Why we went FT – RV Lifestyle

Sitting outside of the RV
Why we choose to sell it all and live in a 5th wheel developed over time from: hardships of the past that molded us, our challenging present and our dreams for our future.
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We considered ourselves average Americans, right down to the white picket fence that boarded our country home on acreage. Our jobs paid decent salaries with average benefits. We contributed to our retirement accounts so we could live comfortably in our retirement. Like most homeowners, we spent our paid-time-off on remodeling our home overtaking vacations.

So why in less than 3-months did we move out of a house and into a 5th wheel to live full-time?  In looking over pivotal events that impacted both of our lives, we realized we had been building up to this moment for some time.  Maybe we were not so ‘traditional’ after all.

You are invited to grab a beverage, sit back, and read on to learn about what influenced our new lifestyle.  Comment below if you have experienced any of our whys. Tells us what events that have made you consider becoming a full-time RVer (or already are).

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In September of 2008, Don’s mother Debbie received a diagnosis of Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. Her battle was to last six months, and in January 2009 she found her peace. Debbie passing before she was able to retire as well as Don handling her estate. The first of several events that would play a significant role in our decision to live in an RV full-time.  We certainly learned that a lifetime goes by too quickly and to enjoy every moment!

2008 Financial Crisis

Most of you may be familiar with the Financial Crisis of 2008.  The crash was felt worldwide, said to have been the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.  

Like most everyday families, it affected ours.  Melissa’s parents had just retired when the eventful crash hit. Melissa grew up watching them working very hard, clocking super long hours and overtime when needed. To not only keep the household going but build up retirement funds. Then in the blink of an eye what you thought you socked away for retirement gets hit.

In 2006 Melissa used her 401k as an ‘asset’ to speed up the mortgage loan process for our new home.  When the crash hit in 2008, she lost 60% of her retirement account in less than two days! If we had waited any longer, we doubt buying a house would have been doable then.

It had taken Melissa 9 years of pouring every ‘extra’ dollar she had into the 401k account, trying to set herself up for early retirement. She went as far as managing every dollar. Mellisa also was cutting out unnecessary things to contribute as much as she could to the 401k. It was heartbreaking to see that in just 48 hours her 9 years of savings nearly vanish. She was told she had plenty of time to recoup what was equivalent to 3 years of salary loss. It ended up taking over 6 years to get Melissa’s account to where it was before the crash in 2008.

The financial crash taught Melissa a hard lesson: do not depend on any retirement funds from the 401k.  She initially set up a 401k because she did not believe she would have Social Security around for retirement.  Now she did not trust having a decent 401k balance. It seems they keep increasing the ‘full retirement age’ for Social Security.  At this time, for our age group, it’s age 67. In the back of Melissa’s mind, she wondered: ”do I want to work until 70 when the average lifespan for a female is 80?” This mindset may have stemmed from her working in the life insurance and annuity field for nearly 15 years.  But regardless, there had to be a better path for us.

Thankfully the financial crisis did not have too big of an impact on Don’s 401(k). Don was actively managing his mother’s retirements account after her diagnosis.  He was actively moving funds to ‘safer’ investment options within her plan before the crash. He also managed to move the majority of his into investments impacted by the crisis and much.


Melissa received her diagnosis with Gastroparesis (Stomach Paralysis) in the spring of 2012. After two years of constant medical tests to figure out what was wrong.  We were happy for a diagnosis but frustrated the doctors did not know the cause. Without having a root cause, there were only a handful of treatment options (symptom management).  And there is no cure for gastroparesis.

Each day Melissa got sicker and sicker. To the point, she used up all of her banked paid time off of work within a couple of months.  Shortly afterwards, she was forced to step away from her supervisor position. Melissa was with the company for 15 years.

She was having allergic reactions to medications, so the medical specialists ran out of treatment options and ideas.  Melissa had to take research matters into her own hands or risk dying from lack of nutrition. If she could not figure it out soon, the doctors threatened her with a feeding tube.  Knowing how her body rejects anything ‘new’ this type of surgery may not be the best option.

We were scared, knowing that Melissa was going downhill quickly and already dropped about 20 pounds.  In a short amount of time, we had lost his mother and both of our grandmothers. Now we are facing yet another medical disaster.

Over the next several years, despite moving from place to place, Melissa was able to figure out some of the food items that she could not tolerate as well as knowing her fat and fiber limits.  By us eating more ‘clean’ (no processed foods, etc.), she has been able to manage her gastroparesis better. Melissa still has a few bad days each month, but it is not a daily occurrence. However, she remains apprehensive about eating at times. Because she vividly remembers how sick she had been for three full years.  The best way to describe ‘sick,’ regarding gastroparesis, is equating it to having the flu (nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, no energy, and excruciating stomach pain) every single day. We both fear that it may come back this strong in the future, so, for now, Melissa wants to make the best of ever ‘healthy’ day!

