Posts By Judy Nichols

Gathering silver and gold on America’s backroads

  • The Epic Van with two Casita pals perched on the edge of the prairie at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.

So says the iconic scout song I learned as a Brownie, too many years ago to count.

The sentiment is true. The past four years full-timing in The Epic Van has been a testament to this theme. We’ve driveway surfed from Washington to California to Kansas to New Orleans, looking up old newspaper colleagues scattered to the four winds. We’ve broken bread with relatives near and far. And we’ve camped with and made fabulous new friends on the fly in Idaho, Montana and California.

Year Four: Best of times, worst of times for nest egg

  • We spend less money when we're in one of our remote campsites, like this one on the side of a mountain at Colorado National Monument.

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 about our finances, and our post about Obamacare, a big piece of the puzzle.)

By Tom Nichols

Year four of our financial adventure gyrated around the wealth effect. Boosted by investment gains since we became nomads, we traveled on growth income while our original nest egg was preserved. What could be sweeter?

We were cruising with the stock market winds at our backs in 2018, lulled into complacency by the wealth effect. After almost four years of early retirement, we felt more financially secure and, therefore, more relaxed about spending. Why not splurge a little, say travel without The Epic Van, or indulge in a few more restaurant outings?

For the first time since our working days, we flew again for pleasure, first to Mexico with Nate for a New Year’s 2018 vacation, and then to Illinois for a family reunion in July.

It turned out we had travel expenses for good times and bad. During a planned Epic Van visit to South Carolina, we wound up helping my sister, Ronda, deal with a medical crisis. We paid for Nate to fly out and visit while we helped move Ronda and her husband, Ray, to an independent living complex. Judy’s mom also had medical issues, which caused us to cut short our volunteer commitment at Big Sur. It also meant rerouting our plane tickets for the Illinois reunion from California to Phoenix, which cost us dearly.

We knew the mix of pleasure and emergency spending would break our original $60,000 a year budget or even blow our revised budget, which is $65,000 a year.

Bottom line: We spent $71,796 last year, which put us a bit above the median-income life we vowed to live in early retirement. For comparison, we spent $62,765 in 2015, $69,490 in 2016, and $66,024 in 2017.

As I have reported in each of the last four years, just about all our over-budget spending is on dining and entertainment. Record spending this year included plane tickets, hotel and car rentals, a handful of $150-plus meals and a few more hard-cover books.

Our monthly total skyrocketed to $1,130 a month. For comparison, we spent $550 a month in 2015, $740 a month in 2016, and $792 a month in 2017.

We budgeted $400 a month for dining and entertainment in our original budget, imagining we would be living and eating in remote campgrounds most of the time. But we’ve spent more days in towns visiting family and friends than expected, and when we do, we spend more money. When we do camp in remote spots for most of a month, we spend about $425 a month on dining and entertainment, only slightly above our initial $400 estimate.

Thankfully, just about every other spending category we set four years ago was more realistic.

The cost of operating The Epic Van (loan, fuel, vehicle and “house” repairs, insurance and license), was $1,695 a month in 2018. We budgeted $1,600 a month in our original $60,000 budget.

We will be spending more for RV insurance in 2019, up to about $200 a month in total, because of a speeding ticket issued on the way out of a lonely town in eastern Washington. If you travel backroads through hundreds of small towns each year, it will probably happen to you. We won’t be out of the penalty box for higher insurance rates until 2020.

We also hit a spending record, $500 a month, in health copays and deductibles for routine diagnostic tests (endoscopies, yea!). It is the only spending category completely beyond our control. Our Obamacare plan has a $6,500 annual deductible for each of us.

Phone costs, too, are going up. We replaced iPhones purchased in 2014, and are paying for them in installments.

Blogging expenses rose in 2018 because of a hack, which required professional help to clean and restore New American Nomads. Postage costs for mail forwarding and gift giving are higher than we estimated four years ago.

We’ve updated our budget grid to show spending in 2018 and four-year averages in all categories.

As 2019 begins, we are over the hump in our six-year early retirement financial adventure. We began life in The Epic Van as 59- and 58-year-olds. Judy, 63, is less than two years from getting steady income from a partial newspaper pension, based on about 15 years of employment at The Arizona Republic.

With my newspaper pension, also based on 15 years at The Republic, and Judy’s Social Security benefits starting in 2021, we will have additional income to buy a modest traditional dwelling again, if we choose or are forced to by health problems.

