Frugal Boater: The Cost of Living on a Boat

People are often curious about what it costs to live on a boat. We’d love to give them the clear answer they seek, but asking what it costs to live on a boat is no different than asking what it costs to live in a house. Really! It varies that much because we’re all different. So first, let’s have a look at the major expenses of living.

What we spend on groceries, entertainment, clothes and general shopping probably varies more by person than any other factor. On the water you’ll still have the same likes and dislikes you had on land. You’ll eat the same foods and have the same desires. Remember, you’ll still be you, just on a boat.

One important consideration is owing money. Debt payments, whether for your boat/home, or anything else, make up a large portion of the budget for many people. We got off the hamster wheel of debt. For us, that was a big factor in lowering our bills and making this lifestyle possible. That means not getting everything we want, and often waiting for what we do get. It’s satisfying though, to know that everything we have is “paid for”.

Health care expenses probably won’t change much whether you sleep over land or water. Many find a boat to be a more active, healthy lifestyle. When traveling, you may have to use out of network providers, so factor that in. In many of the countries boaters tend to cruise to, health care charges are so small that most boaters simply pay out of pocket. Often the total cost is comparable to their co-pay in the US.

Do you own a car? If so, registration,  insurance, fuel, maintenance and parking become part of your budget. When we were actually cruising, we used bikes, buses and Uber. Now that we’re stationary for a while, we decided to buy an inexpensive, used car. A car can add mobility and convenience if you stay in one area a while, but as always, convenience costs. 

Since I mentioned maintenance, how much of your own maintenance and repairs do you do? More importantly, how much do you spend paying someone else to fix things for you? Learning to be your own mechanic, plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc. can save you lots of money while also making you more independent. After all, when traveling by boat, the repairman may be very far away.

None of the above will change significantly simply because your new home floats, but what about boat specific expenses?

If you choose to keep your boat at a dock, marina fees can add up fast. In some areas they may equal or surpass your old mortgage or rent payment. Docks charge by the foot, so size does matter. Most long term docks also charge separately for electricity.

You’ll find that size matters a lot with boat expenses, from marina fees, to bottom cleaning to oil changes. As boat length increases, maintenance seems to go up exponentially. Bigger boats have bigger everything from rigging and anchors to engines and props. In addition, every comfort and convenience item on your boat requires maintenance and occasional repair or replacement. This really isn’t different than a house, but it’s something to think about when choosing your boat.

If you and your boat are more self sufficient you can eliminate or minimize dock expenses by anchoring. This relies on your own skills, judgement and equipment to keep you safely in place. It also means a dinghy ride to get to shore. At a dock a dinghy is an accessory, at anchor it becomes your second most important piece of equipment,right behind your anchor system. In some places you may still need to pay for use of a dinghy dock, but it will be far less than docking the mother ship. In many places you can find spots to access land with your dinghy at no, or very minimal, cost.

Communication might be a little different from your house. Obviously there will be no land lines unless you’re at a dock. Most people have mobile phones these days, and they generally work as long as you can see land. Of course in some remote areas they don’t work on land or water. Your phone needs to be able to “see” a mobile phone tower. While anchored in the Everglades we found that hoisting our phone up the mast allowed us to send and receive text messages.

For Internet access some boaters use free wifi at coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Some boats have wifi boosters to pick up those signals from the mothership. We have unlimited data plans on our mobile phones that work well for us in the US. So factor in your communication expenses, whatever they may be. Some people don’t mind minimal, or even no, communications at times. Others have to be connected all the time. Be honest with yourself about your needs and wants.

In addition to “normal” communications we have a couple more.  We use a $5 per month sim card from AlarmSim for our alarm. This allows our alarm system to notify us of intrusion by people or water. We also use an old phone with an anchor alarm app. A Freedom Pop sim with no monthly charge lets it notify us if the boat moves farther from the anchor point than it should..

In our modern world a land based address is sometimes a necessity. Mail forwarding services can fill that need for a small fee. St Brendan’s Isle gives us a permanent mail “home” and they will forwar mail whenever and wherever we request. For additional fees they can even scan your mail and email it to you. Having a Florida “address” allowed us to become official Florida residents. No more state income tax!.

You’ll need some fuel, but again, how much depends on you and your boat. Is your boat power or sail? How big and how fast? If sail, are you sailing purist, or do you start the engine when the wind dies? Do you plan to have a motor for your dinghy or row row row your boat? Do you run an engine to supply your electricity? These are just a few of the variables, and some might change depending on your current situation, location or time of year.

Since we paused our cruising to get jobs we find our expenses have crept up. I think that’s natural due to a car, work clothes, more laundry, etc, but of course the net dollars are still positive so it’s all good.

So, what does it cost? If you read this far you’ve probably figured out that there is no simple answer. What works for us, may not work for you, or vice versa. We know boaters who live for well under $1000 per month. We also know boaters who spend $4000 or more per month. For really large yachts that wouldn’t even pay the marina bill.

Whether on land or water, you can live the lifestyle of Henry David Thoreau or Robin Leach. Only you, and your wallet, can decide where in that spectrum you fall.

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