News flash! It’s a lot cheaper to live in Mexico than in San Francisco!
End of post.
Okay, enough funny business. This is the first post where I’m talking about money, so it’s time to be serious here.
John and I have wanted to go cruising for years. But we’re not into living on the edge. We like planning, and we like to be prepared when we do something new. For cruising, a huge part of that preparation was financial. We worked and saved so we’d have enough money to support the cruising lifestyle we wanted. For us, that meant:
- A comfortable boat that felt like home, not like camping.
- The ability to keep cruising as long as we’re enjoying it. (Many younger cruisers head out with a 1-to-3-year plan. There’s nothing wrong with that! But we didn’t want to feel like we were counting the days and the dollars until we had to stop.)
- Enough discretionary spending money (often called a “cruising kitty”, yes really!) to enjoy the places we visit.
We’ve written a lot about how great our boat is. And teaser, John’s working on a blog post about #2 (longer-term financial planning), so this post is about #3: What does it cost to live in Mexico on our boat? How do we spend money day to day? And just how much cheaper is Mexico than the urban professional lifestyle we left behind?
During our first few months of cruising, it took a while for our spending habits to settle. We still had a lot of upfront expenses weighing on our budget related to outfitting the boat. And after cruising through Baja, we spent a couple weeks in Los Cabos, which is probably the most expensive part of Mexico for cruisers. But by December, we felt a sense of normalcy and routine developing, and that included where our money was going.
So in January, I decided to keep track of each and every peso we spent. My goals were to:
- Reflect on our spending, look for opportunities to be more frugal, and see how we felt when we saw the numbers added up.
- Show all of you how we spend our money while cruising in Mexico!
Small disclaimer: This post is not meant to be a comprehensive cruising budget (more on that below). It’s just a look at the the day-to-day living expenses. I’ll step through each category and add some thoughts along the way.
Total spent: $3,059.24 U.S. Dollars
That’s just $400 more than rent for our one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco! It’s pretty cheap compared to our old life, but it was a bit more than I expected. Honestly, I was hoping for something with a “2” in front of it. But overall, our total spending is not a shock, and we think it’ll go down as we cruise further south.
(For any sticklers reading: I’m using the January 15 exchange rate of 18.9 Mexican Pesos to 1 U.S. Dollar in my totals here. Mexico uses the “dollar sign” ($) to indicate prices in Pesos. But any prices in this blog post are in U.S. Dollars.)
Boat parts and maintenance: $641.83
Our most expensive category—no surprise there. Even in January, we had a couple of one-time expenses related to outfitting the boat. We bought folding wheels for our dinghy (so we can roll it up the beach instead of dragging). We had a rigger install a chafe sleeve on our main halyard as an extra precaution. John added a few tools to the workshop. And there were some routine purchases, like drinking water filters and waterproof sealant.
We don’t regret any of these purchases, and they were somewhat opportunistic, resulting from being in La Cruz, where there’s a well-stocked marine store. So far we have not entered a marine store since we left Banderas Bay, so barring any unexpected problems (knock on wood), that means we won’t be spending much money on the boat for the foreseeable future. Joy!
Meals and drinks: $620.34
Socializing on shore can definitely add up. We spent a good portion of January in places where food and drinks were delicious and cheap, so we ate and drank off the boat as we pleased. We went out with friends countless times and did not hesitate to eat ashore when I didn’t feel like cooking. And this is all we spent! This amount would have lasted 7-10 days with our lifestyle in San Francisco.
By the way, our cheapest meal was $8 (street tacos for dinner in La Cruz) and our most expensive was $51. The latter was dinner at a nice restaurant in Barra, including two courses, a bottle of wine, and tip. We could try and cut back here, but given the prices, it’s just not worth it!
Marina docking fees: $578.94
In January we spent 11 nights in marinas. Most of these were just because we felt like it—to get out of the swells, or get access to unlimited freshwater, or for convenience. Maybe five of these nights were “necessary,” because we needed to complete boat repairs or service that are best done when tied to a dock.
For background, anchoring is completely free, but it has some downsides. You have to worry about your anchor holding if the wind comes up or changes directions. Waves or swells in the anchorage can cause uncomfortable motion, making it difficult to sleep, cook, read, or… do anything, really. Getting ashore (at least here in Pacific Mexico) often requires landing your dinghy on the beach, which means starting your visit to shore with wet, sandy, salty feet and legs. But, a quiet, peaceful, remote anchorage simply cannot be beat—and the fact that it’s free is just gravy on top.
