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Mark Eckman

THE BEST DESCRIPTION for my career would be “corporate vagabond.” I moved the family six times to five different states over 42 years.

Because we never settled down in one place, my wife and I spent 15 years visiting potential retirement locations. We visited sprawling metropolitan areas, small towns, retirement communities and the town where we both grew up. We also considered the areas where we’d lived, but nothing appealed to us.

One evening, a TV commercial prompted me to ask my wife if buying an RV and traveling the U.S. might be a starting point for our retirement. We’d never camped or owned an RV, so I expected a sharp “no” and the discussion would end. But instead, a quick “yes” led to a conversation that extended through the weekend. Five months later, in 2020, we purchased a 35-foot motorhome.

To be clear, our goal wasn’t ”living in a van, down by the river.” The freedom to travel and visit the vacation spots we missed was compelling but not necessarily simple. Living fulltime in an RV has unique issues, including designating a legal domicile, having a mailing address, and dealing with water, sewer and electricity. Still, those were relatively simple problems to resolve.

Filing for Social Security and Medicare while on the road, and the journey’s emotional issues, proved more difficult. After 44 years of marriage, we have few secrets, but learned new things living in 300 square feet.

We built a flexible financial plan with an exit route for when we found the right retirement location. The financial plan focuses on an RV lifestyle now and an exit to a more traditional retirement later. This started with three buckets of short-term investments: the RV emergency fund, the exit fund and two years of cash for spending. The rest of the portfolio consists of widely diversified longer-term investments with a target total return of 6.5% a year.

Our budget highlights the nature of the RV lifestyle and is focused on three highly variable RV items: campsite costs, fuel and repairs. It’s not if you’ll need repairs, it’s when. Many folks have a perception that the RV life is inexpensive. While that might have been true in Nomadland, the reality depends on your lifestyle. Do you travel fulltime as a lifestyle or do you vacation fulltime in an RV? While living off the grid on public lands allows us to roam the country at a very affordable cost, visiting Key West is a vacation splurge. We try to strike a balance between the two.

We used the IRS’s required minimum distribution calculation as the guide for our withdrawal budget, setting our annual budget at around 4% of our nest egg’s year-end value. This forces us to react to market fluctuations and adjust our travel plans accordingly. We also need to maintain the RV emergency repair fund.

The exit plan gave us the wherewithal to purchase a home for cash on short notice without changing our withdrawal budget. The exit plan began with the sale of our house at the start of our journey. We used the proceeds to build a ladder of two-year Treasury notes. I also checked with our credit union in case we needed a bridge loan between purchase of a home and maturity of the bond ladder.

Has this been a success? After 20 months, we’ve traveled to 27 states and visited friends across the country. My wife and I have enjoyed the diverse geography of the U.S., from the Jersey Shore to the Badlands of South Dakota. We’ve experienced the challenges of driving an RV through downtown Atlanta and the serenity of country roads in West Virginia. Winter on the Gulf Coast was memorable. The list of unfamiliar places we want to visit continues to grow.

Financially, we’re spending slightly less than our budget. While the financial markets have gone down, the fundamentals of our investments appear strong, so we have few concerns. A hit-and-run driver challenged our budget and our resilience. Still, repairs on the RV have been about what we expected.

An opportunity came up to buy a home near our first grandson in Iowa, so we went ahead and purchased our retirement home. But we plan to spend winters further south as we continue our travels in the RV. This may not be the lifestyle for everybody. But for us, it’s made for an amazing retirement.

Mark Eckman is a retired CPA spending more time traveling America in an RV than at home. In retirement, he’s realizing that saving and investing were just the start—and maybe the easy part. His priorities: family, food and fun. Follow Mark on Twitter @Mark236CPA and check out his earlier articles.

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