Select Page

If we had bought our trailer before we retired, we might have been able to break free years sooner.  It reframed our perspective about money and our priorities in life.

Why?  Because so many things about the trailer and the travels have changed our frame of reference.

What was our frame of reference?  Everything was evaluated based on where we lived, how much money we spent while we were working, and trying to get 25 times those expenses in retirement accounts so we could break free.

But it turns out that we were wrong.  We could have retired years earlier.

Let me explain.  Come on.  Let’s take a journey.  In our trailer!



How Do You Get to the “Other Side”?

I love this cartoon.  You might already be on the “other side”, but you just don’t realize it.  Why?

Because of your “WORK” frame of reference.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were experiencing “the Fog of Work”.   This fog is described in a great post on The Military Guide blog by Doug Nordman.

For instance, I was working 80 or 90 hours most weeks, which was not only unhealthy, but it got me fired.

Earning high salaries, we would eat out often, take trips abroad, and purchase original art work or other stuff that somehow justified the long hours and relentless schedules.  The treadmill we were on gave us the impression that we would keep spending similarly after we retired.

As we estimated the income we would need to retire, it was based on that lifestyle.  Which really isn’t the way we live or think now, some 7 years after breaking free.

I did work in a cubicle though.  A little box.  A cubicle is actually similar to living in a travel trailer.  With one big advantage.  It’s on wheels!

Limitation and Constraints Provide Freedom

Maybe you’ve experienced this when traveling.  You pack your suitcase and check into a hotel or AirBnB.  From then on, you have already narrowed your wardrobe down to a small number of choices.  You are in a small hotel room and the result is what?  Fewer decisions.  A shorter morning routine.  With no reason to hang out in the room, you get out and enjoy your surroundings.

The trailer is like that in so many ways.  First off, our trailer is pretty small, at 8 feet wide and 18 feet long, that’s 144 square feet of living space.  When we pull into a camp or RV park, we are often surrounded by huge 5th wheels and bus-sized motor homes.

We didn’t try to be minimalists, but ended up selecting our rig size because we could pull it with my husband’s 2005 VW Touareg SUV (which BTW, was a huge tax write-off back when I was an independent contractor).  This limited us to a weight range that constrained our search to smaller trailers.

What have we learned by living in a small space when we travel?  Why do we think it gives us more freedom, not less?

  • Everything is at our fingertips — it’s efficient living
  • Cleaning the entire “house” takes just a few minutes
  • That bathroom trip in the middle of the night is only 2 steps away
  • It forces us outside, into nature — forced?  FORCED???

Being Forced Outdoors

Forced?  Okay, not really.  But as an engineering nerd, I have a habit of being in my office and on my computer for many hours a day.  That’s what happens to me in my big house.  But in the little trailer, I’m outdoors the majority of the daylight hours.

I’ve taken up hiking, particularly in the Sierras, and I like to laugh that I’m becoming Jane Muir.  Not John.  Jane does mostly day hikes, returning at night for a nice homemade meal, a comfy bed, and a warm shower.  Ah, the luxury!

And then there is the camp site itself.  There are campfires.  And people.

When I compare this experience to our home, we find that we barely meet our neighbors.  People arrive at their house exhausted from work and hit the garage door opener, never to be seen again.

And don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of huge RVs that pull in and we never see the people step out.  The big screen TV glows brightly when we walk by, and we wonder why they came.  Is this camping?

But with our little trailer, not only is it small, but it didn’t come with a TV.  We never did ever buy one.  Instead, as we wander around camp, we have ended up talking to so many fun people.  I can’t count the number of times we have had long conversations with fellow campers, shared a glass of wine or beer, ended up at someone else’s campfire, or toured their rig to compare layouts.  The social interaction is just great.

A Change in “Seen”ery

The best thing about a trailer is the variation in landscape.  The view, so to speak.  What it’s like in different parts of the country and what it costs.  The new experiences have changed the way we see things.

Let’s take gas prices for instance.  Here in Northern California, we not only have huge taxes on fuel, but our special formula makes our price per gallon quite expensive.  Check out this list at Gas Buddy, which confirms what we have seen as we cross the border into another state.  Instead of noticing the “Welcome To” sign, we have been stunned to witness a big neon sign with low gas prices from where?  Another planet!

