We lived aboard our sailboat and sailed from Santa Barbara, California, to Panama. We lived the cruising life for over five years before selling our sailboat in Costa Rica and returning to the United States. People frequently make the comment to us that they would love to sail away for a few years, but could not afford it. How did we do it?
The most expensive part about the “cruising” life is the boat and outfitting it before you take off. With due diligence though, and perseverance, one can find an affordable used blue water cruising boat. (Important tip: A good refrigeration system is a must. Got to be able to make ice!)
Once you actually begin your journey, the expenses tend to be fuel (yes, sometimes you have to turn the engine on), food, alcohol, boat repairs and maintenance. Surprisingly, food was not that big a cost. We got very good at fishing, not only with lines but spear fishing. The sea is bountiful. Between spear fishing, line fishing, and clamming, we had a smorgasbord of seafood. Every little village had fresh fruit and vegetables. If you learn to eat where the locals eat and avoid the tourist spots, eating out is even cheap. The most expensive part of our food bill was the alcohol. But with a little ingenuity, we solved that problem. In Mexico we bought a case of bottled beer, for which they charge a deposit fee. Once that fee is paid, the beer is extremely inexpensive. The downside is that we had to lug the beer bottles from the boat to the beer store to trade them in. Some of the cruisers got tired of doing that; but Bob and I bought a little pull wagon which made it a lot easier. Before we left Mexico, we traded them back in and got our money back from the original deposit.
Being self-sufficient is one of the most important assets in the cruising lifestyle. Part of being self-sufficient, is at least being somewhat mechanical. If you are not mechanical, living aboard a sailboat is not something you should consider. There is always something that needs fixing, no matter how fancy and expensive your sailboat is. Before we took off, we had completely remodeled our boat, changing out all the electrical and plumbing. By the time we were finished, we knew every part of her. Bob is extremely handy (retired firefighters are often jack of all trades!) and did most all of the maintenance and repairs that came up. But even so, parts cost money. Bottom paint and varnish cost money, both items you need to keep up on a boat.
Bob and I became very proficient at not spending money. In fact, we went one whole month one time without spending a dime. That being said, we met cruisers who headed out thinking that they would live off the land and did not have any monthly money or savings to cover the cost of living and had to turn back. The moral of this story is that one can live very economically living on a sailboat, but you do need enough money to cover normal expenses, plus an emergency fund.