The MapleMoney Show » How to Save Money » Frugal Living

Mapping Out an RV Lifestyle, with Nick True

Presented by Wealthsimple

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of Maple Money, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

A favourite topic of discussion for Canadians is the extraordinary cost of housing, especially in Toronto and Vancouver. But who says you need to be locked into a monster mortgage, or even live in one location? My guest this week is Nick True, from Mapped Out Money. Nick and his wife live full time in an RV, along with their four pets.

Nick shares the story of how he left his career as a mechanical engineer to pursue his true passion: helping people get a handle on their money. Eventually, his wife Hannah left her job as a physical therapist, and they now manage a full-time freelance business from the comfort of their 180 square foot Airstream.

According to Nick, the RV lifestyle has its challenges. It helps if you’re the laid back type, able to roll with the punches because things will go wrong. But, if you’re willing to manage the ups and downs, the benefits of full-time travel far outweigh the hassles.

Nick has some helpful tips for anyone considering the RV life, including ways to save money on campground fees, and how NOT to fight with your significant other when living in an Airstream. It’s an episode you don’t want to miss, right here on the MapleMoney Show!

Have you heard the buzz about robo-advisors, and would love to know how it all works? Thanks to our sponsor, Wealthsimple, you can now book a 15 minute, no obligation call, with an experienced portfolio manager. Head over to Wealthsimple Chat to book your appointment today!

Episode Summary

  • Why Nick and his wife made the move to an RV
  • Downsizing as an exercise in efficiency
  • How Nick made the leap to self-employment
  • Financial considerations of living in an RV
  • Tips for people considering the RV lifestyle
  • Living in an RV forces you to spend more time outdoors
  • The challenges of living in an RV
Read transcript

One of our favorite things to talk about in Canada is the extraordinary cost of real estate especially in Toronto and Vancouver. But who says you need to be locked into a mortgage or even a location? Nick True from Mapped Out Money lives fulltime in an RV and it’s not just him. His wife and four pets are also packed into the Airstream. Keep listening for the pros and cons of how he makes it all work.

Welcome to the Maple Money show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Are you curious about robo advisors but have some questions? Thanks to our sponsor, Wealthsimple, you can book a 15 minute, no obligation call with an experienced portfolio manager. To book your call simply head over to maplemoney.com/wealthsimplechat. Now, here’s Nick…

Tom: Hi Nick, welcome to The Maple Money Show.

Nick: Hey Tom, thanks so much for having me here. I’m excited to talk to you.

Tom Well, I’m excited to talk to you. I love finding people with unique ways of handling finances and lifestyle. And one thing you do that I think is rather unique is you live in an Airstream, right?

Nick: Yeah, we do. It’s about 180 square feet. And it’s me, my wife and we also have four pets in here too so we keep it nice and tidy.

Tom: You have four pets! I knew you had a dog or two but I didn’t realize you were up to four pets.

Nick: Yep, two cats, two dogs. We’ve got a full house.

Tom: I want to get back to that but let’s start back at the beginning about what made you first decide to make this choice. How was your living situation prior to that and what made you decide to make this plunge into RV life?

Nick: My wife and I are originally from southeastern Tennessee down in the States. At the time when we kind of first dreamed up this whole thing, I was working fulltime as a mechanical engineer and my wife was finishing up graduate school as a physical therapist. And one of the things that’s kind of neat about the medical field, especially in the States, is we have a lot of positions that are travel positions. You can actually take a job as a traveling doctor, a traveling physical therapist or a traveling nurse. You work for basically an agency and they set you up at hospitals in need for three months at a time. We found out about that when my wife was about to finish her degree and I thought it was kind of interesting. If I could figure out a way to work remotely, she could take a job as a travel PT and we could just travel for a few years before we have kids. We’d go around and just really explore the country and get that out of our bones. We’re big outdoors people, big camping people, so all that was really appealing. That’s how the initial idea came to us.

Tom: Were you living in a house or an apartment at that time?