And speaking of life on other planets, meeting people in other states has given us a lot of ideas about possibly moving in the future.  We see how much different traffic patterns are, cheaper grocery prices, and a lot of times, we find that people are friendlier in various slower-moving places.

Sometimes I bring up the app on my phone as we wander through new states or cities, wondering about the home prices.  We’ve seen firsthand how much cheaper it would be to live.  This post from Accidental FIRE will help you visualize what we have gathered along the road.   It compares median incomes in different states to median home prices.

And if you really want to get serious about geoarbitrage, Mr. Groovy at FreedomIsGroovy has created an awesome calculator, which you can discover right here.  Let that REFRAME your retirement thinking!

Our Refrigerator Cost More Than Our Trailer

We got a great deal on the trailer.  Yeah, we bought it used, but even for a 5 year old travel trailer, $7999 was a bargain.  It was March and it turns out that a lot of dealerships just want to clear out their lot at that time and bring in the new summer inventory.  Lucky us!

You can see our former “frame of reference” in this photo of our refrigerator.  Which I thought was a frugal win when I found a built-in floor model for around $2000.  Right, until it broke and could not be repaired.

And then we were stuck having to either rebuild our cabinets, bore a hole into the living room, or fork out the money for the new version of this beauty.  With a price tag of $8200!  Which we paid.  Ouch.

And while I’m referencing the Accidental FIRE blog (one of my favorites!), share a laugh with him and read his “Onion-like” news at The Turnip on how these expensive refrigerators keep things “Premium Cold”.

The Secret to Life is Camping

Ok, if Rockstar Finance runs a post, can I really call it a secret?  They recently ran this article from Sunburnt Saver titled Nineteen Experts Share Their Top Camping Secrets.  As I read this, I see even more reasons that frugal living is not just possible, but preferable.

For us, we have enjoyed making our own meals, which saves us money and is a lot healthier than the way we might eat from a hotel.  If we stay at an RV park, the cost of water, sewer, electricity, and wi-fi are all included.  Even better, parking on the driveways of family and friends is a great way to visit, but not be in their hair, so to speak.

Plus, we take our little parrot with us everywhere we go.

Returning home, we park along the side of the house and this creates a spare room for guests.  Sometimes it doubles as a music practice room or a spare office.  And if we want to cut our air conditioning bill during a heatwave, we can opt for sleeping in the trailer.  There are a lot of possibilities.

We have not yet tried boondocking on BLM land, but if we add a solar panel, that will be another step that shrinks our budget and turns our retirement drawdown strategy into a joke.


Our Drawdown Has Become Zero

Many bloggers joined in on a “chain gang” of posts on the topic of drawdown strategy, which began with the PhysicianOnFIRE and now has 21 articles and counting.

Before we retired, we planned for a drawdown of 70K per year from our retirement accounts.  But we’ve changed since we’ve left work.  We now put so much more value on experiences rather than stuff.  Trimming things down has become easier and easier, partly because of our new trailer mentality.  It’s a different perspective.

So with my husband’s small pension along with my foreclosure real estate investment, coupled with the desire to get our income low enough for an Obamacare subsidy, we find ourselves drawing nothing from our retirement accounts.

Nothing!  Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Now our biggest problem will be when we reach 70.5 years old and have to start Required Minimum Distributions.  Or hopefully, as we learn to think more “Inside The Box” like this, we can lower our annual expenses even further and do some Roth Conversions.

Oh the problems we could have avoided if had just sampled this lifestyle earlier.  And realized that we can live large, and do that small.

P.S.  It has taken me a while to publish this post.  Another side effect of the trailer mentality!


What do you think?  Could you retire earlier if you bought a travel trailer?  Is there something similar that you’ve experienced that has changed your “Frame of Reference”?






  1. Russell

    Nice article Susan! Glad to hear you’re enjoying life on the road. RVs can be an excellent way to cut costs and reach FI sooner!

    • Susan

      Thank you Russell. It is ironic that we need to buy something, in this case a trailer, in order to cut costs. Good to hear from you and happy trails!

  2. Accidental FIRE

    THANKS for the highlights – two mentions, I’m honored!!