More health concerns

If Don’s mother had not passed when she did, the road he would have taken would have been different.  She would have pushed him to complete his engineering degree instead of getting sucked into a career in retail management. Nor would she have allowed the family to grow distant. It is easy to look in the rear view mirror of life and think about the different roads we could have traveled then it is to face the obstacles that are right in front of you and see how those obstacles will affect the road you take.

Don has had no reservations about the roads he has chosen to travel in life; after all, he did find his career in retail management rewarding.  Don got to work with a lot of amazing people. He was able to see a positive impact he had in the stores he touched. Little did we know that our decisions to move to Sidney MT in 2013 would put us on the road to full-time RV living.

Don saw how much potential that store had, but little did he know how much stress there would be. In those two years, Don put on close to 60 lbs, and it put a strain on the relationship with his wife. By 2015 Don got the opportunity to open a new store in Whitefish MT.

After the two years in Sidney, MT, Don went to the doctor. He was told that he needed to get his weight under control. If he did not he would face the consequences that come with being overweight. The doctor had Don monitor his blood pressure for several weeks. The doctor wanted to see if he needed to be on blood pressure medication.  Don was thankful that the elevated blood pressure was caught early. Don made the changes in his diet and physical activity to lose weight and lower his blood pressure. It was also an eye-opener on how stress can affect you, even when you think you are healthy.

Reality check time

At this point, we knew something had to change. We wanted to have the ability to enjoy life to the fullest.  We wondered if a good paying job was worth future health issues. Quickly we knew the answer to that was ‘no.’   But would Don’s job get any better? Sadly that would be a ‘no’ as well. The majority of brick and mortar retail businesses were struggling against online shoppers.  The industry had been slowly changing over time. More pressure was put on managers to increase sales. For many, the goals would be unattainable for the resources given. Don never gave up in his last year with the company. He was able to meet or exceed his set goals.

Don had worked for almost 13 years with one company, building up a good 401k, salary and vacation benefits.  How could he afford to change jobs at this point? We did not have an answer to this, except the fact we would need to downsize a little more. Also, taking a hard look at our spending so we could live off a smaller income.  

Melissa had her health under control for the most part. She was working part-time, but she only had medical through Don’s employer.   Don, on the other hand, had access to the VA for his health needs. So we had to deeply explore and talk about how we could obtain medicine for the future.

Dreaming of a different life

Of course, we wanted to spend more time together to go hiking and to explore.  To achieve this would mean removing the 80+ hour week Don was working, on salary. Especially if we wanted to go on more road trips like the 10-day trip to The Mall Of America, which Don fondly remembers.  We left Eastern Montana, drove across North Dakota and through Minnesota to Lake Superior. Then made our way over to the Minneapolis area. On the way home, we dipped into Iowa, traveling through South Dakota before arriving back in Eastern Montana.  We loved to do adventures like this and always wanted more.

It was clear that we needed to find a better balance so we could fill our lives with more outdoor adventures, together, AND still pay those pesky bills.

Options to get on the road quicker

We thought about building a small house on a piece of property.  After a lot of research in different counties. We were finding that land with a decent price to build on, was too far from town.  In snow country, an hour drive for work or milk is okay in the Summer. In Winter, you may not be able to get out at all.

Tiny homes are overly cute when you see them in videos. After some research, we found they are not welcome in a lot of places we wanted to go.  We also found that a lot of areas do not allow them to be used as your primary dwelling. Some areas have gone as far as not even allowing them on your property. Since our primary goal was to have an established ‘home base’ when taking a break from our adventures. For now, Tiny homes would not be the right fit.   

The idea came to mind to purchase a house that was in need of repairs. Fix it up so we could rent it out when we were ready to hit the road.  Several drawbacks to this idea were: the housing market can be volatile. We did not want a large mortgage payment. Then we would need a rental agency to manage our tenants while we were on the road.  

Melissa had never been camping, so for her to research different RV types was very unexpected.   Both of us started looking into the different class RVs, Travel Trailers and 5th wheels. We will have a pro/con list in a future blog on why a 5th wheel was the perfect fit for our needs and tips to help you decide when shopping.

Wanting to travel the lower 48-States by RV had always been on our list for when we retired.  So we kept asking ourselves ‘what is stopping us from doing that right now?’ Maybe it was that mainstream culture has instilled in us that we have to work grueling hours to pay for items we do not need and hope we are healthy enough at retirement. That is NOT what we wanted.  We want to do as many adventures now, while we are still healthy and able, rather than wait 30 years.

What downsizing changes had we made over time?

If we were going to live in a 5th wheel full-time were we prepared to downsize?  Looking back at the last 6 years, it appears as if we were already preparing.

In 2012 we decided to list our 6 bed/2 bath home on 5 acres because of Melissa’s recent job loss and medical diagnosis.  At that time Don also took a promotion opportunity at work, further away. Selling the house was a hard choice since we invested time and money remodeling it over the last several years. But, it would have been difficult to juggle 2 car payments, a mortgage, medical bills and all the other expenses on Don’s salary.

