Unraveling the Mysteries of a Cruising Budget

guest post by Deb Akey

And So It Began

One cold winter morning, when you’re hugging your warm coffee mug while checking Facebook, a photo of a sailboat pops up in your feed. “Escape winter and come sail in Paradise!” the ad proclaims. Curiously, you click the link.  You spend the rest of the day reading about sailing, ariound warm tropical destinations, and exploring yachtworld.com. With the  seed planted, you spend the coming days reading cruising blogs, forums, and online magazines. The dream is born.  Remember you will need a budget.

But How Can You Possibly Afford It?

Any drastic change in lifestyle requires research.  Where you will live, what you will do, and how much it will cost.  When exchanging a land-based life for one with the sea, that research can be challenging.   Unfortunately,  the sources of information are limited. There are books, like Skipper Bob’s Cruising Comfortably on a Budget

 

Lin Pardey’s Cost Conscience Cruisers.

 

There are forums like Women Who Sail on Facebook and cruisersforum.com, and there are the cruisers who are willing to post their budgets on their blogs. Many people are inherently private about finances.  They are reluctant to disclose them which makes it all the more difficult to get an idea of the full range of cruising budgets. Whatever the source of information, the difficulty arises when you try to apply someone else’s experience to your own expectations.

Look At Others Budgets

There are as many cruising budgets as there are cruisers,. So, when you begin to attempt to form your own projected budget, it’s important to try to figure out how you want to live. First, take a look at the way you live on land. If you like to eat out a lot now, it’s not likely that will change once you move onto a boat. If you can’t live without internet on land, you will probably want it even more once you cast off the docklines .  Phones, Ipads, and computers, along with ways to feed them bandwidth, will be a huge consideration in your budget.

Things to Consider

What level of discomfort are you willing to tolerate? Can you live in a 28-foot boat with a camp stove and ice box or will it take a 34-foot boat with an alcohol stove and small fridge?  Or maybe you’re thinking about a 42-foot boat with a full galley, 2 cabins and 2 heads?  Or will you need a 50-foot, brand new sloop with bow and stern thrusters and all the bells and whistles? Is it your dream to take a defined time to cruise, say a year or five years.  Maybe you  are you wanting to move onto a boat for the foreseeable future?

Plan A Budget

Your budget will vary year to year because of major boat maintenance like bottom jobs, new solar panels,  electronics upgrades and canvas work.  After a few years,  you’ll be able to sort out what your requirements are. After five years of cruising, my recommendation is to take your estimated budget and increase it by at least half. That will put you close. Here is a list of our budget items as an example.

Boat Budget Items

  • Initial outlay to purchase a boat. This can vary wildly, depending on the way you want to live. We have met cruisers who paid less than $10,000 for their boat, and others who have paid more than a half million dollars. The reason that it’s relevant as the first item on the list is because the next item, boat maintenance, will depend largely on the initial cost of your boat. Once you’ve signed the bill of sale, you still have a large amount of money to spend on preparing the boat to cruise. Don’t be fooled by “turnkey” boat listings. Even a well-equipped cruising boat will need upgrades to meet your personal style. Some people say that 30% of the purchase price is realistic for this outfitting. Our total was significantly higher.
  • Boat Maintenance. The general rule of thumb is that you will spend around 10% of your initial boat purchase annually in maintenance costs. It can be much more if you don’t know how to do any of the maintenance yourself and can’t source parts carefully.    Keep in mind that parts bought outside of the US will be three to five times more expensive , largely because of VAT taxes, shipping, and customs charges.
  • Docking and mooring balls. This is another place where it’s important to understand your own comfort level. Can you anchor every night or do you need the comfort of a dock with full facilities? Do you require air conditioning when it’s hot? At an average of $2.00 a foot per night, docking can add up to more than a standard mortgage payment. Mooring balls are certainly less expensive at an average of $20 per night,.  Some can be had for $300-400 monthly, but this is still a significant budget item. We planned to anchor all of the time.  The reality of it is that we spent way more time on docks than we had planned.
  • Insurance. Different types of insurance can be one of the biggest expenses in a cruising budget. Depending on where you want to cruise and how expensive your boat is.   Boat insurance can run upwards of $4000 per year or more. If you think you’ll go without it, then long-term docking is out of the question. Most marinas require at least $300,000 in liability insurance to dock.  A marina will take you as a transient for a night or two.  However,  if you sign a two-week or month lease they require proof of insurance. Also included in this category is our towing insurance.
  • Pumpouts. Some marinas in the US have free pumpouts. They’re usually municipal marinas and they’re not very common. A lot of municipal marinas charge five dollars and the private marinas charge anywhere from ten dollars to a dollar a foot.
  • Navigation. We’re huge tech geeks. We have two IPads that are identically outfitted with multiple weather and navigation apps. Some of them, like Navionics, require a subscription fee.
  • Fuel. Not a huge expense for us since we mostly sail, but diesel for the boat, gasoline for the generator and dinghy.  Don’t forget,  propane for the stove are all budget items.