Staying in a marina can get expensive; prices can range from $0.70 to $2.00 per night per foot of boat length. (For our boat, that’s $32 to $92 per night.) But you’re paying for some amazing advantages. You never worry that your home is going to float away. You can rinse or wash the boat with a freshwater hose from the dock. You can take a shower ashore (some marinas have really nice bathroom facilities). When you want to go to the store or out to eat, it’s as simple as stepping off the dock and walking into town. The downsides, other than cost, are the lack of privacy (your neighbors are probably 10-15 feet away), the heat (cooling breezes tend not to flow through marinas), and the inability to swim/snorkel/paddle/play off the back of your boat.
Among cruisers, the debate between anchoring and staying in a marina can take on almost religious fervor. Couples are often at one extreme or the other—either they will avoid a marina at all costs or they will rent a slip for their entire stay without thinking twice. We’re more moderate: happy to anchor, but if a swell is rolling in or we want a few days of extra convenience, you’ll find us calling the harbormaster to see if a slip is available. I guess you could say we’re religious about getting a comfortable night’s sleep and decent shower every once in a while!
But we already know each month will be different. As I write this, looking at our calendar, it’s entirely possible we will not spend a single night in a marina until the end of February. Score for the cruising kitty!
Okay, moving on…
Not bad, considering this number includes much more than just one month of groceries. During January, we built up our non-perishable stores, restocked the bar, and bought two months worth of cat food. Here are a few prices, for fun:
- 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fresh shrimp: $10
- Two large ribeye steaks: $8
- Large container of plain yogurt: $2
At these prices, we really haven’t had to be careful while shopping at markets or grocery stores.
In January, we took on diesel for the first time since mid-November, and also bought a couple gallons of gas for the dinghy. This part of Mexico is known for light winds, and, well, it’s living up to expectations. We’ve been doing lots of motorsailing, with an emphasis on motor.
This category ended up a bit higher than expected because of a mistake I made. But it’s kind of funny, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it.
We have a well-stocked medical kit onboard, but after reviewing with a friend who’s a nurse, I decided to round it out with a few additional antibiotics and other medicines.
So I went to a pharmacy near Puerto Vallarta. Compared to the U.S., Mexican pharmacies sell many more products without a prescription. (Don’t worry, I went to a legit pharmacy, not one with huge VIAGRA! PERCOCET! signs outside. Those seem to exist in every tourist town.) I handed my list to the pharmacist and she plucked box after box from the shelves. She showed me everything, and in a conversation of broken Spanish and English, I agreed that everything looked right. She rang it up. 200 bucks! Gulp, how could it be so expensive?! I could have looked at the receipt and asked to return something, but there’s no way I would have been able to communicate that in Spanish. Plus, I decided this was not an area where I wanted to cut corners.
A couple hours later, I was back on the boat, organizing everything and stowing the new drugs in our medical kit. One of the antibiotics I bought was diflucan, and ladies, you know this is for a yeast infection. A full dose is just one pill, so I was expecting the box to have one course of treatment (or one pill). But it had 10! Aha! That’s what caused the sticker shock! So, I now have a enough supply for a lifetime of yeast infections. Sigh.
Phone and Internet: $164.545
Marina WiFi is always disappointing, and the frugal cruiser ideal of anchoring near the beach to pick up some hotel’s free WiFi is pretty much a myth. So we use our phones as hotspots to get online, a strategy which is working really well with Google’s Project Fi. We pay by the gigabyte, and even without streaming Netflix or YouTube, we use a lot of data.
This category contains bus fare, which is shockingly cheap in Mexico (about 50 cents), dinghy dock fees, taxis, water taxis (in Barra), and one expensive Uber ride back from downtown Puerto Vallarta on New Year’s Eve. Our spending here is under control, and we definitely don’t want to skimp on exploring on land.
Almost everywhere in Mexico—even in the smallest towns—we have found lavanderias where we can drop off our laundry and pick it up folded the next day. We’re used to this from living in San Francisco, where we didn’t have laundry in our apartment and used a “wash and fold” service. The biggest difference? Laundry is way cheaper in Mexico. Approximately $1 per kilogram.
In cruising (and in life ashore) people tend to spend what they have. If we had to (or decided to) spend less in order to buy ourselves more time, or create a bigger safety margin, we could. We know cruisers who spend less than us, and we know cruisers who spend more.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, we do not want to misrepresent the cost of the cruising lifestyle. Having a boat is expensive no matter how you slice it, and a few of those costs are not represented here. For example, we have a comprehensive boat insurance policy that we pay for annually. We also have a special liability insurance plan for Mexican waters—this is required by the Mexican government, and yes, the Port Captain asks for proof of insurance when we check in to a new port. This summer, we’ll pay to store Pineapple at a marina in Panama while we visit the U.S. for several months. We’re budgeting for extensive routine maintenance and some upgrades during the off-season. And something expensive is bound to break… and hopefully when it does, we’ll have the parts, tools, and knowledge we need to fix it ourselves.
So, what do you think? Is this more or less than you expected? I’m tracking every peso for February too, so I’ll report back on the cost of cruising in Mexico next month!