Nick: We just had an apartment. For us it was actually pretty easy in terms of not having to sell a home. We had to downsize a ton because we had a 1,200 square foot, two bedroom apartment and we had a lot of stuff..

Tom: Yeah, like I’ve said on the show before, I have a ton of stuff from when I was spending way too much in college and it’s still sticking with me now. I need to get rid of it but I couldn’t imagine downsizing that much. I can’t imagine living in a smaller house let alone going to an RV. So how much do you think you’ve downsized? What are your current possessions?

Nick: One thing I would say is that just like with anything, you want to start small. With us, we’ve probably downsized—and when I say downsized, I mean rounds of purging. We’ve done that probably four times now and we’ve been in the RV already for almost two years. When we first did it we ended up utilizing a 10 by 10 storage unit. We basically shoved as much furniture in there as we could that we thought we might want one day when we have a home. There were a few antiques and some family heirloom furniture that we wanted to keep. So, we went from 1,200 square feet full of couches, TV stands, kitchen table… We had all this stuff. We had an office with a bunch of bookshelves, books and we went down to a 10 by 10 storage unit and then basically everything we could fit in the Airstream. I haven’t counted our clothes, for example, but I think just off the top of my head I’ve probably got maybe 15 shirts, two pair of pants and a handful of shoes. My wife’s got a little more than I do but she has still downsized significantly. When we first did it we basically filled up the Airstream, the truck and her car. Since then we’ve realized we really don’t need that stuff. We’ve done multiple rounds trying to get the vehicles empty to where really everything is just inside the Airstream.

Tom: That’s great. Talking about downsizing clothes, I have way more T-shirts than I can count. But basically, like you said, you have two week’s worth of clothing. You can get by on that. Why does anyone have any more? I don’t know. I like this idea of downsizing. I have no plans to live in an RV but still, if you have too much stuff it just sort of weighs you down. Maybe I’m not going to go live in an RV but maybe we want to downsize our house once we realize we don’t need store all this stuff, right?

Nick: Well, the nice thing about it is you just enjoy your stuff so much more. Literally every pair of pants I own is like a favorite pair of pants. It fits great. I really like it. I want to wear it. I don’t have any pair of pants or T-shirts that are really at the bottom because I don’t actually like them. I can pull anything out and know that I really like it. To me, that’s the biggest part of downsizing. You kind of gain a certain level of efficiency over your stuff and you love all of it.

Tom: So, you decide what to keep based on what you love. But say you want to go buy a new pair pants. If they’re not so great do you just immediately return them or do you have to make an odd decision there about whether to keep them or not?

Nick: There’s definitely some level of what we know we can basically have, maximally. So, if I’m going to buy new clothes I’ve got to be able to basically trade something else out. The two decisions that I get to make are number one, obviously, is this in the budget? Because this is a money show and I’m always going to ask that question. And then number two is, do I like this more than what I currently have? Sometimes I’ll take a test run. If I don’t like it I’ll take it back. We’re not afraid to take it back. I’ll take it back and return it. That’s not a big deal. But most of the time we’ve gotten pretty good these days where if I’m in a store looking at something and I really, really want it and I know I like it better than what I’ve got back in the Airstream, I’m pretty much going to make the right decision at that point. I know what I’m going to want.

Tom: I like what you mentioned about the idea of having to make a decision based on space because we’ve talked about this on past shows, about budgeting and whether you have enough money to make this purchase. But it’s probably helping you stick to those guidelines a little when you’re literally looking at if you have enough space as well, right?

Nick: Yeah, totally. And again, it’s the whole tradeoffs; do we have enough space and do I like this better than what I already have? A lot of times the answer is no, I don’t. So I’m going to leave it. Even though I like it, I still would like what I currently have better.

Tom: You mentioned your wife was a traveling physical therapist.

Nick: That’s what she used to do. She did that for about eight months and then she left that job to come work with me and freelance fulltime.

