Ever since I started living in my van and doing life differently, countless people have gotten in touch with one specific question: “How much does it cost to live on the road in New Zealand?”.
I’ve always been reluctant to answer this question based purely on my own experience because I believe the reality is that there is a pretty wide range and it really comes down to personal preferences and ability.
However, since the question kept popping up, I decided to investigate and attempt to provide some insights into what the average person living on the road spends, how they finance this life and what factors might impact spending. I created an online survey and asked fellow ‘nomads’ to participated. I ended up with data from 52 people or couples who have been living in a motorhome or caravan in New Zealand for at least four months.
Out of the 52 respondents, 33 were couples living on the road together, 18 were living on the road by themselves and 1 responded with ‘other’. Out of those living on the road by themselves, eight were female and 10 were male.
The average cost
As to the all-important question of how much it costs, not surprisingly, it varies. Survey responds reported to spend, on average, just over NZ $20,000 per year. Couples living together spend an average of $23,000 per year while people living alone spend an average of $15,500. Having said that, the range was huge. People reported to spend anywhere between as little as $3,500 to just under $50,000 per year. However, I would suspect that the people who reported extremely low spending might have either not fully understood that they were asked to include ALL their costs, or have other means of providing for themselves, for example by exchanging services for goods or by being able to grow most of their food themselves. From my own experience, I would argue that getting by with less than $10,000 per year would require being either extremely minimalistic and frugal or being very smart about how to save and make the most out of very little.
I also wanted to investigate what factors, if any, might impact how much people spend. More specifically, I looked at factors like time spend on campgrounds versus free sites, how long they have been living on the road, how much they travel versus stay in one place and how they finance this lifestyle.
Paid campground vs. free sites
The majority of respondents, over 60%, indicated that they hardly ever stay on paid campgrounds. Just over 20% indicated they stay at a paid campground at least once per week. Surprisingly, when it comes to annual spending, there is hardly any difference between these two groups. The ones that use paid campground weekly spend, on average, just under $19,000 per year and the ones that hardly ever stay on paid sites report to spend just under $20,000. It’s possibe that people who hardly ever use campground have larger, better equipped motorhomes and caravans which increases maintenance and insurance cost. Or maybe those who stay on campgrounds regularly just make trade-offs elsewhere.
Length of life on the road
On average, the respondents had been living in their motorhome or caravan for almost three and a half years. However, almost half (23) had only been living on the road for 1 – 3 years and another quarter had been on the road for less than a year. On the other hand, 20% had enjoyed the life of freedom for 3-10 years and 12% for more than 10 years. We do see a little bit of a difference in spending here, with those people who have been on the road the longest reporting the lowest average annual expenses ($17,500 versus $21,500 for those who have been on the road for less than 3 years). One possible reason for this is that people are still getting set up in the early days and are still discovering ways to save while the experienced veterans have everything they need and know how to make the most of life with minimal cost.
Travel versus staying in one place
Given current fuel prices, it came as a bit of a surprise to find that how long people stay in one place doesn’t seem to impact the average living cost much at all. Whether people were staying in one place for several weeks or months, or only a few days before moving on to the next spot, the average annual spending was very similar. A possible reason for this is that those who stay in one place for longer periods might have towed or towing vehicles they used to travel around locally or they might just use their motorhome to get around, ending up with very similar overall fuel costs.
Source of Income
Another key question I was interested in, is how this kind of lifestyle is financed. I think a lot of people assume that most of the us so called nomads are retirees who live mainly of their pensions. Surprisingly, only 16 (20%) of the survey participants listed pension as a source of income (or one of them). On the other hand, 36 respondents (almost 70%) reported to generate income from part-time of full-time work (13 full-time, 23 part-time). Other common sources of income are savings and passive income from investments, rental properties or similar assets. Another surprising finding was that people who work full-time spend less than the average person ($19,000 per year versus the average of around $20,00). Meanwhile, those who work part-time spend more than the average ($21,700 per year). Maybe less surprisingly, those who report to have passive income tend to have the highest average annual cost, indicating that people with passive income sources might feel the most financially secure and well-off. However, it remains interesting that, despite the fact that people living this lifestyle are regularly portrayed at freeloaders or lazy, the far majority does work, pay taxes and contributes to the growth of New Zealand.
Overall, it needs to be considered that the sample size of 52 is relatively small. However, it does give us some insights and it does give an indication of what the cost might be to those who are considering this lifestyle for themselves.
As for myself, I definitely spend less since I’ve been living on the road. However, I wouldn’t want to give up this lifestyle even if there was no financial gain. To me, freedom is more important than money!