7 Budget Lessons

“How much does it cost to go cruising?” This question is asked over and over again, and though the answer varies wildly depending on a whole host of variables, I thought it might be useful to share with you 8 lessons we learned during our first cruise, a 3-year jaunt through the Eastern Caribbean, that definitely affect how we think about how much we need for the next cruise. Spoiler – I’m not going to tell you in THIS blog post what our budget is. Keep your eyes peeled for that topic soon!


When we left to go cruising the first time, in 1994, we were in our mid-20s with a relatively new-to-us-boat and no internet to glean budgeting ideas from. We knew what we were spending in Houston (a cheap place to live), had read Lin and Larry Pardey’s books from cover to cover, and came up with a rough plan based on I have no idea what, honestly. We figured we had enough money to last us 2 years. I don’t actually remember what monthly number we thought we had to work with, but I do remember thinking we could be “out” for 2 years (we must have had $25,000 or a little more in the bank).

We started tracking the day we pulled off the dock, filling up calendars with daily tallies of items like “diesel” and “faxes” and “tomatoes”. Each month, I’d pull out the calculator and tally it all up, circling in red the total expenditure for the month. By the middle of year 2, we realized we were doing far better than we’d anticipated, so we breathlessly extended our cruise by a full year. Granted, our initial “maybe plan” was to circumnavigate the Caribbean, and we never went any farther west than Bonaire, so the change in plans likely contributed to the change in timeline. Clearing in and out of places is expensive.

Here's what we learned about ourselves (and budgeting) that time around. Maybe some ideas will help you. After all, you can find internet “proof” for any budget you want.

1)   Tracking works. Even rudimentary, back-of-the-envelope tracking. No fancy spreadsheet needed. The number of days we could visually see a big fat ZERO were incredibly motivating, and helped when we had to input things like “dinghy: $1291” (that month was a killer, I can tell you.) We’re currently using the (decidedly not free) You Need a Budget as it allows us to track multiple budgets, let our kids have their own budgets on there, and is easy to use on a phone or on the computer. The discipline of writing it down every time you spend something has proven to be very useful for us, and we’re using it now as we prepare for the next cruise.

Ice cream was frequently a line item.

Ice cream was frequently a line item.

2)   Plans (and where you’re cruising) affect the bottom line tremendously.

3)   Sometimes life hands you opportunities you have to say NO to. Other times, the answer so obviously has to be “YES!” you swallow pride and borrow funds to make it happen. For the first? When we were in Venezuela, a number of cruisers were organizing a 2-day expedition to Angel Falls. Cost, for airfare and land transport, hotel, all meals, and tour guide, was $200 per person. We could not afford it and so had to pass, a decision we still lament to this day; given the state of things in Venezuela right now, that experience isn’t likely to be available again at any price. For the second? We were invited to help friends cross the Atlantic on their 60 foot Sundeer; all we had to pay was airfare. That experience was well worth borrowing money from our parents. (And yes, the money was paid back.) For the next cruise, we’d like to be able to take advantage of those “not to be repeated” experiences as we go forward. It’s not like we need to fly first class or stay in luxurious accommodations, but part of why we’re cruising is to see the stuff. The cost of doing will fade while the memories won’t. And despite what MasterCard would like you to believe, “priceless” does need to be budgeted. We’re not big proponents of the American favorite “charge it and I’ll pay it back later.”

Adding boat art on the wall in the Azores.

Adding boat art on the wall in the Azores.

4)   We love anchoring out. The serenity, the privacy, the better air flow – we love it all. We’ve got great ground tackle that we can handle, and we love our dinghy. Anchoring out is our preferred way to live; that it is unbelievably economical is a bonus.

5)   We love entertaining. Having people over for sundowners or dinner is a huge part of what we love about cruising, and we don’t let the size of the boat deter us. I can cook well, and a large part of our budget is on food and drinks. Not eating out (which we don’t do much on land either), but buying decent food to cook on board. Shopping in the local markets is one of my favorite ways to figure out a new place, with the food and the easy conversations about how to cook unfamiliar foods. Is it more expensive than stocking up with canned everything? I’m sure it is. That’s not an expense we skimp on.

6)   I hate doing laundry in a bucket. That first cruise, we really never took items to a laundromat (other than after that disastrous Gulf Stream crossing). When we went with the kids, having a cushion for doing laundry ashore was a wonderful small luxury. I keep hoping we can find a wringer, in particular, for the boat, and I know I’ll be doing a LOT of laundry on board, but when I can do it in a laundromat? I’m all over it. This may not seem like a budget item for those used to popping a load in the washing machine in the next room, but there are places where laundry is upwards of $8 a load (and that’s just the washing part!)

7)   Medical care outside of the US is inexpensive and extremely competent, albeit hard to find in some places. In George Town, Exuma, the doctor was at the clinic once every other week; in between doctor visits, the nurse was in charge. Still, for Americans these days, health insurance is almost more “wealth insurance”. As 50-year olds with college-aged kids, we will definitely have some version of health insurance this time around; we also are confident that we can find care wherever we are.

What we spend a month may well not be what you spend a month, and as much as I wish there were a magic formula you could fill out to know, definitively, what it will cost you to cruise, I hope sharing some of our thought process might help you figure out your first cruising budget.

After all, the goal is to get cruising. 

Sunset sail

Sunset sail

See you out there.