Tom: Oh, okay. If we could jump back just a bit. Can we go into how you decided, for your career, how to make that change? I know you picked up some different freelancing, but how did that all come together to make that jump from employment to self employment?

Nick: The way I think about it is I’m a big long term thinker. I have a lot of ideas around where I want my life to go in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years. I was working as a mechanical engineer and now what I do has nothing to do it all with that old career. But here’s how I made the jump; I knew that what I cared about was personal finance and money and I wanted to figure out a way to work and do work in that industry and help people with their money because that was what I was passionate about and what I really wanted to spend my time doing. The way I think about it is, the biggest problem in the world that I care the most about I feel passionate about helping is helping people get a handle on their money. So, if this is the problem that I care about now what I’m going to try and do is figure out is if there are jobs or skill sets that would allow me to work in that industry that I could learn. And what I found was all these bloggers and online entrepreneurs and podcasters and those types of people, while I eventually had some aspirations to do some of that, I didn’t necessarily have the expertise yet. But, what I did have is I was really good at learning. That’s where I took a step and said, “Okay, let’s kind of take a self-assessment and figure out my own strengths and weaknesses.” And one of the strengths I looked at was that I was a really good learner and I have a strong technical ability. I figured I could spend some time on YouTube and Google and learn how to build a website, and learn how to edit a podcast, and learn some of these skills. I don’t edit podcasts but I use that just as an example of the skills that are in this realm. So that’s kind of the way I broke it down. I knew the industry I wanted to be in and I spent time going to all these different websites looking at their career pages, getting on their email list to try and see if I’d get an email that saying, “Hey, we’re hiring.” I tried to understand what sorts of skills were needed for the people they were hiring and then I basically reverse engineered those skills to figure out how I could learn them and eventually become a freelancer for those people.

Tom: That’s the income side of it. How about the expense side? Did you save money by not paying rent compared to the price of buying the Airstream plus any other costs? How did that work out?

Nick: Most people will look at our lifestyle and think we must be saving a ton of money. And what I tell people is that we’re not necessarily saving a lot, comparatively. The biggest thing is that our expenses are now controllable. For example, we were spending around $1,200 a month on rent in Chattanooga, Tennessee for our apartment. The Airstream we bought we pay $500 a month for. We did take out a loan for that. And now we have to pay campground fees. So depending on the level of luxury that the campground is, what time of year it is, and where you are located… If you’re in a National Park during the summer you’re going to pay a ton of money. If you’re on the beach in Southern California you’re going to pay a lot of money. If you’re in a rural field in South Carolina, you’re going to pay a little bit of money. So comparatively, as an example, one of our favorite campgrounds that we love in South Carolina is $200 a month. It’s awesome. However, when we were traveling in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming around the National Parks over the summer, we were averaging $1,200 a month for campground fees. So you can see that it’s almost the same as rent plus Airstream payments. What I tell people is, your expenses are really controllable. You can go to cheaper places. You cannot travel as fast because gas will also eat you alive if you’re not careful. And you can save a lot of money. But if you are traveling to the best most luxurious RV parks in North America and you’re moving really, really, quickly and spending a lot on gas, then it’ll cost you more. But I like it because it’s flexible.

Tom: With this idea of RV parks is to sort of have a home base? Somewhere that you consider home even though you end up going all over the place?

Nick: Yeah. So for me and Hannah, family is really important to us. They’re a big part of our life and having good relationships with them. All of our family is located in Tennessee and Alabama. And luckily, they’re all within about three hours of each other. We’ve got a couple of campgrounds that are our favorites that are back home so we’ll come back there and stay for a couple months at a time to hang out near family and kind of get our bearings and then we’ll take off and go somewhere else for three or four months at a time. We kind of go back and forth like that.

Tom: Do you travel with the weather? I’ve heard this idea where if you’re going to go to the northern states you kind of wait until summer?

Nick: Yes, 100 percent. I love snowboarding and getting out in the winter but I have absolutely no interest in living in a camper in the snow. That introduces a whole new world of difficulty. We actually went to Banff in Alberta last year but we did it in the middle of July which was much better than trying to go up there in the winter.