Personal Expenses

  • Medical Expenses. Medical insurance is a whole can of worms too involved for this post. It requires careful research into what is covered while you are traveling, where your permanent address is, and what your medical history is. Some cruisers elect to travel to Mexico and some Caribbean islands to receive out-of-pocket care at a reasonable cost. Medical bills can end a cruise prematurely. We know a lot of cruisers that had to sell their boats and return to land due to health issues. Our own experience included two unexpected medical bills that stole a year of cruising funds and caused us to need to refill the cruising kitty with long-term jobs. We also include our emergency medical evacuation policy with DAN in this category.
  • Food. Food costs can also vary wildly depending on where you travel . In US waters you can usually get to typical grocery stores,  your costs will be similar home.  In the Bahamas, food will be much more expensive and less readily available. While on some Caribbean islands and Mexico, food is less than in the US.  Eating out can kill your budget faster than anything else. If you’re used to eating out in your landed life, add lots of money to this budget item.
  • Ice. We Americans love our ice and it’s one of the things we personally just don’t like to do without. Our fridge holds a ten pound bag of ice in one corner which we go through every day when working in a boatyard in Florida. It can last up to  one a week in cooler weather.  Ice can range anywhere from $1.25 to $5.00 per bag. We keep a collection of reusable ice cubes in the bottom of our fridge for emergencies, but there’s just no replacement for real ice in a tall glass of lemonade on a hot day.
  • Water.  Most US coastal areas have free water  if you’re on the dock pumping out and getting fuel. The notable exception to this is in the Florida Keys where water runs an average of twenty cents per gallon.  . In the Bahamas it can run anywhere from twenty cents to a dollar a gallon. The next boat we buy will have a water maker.
  • Alcohol. If you drink in your landed life, you will drink more on a boat. The reason for this is that nearly every cruiser gathering we’ve been to has included alcohol.  . Sundowners in the cockpit, gatherings in bars on shore, and beach parties.. It is always around and it’s always expensive. We know some cruisers that drop fifty or sixty dollars  once a week in bars. I once saw a cruiser budget post that had a *note that said, “Does not include alcohol.” I immediately discounted the whole budget because it was completely unrealistic not to include it and it made me distrust the rest of the information.
  • Clothing. Not a huge budget item for us. Cruisers in general tend to wear the same shirt and shorts for days at a time before washing them (did I hear you say ewwww?)   They generally wear them till they simply won’t hold together anymore. We do occasionally run across a couple that dress stylishly, but it’s rare. Shoes, however, are a very essential and expensive item.  This is not one to skimp on. We usually go through a pair of Keens and a pair of tennis shoes or boat shoes of some sort or lighter sandals each year. That can to amount to a large amount.
  • Laundry. This is another wild variable. Some do all of their laundry in a bucket onboard and hang it on the lines. While in the Bahamas, I wash in a collapsible tub in my galley sink.   I have an antique wringer that clamps onto my counter. Then I hang on the lifelines. But when we’re in a mooring field or on a dock, I  use the  laundry facilities there. Fees for the machines can range anywhere from free at a few rare marinas, to an average of $2.00 per load in the US to as high as $10.00 per load in the Bahamas.