In 2018, our nest egg soared to new heights along with the S&P 500 index, which hit an all-time high. The index was up about 10 percent in October, before falling sharply. At year end, the S&P was down about 6 percent. The forecast for 2019 is for slower global growth and the possibility of recession in 2020.

So, how’s the nest egg holding up?

Well, as of Dec. 31, the nest egg, which had been holding steady for four years, was down about 8 percent. That includes the loss of our Obamacare subsidy for health care in 2017, which we found out about in 2018.

Letting Judy know about the “repayment of Premium Tax Credit,” was the least pleasant conversation of 2018. You can avoid my mistake by taking capital gains before you retire instead of taking them when you are eligible for Obamacare.

If you want to get deep in the weeds, I will describe the linkage between our retirement income sources and our Obamacare costs in my next post. Put simply: A couple must have less than $65,840 in adjusted gross income to avoid an expensive tax credit repayment.

Obviously, the wealth effect becomes the less-well-off effect when the stock market falls. We are scrapping our air travel plans and splurge restaurants this year and retreating to a $65,000 spending target.

As reported in year three, if you want to live on the road for $60,000 a year or less, limit your vehicle costs (loan, fuel, insurance, license and repair) to $1,250 a month, or 25 percent of your budget. Our Epic Van costs are 32 percent of our original budget.

You’re going to need three-quarters of your budget to pay for essentials, enjoy life on the road with old and new friends and see some attractions along the way. That is $3,750 a month for groceries, dining and entertainment, medical care, phone, household storage, clothing, blogging costs, camp fees, taxes and gifts.

Finally, a word of thanks to family and friends for your driveways and hospitality, which makes our middle-class nomadic life possible. Your material gifts are not included in my annual financial report, but they make our wandering life sweeter.

My everlasting thanks goes to Judy’s mom, Jeannine, who shelters us in winter with a bedroom, shares her kitchen and lends her Subaru to us for getting around Scottsdale when we are parked. We could not do it without her.

As we reflect on the cost/benefit ratio of our early retirement experience, we both declare success. Our travels have left us astronomically richer. Even if our nest egg were more deeply depleted, it would all be worth it.

Expense category Original budget 2018 monthly average Four-year average
Groceries 850 916 892
Dining-Entertainment 400 1130 803
Camp Fees 200 85 146
Subtotal 1450 2131 1841
* * * *
The Epic Van loan payment 612 612 612
Diesel-propane 500 396 392
Van maintenance 250 359 259
Van insurance 120 168 143
Van license 115 78 120
Subtotal 1600 1616 1526
* * * *
Health insurance (includes dental) 620 154 559
Prescriptions procedures and copays 100 500 199
Household storage 265 265 265
Phone-data (for 3) 285 344 314
Subtotal 1270 1263 1338
* * * *
Income taxes-prep* 200 84 121
Clothing 100 146 162
Haircuts-personal care-laundry 100 59 71
Business costs-blogging-mailing 100 231 177
Charity-gifts 100 380 193
Health club** 50 125 103
Subtotal 680 1025 827
* * * *
Total 5000 6035 5532
* Excludes Obamacare premium tax credit repayment
* Full fee activated when in Scottsdale

Embracing nomadism: a homey rhythm

  • Our second campsite at Goose Island Campground outside Arches National Monument.

There is an odd rhythm to nomadism, a dance, a feeling of slight disorientation as you get to know and embrace each new spot you call home, even if only for a few days.

Now, in year four of our journey in The Epic Van, we seem to have gotten better at it, reaching a comfort level we didn’t have in the beginning, when each new place felt wildly exciting, exotic and fascinating, but a little foreign.

An ancient bristlecone pine grove gives a lesson in patience

  • Aspen in beautiful orange and gold along the Alpine Lake Loop Trail.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, Tom has become a true tree freak.

On hikes, he frequently stops to gaze upward at branch arrays, set his hand on a trunk’s bark, count the number of leaflets in a bunch and test the spikiness of needles against his fingers.

He takes photos of the whole tree, the leaves and the bark, and then compares them to photos and descriptions in his tree book when he returns to The Epic Van.

He’s so thorough that I’m beginning to know the difference between an Engelmann spruce and a limber pine.

And so, when we were at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada this week, we headed for the ancient Bristlecone Pine Grove on Wheeler Peak.

Arches and Canyonlands: The Permanence of Impermanence

  • Judy on top of the world on the trail to Double O Arch at Arches National Park.

