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Budget lesson after three years: Choose a little more living and a little less dwelling

  • Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks in 'Lost in America,' as she loses the nest egg. Don't let it happen to you!!!

By Tom Nichols

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

Get in the mood for our discussion of early-retirement finances by watching Albert Brooks in "Lost in America," explaining the Nest Egg Principle to Julie Hagerty. 

New American Nomads is based on the proposition that early retirement is possible for many of us under 65. My mission is to inspire you to take up wandering, but my fiduciary duty is to report how much money it takes, at least for us.

About three years ago, Judy and I left our jobs, sold our house, bought the Epic Van and tapped our retirement nest egg to travel across America. We were 59, and 58, respectively.

When Judy showed me blogs about full-time RVers while we were still employed, they were heavy on where to find beautiful camp sites and how to customize your dream travel vehicle. Frustratingly, they were vague about the cost of travel life without a house. Of the blogs I studied, most focused on retirees who were work camping or boondocking, often in fixed locations, hustling to make ends meet. Others described glamorous travel by those with enough wealth in retirement to afford RV travel for several months a year while returning to their house or homes.

There wasn’t much information about middle-income retirees who want to live mostly on wheels. That’s why I decided to write about our money adventure, allotting $60,000 a year, a median U.S. household income, and see how far we could go.

We’ve learned our budget was slightly unrealistic, but no so much to alter our plans. We will keep rolling for as many years as our health, and that of our family, permit it. It’s a good thing, because a U-turn at this point probably is undoable, until we’re 66. We can’t walk back into our old jobs or home.

Specifically, we spent $62,765 in 2015, $69,490 in 2016, and are projected to spend $65,000 for 2018.

That’s an average of $65,752 a year, which is about 10 percent over our budget. You might cringe at that budget gap, but I am relieved. I worried that traveling 20,000 miles for about nine months a year might burn much more cash, based on our spending patterns during work life. If we could not keep spending under $75,000, a five percent withdrawal rate from the nest egg, I’d consider our Epic Van idea a bust. We’ve kept it to 4.3 percent for our first three years of travel.

I’m doubly relieved because we began our retirement in 2015 as sustained growth in stock indexes, which rebounded in 2008, continues. Unfortunately, market growth isn’t a given, especially short term. 

For us, Investment gains nearly offset our withdrawals during our first three years of travel. The total value of our assets (60 percent stocks, 25 percent bonds and 15 percent cash) is less than one percent lower than when we took off in the Epic Van three years ago.

Adjusting for the Consumer Price Index, 0.7 percent in 2015, 2.1 percent in 2016 and about 1.7 percent so far this year, the purchasing power of our nest egg has been further reduced.

Nevertheless, we are beneficiaries of bull markets and low inflation. Not all retirees get off to such a pleasant three-year start. Think of those who began their retirement in 2006 or 2007, just before the Great Recession began.

Finally, I’m triply relieved because our son Nate landed a full-time job with health insurance benefits this year and has his own apartment in Phoenix. He’s out of the spare bedroom at his grandmother’s place, freeing it up for us this holiday season.

A look at our spending categories during 2016 and 2017 shows little change, with the exception of ballooning dining and entertainment spending. We budgeted $400 a month, but spent $550 in year one, $740 in year two and $792 in year three.

Our projected budget was $50 a day budget for groceries, dining, entertainment, camp fees and laundry. In year one we spent $57 a day. Lower grocery spending in year two offset our rising dining-entertainment costs, keeping our daily spending at $57 a day. In year three, dining-entertainment and a rising grocery bill pushed our daily outflow to $63 a day. Our camping and laundry fees have been within budget.

Fortunately, we’re spending a bit less than expected on our Epic Van costs, thanks to lower than estimated diesel fuel costs. Income taxes are lower than expected. Our cell-phone spending is lower in year three because of Verizon’s new data plan. Blogging costs a bit more than expected but you diehard followers are worth it. Clothing expenses were a bit higher in year three because of the rain gear we bought in Northern California.