Communications & Entertainment

  • Communication and Data. Some cruisers  have a single prepaid phone and rarely use it. This is not us. Our eleven grandchildren are on shore and we want to talk to them.,  frequently.  We both kept our own phones as well as two iPads.   We  primarily use the IPADs  for navigation but also for data. Separate phones make it easier when one of us goes ashore.   We have a way to touch base.  Our bill for phones and internet is nearly $200 per month.  This  is higher than the average cruiser, but it’s a non-negotiable expense for us.

  • Legal/Safety/Registrations. A kind of catch-all for things like Coast Guard Documentation, state registrations, taxes, EPIRB registrations, satellite communicators, new safety items like flares and life jackets, and Customs decals.
  • Entertainment. For us it’s primarily Netflix and Kindle downloads. Some people like to visit all of the pay-to-enter tourist traps.  Those expenses would fall into this category.   We avoid most of them, preferring a quiet anchorages and a good book.

Misc. Expense

  • Miscellaneous Supplies. I’m not one of those people that can log every penny spent. You may wish to, but I would rather spend time sitting in the cockpit watching dolphins. For us, this category includes things like paper products, printer paper, notebooks, postage, and a lot of things we buy on Amazon.  It might be something like new Command Strips or some sheets or towels. It might also include gifts you give  .You might elect to have a separate category for gifts given. For us, this category includes our mail forwarding service through St. Brendan’s Isle.
  • Land Travel. This one includes all the expenses for trips back home to visit grandkids – airfare, rental car, food, etc., the rare inland touristy venture, bus passes, Uber, and car rentals for any other reason. From the fall of 2015 to the spring of 2016 we had three deaths in the family. Emergency travel like that is always the most expensive . Emergency travel added almost six thousand dollars to our budget during that time period.
  • Hurricanes.  Each time we have had to prep and evacuate for a hurricane,  it has cost us in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred dollars. Dockage or mooring, rental car, hotels, supplies to prep the boat like tape and shrink wrap…it just adds up.

Can We Do This?

I know this  can be overwhelming and a bit discouraging.  It’s better to understand the challenges that you face before you make the decision to go. As I write this, we are living in a small studio apartment in St. Louis, about as far as you can get from the water. The boat is sitting on the hard in Titusville, FL awaiting her new owners.

Where Are We Now?

When we left in 2013, we knew we wouldn’t have sufficient funds to last until we could claim Social Security.  It was decided that leaving was too important to hold off any longer.   We would figure it out along the way.  Many cruisers have been able to find work in boatyards and marinas.  However,  after working in a boatyard in the Tampa Bay area for two summer seasons in a row, we realized that type of work was just too hard on our aging bodies.  With rapidly dwindling funds ,and no desire to tap our retirement investments, we elected to take a two-year job and sell the boat.

It was a difficult decision for sure. We miss the lifestyle more than can be expressed.  We’re looking forward to the end of our time here and the purchase of our next boat. Even with all of the difficulties we faced financially, we would not have traded the last five years for anything.

Can We Afford This Life?

Can you afford it? Only you can decide whether the life you can afford on the water is one you want to live. The benefits of cruising,  the beauty of nature, the feeling of independence, the wonderful camaraderie with your fellow travelers .  These things are worth a great amount of sacrifice to get there. But, the key to your success  is how honest you’re able to be about  how you want to live. If you can make your budget and your expectations meet somewhere in the middle, then you’re about to embark on the most remarkable adventure you’ve ever experienced. And say hello to the dolphins for us.