At Arches National Park, we scrambled over clusters of rock to walk along a sandstone fin with sheer sides, heart-stopping dropoffs and amazing views. I felt like I was queen of the world.

At its sister-park, Canyonlands, we looked out over miles of canyons, spires, and cliffs, cut by the Green and Colorado rivers. I felt small and insignificant.

And both parks, created from eroding and ever-changing rock forms, made me think about the impermanence of things that seem permanent.

Big Sur: Our semi-wild life and semi-crisis in this semi-wilderness

  • The Big Sur coastline, fog rolling in.

When I think of Big Sur, it is the wild radish I will always remember.

The crunch of it in my mouth, similar to the texture of a radish, but a milder, sweeter flavor.

A wilder flavor.

Roadtreking Reprise: Photo Safari 2 (for us)

  • Roadtreks parked at Chewing Black Bones Campground on the Blackfeet Nation, just outside Glacier National Park.

You know I love The Epic Van. And I love the company that makes it, Roadtrek.

The first year we were on the road, we went to the Roadtreking Photo Safari near Yellowstone. It was a gathering of my kind of people. We still have friends from that first meetup.

Now, three years later, we just finished our second Roadtreking Photo Safari, this one near Glacier and, once again, it was a blast.

My personal thank-you list is looooong. So, here goes. Thanks to:

  • Roadtrek, Mike and Jennifer Wendland, and Mel, for helping create and nurture this great community and for all the work to put this week together.
  • The Blackfeet Nation for sharing their home, their chief’s leadership, their storyteller’s wisdom, their delicious food, their beautiful songs and their dancers’ gracefulness and strength.
  • Campskunk for his generosity in minor (and not so minor) unauthorized repairs, and just for being awesome. Sharon for coming out to mingle with the riffraff. It was the highlight of the week. And feline Fiona for letting me take her picture. So accommodating for such a celebrity.
  • Mary Ellen and Sue for arranging and inviting me to participate in the Creativity in a Camper. It was great fun and I loved hearing all the stories and advice from our fellow writers. And for the wonderful books that I’m already tearing through.
  • Mary Jane (we finally meet) for her amazing Wild Tea and discussion of cook book publication, and Jeff for being a stand-up tea guy and a great hiking companion.
  • Sandy and Lynne for being lovely neighbors and lunch partners, and for forgiving American politics on behalf of all Canadians.
  • Dan and Rhonda for a great lunch and more Canadian/American political crosstalk. Are all Canadians so calm, considerate and insightful? It seems so. And Dan for allowing us to watch his creativity in action with his painting.
  • Linda for re-congregating our first photo safari group (missing you Mary Z), for a great late-night visit with Pat, our new friend Janet, Steve (we know you’re itching to go full time) and the nice man with the whiskey whose name I’ve temporarily misplaced.
  • Jeremiah for being an excellent bus driver, guide, singer and storyteller, for remembering all our names, and meeting ALL our expectations. And for the book recommendation.
  • David and Nancy for being just as interesting as we remembered, updating us about your lives and bringing gluten-free chocolate dessert to the pot luck. You’re the best. Next time in Big Sur!!! With your new rig?
  • Yan and Kiki for taking us to Hidden Falls, sharing huckleberry sodas and a barefoot walk in the grass, and for initiating us into Kiki’s Realm. I still have a warm feeling about it, but it may be from what came out of the bottle.
  • The Everglades: A fragile river of grass

    • Sunset in Everglades National Park.

    The Florida Everglades, the River of Grass, feels fragile, like any moment a hurricane will wipe it off the map, or humans, after decades of abuse, will finally kill it, or invasive species will forever alter it.

    The longer you’re there, the more fragile it feels.

    Fun in Grand Mesa National Forest, western Colorado’s land of lakes and magnificent overlooks

    • The view from our campground spot on Cabbott Lake.

    By Tom Nichols

    I never heard any of my outdoor-loving friends in Arizona mention Grand Mesa National Forest. There are so many wonderfully eroded canyons and expansive mesas in Utah and Arizona, so many famous peaks and alpine parks in Colorado’s Front Range, it’s little wonder that Grand Mesa National Forest, the nation’s biggest tabletop mountain, is never mentioned.

    Unstuffed bell peppers

    • Ingredients include a mixture of bell peppers, garlic and serrano pepper.

    By Tom Nichols

    With the Nichols family, stuffed bell peppers were one of the Big 10 recipes on our meal rotation.