However, the move meant we would have to sell off our second living room set, office furniture, several extra bedroom sets and the majority of our field equipment so we could move into a 2bed/1bath 900 sq.ft apartment after living in almost 3,000 sq.ft.  This downsizing was our first and Melissa had a difficult time parting with a lot of the items. She knew she had not used or looked at most of it in 5-years, but still could not part with treasures, so we boxed a lot of it up to put in storage.

We did not downsize enough, so boxes of ‘stuff’ were stacked in closets and inside a rental garage.  Our thought was we would move back into a house at some point, so we would want some of the ‘stuff.’ Little did we know that we would be moving again just a couple of months into the one year lease had signed.

Don accepted a position in Sidney, MT to help run a store. We did a lot of research and knew it would not be an ideal place to live.  However, the money was right and so were the terms of us only needing to be there 2-years. So, we packed everything up (again) and moved over 800 miles away.

Sidney, MT is around the Bakken oil fields, and we would be moving there during the height of the boom which meant there was little to no housing available.   Don was living in a hotel while helping at the store. A friend offered a small camper for Don to live in while we put our name on housing waiting lists. Luckily Don found a 4-plex that was in the final stages of being built, that later became our new living quarters.  A 2 bed / 1 bath unit with no garage and under 800 sqft, priced at $2200/mo.

Since it was the only place available and cheaper than the monthly hotel rate, we signed the paperwork and waited for the occupancy go-ahead to move in.   The day we did, we looked at each other and thought wow it is SMALL!

It was so small that the matching loveseat to our living room set, dresser to our bedroom furniture and dining room chairs had to be placed in the 2nd bedroom, along with all the boxes of ‘stuff.’  At this point, we had too much stuff even to attempt to store in the 2nd bedroom and could not afford off-site storage. So we went through every single box and tote to keep our must-have items and donate the rest.

We always told ourselves that our stay would only be 24 months for his job, it would be over quickly, we could get a house again. At the end of the two years, we moved to Columbia Falls, MT where Don became the store manager of a brand new store.  Here we rented a beautiful 3 bed / 2 bath house that had an in-law set up in the basement and a 2 car garage. We could not have asked for anything more! Out the dining room slider, you could see Whitefish Mountain and the drive to Glacier National Park was under 20 minutes.

Of course, now that we had more room, we acquired more stuff!  We purchased a brand new bedroom set for us and a loveseat for the in-law tv room.  We did not go overboard in buying, but just the opposite as we started going through old boxes from time to time to sell off more of the dust-collecting items we had been hauling around with us.  Surprisingly over the last 4-years, it became easier to part with things that we did not use or were not going to use. Melissa even took charge of the Estate Sale, deciding what to sell, keep or donate when we prepared for our full-time 5th wheel lifestyle in 2018.  We had come full circle from trying to hold onto those ‘treasures’ in 2012 to eagerly wanting to find the item a good home!

The new beginning

After living in Sidney, MT for two years, we knew we could live in a smaller place, especially if we downsized to just the basics.  Does Melissa really need 10 pairs of black shoes when she only wears one of them? For her that answer was ‘no,’ she could live with just the one pair she loved if that enabled us to get on the road now and not have to pay for a storage unit.  

The idea of living in a 5th wheel full-time looked to be achievable!   But how could we make it happen? To put it simply: we did a ton of research to find what 5th wheel would meet our needs, turned in our resignation, set an end date to be out of the house, bought our 5th wheel, research where we will go to first, sold all our belongings, picked up our new home (5th wheel named Bailey) and started our ‘Adventures In RV Life’!

That simplicity stated above took 3 months of constant stress to get to the point of moving into the 5th wheel full-time.  Then several months more of trying to figure out our new lifestyle.

We have actively documented everything to be able to share our experience with others.  So please take a moment to look around our site and be sure to subscribe so do not miss a blog post.

And we’ll see you in our next adventure!

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Melissa McElfresh

Melissa McElfresh

In 2012 I was diagnosed with Gastroparesis (stomach paralysis), which made me realize life is too short and not to take simple things for granted. As an avid indoor-girl with allergies, I did not go on hikes of any sort. But, one day my Marine husband, Don, asked if I would go on a 'nature walk' with him. It was on the paved Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park. I went and was hooked, eager for our next adventure! The desire to see new places, meet new people, experience new cultures, has aided me to share with you my new adventure.

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We are sharing our adventures to not only document our full-time living in a 5th wheel but to provide others with information.  

Our extensive research involved searching for answers to these questions: how to begin this lifestyle, what RV is best to live in full-time and what jobs could we do to support our dream.  

However, we did not find a lot of answers out there that pertained to our quest.  

Quickly we realized people choose this lifestyle and their RV for many different reasons.  There is no right or wrong answer.  

We are here to provide you with another perspective.

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