    Your trailer looks really nice, and you make an excellent point about that feeling of being in a hotel with just one carry on bag. You realize that not having stuff around forces you to just go out and do “real stuff”.

    You should totally do the solar panels. Even if you’re not planning to go out to super-remote areas a lot they’ll save you on power hookups and to me it’s just so cool to get free power from the sun. Why we’re all not doing this in 2018 is simply annoying.

    Can’t wait to see more pics from your adventures!

    • Susan

      “Only” two mentions. I have to pace myself, because I could just fill my post with links to your blog, ha ha. We do have to buy some solar panels. I suppose it is a purchase like the trailer, where you have to spend some money to save some money. Glad you enjoy the pictures. It’s a trade-off because sometimes it feels a little like interrupting the nature and looking at a screen. I would link to your FOMO post, but I’m over my allotment for today 🙂

  3. freddy smidlap

    i’m glad you’re enjoying the trailer experience. when i was a kid our family of 4 camped in a small trailer. i remember the table turning into a bed for adults and those times were a riot. i still have a metal cooler from those days that’s in use. wow, 8 grand for a fridge?! i would be in therapy over that one.

    • Susan

      When I was growing up, my Dad hand built our camper. We had that same folding table and I remember some great laughs playing poker with sunflower seeds as the “chips”. Good times. As for the fridge — yes, I’m in therapy — in the form of blog reading from the FI community. Some remnants of our former life rear their heads like that and we find ourselves trapped. Crazy, crazy!

  4. Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    I think the travel trailer can be a metaphor for a lot of things like just downsizing in general, being more mindful about spending, etc. We think we “need” so much much more than we really do, and we adapt to that wanting, but we can adapt to the opposite as well!

    • Susan

      You are so right about the downsizing in every area of life. Each time we return from a trip, we notice how much maintenance our home needs and we envy those people who are full-timing it out there. I can see how the tiny house movement is inspired this way too, although a lot of videos show people spending tons on the interiors. Those people need a dose of Budgeta!

  5. Doc G

    You found the trick. Good living is not expensive in the end. The zero draw down strategy is pretty airtight. Sometimes simpler is so much better. Wandering the country, hiking, and meeting people. It sounds good to me!

    • Susan

      Yeah, the zero draw down is hard to believe but true. We really do enjoy our travels and that is why I sometimes try to convince you to pull away from your medical practice a bit more. Everyone has to find what is right for themselves. And just as we learned here, our future selves might not agree. As time goes by, we may have yet another new “frame of reference”. That’s why I keep reading excellent blogs like yours.

  6. Joe

    Your trailer story sounds good so far. I’d love to travel around the US for a year in a trailer, but my wife really isn’t into it. Maybe she’ll change her mind later.
    I just finished Nomadland. It’s about people in a tougher situation who live in vans and RVs. It’s rougher than I thought, but also much freer.
    Having a home base makes a huge difference.

    • Susan

      You know, I think we would also enjoy traveling around for a whole year, but it is hard to be away from family and friends for that long. For now, we enjoy the trips and returning home too. Your book recommendation looks like a good one. I’m going to check it out. Thank you.

  7. Melissa

    Susan, thank you so much for the mention and for the thoughtful article on frame of reference. I’m a bit younger than you, but my whole life I thought the normal thing was to have a job, work there for 30 years, save up, and travel during my two-week allotted vacation time.

    Then, a few life-altering major things happened (notably a near-death experience with a beloved family member) and I realized… life is short. I am smart. I can figure out how to make money. You never know what life holds for you – you’re here one day, gone or injured the next. I didn’t want to spend my life in limbo, waiting until I was 60 and could retire, to live my life, travel, spend time with loved ones.

    So my husband and I are doing something similar to you (eventually we want the RV lifestyle too!) and we are both so happy for doing it. I wish we had done it sooner.

    Thank you again for the perspective 🙂

    • Susan

      Having a near-death experience must have really shaken your world. Thankfully the “near” part. That it got you both to make a major change, valuing time and experiences most — that’s the good that came from it. The way you describe what you both are doing is fantastic. And thank you for your camping article. A lot can be learned from the challenges of living close to nature.

