Full-Time RV Travel With Kids – Are They Crazy?

Hey everyone! Today, I have a great article from Jacob Wade on how to become a full-time RV family. I’ve known him for years now and it’s been so much fun watching him and his family on this RV adventure that they are on. Jacob Wade is the budgeting expert who started iHeartBudgets, a place where Millennials and young families come to learn EXACTLY how to build a budget that WORKS. Jacob quit his job in 2018, sold his house and 95% of everything they owned to take off on an adventure of a lifetime. He is now on mission to spread the message of Financial Freedom around the country, and help others build a “Freedom Plan” of their own!

Full-Time RV Travel With Kids – Are They Crazy? #fulltimeRV #fulltimervfamily #rvlife #vanlife

18 months ago, I quit my job, we sold (almost) everything we owned (including the house), and we hit the road with 3 kids, 6 and under! 

Hello Making Sense of Cents family! 

I’m Jacob Wade, Founder of iHeartBudgets.net, and Michelle was kind enough to let me share our story with you fine folks today. 

I know Michelle has shared all about her adventures around the U.S. in an RV (and in her sailboat!), and I as I’ve read through her stories, I found myself nodding my head all the way through.

There is something about giving in to your sense of adventure, having a curiosity to explore and taking hold of the FREEDOM that is right in front of us!

We’ve had such an incredible journey over the past 18 months, and get SO MANY questions about what it takes to up and leave EVERYTHING.

So today I’ll talk through the details of HOW we saved for and planned our adventure, what it looks like to sell EVERYTHING and downsize our family into 300 sq. ft., and the day to day of traveling full time WITH KIDS.

And hopefully inspire some of you who feel “stuck” to take a chance at something BIG!

 

But why become a full-time RV family?

There were several contributing factors to uproot our lives, and I go into MUCH more detail on that in THIS POST, but ultimately we didn’t like where our life was headed. 

I had a job in sales that required too much travel away from my family, and we had a few family medical things that stopped us in our tracks and had us re-thinking what we were doing, and what was most important. 

We were just about to pull the trigger on a house twice the size of our current one, with twice the land (and coincidently, twice the mortgage). 

But one day, frustrated with life, I said “what if we just sold everything and traveled instead of getting a bigger house?”

Once the words came out of my mouth….there was no going back.

Related content:

 

Make A Plan To Go Full-Time RV

When we first told people we were going on this crazy adventure, most everyone was supportive, but would always have a comment like “wow, that’s great if you can afford it!” or “I wish I could do something like that!”

I always loved hearing their well-wishes. And I wanted to show them that for some, traveling full time IS an option, if you make a plan! But in our rush to leave, I never got the chance to write down what it looks like to plan for a trip like this. 

So here are the details of OUR plan to go on this amazing adventure. 

Timeline: 6 months to launch

 

Full-Time RV Travel With Kids – Are They Crazy?

Trailer vs. Motorhome: The WHY

Once we had the idea in our heads, we quickly jumped on YouTube to see what other families were doing.

First, we were ASTOUNDED at how many families were traveling full time (some with 4 kids of more!). It gave us some confidence that this was NOT some far-fetched idea, and people were doing fine with more kids AND less space than we could. 

We eventually found a couple with 4 kids who were towing a trailer that had bunk beds in the back room, a separate living space, and a master bedroom with a door.

PERFECT! 

We also found a few Facebook Groups for “full-time families”, and asked why some would choose towing a trailer when they could have the convenience of self-contained motorhome. 

Bottom line: Motorhomes are less safe for kids in a crash, and the seatbelts for most of them are NOT bolted to the frame of the RV. Also, being in the same place as ALL YOUR STUFF when in a crash is MUCH more dangerous, especially for the kids in the living are of the motorhome. 

So trailer it was!

And we confirmed our trailer choice by visiting a local RV show, searching through EVERY model, and at the end, we found the model that we had seen on YouTube, and it was love at first site!

 

 

Finding The RV

We knew we wanted to buy USED, because new trailers are a hassle.

No seriously!

We read horror story after horror story of people buying new, taking their first week-long trip, and coming back to the dealer with a 67-point checklist of issues with the trailer. Then the trailer would sit in warranty repair-land for 6-9 months.

Apparently, most trailers are made cheaply, and you want to buy something used so the first owner can deal with all the warranty repair work, AND take the HUGE depreciation hit!

