The big post about money: what did two years of cruising cost, and why?

It’s really weird to not be keeping track of our expenses any more. We might have to pick it back up, once we’ve landed back in real life; it’s been interesting to see where we’ve spent the money each month. Right now, we’re flying blind–charging a hotel room here, a restaurant meal there–but for two whole years, we did our best to track every penny.

The family at the start of the trip. We were all trying so hard not to cry!
The family at the start of the trip. We were all trying so hard not to cry!

A few things we straight-up did not track: the kids’ allowance ($20/month, paid by their abuela and spent immediately on Kindle books); gifts (we didn’t want any snoops figuring out how much we spent on their birthday); souvenirs (we spent essentially nothing on this for our first year, but loosened up during the second). We also ended our tracking on May 31; costs associated with hauling and storing our boat, plus any additional expenses for the subsequent sale, aren’t listed. We won’t even have a tally on those costs until August 15, when our sale is finalized, so we left it out altogether.

One caveat, before we start: by October of 2017, we’d sat down as a family and confirmed that we wanted to limit our trip to two years. We had the money to squeak out a third year, especially if we pinched our pennies in Mexico, but we all agreed that two years was the right amount of time for us. That loosened up the purse strings when it came to things like addressing the oil leak in the engine, inland travel, and restaurant indulgences. Our costs for the second year of cruising could have easily been lower, but we were more relaxed about expenses.

Let’s break it down:

Free dock space on the Erie Canal
Free dock space on the Erie Canal

Marinas: $9,969.79; highest month, Dec. 2017, $1273; cheapest, $0, four months. We stayed in marinas waaaaaay more often than we’d expected. Early on, it was because we were not as awesome at anchoring out, and wanted hot showers or wifi; later, we were parked for engine work, inland travel, or because it was more convenient for visiting with family. We never expected to spend this much on marinas when we were planning our budget. The peak expenditure was when we settled up with Marina Chiapas for an almost two-month stay, plus a little dock space at the Acapulco Yacht Club.

Cost of all the pastry? Best not to ask.
Cost of all the pastry? Best not to ask.

Grocery: $15,271.56; highest month, Nov 2016, $2015.56; cheapest, $75.17, Feb 2017. This total doesn’t included stuff like beer and paper towels, shampoo and zip-locs–it’s just food. It does include market produce and buying stuff off boats from the Guna. Man, we lived off that pre-Bahamas provisioning forever; I think I still have baking powder in the van from Florida…

Not a sufficient supplement to the grocery budget
Not a sufficient supplement to the grocery budget

Restaurant: $6,295.17; highest month, Jan 2018, $448.54; cheapest, $49.42, July 2017. I’ve heard that it’s cheaper to eat out in Mexico than to buy groceries; that was not our experience. It is, however, worth eating out as much as possible, because the food is amazing. Our biggest month for restaurants was when we had three weeks of family visiting us, in a pretty touristy area. Worth it.

Laundry: $858.55; highest month, March 2017, $102.50; cheapest, $0, one month. That seems like a lot of money to have spent, considering how often I did laundry in a bucket. Jamaica was crazy-expensive, and I was making up for months of bucket-washing, which made me feel like everything needed a real wash. Once we hit Mexico, we generally dropped our laundry off, and it came back all folded and weird-smelling and impeccably clean. Consider these numbers if you’re on the fence about installing a washing machine on your boat.

One way to cut down on the laundry bills: washing the clothes in the dinghy after a hard rain in Guna Yala
One way to cut down on the laundry bills: washing the clothes in the dinghy after a hard rain in Guna Yala

Ice Cream: $523.43; highest month, Oct 2016, $61.50; cheapest, $0, six months. An embarrassingly low total. Currently trying to compensate.

Supplies: $5,634.83; highest month, Nov 2016, $1264.70; cheapest, $0, Feb 2018. This was such a weird. catch-all category for us. We tried to make it about purchases that were not boat parts or grocery, so it included a violin, a new laptop, drugs that should have gone into a “medical” category, homeschool supplies that should have probably been “education”…very slush-fund-y. Sorry about that. The top month was during our mega we’re-leaving-the-US provision, and included a backup iPad that proved to be very important.

Free music with the new violin
Free music with the new violin

Pump Out: $139; highest month, July 2016, $55; cheapest, $0, 18 months. Remember when we had to pay for this? Mwah, hahahaha. We found that the East Coast often had services that were subsidized by the state or the municipality, while the Great Lakes charged a ton. Free pump-outs all along the Erie Canal, though. It was such a relief not to have to worry about this once we left the US.

Boat Parts: $7,755.47; highest month, Sept 2016, $1599.90; cheapest, $0, 3 months. That total included all the parts for our engine rebuild, plus exciting components like oil filters. The top month includes a new outboard. I’d like to say this category could have been much cheaper if we’d had another year to prep the boat, but it could also have been more expensive if we hadn’t done so much boat work before we left. It is what it is.

View from the top of the Empire State Building: Free, if you don't use the elevator.
View from the top of the Empire State Building: Free, if you take the stairs. We chose elevator.

