When we started our new habit of recording every single expense (see January and February here), it came with immediate rewards: We gained clarity about how we were spending our money. We got a new perspective from which to reflect on our new lifestyle. (And since I’m big on self-awareness, overthinking, and general worrying, this was a good thing.) But mostly it just made us feel good—when we added up each month’s expenses and saw a reasonable number, we could pat ourselves on the back. “Cool! We really have been able to leave behind our expensive city tastes and lifestyle and still enjoy ourselves! Being frugal is easy and fun!”
And then we added up the total for March. Let’s just go ahead and rip off the band-aid now, shall we?
Total spent: $4,057.25
March 2018 was our most expensive cruising month so far… we spent twice as much as in February! Gulp. I was disappointed. And I don’t like being disappointed—especially in myself! We should be able to travel in Central America on a shoestring budget, right!? I mean, we even have the book!
Thankfully, John’s passion for personal finance means he was much more level-headed about the situation, and after I was done freaking out, we had several conversations about how this happened, why we can actually afford it, and how we’ll make different decisions about spending in the future.
The full report below has all the gory details about where we went wrong, but in our conversations, John and I discovered a couple of overall themes.
First was the fact that, during our four months in Mexico, costs were consistent and predictable. We quickly developed good spending instincts and rules of thumb: If we went to a taco place instead of a fancy restaurant for dinner, it was instant frugality without sacrifice. If we cleaned the boat ourselves instead of hiring someone, we enjoyed the gratification of self-sufficiency and saved money. In Mexico, that’s about as critical as we had to be when it came to spending money. Now that we have left the training wheels of cruising behind in Mexico, we can no longer be so casual when reaching for our wallets.
Second, there’s the how-it-feels side to spending money. This $4,000 is mathematically okay in the context of our cruising money plan (and John has the spreadsheet to prove it), but we realized that it doesn’t feel good to carelessly spend money on mere conveniences. I’ll share a lot of examples in the details below. This realization doesn’t mean we’ll never have any big expenses, but as we gain more cruising experience, we want to get better at planning ahead so we can actually budget for the big-ticket items.
March’s spending report
During March, we sailed about 732 miles. On March 1st we were motor-sailing across the Gulf of Tehuantepec (still in Mexico) and by the 31st we were in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. In between, we split our time between Puerto Chiapas (Mexico), El Salvador, and northern Nicaragua.
Marina docking fees: $1,053.04
Our most expensive category and a quarter of our monthly total, this was the hardest pill to swallow. We spent almost the entire month in marinas. If we were not on passage, we were in a slip. I’m very aware of the practical cruising knowledge that the best way to save money is to avoid marinas. But as one stop rolled into the next, we found ourselves opting for the convenience of the dock instead of figuring out possibilities for anchoring.
I can think of a couple ways we could have made different decisions without sacrificing our experience, but I’m trying to remember our mindset at the time and not be too upset with our choices. We visited two new countries in March, and on top of the normal route planning and weather watching, we had to figure out all the logistical details of arriving to a new country by boat. We were also balancing our desire to see and explore each country with the maintenance needs of the boat.
Within that context, marinas offered a couple of key conveniences that led us to pull out the credit card again and again. First, marinas help with checking into and out of the country. When your Spanish is terrible like ours and you want to avoid spending all day in a bureaucratic shuffle, that’s an attractive proposition. Second, we were planning to travel inland (for the first time!) in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and marinas offer an easy base for leaving the boat unattended. We have fewer worries than we would with the boat at anchor; we don’t have to shlep our bags in the dinghy; and a dock provides easy access to the boat for our friends who came to check on the cats.
Our cost to keep Pineapple in marinas averaged about $1 per foot per night. That’s actually a good rate—we’ve paid as little as 70 cents, and marinas here in Costa Rica are upwards of $3!—but it really adds up when you’re in a marina for 23 nights, which was the case in March. Virtually all marinas offer a nicely discounted monthly rate. But we didn’t stay in the same marina for a month; we visited three different ones. Face palm. Okay, let’s move on.
In March we spent seven days away from the boat. This category includes hostel stays, a rental car, tour guides, and entrance fees. We spent a few awesome days away from the boat in El Salvador, a weekend in León, Nicaragua, and took a guided tour in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico.
In this category, we paid up for convenient transportation. In Nicaragua, we rented a car instead of taking public buses, which shortened a full-day bus trip into a fun 90-minute drive. This gave us more time at our destination and more freedom to stop along the way. And in El Salvador, we paid a driver named Shrek (!) to take us 80km from El Tunco back to the marina at Bahia del Sol.
Meals and drinks: $580.61
This amount is pretty much in-line with previous spending levels, so there isn’t much to note here. But considering we’ve been to a dozen different places in the last three months, with tons of variety for options to dine out, I’m actually pretty surprised at the consistency across this category.
Before we left Mexico, we made a final trip to the supermarket to stock up on non-perishable stores. In El Salvador, we indulged on some American brands when we visited a nice supermarket. I hope this number will decrease, since we’re now well-provisioned and don’t plan to leave a boat full of stores when we decommission Pineapple for the off-season.
We have been able to sail more lately, but our first two passages in early March, where we covered about 500 miles, were virtually windless. Considering this included the much-feared Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 250-mile passage to El Salvador that needed to be perfectly timed with high tide, and a trip down the dreaded Papagayo alley, I’m not going to complain about this one. Actually, I’m extra thankful that we have a working engine and boat that can comfortably take us anywhere in the world (as long as we have diesel).
Boat parts and maintenance: $249.78
Another light month for spending on the boat. We did pay to have someone clean the bottom of the boat, twice. In the tropics, the warm temperature of the water means green gunk grows quickly on the hull, propeller, and rudder. Plus those pesky barnacles! When we’re anchored in clear water, we don’t mind cleaning the hull, but in the murky, dirty marina waters, it’s a job that we (and most cruisers) choose to outsource to professionals. This category also includes purchasing supplies like high-test fishing line, plus a few new charts and a cruising guide for Central America.
Government fees: $191.20
New category! In March we officially checked out of Mexico, in and out of El Salvador, and then into Nicaragua, paying The Man each time. While I didn’t realize what a significant amount of money this would add up to, I can’t say we would have changed much of our itinerary. The big lesson here is to make sure to better research these costs in future planning so they aren’t as surprising. We can decide to skip a country if the fees are too expensive, or stay longer for a better value.
Phone and internet: $179.63
Because of the billing cycle, this cost mostly reflects the lack of WiFi—and heavy use of our cellphones as mobile hotspots—in February. Our data use for March will hit our credit card in April, and I’m hopeful it will be less expensive. As a reminder, we use Google Project Fi, and we’ve had great results now in four different countries outside the U.S.
John bought new flip-flops in Nicaragua (replacing a pair that’s literally falling apart) and re-stocked his supply of face wash. Fun stuff, right? I also bought a new pair of shorts. If anyone has a more exciting name for this category, I’m open 🙂
While I was disappointed in our spending for March, I have to remember that this process of tracking and reflecting on our money choices is working as intended. Here we are, sharing what it really costs to sail and travel full-time, and reflecting on how those choices made us feel. And thanks to this exercise, we have all the information we need to take responsibility for our spending decisions (and our reactions to those decisions) as we continue to cruise. This is important, because it increases our chances of keeping the cruising kitty topped off and extending our runway for continuing to live this way. Plus, John prefers when I’m not freaking out 🙂
April is another interesting month, money-wise. We have some very good friends visiting us here in Costa Rica, and we are staying extra frugal before their arrival so we don’t stress while they’re here. In other words… we have a spending plan this month! I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!
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