We searched on Craigslist, Offerup and Facebook Marketplace for our specific model, one that was about 5-7 years old.

After a month of searching, we found one that looked promising, but I was traveling that week. So my wife dragged the 3 kids out to check it out that same day, and then called me and said “we need to buy this one!”

Not wanting to get ripped off, we hired a local “Mobile RV Inspector” to take a look. Best $300 ever spent!

Though the owner was SUPER sketchy (and we found later, lied about a LOT of things), the inspector was able to show us a handful of problems, tell us what repair would look like, and then told us “at the price they are listing at, I would buy it myself. It’s worth it.”

So the next day, we pulled out $15,000 cash from savings, and purchased our new (to us) 2011 Keystone Cougar 31SQB travel trailer! (hint: these go for about $40,000 new).

 

 

Finding The Tow Vehicle

We had 3 kids, so we settled on buying a heavy-duty SUV that could tow over 9,000 lbs. There was only one option that we thought was “affordable”, so we purchased a 1999 Suburban 2500 with the 7.4 liter motor. It was only $5,000, and on paper, should have done the job. 

I say “should have”, because though we dropped thousands in repairs to make it road-worthy, it still blew the transmission 1-week in to our trip.

You live. You Learn. Then you do diesel.

Our 2nd vehicle was a 2000 Ford F-250 turbo diesel for $14,000, and we’ve since put 20,000 miles on it!

But there are always repair costs when you are towing your house around the country. We’ve dropped $4,000 into parts and pieces of that truck as well, but it has confidently towed us anywhere we want to go, including off-road BLM land (will talk more about that later), and up 8% mountain grades with no issue.

 

But Wait, Where Did You Get The Money For This?

I seem to have put the cart before the horse here, so let me explain HOW we saved for this grand adventure.

We had been living on a budget for years (hence my website name), but with my wife staying at home with the kids (which we LOVE), we weren’t able to save much. Around 2015, I was able to secure a few promotions (not by luck, mind you, there was plan and intention behind this), and we were able to start saving some money.

We put most of it back into the house, but since the Seattle area housing market was going NUTS, we knew there was sweat equity in the DIY improvements we were doing.

Eventually, we stopped the home improvements, and started putting away (up to) 40% of our income, as I latched on the FIRE movement (Financial Independence / Retire Early)

Side note: It’s funny, because though I wanted to retire early, we were also looking to double our mortgage. And though I’m not retired right now, we are completely debt free, and closer to FIRE than had I kept working. Weird how that works sometimes… 

We had put away about $25,000 in usable savings (the rest was invested) when we had this CRAZY traveling idea. This was hardly enough for a year on the road (though now meeting a few families on the road, it may have been possible with less RV and a few more frugal choices).

We knew we needed to sell the house.

And since I was risking my career and quitting my job, might as well go ALL IN and sell everything we owned too!

We funded this trip through home equity that we had built over 8 years of home ownership. We walked away with just under $200,000 (like I said, Seattle housing is NUTS right now), and this is helped us take a year off and fund our new business venture.

Related: How To Make Money While RVing

 

Hitting The Road

Now that we had the RV and tow vehicle secured, we needed to knock out a few things on the to-do list.

Timeline: 2 months to launch

You know, just a few minor things:

  • Remodel the Trailer (and fix water damage we found)
  • Finish all house projects (including trim, doors, and painting the WHOLE HOUSE)
  • List and Sell the house
  • Get storage unit for keepsakes and some furniture
  • Sell everything else (Facebook marketplace, 2 massive garage sales, and goodwill runs)
  • Order parts for towing the trailer (tires, hitch, etc.)
  • Pack the trailer with our stuff

Long story short, we completed everything and left on August 17th, 2018.

We said goodbye to our friends, family, neighbors, pulled away from the only house we’ve ever owned and left on the adventure of a lifetime!

Looking back, I don’t necessarily recommend compressing the timeline like we did. If we had a few more months to prepare, we probably wouldn’t have had so many gray hairs.

But we knew we needed a deadline to actually do THE THING, so it worked for us.

 


Preparing To Travel With 3 Kids

We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Like, I had never towed ANYTHING before. We had never camped in an RV in our LIVES. We didn’t even know how to hook up the RV until our first night in the RV (which is a disastrous story for another time!). 

But man, it’s crazy how much you can learn from YouTube, amirite? 

