Yes, you read that right: 38 degrees.
"When it gets hot," Jim says, "you can move north--- or you can move up. Up is closer."
Rich people have done this kind of move for centuries. Well-to-do Bostonians summered Down East, dotting primo spots on the Maine coast with palatial "cottages." Wealthy Texans have fled the heat and humidity of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio for decades, escaping to Santa Fe during its summer monsoon season. Others went on to Red River, which some have called "Little Texas."
But Jim and Chris Rett aren't rich people. At least they aren't rich by the usual definition--- having lots of money. I call them Reimagined People.
Officially, they are domiciled in South Dakota, but they have never lived there for any period of time. Instead, they are "full-timers"--- people who live in an RV and travel the country. Earlier this year they were living in Big Bend National Park. Come October, they will be moving on. Now 58 and 55, they have been full-timing for three years.
I met Jim while admiring the hummingbird feeder planted outside his 30 foot New Horizons 5th Wheel, having just bent the stout metal rod of our hummingbird feeder stand trying to get it into the incredibly solid soil at the Road Runner RV Resort. He and Chris are camp hosts--- meaning they exchange some time helping operate the resort for an RV spot, free electricity, propane, cable TV, and laundry access. This allows them to avoid over $900 a month in cash expenses.
"This is a surprisingly inexpensive way to live," Jim told me. "We're Escapees and we spend a couple months a year in Benson, Arizona." (Escapees is the name of the Livingston, Texas organization that provides services and campsites to full-timers and aspirant full-timers.)
Try $2,000 a month for expenses, including medical insurance, and an additional $200-a-month reserve for federal income taxes. That, he told me, is what they've averaged per month so far this year. Earlier, when they traveled more and did not serve as camp hosts, their expenses ran to $3,000 a month, he said.
Then again, their expenses in Big Bend were about $1,350 a month, nearly half of which went for medical insurance. "You don't spend much money when you have to drive 80 miles to a grocery store," Chris smiled. It also helps to live in an RV--- when something new is purchased, something old has to leave.
While it is common to view "early retirees" as a euphemism for corporate cast-offs, as the victims of an increasingly desolate corporate culture that views people as expenses rather than assets, you don't have to spend much time with Jim and Chris to understand that they are true free agents, unencumbered.
They aren't rich. They aren't poor. They aren't victims. They are people who examined their lives and decided to leave the 9-to-5 world behind. They went on to build the healthy, active, outdoor life that most people on the planet would envy.
I asked Jim what he had done in their previous life. Jim said he was a mechanical engineer, explaining that he and Chris had always lived below their income and had spent years living on a sailboat in the Pacific Northwest. Just before their shift to full-time RVing, Jim had been teaching at a community college. Then two of his colleagues quit, and he had to teach five courses a semester.
"And we had 77 consecutive days of rain," he added. After those 77 days they decided it was time to invent a new life.
They sold their paid off house. They sold most of their possessions. Jim converted a major part of his savings into a life annuity. They ordered a custom-made 5th wheel, adding solar power, extra batteries, more windows, XM radio, and other goodies. It cost about $75,000.
Jim, always an engineer, customized a relatively small GM truck to increase its torque and horsepower so it could pull the 15,000 pounds of trailer and contents. The truck brought their total investment, paid in cash, to nearly $115,000.
Is that a lot?
For many, yes. With a careful purchase of used tow vehicle and trailer, I figure you can be on the road for less than $50,000. But here in America, the Land of the Infinite Upgrade, it's also possible to spend much, much more.
Avoiding the ersatz glitz of many RVs--- the bizarre carved velvet couches, the ludicrous beveled glass cabinet fronts, the plethora of flat panel televisions, and other touches that make $500,000 motor homes feel like mobile bordellos--- the Retts custom designed their 5th wheel with birch cabinets, simple flooring, and crisp brushed stainless-steel fittings. The result is a bright, airy and very efficient one-bedroom apartment on wheels.
Then they hit the road, gravitating toward the Southwest. They spend time in Arizona and California. But they've also windsurfed Laguna Madre by Padre Island--- and they ride their bicycles everywhere. Both are lean and fit. Both love to cook and are quick to admit that they spend over $600 a month on food.
Is there a fly somewhere in all this ointment?
I don't think so.
For one thing, their modest living expenses are entirely voluntary. They could spend more, but don't feel a need. They live on less than their current income. They are living on what they will eventually receive in Social Security benefits, alone. And when Jim shared their investments with me, I entered it all in ESPlanner, the dynamic programming software that was the subject of a recent column series.
What did it tell me? At an assumed return of 7 percent, just 4 percent over inflation, they could safely live to 95--- even if they doubled their spending.
So there it is. Free time, airport-free travel, a healthy life and more income than you need. It's available today, not tomorrow. It requires some savings--- more than most people have. But it doesn't require a fortune.
The real price of entry: The courage of re-imagination.
On the web:
Escapees RV Club
Roadrunner RV Resort
New Horizons RV
Scott Burns' columns: Investing in an RV Lifestyle
Scott Burns' columns: Living Lite
Scott Burns' columns: Consumption Smoothing
GoRVing website (information on RVs)
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