'I looked at him and said, ‘You’re crazy. We don’t even camp!’

By Paul Schrodt / Money.com
August 03, 2019
Photograph for MONEY by Mary Beth Koeth

Living on the road isn’t everyone’s dream, but for a surprising number of Americans, it has become an idyllic, affordable way to cruise into their golden years.

For Al and Greta Boldt, a nomadic retirement has brought them solace.

Photograph for MONEY by Colby Tarsitano

“One of my objectives is to always be somewhere I’d be comfortable in shorts and sandals,” says Al, 69. “It hasn’t always worked out that way, but it’s a good dream.”

According to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), a million Americans live full-time in RVs (a.k.a. recreational vehicles, which include motor homes and trailers), and the data firm Statistical Surveys reported that RV sales saw a record year in 2017. More than 10.5 million households own at least one RV, a sizable increase from 7.5 million in 2005, per the RVIA.

Al and Greta first hit the road full-time in their rig after selling their house in 2016 once Al retired from his career as a computer programmer in Michigan.

“About five years before he actually retired, he said something about [becoming full-time RVers] to me,” Greta, 68, says. “I looked at him and said, ‘You’re crazy. We don’t even camp!’ He just said, ‘Keep it in the back of your head and mull it over.’ ”

After taking a while to see if Al was “really serious,” Greta came around. “I said, ‘Let’s do it while we have our health, energy, and wits about us.’ ” She wasn’t the only one who took some convincing. One of their sons warmed up to the prospect and now provides a home base for his parents in Michigan for doctor’s visits and hanging out with their grandson. Their other son didn’t react so favorably. “He looked at us and said, ‘You’re certifiable,’ ” Greta recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘I know. What else is new?’ ”

For Al and Greta, as with many RVers, the lifestyle’s appeal comes down to the ability to constantly be surrounded by what Greta calls “this beautiful country.” While Al had roved around the U.S. throughout his life, Greta, growing up as the daughter of a small-business owner in the tiny town of Reed City, Mich., hadn’t seen much beyond her home state. “My family had a cottage, so we always went to the cottage,” she says. “Every once in a while Al would talk about Yellowstone, all these places I had never seen. Unbeknownst to me, I was [making] a bucket list of all these places I’d like to see where we’ve now been.”

The couple haven’t counted how many states they’ve seen in their RV, but they estimate it’s about 35, including all continental states west of the Mississippi River. “The first year we went to 19 states,” Greta adds. “And our grandson asked, ‘Have you been to all the states?’ When I told him no, he said, ‘That means you’re going to go again.’ He wasn’t very happy about that.”

Another unexpected life event inspired them to chug their way far across the U.S. In 2011, Greta had an aneurysm in her brain that burst and left her in a coma. “When I got to the emergency room, the neurosurgeon told me to look at her on the gurney, kept alive by tubes and a respirator,” Al remembers. “He told me what I saw was all I’d ever get. Later, as she recovered, he told her she was a miracle. That’s encouraged us to follow our dreams while we can.”

While they acknowledge that at some point they’ll have to come off the road for health reasons, Al and Greta have no immediate plans to do so. Determined to stay out of freezing weather, they recently enjoyed winter in Southern California, dipping into desert hot springs around a mobile park where they paid to stay.

“We live frugally. We’ve always lived below our means,” Al says. And that has helped them make their fantasy a reality. Instead of buying a new RV, they purchased a 12-year-old, 37-foot luxury Newmar for about $50,000. Al estimates they would have spent 10 times that for a new rig (Newmar lists luxury models starting at $581,017). Gracie, as they’ve named the motor home, has held up well. “She is a beautiful rig. I don’t think she looks like she’s that old,” Greta enthuses. The couple also forgo comforts like satellite TV and Internet. “We’re not crazy about TV. There’s too much looking out the windshield,” Greta says.

Saving also enabled Al and Greta to embark on this life path. With their house paid for and kids on their own, in the five years before he retired they put away 30% of their income, mostly into IRAs. The couple also have Greta’s Social Security and a small pension from her years as a teacher to cover costs, while Al plans to dip into his Social Security when he turns 70.

A Small World After All

Photograph for MONEY by Mary Beth Koeth

Neil and Connie Laubenthal, both 64, went about achieving their full-time RV status in similar ways. “We decided we wanted to retire around the age of 57, which we did,” Connie says of their respective careers (he was in the Navy, and she was a program director for a physicians’ membership organization). They loved traveling but hated spending too much time in a hotel, so like Al and Greta, they rented an RV to try out the experience. Toward the end of a month crisscrossing the area around their home in Northern Virginia, “We were sitting, drinking a beer, looking over a lake watching the sun go down,” Connie says. “And at about that time, I thought, We can do this.”

The couple sold their house in 2012 and, rather than getting a motor home, they bought a custom 39-foot fifth-wheel trailer from New Horizons, which they tow with a Dodge Ram 5500 truck. “We aren’t slumming by any means,” Connie says. “We have hardwood floors, cherry cabinets, Corian countertops, a fireplace, and a dishwasher.” Those amenities come at a cost: They spent $160,000 on the RV, which was listed at $204,000.

Even with that price tag, Neil says they’re still spending about the same amount they would have staying in the Virginia house. He estimates their total cost of living at about $75,000 a year. Their collective pensions and Connie’s Social Security total about that amount, they say, and Neil will take his Social Security when he reaches full retirement age in 2020. They also have money stowed in an IRA and taxable accounts, which they withdraw from for occasional expenses.

That arrangement has enabled them to touch down in every state (except Hawaii; it’s hard to get over there in an RV) and in 10 Canadian provinces. Half the year they spend at a campground in North Fort Myers, Fla., where they get some semblance of a domestic base. “This is really my new home,” Connie says. “I sing in the church choir, [and] we’re both members of the Elks lodge here.”

Still, their lives are not quite the constant paradise some envision. “The biggest reaction we get from most people who are not RVers is, ‘Oh, you’re on vacation all the time.’ We’re not,” Neil explains. “It’s just the way we live. Our house just has wheels under it.” Another surprise is that their social calendar is more booked up than ever, thanks to friends they’ve met on the road.

Neil and Connie’s favorite moments as RVers have been the ones they stumbled upon, like finding the world’s largest rocking chair in the tiny tourist attraction of Casey, Ill.

Al and Greta concur with that general sentiment. Greta seems incapable of pinpointing her personal highlight, rattling off a list that starts with her first rodeo. But human connection has been the most mean-ingful.

“We think we’re in a big world, but you know what? Our world is incredibly small,” she says. “When we were going through the Grand Canyon, we were in line for a shuttle bus. I met someone from my little hometown.” In Alabama, she came across someone else who had worked for her dad. “He loved my dad … I really think it’s all about the relationships you create.”

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