What is it that they say “boat” stands for? “Break out another thousand”? There’s no way to sugarcoat it – owning a sailboat can be an expensive endeavor if you let it get away from you and don’t plan correctly. There’s acquisition, maintenance, upgrades, insurance, fuel, storage, and so on. These subjects can and do have entire books dedicated to them and I don’t even want to try to touch on them here. I’ll only say that, generally, the longer the boat the more costs go up for everything (why I’m on a 27’er).
I already discussed ways of making money while out cruising in Part One of this post.
So here’s how I try to stretch out every penny earned while cruising and offset those other costs!
“At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much.” – Robin Lee Graham
And I’ll make the disclaimer now, I am in no way saying that my ways are the right ways, and this isn’t all of them. They’re just some very basic things that work for me now. And as I continue cruising these methods may change – it’s just something you have to figure out over the years, but maybe this list will get you started. This will be primarily aimed at those still in the planning stages of their big breakaway from land.
Saving Money while Cruising
“There are two ways to be rich: make more or desire less.”
First, let me tell you about the different types of people you’ll meet while out cruising.
There’s the couples who always refer to their “yachts”, which are 35-40′ sailboats, but they’re in pristine condition. They’ve never had kids or they’re empty-nesters with double pensions and they’re loving retirement. They’re always out doing some kind of social activity.
Then there’s the families – mom & dad with four kids ranging from 2-16 and the family dog, all crammed into a small catamaran. Mom & dad homeschool the kids while also working from the boat, and this is how the family lives day-to-day.
Then there’s the single guys who set out on their 30′ boat, which looks like it should barely float, with nothing but a wing and a prayer. Their dinners consist of Spam or whatever fish they could catch that day and they rely on NO ONE else for help because they don’t have the money to pay anyone for help. They hardly go ashore because going ashore usually means spending money. But they’re happy and it’s worked for them for years so why change?
“To desire nothing beyond what you have is surely happiness. Aboard a boat, it is frequently possible to achieve just that. That is why sailing is a way of life, one of the finest of lives.” – Carleton Mitchell
My point is…where was I going with this…yeah, my point is, it’s completely possible to make it work on any kind of budget. Lin & Larry Pardey published a good book about being almost completely self-sufficient, coincidentally called “Self Sufficient Sailor”; Annie Hill adds a lot of unconventional ideas in “Voyaging on a Small Income” with chapters such as “How to eat like a king when you haven’t got a bean”. All of these authors have been at it far longer than I have.
Set a budget
And stick to it. Track your costs. This should be a habit in your normal life as well, and it especially helps while cruising.
“Sailors work like horses at sea and spend their money like asses ashore.” – Anonymous
My monthly cruising budget categories are dining out ($100), groceries & liquor ($400), and recreation ($200).
My diesel costs are negligible because I’m usually always sailing everywhere I go and have renewable energy sources for electricity. If you like to stay at marinas or on mooring balls, add those in.
And don’t forget the boat maintenance fund! There’s no avoiding that. I just throw a chunk of money into my saving account every month for emergency maintenance. I don’t necessarily “budget” for this because it’s tough to plan for.
Learn to fix things yourself
After setting a budget, this is the next most important thing.
On the radio the other day, a gentleman queried if anyone knew a mechanic who could replace the water pump on his diesel engine. This is one of the first things I did myself on my own engine after purchase, and with a basic set of tools. It didn’t take long, I learned a lot about my engine, and I saved anywhere from $50-$100 on a mechanic.
Get a small rip in your sail? Buy a sailmaker’s palm and learn some sail repair stitches.
There are a bunch of resources out there to teach you these things, and they’re really not that difficult. The books I reference are on my Resources for Cruising Sailors page.
And if you’re good at any of these tasks you can do jobs for other cruisers for some extra cash!
Get good at grocery shopping & cooking
This was the hardest thing for me to get used to because I never really cared about prices, it was more about the content and brand recognition. Sucker, aren’t I?
Buy things that are made regionally if you can, rather than exported from the United States. It’ll save you a bunch of money when it all adds up, and local food doesn’t have cooties. Just like your own supermarket has their own pasta brand for example, the same can be said down here.
There are some really good farmer’s markets on the islands. Smaller produce stands selling fresh food and vegetables are numerous. These items may be quite a bit smaller but they’re the freshest you’ll find anywhere, much cheaper, and the locals will be grateful for your business. Win-win-win! They certainly haven’t gone through numerous freezing & thawing cycles like the prematurely harvested produce imported from North America. There are a number of great local bakers too, and they make some outstanding bread without all the chemicals you’ll find in your favorite brand-name.
I usually spend about $250-$450/month on groceries in the Caribbean (location-dependent), including liquor, and that’s actually a lot for one person (in my own opinion).
That’s because I still do enjoy some indulgences, like Nutella, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and good cheese. Skip out on these and you’ll save even more. But nothing puts you in a good mood like Nutella, right?
So I guess this all comes out to $15/day on food. And I could totally get that number to go down if I cut out some comfort food. Hell, you could probably do it on $5/day with a very basic diet, making everything from scratch that you can. Don’t buy bread and tortillas. Make them (tortilla recipe here, my flatbread recipe coming soon!). This holds true for many other types of foods.
Many good recipes can be made with a few basic ingredients. Shop smartly – don’t be wasteful – use the same ingredients for a number of different dishes. Check out the “One Pan Galley Gourmet” for some ideas. I use this almost every night.
And it’s generally cheaper to get a buzz off of a bottle of local liquor than buying beer. A bottle of good Grenadian rum is less than $10 and will last much longer.
Street food is usually pretty good too, and you can get a lot of it for next to nothing.
Know when and where the specials are
Don’t just blindly go to a restaurant when you do go out to eat – pay attention to advertisements for lunch and dinner specials. I was proud of myself last week for getting fresh fish & chips, salad, and FOUR beers for US$17 during the dinner special at a swanky marina.
Walk or take the bus
You may be tempted to hire a cab or even rent a car when you want to go somewhere. And if it’s in your budget, go ahead.
But remember you’re spending most of your time on your little sailboat. You do need some aerobic exercise, even just walking, and it’s a good way to see the sights and meet locals.
If your destination is too far, a lot of islands have cheap bus transportation. This is an…interesting experience. They’re not conventional buses that you would picture, but 15-passenger vans that they’ve proven can actually hold over 20 (seats just seem to magically appear the more the driver wants the fare).
On some of the islands the buses are pimped out with spinning rims, colorful paint jobs, and loud stereos, and you can go almost anywhere for one US dollar.