Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My two cents: It's always about the money

(Ed note: This is a highly controversial subject. The post is the author's own opinions. There are always exceptions to every generalization.)

We spent a week binge-watching The Long Way Down, a documentary film with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman detailing their trip from John O' Groats, Scotland through eighteen countries to Capetown, South Africa on two BMW motorcycles. Having ridden various motorcycles long-distance over our lives together, we appreciated the challenges of riding in a hostile environment (both environmental and political) but, regardless of the danger implied in the film, there was never any serious risk involved because they had two support vehicles, a medic with operating-room level supplies, a "security" agent, and a "fixer" for each country they traveled through. They started with brand new bikes (which were donated by BMW,) and racks upon racks of sponsored equipment, clothing, and spare parts. The whole time we were watching it, I kept thinking to myself that, in spite of the difficulties they encountered, there was never anything that happened that couldn't be fixed by the expansive bank account and huge support team that backed the project. It was a worthy project supporting UNICEF, it drew needed attention to many of the struggling countries in Africa, and I would watch it again, but I couldn't stop drawing the contrast to cruising.

Cruising is a hard way to live sometimes. You're pretty much responsible for yourself, and it is the rare cruiser that has that kind of expansive bank account back home to cover the unexpected or even the routine costs of living full-time on a boat. We've seen a lot of cruising dreams die in the almost six years we were out there, and it's usually either health reasons or money at the root of it.

But, wait, you say...you can cruise on five hundred bucks a month, right?

Anyone prepping to go cruising wants desperately to believe that it's possible. They want to believe it's possible because if it isn't, their cruising dream is dead. And it might be possible, but let me paint a picture for you from what we've seen in the five plus years we've been cruising.

Five hundred bucks a month is maybe far-reach type doable if:
  • you have a 40+-year-old sailboat
  • with no refrigeration
  • with no air conditioning
  • that needs bottom paint
  • that has 4 inches of growth on the bottom
  • that has 30-year-old rigging
  • that has 30-year-old sails
  • you eat beans and rice every night
  • you have no boat insurance
  • you have no health insurance
  • you have no children
  • you have a spouse who's either a saint or catatonic
  • you have no family that you need to communicate with via phone
  • you are a professional dumpster diver for spare parts
  • you don't mind using a bucket to take a dump when the head breaks
  • you live in Indonesia...
  • you have a 20-40-year-old boat that you just launched from a boatyard after spending 6 months on the hard ticking projects off a list
  • where you spent thousands of dollars buying parts for the projects on the list
  • and paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of occupying 1000 sq ft of the boatyard
  • and paid thousands of dollars outfitting the boat with all the latest electronics from the boat show
  • and paid hundreds of dollars to stock the boat with provisions for six months in the Bahamas
  • and paid hundreds of dollars to make your way down the ICW to Miami to cross to the Bahamas
  • and paid your $350 cruising fee in the Bahamas where
  • you live for 500 bucks a month on your fully refitted, paid for, stocked boat
  • until your stock of provisions run out and 
  • things start to break.
I know there are some people who manage to make it work, especially in third world countries. I know there are copious books written on the subject by well-respected authors. I know there are hundreds of blog posts, forum threads and Facebook groups that all say it's possible.

But it's not us.

When we first got married almost 50 years ago, we were dirt poor living on my $1.64/hour wage working in a pet store while Tim finished school at Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. After his graduation and subsequent employment in the aviation industry in Wichita, Kansas, things got marginally better, but we were still poor, sharing housing and cars with friends because none of us could afford to live on our own. As the years rolled on, the jobs got better, the income higher, kids came and went, houses came and went, money started accumulating in our retirement account and, well, if you're a long-term reader of this blog you know the rest of the story.

When we retired the first time in 2013, we left to go cruising with a well-founded boat that was comfortable, paid for, and able to take us where we wanted to go. Nothing fancy, but functional. We weren't living high on the hog, rarely eating out and almost never went to any paid function or resorts. But we were eating well by preparing home-cooked food on the boat, we had good communication with the grandkids through Skype, we had good iPads that were well-equipped with copious amounts of books from Amazon and our local library, we didn't have to sweat it financially if we wanted to touch a dock for a day or two to provision, and we could have the occasional ice cream cone as a treat. That cruising lifestyle cost us around $3,000 a month over the first couple years and more toward $3,500 a month the last two years. Those numbers include alcohol, boat maintenance, boat insurance, health insurance, medical bills, and all of the daily expenses like food, water, fuel, clothing, electricity, phones. A far cry from $500 a month. But as Tim likes to say, we've been poor, done that, have the card to prove it, and don't want to be poor again. 

After cruising full-time over five years, I am extremely skeptical of anyone who says they can live comfortably on $500 a month. In fact, I'm completely skeptical of anyone who says they can live on even $1000 a month. Why, you ask? Here's my reasoning.

Things break on boats. All boats. All the time. At the most inconvenient times. At the most expensive places to get them fixed. Always far away from parts sources. We have a friend who's one of those people who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to acquire parts for free that people are giving away or parts he can trade for things he has on his boat from the last time he traded. He's a maverick, and he's a master mechanic, and he cruises pretty cheaply. But dumpster diving in boatyards is virtually a full-time job for him. We've never seemed to be in the right place at the right time and usually end up trading green, crinkly paper for parts and then doing all the maintenance and installations ourselves. And parts in the Bahamas? Even the shipping costs to get them there would wipe out half a month's budget.

