonal rate that reduces long-term costs significantly.  Most private parks have monthly rates under $400, including all hook-ups, even cable TV and Wifi.  And if you want to stay for an entire season, you’ll do even better.  Of course, parks along the ocean and near popular attractions will not be so reasonable.  They don’t have to be, because people will pay the premium rate to be on the waterfront or next to Disneyland, etc.

Stay for Free.  When you are on the road, it is possible to save camping costs by not setting up for the night.  Most Walmarts (but not all) will allow overnight stays in their parking lots if you don’t unhitch.

Truck stop parking lots can be welcome places for overnight stays.
Truck stop parking lots can be welcome places for overnight stays, where restrooms – and breakfast – are close by.

 Of course, truck stops are available, but you need to be a sound sleeper who won’t be wakened by the rumble of truck engines all night.  Friends and relatives are a resource for backyard camping, but you need to be socially savvy enough that you don’t invite yourself where you are really not welcome.  And don’t over-stay your welcome.  State and National Forests allow camping just about anywhere, for free or for $10 a night, within certain guidelines.  This sort of off-the-grid camping is called boon-docking and there are various websites dedicated to the practice.  RV’s are designed for self-contained camping with storage tanks and batteries for several days of service – off the road and off the grid.

Work-Camp.   You’ll find a plethora of websites that will help you get started earning a free campsite by working half-time at a campground.  Our first experience here at Kenney Grove Park in Fillmore, California, has been working out fine for us.  I am doing tree trimming and handyman work for the park and enjoy a beautiful campsite surrounded by live oak trees, cacti, and Bird-of-Paradise.   In keeping with the higher costs in southern California, the campsite is valued at $1000 a month and includes full hookups, private patio, and storage shed.  Malibu and Hollywood are nearby (a film crew was parked onsite last week while filming just down the road).   Kaye and I are living here for free this winter and spring by helping out around the park.

When I first looked into work-camping I found many kinds of assignments available, from park hosting to nature trail guiding.  One spot in the desert was needing a host for a campground at an off-roading racetrack.  I passed that one up thinking that all-night security duty would be part of it and I didn’t want to play bouncer to a bunch of rough-and-tumble monster truckers.  Matching the worker to the job is definitely important.  Many work-camp arrangements run for 6 months but are negotiable.

These are some of the most significant endeavors you can undertake to achieve and then pursue the wandering life.  There are many more, from gas cards that offer discounts on fuel, to memberships in camping clubs, and yearly rates for state and national park access.  And a whole lot more.  I think we will be in the discovery stages of this for a long time.

There are many dreamers in the world.  But turning dreams into reality is a pro-active pursuit, and it doesn’t happen by wishing, and it doesn’t happen by accident.  It might start with wishing, but making it happen takes careful planning and determination.

Oh, one more thing.  Many of my readers are looking forward to a wandering lifestyle after retirement, but a few very lucky – or very determined people are making it happen sooner.  One couple I know sold their business in Seattle and left the rat race to live in the desert in a 40-foot motorhome.  They are total boon-dockers, living completely off-grid, operating on solar energy and batteries and running an internet-based business by satellite uplink.  Way out in the wilderness, legally living for free on government land, and totally connected.  Cool.

See?  There are ways to get where you want to be.  Start planning now and make the lifestyle changes that are necessary… and you’ll get there!  Maybe Kaye and I will bump into you somewhere along the way.

It's good to try things out before sinking a lot of money into it, so start small if you need to.
It’s wise  to try things out before investing a lot of money, so start small if you need to.

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