  8. Simon |

    This is great. Sounds like you’ve found a good way to get some ‘seen-ery’ without draining the retirement account. Presumably if the portfolio can generate income, it can also grow.

    • Susan

      Yes, it is surprising that this type of travel actually has saved us money, even though there are costs for fuel and campsites. Our IRAs have been invested in the stock market over many years and have generated a lot of gains. Gains we have not tapped into yet. But coming RMDs will eventually put us in a high tax bracket. Oh boo hoo for us, right? But if we understood trailer life, we might have cut loose a lot earlier.

  9. Mrs. Groovy

    Thank you so much for mentioning Mr. G!

    Your refrigerator story reaffirmed our decision not to go with a refrigerator built into a cabinet in our new home. Our designer tried to talk us into it but we preferred a free standing upper cabinet above, and a wall.

    We’re still considering buying a used camper, storing it out west (Jillian @Montana Money Adventures showed us storage that would cost $20/month for a 20 ft trailer). But I like the idea of keeping it at home when we’re not using it and having the extra space for guests. I never thought of that. Thanks!

    • Susan

      You and Mr. G have put Geoarbitrage “on the FI map”, so to speak. That he has such database skill to design a calculator is quite amazing. I’m happy to be able to point to it.

      Free standing fridge, yes. You are so smart. I encourage you to get a used trailer. You might even have a blogging office spot there. And then if you want to take it somewhere, you don’t have to commute to Montana to start your vacation. Although, that does sound fun!

  10. Half Life Theory

    I thought i was subscribe to your site! I didn’t see when this came out. Ugh!

    Anyway, this is so awesome. You guys are living the dream. I love it! From a $70K planned drawdown strategy to $0…. Lol, you retirement accounts must be morbidly obese now lol.

    Congratulations on everything, i love reading your story. Personally, i don’t know if i could do life on the road… I get grumpy, don’t think my wife could handle it lol.


    • Susan

      Oh, I have you as a subscriber, yeah! Our retirement accounts are actually becoming a “problem”, ha ha. We really do have to figure out how to start using some before those RMDs arrive. We love our trailer, but we don’t live on the road full time either. We do think about it sometimes, but it is great to return home.

      P.S. I am a fan of the term “cheers”. My last job took me to Scotland for engineering tests and those people always say that as a thank you. They also add “mate”. So, Cheers Mate!

  11. Isaac Braun

    This article really put things in perspective when you spoke about how when you go on vacation with a tiny little set of clothes and maybe a few other things and these are the happiest of times. Stuff doesn’t make you happy, experiences make you happy. My college years were some of the most fun years of my life, barely scraping by on 1000 dollars a month from an evening dishwashing job. Thank you for putting all the pieces together!

    • Susan

      Yeah, it is interesting the way we can look back at college years and realize we were having the best times of our lives, living with very little. There is a poem that comes to mind called “The Joy of Being Poor”, that my husband sent me once when I was away on a work assignment and we were both questioning the wisdom of more and more work and money. If we can remember back or learn these lessons, then the possibility of FI is closer. Thank you for your words.

  12. Socrates A

    Wow, I followed link from the Jane Muir story on camping! Cuz we are seriously considering the trailer idea.
    I retired at 57, 3 years ago & my wife just retired a few weeks ago. We love to travel so we doing the far away travel first (aka long flights) & then in a few years start traveling the states Canada & possibly Alaska. either by Airbnb or trailer or maybe a combination! I love the outdoors close to nature & NP & our great camping ⛺️ are behind us so the trailer idea is intriguing!. (read up on something new for us on Utube .. boondocking ).
    A lot of similarities in out thinking bring down our annual income close to 0 & not touch our retirement accounts til late sixties etc, ROTH conversions etc..

    As a financial advisor for almost 25 years in Orange County CA, I didnt come up w/ many millelials that would save even 20%. But as I came across the FIRE community I truly admire the 30 & 40 somethings that are willing to sacrifice short term & save more than 30.. 50% get to 0 Debt..the main key to FI & see the bigger picture ahead.!

    • Susan

      Congratulations on your retirement and your wife’s. Doing that in our fifties still puts us as the exception amongst most. We love having a travel trailer after also doing big trips to Europe in years past. It sounds like you are already able to follow your own paths. Enjoy!