And then there's food. If you happen to be able to supplement your budget with shellfish you catch, that's certainly a bonus. Unfortunately, the Captain of Kintala has a shellfish allergy so that's supplement we don't benefit from. Everything you buy in the Bahamas is almost exactly twice the cost of their counterparts in the US: cereal ($6-$8 for smaller boxes,) milk ($8-$12 per gallon,) beer ($3 a bottle,) to name a few. We rarely eat out in the Bahamas because the food we can afford isn't very healthy, but we always try to support the local economy by buying our groceries there whenever possible. The only things we really provision prior to leaving are decaf coffee, (I am a coffee snob, I confess - it's my one vice,) beer, and some cooking ingredients that are hard to come by.

And then there's the water issue. If you happened to be in group B above and installed a watermaker prior to departing (cha-ching $$$$,) then you don't have to buy water - but you do have to buy prefilters, the occasional membrane, and all the components involved in pickling the unit whenever you leave the boat for a while. If you don't have a watermaker, then you are paying anywhere from $.20 per gallon to $1.00 per gallon for water in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. If you're living on $500 per month, you're likely bathing in salt water. If you're living on $1000 a month then you might get a fresh water rinse. Our own water usage averaged 8-10 gallons of water per day doing dishes, drinking coffee and water, doing a couple small loads of hand wash, and doing a quick rinse off before bed. Our average water cost in the Bahamas and the Keys was $.35 per gallon for a total of close to $100 per month.

Just those three expenses would go a long way toward busting that $1000 per month budget. And that doesn't include phones, internet, fuel, cruising permits, propane, oil filters, fuel filters, registration, taxes, medical expenses...

Undoubtedly, the biggest reason we see cruisers (including us) return to land, whether temporarily or permanently, is money. The cruising life is a hard life. Weather, boat maintenance, and the myriad of daily chores all vie for time and energy and having too little money makes it all the harder. It can be a huge source of stress, the very thing that most people go cruising to get away from. So what can you do, if you're in the middle of your five-year plan to go cruising?

The most oft-quoted cruising budget meme is to "go small, go simple, go now." Certainly, outfitting a boat with the basics you need to be comfortable, and no more, is a good principle to abide by. But if living on a 24-foot boat without refrigeration or a motor is your idea of ideal cruising, I will admire you from afar. I openly admit that I'm not that person. Or I should more accurately say that I don't want to be that person.

So if you're not that person either, what can you do? Spend a considerable amount of time analyzing your expectations and check them against reality. How long do you intend to cruise? If it's a short cruise of one season, then pretty much anything can be endured. We used to camp in a 7-foot pup tent on our motorcycle trips - fine for a week or maybe two, but I couldn't live like that for years at a time. If you intend to cruise for the long term and it currently takes you $4,000 a month to live a comfortable life on land, then it will take you only slightly less to live a comfortable life on a boat. No mortgage, sure, but many many boat repairs and dockage and travel expenses. Be honest with yourself. If you're used to eating out five nights a week, it's not likely that you'll all of a sudden find cooking entertaining in a very small galley.

I recently heard a story on NPR about a study that Princeton had done in 2010. They studied a very large group of people to try to determine if money brought happiness. What they found was that for those living near or below the poverty line, receiving more money had a profound impact on their happiness. As the income approached $50,000 per year the increase in happiness tapered off, and at $75,000 per year there was no increase in happiness at all when money was added. It was an interesting study. It clearly showed that there is immense stress when there are insufficient funds to cover the basic needs of food, shelter, and comfort. Once those needs were provided, additional money did nothing to increase the participants' happiness. Living on a boat poor would add the stress of the fact that, without proper maintenance, your home can sink. Spending too much would add the stress of more complex systems to maintain.

We don't have any desire to live poor on a boat, and we don't have the money to be extravagant either, but we've found this very nice balance in between where we have a boat big enough that we don't get in each other's way but not so big we can't care for it. We have enough gadgets to be safe in our navigation without becoming unsafe from the complexity of it. The balance works for us, but there are as many ways to cruise as there are cruisers out there doing it, so examine your expectations, analyze your needs, and find the balance that works for you because, for my two cents' worth, it's always about the money.


    LittleCunningPlan.com said...

    Wow, you said it. So funny, I was looking through some drafts of posts I might do and found one just this morning called 'Get Real'. It was about money and how much you need to be able to live well on a sailboat. I'm totally with you on this. People think this is a cheap way to live, but they haven't done the math or they have dreams of living for free on the hook. We are both here to tell them: that's not how it works. Sure, being on the hook can be, but isn't always, free. And while you've stockpiled stuff to eat it feels like you are saving money. Good thing you are, because the next time you need supplies you will be spending it all. Mike and I have a saying aboard S/V Galapagos: There's no problem money can't fix. Ugh.

    Unknown said...

    Love this, thanks Ed.
    Nico, SV Sans Frontieres