A DIFFERENT WAY
by Sharon Reed
What does it cost to go cruising? This is like asking someone what it cost to live in California or Seattle. It’s different for everyone, and everyone will have a different answer. It really all depends. Do you cruise on a small boat or a large one? Do you have all the bells & whistles? Can you repair anything that goes wrong on your boat or do you need to hire help? What are your eating and drinking habits?
Before we set out to go cruising, this was one of my greatest concerns. Would we have enough money to keep cruising for several years if we liked it? I kept hearing we would need $1,000 to $2,500 per month just to stay afloat, if nothing major went wrong. I was scared we couldn’t survive on our meager savings. Both my husband & myself had our own businesses, so we had no pension or retirement. We were too young for Social Security and too able for disability. We choose not to carry boat or medical insurance (cost not being the only reason). Could we survive and enjoy cruising on our limited budget? In ‘99 the stock market was good to us & helped our savings – so we were off!
Three and a half years later we are still within our budget and have survived a direct-hit lightning strike, a breast-lump biopsy, melanoma cancer surgery and the stock market crash, along with many equipment failures. On the up side, we have enjoyed inland travel in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama & Ecuador, staying in nice hotels and eating out often. In the Galapagos we swam with the sea lions and turtles. In Mexico I swam with the dolphins in the wild and in French Polynesia we swam with black tipped reef sharks. We have also collected many treasures to bring home to family. We have blankets from Guatemala, machetes from El Salvador, coffee from Costa Rica, molas from Panama, alpaca jackets from Guatemala and black pearls from the Pacific, not to mention seashells from all over.
Throughout our travels, we have had some of the best medical and dental care we have ever had, with most doctors trained in the U.S.
This is the life we love and live on a budget of $500 a month. How do we do it? Can you do it too? Well, it just depends. We spent five years, while working our businesses, re-building our 30-year-old sloop so we know her inside and out. As things break or wear out (and most everything does) we are able to fix it ourselves, not having to hire outside help. We have a sewing machine on board, so I am able to mend sails and clothes, sew cushions, curtains, flags etc. After our lightning strike in Costa Rica, where we suffered damage to many electronics, Steve was able to repair most items, but we still had to replace a depth finder, computer (second hand), VHF radio and antenna. Luckily Steve had grounded our ham radio, radar and some other items, so they were spared (we don’t know if that is the reason). We had a grounding cable for lightning protection but did not have it in the water when the lightning hit.
Another way we save is by sailing most all of the time. This may sound strange, as we’re a sailboat, but many cruisers, during light winds, prefer to use their engine. We are a light displacement boat, so we can sail in very light wind. We hoist the spinnaker and off we go. My captain is also a purest and refuses to start the engine except to get into a port and even then sometimes we sail in and out. We also only carry 24 gallons of fuel (the captain did this on purpose). So you see, we spend very little on fuel. We have traveled over 17,000 nm. and have only motored 2,500 miles of that. Not everyone wants to be a purest (myself included).
We have two 120-watt solar panels that keep our batteries charged, supplying 95-100 percent of our power needs, without running the engine. This works because we have a small water maker, small refrigerator and no freezer. Our eating and drinking habits save us money also. I, the galley slave, am a seafood vegetarian and since the captain eats what I cook while on the boat, we don’t buy meat and our drink of choice is water and lime-aid. We eat lots of seafood, fruits and veggies, so we eat healthy as well. We also eat out a lot, eating where the locals eat. This way we get to sample more authentic foods at a better price, plus we get to meet the locals and practice their language. In Ecuador we could get a complete meal – soup, main dish, drink and dessert for $1.50 – so it wasn’t worth it to eat on board. In French Polynesia where meals were $15 and up we ate most meals aboard. We spend most of our budget on food and boat related items.
Medical is an area where we have probably spent more than most cruisers, due to circumstances that happen to some of us as we get older. This is another thing that worried me before we went cruising – having no insurance. I had had surgery five years before cruising for malignant melanoma (skin cancer). Many people told us we were crazy (we already knew that) to go without insurance. What if my cancer came back? Well it did – and if I had insurance I probably would have had to fly home and my deductible plus airfare would have cost more than my total medical bill. I had my surgery in Panama, in the best hospital, with the best oncologist who was trained in Boston & N.Y. and the cost was one tenth of what it cost in the U.S. I can’t say enough about the quality of care I have received in the countries I have visited. Since it is private care, they have the time to spend with you. Our total medical and dental costs over the past three years have been less than a six-month insurance premium.
Some months we spend over our $500 budget and other months, especially in remote areas where there is nowhere to spend money, we have been known to spend as little as $100 for the month. So it seems to balance out for the year to just around $500 a month.
We actually have a $600 a month budget, but keeping it at $500, we save $100 a month and set this aside for something special like an inland trip or a flight home.
We have our meager savings set up to pay us every three months, so four times a year we get paid $1800. We have one Visa debit card, which we use at an ATM machine. Each month we get out the equivalent of $500 in the currency of the country we are visiting. I tell myself this all we have for the month and it helps me not to over spend. Unless it’s an emergency, or a hard to find item that we may not see later, we do not visit the ATM again that month. We have an emergency fund of $3000, that is separate of our spending money. This is for medical or boat related breakdowns. After the lightning strike and cancer surgery this fund was almost depleted, but we were able to replenish it by doing some boat work in Panama on other cruising boats.
Our budget is divided something like this: Food & eating out $250 a month – Fuel & harbor fees $50 – boat parts $100 – Medical & Dental $50 – other items such as mail, laundry, bus fare $50. This changes some every month because some months we don’t need any boat parts but our check-in fees may be more, or many months we have no medical costs but may need to stock up on food items.
Our biggest savings is that in over three years of cruising, we have never stayed at a marina. Once in El Salvador we took a mooring for $5 a day and in Mexico we were on the hard while we flew home. Not only do we find marinas expensive, but often there are additional fees plus organized activities that can add up. Besides, marinas are hot & noisy and we love swimming and fishing off the boat. We enjoy picnics, potlucks and non-tourist restaurants. Instead of cocktails and appetizers, we have popcorn and lemonade. These are ways we save and still enjoy the cruising life.
I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. Both Steve & I are Ham operators and so we are able to make phone patches home to kids from time to time. We also do our email via the Ham radio, saving money and time otherwise spent at the Internet Cafes. We have viewed some of the most beautiful sunsets, swam in some of the most pristine turquoise lagoons, walked some of the most deserted island beaches and have made friends with people from all over the world, both other cruisers and locals.
So what does it cost to cruise? It will cost whatever your budget will allow. The important thing is to enjoy the lifestyle. According to the United States government, we are living under poverty level. Somehow, I feel very rich. I have everything I need, and much of what I want. We have no bills and not owing anything to anyone is the most freeing experience I have ever had. I’m not sure I could ever live in the “Rat Race” again.