During our work lives, we spent a $1,000 a month on dining and entertainment. In retrospect, it was unrealistic to try to cut it by 60 percent, to $400 a month.

Sharing food and conversation with new and old friends is one of our biggest joys in our nomadic life! We now have more time and inclination to visit with folks. Plus, it takes some money to visit a new museum, fair or cultural event, our primary source of entertainment.

To stay true to our credo of “minimum home, maximum life’” the New American Nomads should have budgeted a bit more on the life and a bit less for the home.

We budgeted $1,600 a month on our vehicle, about one-third of our $5,000 monthly budget. If we committed $1,200 on our vehicle, or about one-fourth of our $5,000 monthly budget, we would have a extra $400 a month to spend on dining and entertainment.

The budget lesson is clear. Limit the cost of your camping rig to 25 percent of your monthly budget so you can maximize your social and travel life and come closer to making your budget.

We found it takes $65,752 a year to live our early retirement dream instead of $60,000. So what should we do?

We could volunteer at parks for five or six months a year or work camp for pay, spend more time at inexpensive camps in the West closer to Arizona, or stay put in Scottsdale, where we spend about $1,000 a month less than we do on the road.

Yes, we could find a way a trim $5,000 more out of our annual budget, but to do so would begin to undermine or goal as nomads: exploring, socializing and learning something along the way.

We’re spending less than half of our pre-retirement income, even though we are over budget, and having triple the fun living slowly and more simply. If our nest egg is substantially reduced in the next three or four years because of economic calamity or disability, we will have to reduce our ambitions for sticks-and-bricks housing after 66.

Living in a small space is transformative. Judy and I are forever weaned from a big, fancy living space. A cabin, apartment or condominium of 1,000 square feet will suit us perfectly when we decide to settle down.

By then, we both qualify for “full retirement” under Social Security. We will have defined benefit income, we call them “half pensions,” based on about 15 years of employment for each of us. (We do risk losing half of the Social Security income if one of us dies, but our pension will go to our spouse if either of us dies.)

Still, we believe our premise for early retirement is sound. You can enjoy a middle-class life on the road if you are willing to dump the overhead costs of a traditional house for a few years.

Expense category Budgeted amount 2015 monthly average 2016 monthly average 2017 monthly average
Groceries 850 914 751 986Dining-Entertainment 400 550 740 792Camp Fees 200 210 198 91Laundry 50 35 29 33Subtotal 1500 1709 1718 1902
* * * * *
The Epic Van loan payment 615 612 612 612Diesel-propane 500 416 394 399Van maintenance 250 33 378 266Van insurance 120 121 150 134Van license 115 194 109 100Subtotal 1600 1376 1643 1511
* * * * *Health insurance (includes dental) 720 721 716 645Prescriptions and copays 0 100 144 53Household storage 265 265 267 270Phone-data (for 3) 285 310 370 235Subtotal 1270 1396 1497 1203
* * * * *
Income taxes 200 173 128 100Clothing 100 113 159 229Haircuts-Personal care 50 43 97 84Mailing 50 35 95 45Charity 100 110 162 121Health club* 50 104 86 98Blogging costs 50 37 158 105Misc 30 23 47 18Subtotal 630 638 932 800
* * * * *
Total 5000 5119 5790 5416

The commute: Then and now

  • Our current commute is the half-mile Redwood Access Trail from the campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to the Visitors Center.

Then: Arizona 202 to The Arizona Republic in downtown Phoenix, where I was a reporter, 8 a.m. returning at 6 p.m. Tom took the same route off-peak, 2 p.m., for his evening shift at the paper, returning at 11 p.m.
Now: Volunteering at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, Tom and I walk from the campground to the Visitors Center on the Redwood Access Trail, a half-mile rise of nine feet through old-growth redwoods, ferns and blooming redwood sorrel, leaving at 8:45 a.m., returning at 12:45 p.m., three days a week.