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Cost of Boat Life

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The Digital Nomad Wandering Life

A January in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

I've been a full-time Wanderer since 2003, and if I've learned anything it is that there is no such thing as a monthly budget. Budgets on boats or RVs only become accurate after a year or so, when you can divide the total by twelve or more. However, I thought it might be interesting to share my January expenses.

Background:

My family lives on a 42' Grand Banks trawler, and we spent January at anchor in St. Croix, USVIs. USVI cost of living is pretty comparable to life in the lower 48–at least for someone who lives on a boat.

When I consider cost of living in a new place it is very much confined to the items I need to live life, like food and fuel. I've got two kids, aged 9 and 11, so we have moved beyond the baby stage, when I would have considered kid related expenses to be only a tiny fraction of our monthly budget. As any parent of growing kids realizes, the days of feeding them a tiny portion of whatever it is you are making changes suddenly into a doubling or tripling of all helping sizes. We've found that food has been our number one expense for quite a while now.

While our lifestyle keeps expenses like toys and gadgets down, we do have added expenses like scuba diving that others might not. But we also don't have many options for random expenses. No malls and no box stores leaves us with very few places to spend money.

January in St. Croix was pretty glorious—roughly 84 for a high, and 72 for a low. The water is perfectly comfortable, though slightly chilly by our tropical standards.

So let's take a look at January in St. Croix.

USVI Expenses

St. Croix Expenses

Food

All right, I know $3,651 seems like a ridiculous amount to spend on food in a month. However, on a boat, food expenses tend to fluctuate rather wildly. January was a big stock up month for us after being away from grocery stores for a while. This month's food expense included things like 30 cans of black beans, 6 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of Cheerios, 18 rolls of paper towels. Obviously, these are not the same things we'd see again in February when a trip to the grocery would be more basic, looking for fresh fruit, veggies, and meat.

I will say, though, that eating out is comparable to going out to eat in the U.S. mainland. In other words, not exactly cheap. And things like alcohol, apart from a bottle of local rum, will run about twice what it might back in the lower 48. As a family we tend to eat out quite a bit. It's one of those things we could quite easily cut out of our budget quickly if we felt a change were in order. Regardless, this is what we as a family of four tallied up this month.

Communication

We spent $189 on internet/phone. This is a very typical monthly expense for us. We have two Google Fi unlimited data lines. We use those phones as hotspots. Unfortunately, Google's "unlimited" should really be called a 22GB max. Once over the 22GB cap they throttle speeds to the point that you can't possibly use it any longer. We find once past the cap we can't even use the phone for Google maps. So... we essentially have 44GB of data on those two lines at a cost of $116.53.

T-Mobile has worked quite well for us. We signed up for two lines of unlimited service for $65/mo while we were in Puerto Rico. This also works in the USVIs. Those lines both throttle speeds to 3G for hotspot. On the plus side, their 3G speed is actually usable, and there doesn't appear to be a data cap on their "unlimited" plan, which should go without saying, but isn't true in practice (as with Google Fi).

I'm quite excited about the possibility of the SpaceX Starlink internet service being used on boats, but for now at least, a hodgepodge of cellular services gets the job done pretty well, and allows me to work from just about anywhere my travels take me.

Miscellaneous

The miscellaneous category includes a wide range of things. My kids and I got scuba certified in December, and made quite a few dives in January. We'd rent gear from the dive shop, take it to our dinghy, and zip out to dive the wrecks and coral nearby. We spent $330 doing that. Money very well spent!

Our daughter reads constantly, and got immersed in a series that wasn't available on Kindle Unlimited ($10/mo), or the online library. We ended up with $90 in book expenses on the month. Again, an expense we're happy to bear.

Without a laundry machine onboard, our expenses each month include trips to the laundromat. Tally $60 for that this month.

The hardware store swallowed up $120 on random tools and cleaning supplies.

And the list goes on. Sunglasses, a video game for the iPad, new flip-flops, etc.

Fuel / Transportation

We spent $134 in January, renting a car one day, and filling up the dinghy gas tank a couple of times. We live on a boat with a 600 gallon fuel capacity, so this expense tends to skyrocket one month and disappear completely on others. Overall, the past three years or so, our fuel expense has broken down to $260/month.

Medical/Dental

We've always gotten our dental work done in places like Mexico or Guatemala. The quality of care is incredible, and the prices are a tiny fraction of what they would be in the States. A cleaning at our favorite place in Puerto Vallarta was $25, and was done in a brand new state of the art office by the gentlest dental assistants on earth, I swear. COVID caused us to not see a dentist in over a year now, but we've been calling around wherever we go to see if we could rustle up an appointment and we were finally able to get our daughter in here on St. Croix. Great care, but pretty high prices. Without any issues at all, her bill ended up running $693. That was our sole expense this month. In fact, talking about it now we realized we haven't had to see a doctor (and have been unable to see a dentist) in well over a year now. This $693 therefore represents about 18 months of medical/dental expense for us.

What's Missing?

For many people considering the Wandering lifestyle insurance worries/expenses top their lists. As an American I've spent the past twenty years uninsured. I live in fear every time I enter the U.S. and its territories, knowing that one accident could bankrupt my family. No other travelers I meet from other countries have this problem. So I won't delve into this topic too deeply, as inevitably it starts a conversation that leads in circles. Are there reasonable insurance options available to people like me? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, I've decided to take the risks, and aim to avoid the U.S. any time I can for medical issues. Like having our kids born in Mexico, for example.

I also don't carry boat insurance. Occasionally, when in a place that requires it, I will attempt to get a short-term policy to cover liability, but that's about it. I've never had any reason to need boat insurance, and can't imagine a scenario in which I would. But, you say, what if the boat sinks? Well, then it sinks. My view on boat ownership is that you should buy a boat that you can afford to lose. If you do that, then you don't have to waste money on insurance. If my boat were to sink I would be bummed, no doubt, but I wouldn't be affected much financially. The probability of having your boat sink in any given year is miniscule. Boat insurance policies are using your premiums to pay for boats sunk in hurricanes.

Conclusion

I think a lot of people get the impression that living on a boat will be really inexpensive.I'm not here to shoot that down, but I will say that unless you are an absolute hardcore live off the grid, only eat rice and fish you catch yourself, wash clothes in a bucket, and crib free wifi or nothing at all type person, there are going to be expenses to boat life that are unavoidable.

I'd say that overall this was a fairly typical month for us. We spend considerably less when we are cruising in places like Honduras, or Mexico, but then that is made up for quickly in expensive places like the USVIs, Grand Caymans, or even the Bahamas.

Sometimes we spend less in a month. You can see how different the numbers would have looked if the dental appointment had been in February, or one of the big grocery store stock up trips had come a couple weeks earlier. That $5,559 could have easily been $3,559 instead. But there are also months that clock in much higher. For example, in a few months we're going to have to haul the boat out to do maintenance and bottom painting that will likely run a few thousand dollars all by itself. This only happens every two to three years, but if you fail to take these sorts of things into account you can easily be caught off guard when the time comes.

Overall, I'd say this lifestyle does tend to focus more on necessities and experiences than it does on wants and things. And I think that alone is something worth striving for.

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