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Rich on $2,200 a month? It's more than possible

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Burns
July 9, 2006

RED RIVER, N.M. -- While much of the country is suffering from overwhelming heat, Jim and Chris Rett are living here, enjoying the coolness that comes from being at 8,900 feet. In summer, days here average 75 degrees. Nights average 38 degrees.

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 . Others went to Red River.

But Jim and Chris Rett aren't rich. 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.

``This is a surprisingly inexpensive way to live," Jim told me. ``We're Escapees, and we spend a couple of months a year in Benson, Ariz." (Escapees is the name of the organization that provides services and campsites to full-timers and aspirant full-timers.)

How inexpensive?

Try $2,000 a month for expenses, including medical insurance, and an additional $200 a month 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.

They aren't rich. They aren't poor. They aren't victims. They just examined their lives and decided to leave the 9-to-5 world behind. They went on to build healthy, active, outdoor lives most people would envy.

I asked Jim what he had done in his 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 taught 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 fifth wheel, adding solar power, extra batteries, more windows, XM radio, and other goodies. It cost about $75,000.

A truck brought their 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 that make $500,000 motor homes feel like mobile bordellos, the Retts custom-designed a bright, airy, and efficient one-bedroom apartment on wheels.

Then they hit the road . They spend time in Arizona and California. But they've also windsurfed Laguna Madre by Padre Island -- and they ride their bicycles everywhere .

Their modest living expenses are entirely voluntary. They could spend more, but don't feel a need. They are living on what they will eventually receive in Social Security benefits, alone. So there it is. Free time, travel, a healthy life, more income than you need. It's available today . It requires some savings, but it doesn't require a fortune.

The real price of entry: the courage to reimagine.

Scott Burns is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. E-mail questions to scott@scottburns.com; fax to 214-977-8776; or mail to Scott Burns, Dallas Morning News, Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265.

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