Boat work: $5287.64; highest month, Feb 2018, $1410; cheapest, $0, 17 months. We didn’t often pay to have work done on the boat, but when we did, it cost us. The decision to have our bottom painted by professionals was entirely based on our decision not to squeeze in an additional year of cruising–that was our top month for expenses in this category. That’s right: it cost us more to have the bottom painted in La Cruz than to have the engine completely rebuilt in Chiapas.

Booze: $833.65; highest month, Nov 2016, $125.76; cheapest, $0, 2 months. I’ve got to believe this number is waaaaaay cheaper than your average cruising boat, among those who drink alcohol. Most of our booze expenses were for local beer, consumed on the boat. We also weren’t around other cruisers for much of Central America, which cut down on this expense. Finally–remember when I got really sick in Costa Rica? I stopped drinking for about two months, and am still only up to one beer or a glass of wine. Cheap date.DSCF0329

Water: $197.98; highest month, March 2018, $43.49; cheapest, $0, 12 months. We spent money on water in Mexico, Panama, and the Bahamas. We went out of our way to find water only twice that I remember. Would it have been more convenient to fill our tanks with a watermaker? Absolutely. Would it have been worth the expense? Nope. Of course, I’m not the one who donned a full wetsuit for the two-mile jerry jug runs to fill our tanks in Georgetown…

Communications: $3,515.33; highest month, March 2018, $401.80; cheapest, $0, two months. About $2,250 of this was for our Iridium GO! sat phone service; while it is theoretically possible to surf the web with our unlimited sat phone data plan, we really just used it for texting and weather. About $500 was for website maintenance and access to Predict Wind. That means we paid about $765 for two years of all our international and local phone service plus internet access. You should have it so good.

Transportation: $3397.80; highest month, Jan 2017, $880.10; cheapest, $0, 4 months. That includes car rentals, long-distance buses, water taxis, pedicabs–everything. We never hopped on a plane. We also gradually relaxed our stance on taking a cab vs. schlepping home 1000 pounds of groceries. Side note: cab drivers are excellent resources, both for improving your Spanish and learning about the local narco traffic.

Representing a different kind of free...
Representing a different kind of free…

Diesel: $2803.90; highest month, Dec 2017, $334.54; cheapest, $0, three months. Our diesel costs went up significantly once we hit Mexico; the cost per liter is higher, and there’s less wind. We’d read enough honest tales from other cruisers that we weren’t surprised how much we used our iron genny.

Dinghy gas: $141.25; highest month, June 2016, $30; cheapest, $0, 16 months. Kind of funny to list right next to our diesel expenses. Our new outboard was insanely efficient. It was also tricky to get our dinghy up on a plane with more than two people in the boat, so it’s possible we did less bombing around than other people.

Stove fuel: $690.02; highest month, Nov 2016, 131.99; cheapest, $0, six months. Oh, stove fuel. You were frequently such a pain in the butt. I have a hard time imagining what, in land life, will feel as satisfyingly wealthy as the feeling of having five gallons of stove fuel on board. Maybe home ownership? Maybe.

Garbage: $48; highest month, March 2017, $36; cheapest, $0, 19 months. We mostly paid to drop off garbage in the island countries of the Bahamas and Jamaica; in Jamaica, it was an additional fee to the marina bill. It’s possible we also got sneakier about dumping it in random street garbage cans.

Hotels: $977.50; highest month, Feb 2017, $270; cheapest, $0, 18 months. This includes hotels, hostels, casa particulares; but not our stay at language school in Guatemala, which was included in the school fees.

Smithsonian: free!
Smithsonian: free!

Edutainment: $2775.94; highest month, Nov 2017, $788.13; cheapest, $0, 6 months. This is a combo “Education” and “Entertainment,” since we’re unable to decide where entrance fees to the Met land. So: movies, museums, tours, etc. The big expense was the week at language school in beautiful Xela.

Customs/immigration: $2001.99; highest month, Jan 2017 $426; cheapest, $0, 15 months. We visited nine countries, not including our own. The easiest entry: Canada, with a call from the pay phone.

Medical/dental: $375.23; highest month, August 2017, $192.30; cheapest, $0, 21 months. Medicines like antibiotics and ibuprofen somehow ended up in our “supplies” category, but let’s say that was only about $40. The bulk of this expense was getting our teeth cleaned in Costa Rica. Also, did I mention, Michu is an ER nurse? We were well kitted out. Furthermore–everywhere outside the US, medical and dental care is actually affordable.

Price per sunset: no one knows
Price per sunset: no one knows

Insurance: $254.90. What’s that, you say? That’s what you pay every week of your life, when you combine your auto, health, life, and homeowners’ insurance? Yeah, I hear you, and we’re headed back in that direction; but here’s how things were for us when we traveled. First off, we were paying for homeowners’ insurance, but that was all balled up in our rental expenses/income, which we didn’t include here. No car. No life insurance. We only carried boat insurance through the Bahamas (most of which we paid for long before we left, and so didn’t include on the total), and boat liability insurance when we reached Mexico. As far as health insurance goes, we purchased completely terrible insurance through the government Marketplace, and our tax credit covered our monthly premium. It was essentially useless to us, except for catastrophic events–ER visits, or a condition that would have required returning to Wisconsin for treatment. Anything else we paid out of pocket.