Tom: Yeah, yeah I bet. I’m just right near there so if you ever come back again, come see me and I’ll take you in from the cold. Weather is a good point to then actually because a lot of people listening to the show are going to be Canadian and there’s certainly a lot less options on how to avoid the snow. But they exist. You can sort of go to southern B.C. where it’s normally a little warmer. Like you mentioned though, even in the States you’ll probably pay for it. The RV parks there are probably more expensive. It’s still applicable to Canadians. But yeah, I can’t imagine it. Like you said, living in the RV is hard enough in my mind but doing it in the winter sounds even worse.

Nick: You can do it. Many of people do it. The Canadians on the show they probably know a lot more about battling that weather than I do. I’m from the southeast United States so I don’t do snow. When it gets cold we go south.

Tom: I know people that will camp in a tent in the winter so any opinions on what’s cold depends on where you are.

Nick: Absolutely.

Tom: I often see a bunch of RVs parked at Wal-Mart during the summers. Is this a thing? Is this allowed? How does that work?

Nick: We stop in Wal-Marts all the time. Wal-Mart actually is 100 percent okay with it because they know you’re going to probably come in and restock on groceries while you’re there. And so it’s a win-win. And they have all this parking lot space overnight that goes unused. There’s actually a couple of different websites online that will let you know what Wal-Mart’s are okay with it and what one’s aren’t. As a general thumb most Wal-Mart’s are but in some of the bigger cities, especially because of the homeless population, there are city ordinances now where you can’t park overnight on commercial property. You’ve got to check that and make sure you’re not breaking the law. But right now at most Wal-Mart’s, Bass Pro Shops and Costco’s—there are quite a few that are totally cool with it.

Tom: Is there an unwritten rule (or maybe written) about how long you can do that for? Is it just one night? When do you kind of become sort of a squatter?

Nick: It’s definitely a one night thing. You’re supposed to kind of utilize it as a stopover between this city and that city and you just need a place to stop in between. Honestly, even more than one night—I wouldn’t do that.

Tom: This interests me because I have very little experience in RVs but one thing I’d like to do to try it out is possibly go coast-to-coast in Canada during the summer when the kids are off. If I can stop at a Wal-mart for a night if I’m only spending a night in every town I could probably make it work all the way across.

Nick: Our very first trip we actually did without the RV. We just slept in the bed of our truck and we did it in Wal-Mart parking lots. We went from Tennessee to Colorado and back. We stayed Wal-Marts almost every night. You can totally do it.

Tom: Then you said Costco is normally good for that too?

Nick: Yeah. Most Costco’s are good. Like I said, the Bass Pro Shops—they’re the nicest. I like to stay there if we can find one.

Tom: Okay. Why are they the nicest?

Nick: The parking lot just feels safer. I’ll say it that way. Generally speaking you just feel safer. They also have really good lighting. You just want to feel safe whenever you’re staying out somewhere random in a city that you don’t know anything about.

Tom: So Bass Pro’s are like the nice hotel of parking lots?

Nick: Totally, that’s exactly right.

Tom: Speaking of this idea of trying it out, what if someone decides they just want to go all in and do what you’re doing. Should they take that test drive first with this type of lifestyle change?

Nick: I think so. Absolutely. There’s two things I’ll say on that. So number one, you can absolutely test. There are lots of companies now where you can just rent an RV for a week. I highly recommend doing that. It is expensive—and it’s going to feel expensive to the point you might think it best to buy your own so you won’t have to waste your money doing that. But, I think it’s worth it especially if you’re on the fence. The second thing I’ll say is that this is where the self-awareness piece comes into play. Hannah and I went to an RV entrepreneur conference earlier this year and we had a blast. There is about 300 people there that were all RVer’s fulltime and all working from their RV. What we found was a common theme is that these people are just “chill” people. If you’re going to live in an RV fulltime, generally speaking, you’re probably not a high maintenance person. They’re just laid back. You’re kind of more go-with-the-flow. Things go wrong and you just kind of roll with the punches. If that’s your attitude in life in general, then yeah, you can probably buy an RV right now and go all-in and not worry about it. But, if you know internally that you may be leaning toward a little more high maintenance as a person, I would definitely rent one first and check it out because in this lifestyle things are going to go wrong and you just kind of have to roll with it.