Truly, I tell people that YouTube is my second dad! 

Living in an RV was going from 0 – 100mph for us as a family. 

But prior to our adventure, we did a few intentional things to ensure we could survive 365 days living on the road with our young kids.

  1. We traveled with our kids at a young age. We had always loved travel, but more in the ‘hop on an airplane, get a rental car, stay in a hotel’ type of travel. And we know many young families are terrified of dragging their kids on a vacation like that, so they simply DON’T TRAVEL until they are older. Or just do small road trips. We LOVE facing things head on, so we were intentional about putting our kids on an airplane at a young age (usually before they turned 1). And this included hauling the carseats, double-stroller, pack n’ play and all our luggage through the airport. We looked like a traveling circus show! Sure, it was stressful, but we wanted to take the road less traveled (pun intended), so our kids knew that travel was not only possible, but important! This helped our kids get used to long lines, being stuck in their seat for HOURS, and finding creative ways to get their energy out WITHOUT losing their minds in public!
  2. We set up a fund called the “Adventure Jar.” Part of the stress during the transition was selling all of the kid’s toys (well, most of them. We kept their favorites and some books). To help get them involved and EXCITED to part with their belongings, we created the “Adventure Jar.” This jar was our savings account for EVERYTHING we sold (besides the car and house). The sole purpose of this money was to pay for FUN ADVENTURES on the road. While on the trip, if the kids said “hey let’s do that fun thing!”, we said “of course, it’s part of the Adventure Fund.” When they sold a toy, or furniture, or anything, we let them put the cash in the jar, and become part of the contribution to our upcoming adventure. We made over $7,000 selling our stuff, which is over $500 per month for adventures in that first year!
  3. We hid old toys and books for a few months. Ok, this sounds weird, but hiding toys and books from kids is AWESOME! Not only do they typically forget they had it, but when you bring it out again, it’s like getting it new all over again. We took books and toys they would enjoy (while being strapped into their carseats), and put them away in the garage, only to load them into the car when we left and surprise the kids.

By the time we launched with our house in tow, the kids were ready for the adventure, and us parents still had no idea what we were doing, HAHAHA!

 

Traveling With Kids: A Day In The Life

There are a few things we’ve learned along the way as we have gotten into our “travel groove.” Traveling with kids is different than going on a road trip with your spouse or friends. And choosing to embrace those limitations and difference makes life a WHOLE LOT EASIER.

Here’s what a typical day of RV travel looks like for us:

  • The day prior – try to pick up the RV as best we can. Pick up and put away all outside items (bikes, table, chairs, toys, mats, etc.). GO TO SLEEP at a reasonable hour
  • 7am – Wake up, coffee on, quick yogurt and fruit breakfast for the kids.
  • 8am – Once kids are out of bed, start picking up their room, close in the “slide” and the room is then OFF LIMITS
  • 9am – If needed, throw on a TV show to keep kids occupied while we continue preparing for travel. If it’s nice, they play outside.
  • 10am – Finish securing EVERYTHING so it doesn’t get thrown around the RV. Hook up trailer to the truck, pack up the kids and pull out on to the road (usually around 11am).
  • 11am – Once we hit the highway, we usually bust out the first round of snacks
  • 12pm – Snacks consumed, kids may be getting restless, put on a kid’s podcast (we like Story Pirates, WOW In The World, or Circle Round)
  • 1pm – three-year-old asleep, more podcasts, more snacks
    • Side note: we use a bluetooth speaker (our truck is old, has a tape player only). We hand the speaker to the kids, turn the volume to a reasonable level, and then the adults can have a conversation without yelling. THIS is when we talk life, plans, etc. Very good strategy for (mostly) uninterrupted 1:1 time with your partner.
  • 2-3pm – Arrive at new camping spot.

There are a few things that make this day go A LOT SMOOTHER. Think of this as a “traveling with kids CHEAT SHEET.” This can be applied to ANY road trip!