Canal fees: $1104. So, we transited the Panama Canal as cheaply as possible. We withdrew the cash from our Schwab account, so we didn’t suffer any fees getting our money; we took repeated free shuttles from Shelter Bay marina (well, I guess the marina wasn’t free, but still); we didn’t use an agent; we scored free line handlers (and made new friends in the process). Our cash deposit against complications or fines was returned in full within two weeks of transiting. That is a rock bottom number for getting across Panama, people. Also included: the sum total we paid for a 10-day pass through the many locks and bridges of the Erie Canal–$20! At least, I think that’s what we paid. I went to verify the price on their website, since it’s not clearly labeled in my notes, only to learn that all fees are waived on the Erie Canal this year in honor of their 100th anniversary.

Federal locks in the US are free! Except for the taxes...
Federal locks in the US are free! Except for the taxes…

Bank fees: $256.02. You guys. I am the worst with bank fees. They were way more than this piddling amount, but they’re buried in bank statements and credit card bills, and I’m just not going to dig them out and add them all up. We were the most successful at avoiding fees when we used our Charles Schwab account to withdraw cash from an ATM, but we weren’t always that organized, and sometimes the only credit card that worked at the Supermercado Rey was one that charged a fat fee. Just…take this number and maybe triple it.

Ok, ready for some big numbers?

Year one: $38,508.95

Year two: $34,195.49

Grandest Grand Total: $72,704.44DSCF0379

The numbers aren’t quite going to reconcile; there are a few weird items not included in the itemized list (why did I only record paying for propane for the grill once?). Of course, there will be things we missed; we’re not robots. Still, it’s pretty darn close.

The embarrassing truth? We thought we’d be able to keep it to around $2000/month. A mere $24,704.44 over budget.

So yes, we spent so much more than we’d planned. But one important thing to realize: we never got to the point that we were like, Man, I hate living on this boat!! Yeah, we spent more time in marinas that we expected, but maybe that’s what we needed to do to stay sane.

Oh my god. It just looks like so much money, when you lay it out like that. And what do we have to show for it? A few molas, a molcajete shaped like a pig, a cool screen saver of a breeching whale. An unaccountable education for our kids. Strong family bonds. The knowledge of how to do something both unusual and difficult. Two whole years of intense, vivid, irreplaceable memories of our family being together.DSCF0320

11 Comments on “The big post about money: what did two years of cruising cost, and why?

  1. I love this! We are also always embarrassingly overbudget, but we have the best experiences to make up for it 🙂 Get to work rectifying the “ice cream” budget category (by the way, I love that this is a separate category), you have some serious work to do there. We will miss having you out on the water (or down the way in the marina) with us.

  2. Wow this is good stuff! We also plan on living on about $30k per year and realize we didn’t do it the first year (at all), we were probably double that or more. So now that we begin our second year of sailing, we are more conscious of our spending, and keeping track of it for our followers.
    Your comments at the end though, of what you “have” for those two years, is absolutely what makes it completely and utterly worth it!!! Cheers!

  3. I’m trying not to think about whether we are over budget or not. We thought we could get by on about 2500/month and for the most part we do. But then we do things like lose a boom and that number flies out the window. I know people do this thing on way less money than we do, but I’m not sure how. Overall, I’d say you guys got great value for the money! Good work getting through the canal sans agent!

  4. If it makes you feel better, I’m spending $10,000 a year slipped in Manitowoc. I’m hoping our expenses when we get sailing are around $2,000 a month.

    • Good luck! In general, I’d say: the slower you travel, the cheaper it is. Fewer entry fees, less money on diesel, fewer days at the end of a long passage where you decide to splurge on an expensive restaurant meal.

  5. Holy wow, I remember the provisioning in Nov 2016. I did not think it was possible to cram that much in a Kia Soul.

  6. I’ve so enjoyed reading your blog Deb. Sailing is not something I will ever do. But I loved reading about your experiences and seeing your wonderful pictures. Thanks so much for sharing this with us all.

  7. What a woderful experience you guys had. For your kids it was a full college education, even better. I wish my parents would have done that.
    You have no idea how much I admire you guys. In my opinion it was worth ever penny.
    BIG HUG Hector

  8. I loved reading this Deb as all your blogs made me feel I was right there with you. It’s so amazing that you did this trip. Your kids already have their college essay topic pegged! I’m grateful there are families like yours who switch things up and expose their kids to other cultures, ways of living, etc. You have enriched their lives and ours. Hope to hear about it in person some day!
    A big hi to Francesca!

  9. Interesting to read this. The best part – the family picture at the end – the look of all of you says is was SOOOO worth it!

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