Tom: Yeah, those were kind of my thoughts for myself. I hate to label myself high maintenance but my office might be the size of your RV so I think I’d start to feel a little closed in but only in a way because in some ways you’re less closed when you can walk right out your door and you’re outdoors. There’s got to be a freeing experience to that to, right?

Nick: Oh, absolutely. That’s one of the benefits that we love the most. It forces us to get outside and really interact with nature. Because you’ll go stir crazy if you don’t ever leave right.

Tom: Speaking of that, you’ve got the four pets. How does it work with your wife? Do you guys get along well in these tight areas where you don’t have another room you can go to?

Nick: Yeah, we do. I mean, we’ve had fights. We’ve had our fair share of fights and there have been times that were really tough and it is frustrating because there is no leaving. You’re here and I can throw a piece of paper and hit you no matter where you’re at in the camper. There is no getting away. I would say that we’re very blessed in that nine times out of ten we get along really well. We’re really like a team in that way and we just enjoy each other’s company so it works really well for us. Again, it’s kind of one of a “self-awareness” piece. You’ve got to know yourself and know what your needs are. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s not always unicorns and daisies out here. Sometimes it’s hard and you wish that you could just get in your car and go so it forces you to work things out that way.

Tom: I guess you can use your vehicle as your quiet space.

Nick: Yeah, “I’m going outside. You stay in there! “

Tom: Or you can go into the other room. That’s a good point. You guys are probably in a good way being forced to deal with problem more than where you can just put it off and walk away. You really have to have a close relationship.

Nick: Yes. It’s also like living in an apartment complex where the walls are thin. If you’re fighting everybody in the whole complex knows it. There’s a harassment factor. If you’re in an RV park, there’s no storming out of the RV, slamming the door and yelling back at someone. The whole park’s going to hear you. You’ve just got to say, “Let’s be an adult here and work this out.”

Tom: Otherwise, the next day you guys just have to move on to another RV park.

Nick: Yeah, we’d have to go find a new city. We’ve got to get out of here.

Tom: I don’t want to put you on the spot on whether or not you’re going to have children but if you were to children, does that change things for you?

Nick: There are people who fulltime RV with kids. At this moment we’re saying that we’re probably not going to. We want kids. We’re going to have kids at some point in the next three to five years. We’re still really young so we feel like we’ve got lots of time. The most extreme example is a couple we met at that summit that had seven kids. That meant nine people fulltime in a big fifth wheel. Now, to me that’s next level. I’m not about that life. We’re currently planning to probably buy a house and settle down somewhere then start a family but we want to maintain the RV and keep it because we see ourselves going on six, eight and ten week trips and making that a big part of our life and the way we raise our family. But I don’t know about fulltime. I don’t think that’s for us.

Tom: I could see doing it with young kids before they’re in school. Otherwise, you get into home schooling and everything else. Then you’ve got a whole new job.

Nick: Yes, and there’s families that do it, swear by it, and love it. But I think for us too, we are so close to our extended family and our parents and want our kids to grow up very close to their grandparents. That’s a big part of our thinking about getting a house and settling down with family. We can always take trips.

Tom: With this house being part of the long-range plan are you saving up towards that goal right now?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely. Right now we are currently saving up towards a house. To be perfectly honest, we feel very flexible on a lot so we’re saving that up. But we’re thinking, depending on how long we go, we may end up buying our rental property first as like an investment and then eventually buy a house. We’re kind of playing it by ear but we’re saving towards a house. I just don’t know if it’s going be a rental property yet or the one that we end up buying for us. It feels like our life is still up in the air in terms of my dad who is going to retire soon. Her dad’s going to retire soon too. We’re not sure if our parents are going to move so we’re kind of trying to stay on wheels until we figure out where everybody else is going to settle down.