  1. Snacks. Pack a variety of healthy snacks, and ration them depending on your length of travel. We spend money for organic, healthy foods, so snacks do balloon our budget a bit, but are HIGHLY worth it.
  2. Shorter travel days. This is KEY. Don’t force a 10-hour, 500-mile travel day to try to get somewhere quicker. This is where meltdowns occur, stir-crazy kids get wound up, and no one is happy at the end of the day. In reality, you didn’t save a day of travel, because the whole next day is shot just RECEOVERING from the travel day.
    • We shoot to travel about 200 miles or less (just over 3 hours MAX). Bathroom breaks, lunch, gas, etc. makes these days longer still, so don’t push it. If needed, find a halfway point (Walmart parking lot will do) and park for the night. TRUST ME ON THIS!
  3. Activities and books. We always have puzzle books, reading books, activity books and a few select toys in the truck. Kids have so much energy, and engaging their brains in an activity can help them use that energy and learn at the same time.
  4. No TV. Period. I am not a parent that judges people that let their kids watch TV. Heck, our kids love educational shows and cartoons on Netflix, and sometimes it helps our sanity to be able to have a 30-minute uninterrupted adult conversation! But we have a “no TV in the car” policy that we will not budge on. Ever. Our kids are so creative, and when they are in front of the TV, we don’t get to experience that (and neither do they). Our kids know not to say “I’m bored”, because we’ll always tell them “only boring people get bored!” Instead, they make up stories, play games with their animals, or simply look out the window and enjoy this beautiful country.

 

Living In The RV: How We Make It Work

Our family lived in a 1,500 sq. ft. house prior to this adventure, and we were feeling CRAMMED. The houses we were looking to buy were typically over 2,500 sq. ft., with 4 bedrooms and a 2 or 3 car garage.

We felt like we needed MORE SPACE. 

But instead, we stuffed our family of 5 into a 300 sq. ft. rolling house! HAH! 

To make this work without stepping on each other and LOSING OUR MINDS, we were very specific in our RV choice.

In addition to the safety concerns mentioned above, you just plain get MORE space in a travel trailer or 5th wheel. You don’t lose 20% of your living space to a driving area, therefore allowing a larger layout. 

We tow a 35 ft. trailer, and here’s what it looks like on the inside:

Ok, for those of you who REALLY want to know what it looks like, here’s a full video walkthrough of our remodeled trailer!

Related: For more info on this trailer, check out the specs HERE.

The “slide out” doubles the size of our living room, the kids have their own room in the back with 3 bunk beds, and we have our own room in the front with a solid wood sliding door. 

Our room has basically ONLY space for a queen mattress, but the kids room has good floor space for them to play in, and the living space is enough to cook, eat, watch a show, etc.

And the real key is that WE LIVE OUTDOORS! 

We always say “we traded in our 1/4 acre backyard for a BILLION ACRES of land to explore!”

As much as possible, we are outside the RV. I BBQ out there, we eat outside, and the kids roam and play outside the RV. This makes stretching our 300 sq. ft. of living space much easier, plus it’s the reason we are traveling, to enjoy new places.

Now, when the weather is bad, the kids usually play in their room, but sometimes we’re just stepping over each other, and that’s just life.

And to be honest, I have never felt like I wanted to buy a house just to get more space. I like always being within earshot of my wife or kids. I like being involved in the day to day moments that are often missed when we are in separate spaces.

WE HAVE NO WANT OF SPACE LIVING IN OUR TINY HOME.

Day to day life is much the same as at our previous house, except we are CLOSER as a family (physically and relationally).

Here’s a typical day in the life of a traveling family: 

  • 7am – Wake up, coffee on. Some quiet time before kiddos get up (if possible)
  • 8am – Breakfast on. Yogurt and fruit breakfast for the kids. Or bacon and eggs.
  • 9am – Typically packing up for a day adventure. We particularly enjoy National Parks. We pack lunch and snacks, and plenty of water.
  • 10am – Hop in the car and head into a park.
  • 11am – If a National Park, typically hit the Visitor Center first, get the kids Junior Ranger program (part of our homeschooling/roadschooling). Learn a bit about the park, ask for hikes or sightseeing recommendations
  • 12pm – Arrive at sightseeing/hike spot, eat lunch.
  • 1pm – 4pm – Go on hike/adventure. We typically keep it 3-4 miles, but our kids have pushed through 6 miles before. All depends on what we’re feeling up to. We take LOTS of pictures, and just take in the beauty.
    • Side note: I can’t recommend National Parks enough. They are truly unique, and magnificent. The beauty of this country is understated in any picture that you attempt to capture. There have been dozens of literal jaw-dropping moments on our trip, and most of them occur at a National Park.
  • 5pm – Try to make it home with time to whip up dinner. Everyone is worn out, but happy.
  • 7pm – Start bedtime routine. THIS IS IMPORTANT!
    • Side Note: We were TERRIBLE about this for the first few months, and bedtime was a nightmare. Our kids were trying to adjust to the new pace of life, and not having a consistent bedtime routine didn’t help. Once we were diligent about the routine (snack, brush teeth, story, prayers), bedtime was less of a struggle.
  • 8pm (ish) – #adulting
  • 11pm – Bedtime

