Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How LOW (-cost) Can You Go?

What if your budget is tiny?

One of my boat-friends recently posted the costs of their second year cruising in their blog, and came up with the startling-at-first-glance figure of over $60,000.

"Really?" I thought. Wow.  We cruise on half that, about $30,000 per year, $2,500 per month, as I detailed in a 2012 post in this blog titled "Cost of Living ... Afloat." (In the three years since I wrote that, our cruising costs continued to average that same $2,500 per month distributed about the same way, except that our insurance increased by about $100 per month.)  Their bigger expenses must be the result, I thought, of having a bigger boat -- theirs is over 40 feet to our 33 feet.  Bigger boat = more cost at marinas that charge by the foot, more fuel, bigger engine, bigger sails, bigger heavier everything, as well as more bells and whistles and creature comforts. They've got a generator. And a watermaker. And more closet space than we own clothing to fill.

On closer examination, though, nearly $30,000 of our friends' $60,000 was boat maintenance and upgrades. (Compare to our average $6,000 per year over the 15 years we've owned this boat.) Maybe those numbers will level out for them in future years. When you subtract that out, their cost of living isn't so dramatically different than ours.  A little more, but not a lot more.  I can always find people like them, who live more expensively than we do, and I can also look around and find people like these  who live aboard cheaper than we do.

My friends' blog refers to the common but elusive goal of living aboard and cruising for $1,500 per month as unrealistic, in a tone that unintentionally comes off as privileged. Well, you can do it on $1,500, but ... maybe you won't have air conditioning, or be able to afford shoreside entertainment. Or marinas.  Or even hot water or refrigeration. Sure, you can do it ... but it won't be comfortable, and it won't feel like home. Okay for a season maybe, but it's not sustainable.

But if $1,500 is all you've got, and you want to cruising, then that's what you do.  You choose to give up a little -- or a lot -- of comfort and convenience for the sake of having adventures. Little money for maintenance? Small simple boat, simple systems. No refrigerator? Choose to live on canned and dried food, or an ice box.  People did that for many centuries, after all. Then when you go ashore for ice cream or cold beer, it's a big treat, instead of something you take for granted every day. No hot water? Heat some water on the stove for your shower, or use a sun shower bag.  Or better yet, go to the tropics where hot water for showers isn't as important as it is in the land of winter! You choose what you can do without, then adjust your level of expectation to your budget.

I'd even argue that cruising on a tight budget sometimes leads to more interesting adventures. My sailing acquaintance Joe told of the quirky and generous people he met bartering some carpentry for dockage on a rickety dock and fresh-caught fish because he lacked either the money or the inclination to pay for a marina slip. And we have met far more colorful characters, like the guy with the sea bag and parrot on his shoulder, on inexpensive public transportation in the islands than we ever could in the pricey isolation of a rental car.

While I personally am a member of the "creature comforts" camp, my friend has a valid point. I think there is a real lower limit for cruising budgets. I don't believe that limit is about amenities, though. I think everyone's entitled to decide for themselves how many, or few, hardships and discomforts they are willing to endure in service of a goal. Where I draw the line is where your choices don't just affect you, but impact the people around you. Cruising on a tight budget and choosing to anchor instead of taking a marina slip? Your call.  Cruising on such a tight budget that you've skimped on an undersized anchor and insufficient rode and therefore drag into other anchored boats? Nope, not okay. Cruising with worn old sails that sag and don't give good performance because you can't afford to replace them this year? Your call. Going with sails so old that they blow out during the first moderate wind, and your engine doesn't work because you haven't been affording the maintenance on it either, so someone else has to put themselves at risk to go rescue you? Unh-uh. No insurance, because your boat's not worth much anyway? Yeah, you can choose that. But, no insurance, so you just walk away if the boat runs into trouble because you can't afford to dispose of it, possibly damaging the environment, but certainly leaving an ugly derelict that others must deal with, and damage the image and reception of all cruisers? Do I have to say it? no, no, NO!


  1. Tammy's post has generated some really interesting discussion and food for thought.

    I suspect our costs will increase quite a bit at some point. There are a number of things are on our wish list - like SSB, watermaker, more solar etc. Some of that we may defer purchase for another year, some we get before we head out this year. And once we get to know our new boat better, I'm sure we'll add a number of things to the list too. And of course, things may break.

    It will be interesting to see what this season brings us in terms of costs. Hopefully, the same as what we've been spending or less. But, we're realistic to know that might not be the case.

    Cheers - Ellen

  2. You are right that some of those are pretty big-ticket items, Ellen. We had the advantage of living aboard at a marina while working for several years before heading out; let us spread the costs of upgrades over 5 years and more important let us learn what we really needed & wanted on the boat while local sailing before making big investments.