Tom: Yes, you don’t want to finally make that decision to buy a house and now you feel sort of trapped in it because it’s not where the family is.

Nick: Exactly.

Tom: One more thing I wanted to run through with you was, again, if someone wants to go in this direction, what are some of the problems with living in an RV? The first one that comes to my mind is I don’t think I’d want to deal with all the sewage connections and everything like that.

Nick: What? It’s so much fun. If you’ll allow me to tell a quick story… The first night in our RV we actually weren’t spending the night in it. We were basically just testing it out. The goal was we’re taking it to a mechanic over the weekend. We’re going to see how things are going. So we get in the RV and I hook everything up and I hear this hissing noise. I don’t understand what’s going on and I hear a hissing noise. I walk over to the bathroom and it’s louder. I open the bathroom door and I get in there and I hear the hissing was even louder. Then I opened the toilet up and I hear this hissing noise and it’s louder. It’s really strong, like some sort of pressure is building. I get my head down near the toilet and I’m trying to look to see what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going on so I guess I’ll just look in the toilet. In an RV you have a lever that’s like a foot pedal. I’m down on my knees so I press it with my hand. My head is right over the toilet and when I do that I get a massive explosion. It was like out of a movie. It hits me in the face. It hits the walls of the RV. It hits the walls the bathroom. Long story short, black tanks on the RV have a clean out. I accidentally hooked our water hose up to the clean out and I was filling up the black tank with water instead of actually hooking up to our normal water that gives us sinks and showers and things like that. And because I was not dumping at that time, it had nowhere to go except out the toilet. I share that story to go back to the fact you’ve got to be a “chill” individual. You’ve got to be the kind of person that rolls with the punches.

Tom: I think if a toilet exploded in my face on the first night I’d say, “We’re done. We’re selling this thing and we’re staying home.”

Nick: To me though it was like, “Hey, we got the worst out of the way. It can only go up from here. It can only get better.” There are lots of things like that. Things constantly break— well, not constantly. But things break and sometimes you get broken down on the side of the road and you need to learn how to fix something electrical. So I watch a lot of YouTube videos on how to do stuff. Honestly, it goes back to what I said earlier. If you’re a laidback person and willing to learn and just invest some time, then you can get over that because to me the benefits of the freedom, the flexibility, the travel, the seeing all of this country and all the beautiful parts that we can drive to basically, far outweigh the hassle for us.

Tom: Yeah. And any of the problems you’re experiencing in an RV doesn’t sound all that different from home ownership. We had our furnace go out during our nice cold winters with young children and it was not a good scene having to get someone in middle of the night. Then we’ve got our fireplace on because it was the only source of heat. So it happens whether you’re in an RV or house, I guess.

Nick: Yeah, same thing.

Tom: Well, thanks for being on the show. Can you let everyone know where they can find you?

Nick: Absolutely. If they’re interested in learning more about me just type in Nick True or Mapped Out Money into YouTube. That’s kind of our home base. You’ll be able to see our videos there. I’ve got a handful of videos on RV life that maybe you’ll find interesting.

Tom: Great. Thanks a lot.

Nick: Thanks Tom.

Thanks for the look into RV lifestyle, Nick. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/nicktrue. Thanks to you for listening each week. The show wouldn’t exist without people like you tuning in. If you’re enjoying the show, please head over to maplemoney.com/show and share your favorite episode on social media. Next week Andy Hill joins us and we’ll be telling you how to get your spouse and kids on board with the changes you want to make towards achieving financial independence. See you next week.

(Full-time RVers) are pretty chill people, so….if you know, internally, that you lean a little more high maintenance as a person, I would definitely rent one first and check it out. With this lifestyle, things are going to go wrong, and you kind of have to learn to roll with it. - Nick TrueClick to Tweet

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