Side Note: This was typical of our first 12 months on the road. Our “Off” days include homeschooling and daily chores (laundry, cleaning, errands, etc.). I took 12 months off, but now my days including working from 10-5, and sometimes in the evening. And we’ve slowed down our travel quite a bit, so less “Adventure” days, and more at home days.

We try to plan one day on, one day off. Our “outing” days are exhausting (in a good way), and trying to do multiple days in a row ends up TERRIBLE for everyone.

Here are a few scenic pictures from our adventures:

         

 

 

Lessons Learned After 18 Months On The Road

We’ve grown and changed a WHOLE LOT after traveling the country for 18 months.

But since this post is already REALLY LONG, here’s a short list of lessons learned after 18 months traveling with kids: 

  1. We are so much closer as a family. Something about living in a tiny home, away from extended family and friends brings the family closer together. We communicate on a much deeper level as a couple, we know our kids’ hearts and minds MORE than we would have ever imagined, and we feel SO MUCH CLOSER as a family as a result of this trip. Which, if I’m honest, is my #1 reason for quitting and spending the money to take this year off.
  2. This is still life. And Life happens. But you deal with it better. When talking with other (non-traveling) folks, we find that most people just think of this as a vacation. And it is, kind of. But most vacations are an attempt to escape from “real life”, and currently, this is real life. We have arguments, things break, plans change, people get frustrated, stress happens. But living on the road FORCES you to deal with things immediately. There is no option of isolating yourself, or internalizing your issues. Everyone is here, so all issues are on the table immediately, and worked to resolution MUCH FASTER than or old life.
  3. It’s expensive. Many dream of traveling the country. And there is a misconception that traveling in an RV is WAY cheaper than regular life. It’s not. We had to shell out about $35,000 just for the RV and Truck (and dead Suburban). That’s a fairly steep barrier to entry. For the first 12 months, we still spent about the same amount per month as we used to (about $5,500 per month). Part of it is that we are splurging on adventures that we wouldn’t be doing normally. Part of it is we don’t have predictable routines, and we can’t buy things in bulk (household items, food) because there’s nowhere to store it. But overall, at least the way we are managing our finances, RV travel costs about the same as our old life. Now, could we optimize this lifestyle a bit more? Sure. And we have been more recently (free camping on BLM public land cut our rent bill in half). But knowing ourselves, we spend on what we deem important, and don’t waste money on what is not (conscious spending). And so far, we aren’t saving a ton. Side Note: After 12 months, we slowed down a LOT, and our current budget puts us closer to $4,000 – $4,500 per month, so it is actually a bit cheaper now.
  4. We can do anything. There’s something that changes inside you when you give up everything you ever knew. All of your limiting beliefs go away, and you realize how much you were holding yourself back from being YOU. My wife and I have done something super scary (quitting job, selling everything, moving) and we are still alive. In fact, we are more alive than we have ever been! We now feel that we can tackle any challenge, really, do anything, and we are no longer stopping ourselves from building a life we want.

 

Would We Do It Again?

Looking back at all the hurdles we had to overcome to get here, sometimes it’s a wonder we ever made this happen. I’ve “wasted” more money this year than any other time in my life. And the stress of the months leading up to departure literally made my wife’s hair fall out! 

But there is no job, no amount of money that I would trade for the experience we have had this past year. 

And I don’t hesitate to advise ANYONE who is looking for a change of pace to consider traveling for any length of time.  

I always tell people “A Budget is a Dream with a Plan.”

No matter what you want your life to look like next year, 3, 5 10 years from now, you need to WRITE IT DOWN. Build a plan, and make it a reality.

And I truly believe the best way to do that is with a simple budget.

If you have ever dreamed of leaving it all and hitting the road, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Dream big, make a plan, build a budget, and start taking steps TODAY to get you from where you are, to where you want to be! 

Are you interested in becoming a full-time RV family?

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