A Roadtrip is just a vacation. An extended Roadtrip is just a very long vacation. But there are differences. You know how when your vacation on Maui is over you say to your sweetie, “Gosh, I wish this didn’t have to end. Why can’t this go on and on?” That phrase does not come up when the vacation goes on and on, month after month. Conversely, there are other phrases that come up only during an extended vacation, such as, “Should we drive across Kansas, Missouri, and most of Iowa so we can play the let’s-see-how-long-it-takes-Mother-to-guess-who-we-are game, or should we go visit the hippies in Yreka again?”. But some things are the same, like making sure beforehand that you can afford it. Careful planning is key. The conventional wisdom is that vacations are a major expense, but the difference is that in the case of a short vacation if you guessed wrong you can just tell yourself that you “won’t make that mistake again and lots of people have credit card debt that will take 2 years to pay off”. But with an open-ended vacation things can spiral quickly out of control and you can find yourself homeless and living out of your car.
During the planning stage, before we even got the car and before Laura was aware of the wacky ‘gap year’ idea, I made a budget. Just a little something I could use as a weapon in the inevitable “You’re a psycho” conversation. It’s all about proper planning, right? If you have to switch gears from fine restaurants and elaborate entertainments to collecting aluminum cans from the side of the road, it’s nice to have a little head’s-up. Also, I find it fun to occasionally give myself a personal challenge, and without actually establishing a budgetary goal, how could I accurately quantify just how very short of those goals my best efforts fell?
Maybe some of you want to leave your productive lives behind, too, and the only thing stopping you is a fear of failure? Well, trust me, there are worse ways to fail than to fall short of a life of aimless wandering. Some real-world numbers may help you take the plunge. Over the last seven months Laura and I have done the heavy lifting of generating some hard data. I guess that’s useful work, right?
One of the biggest budget revelations has been that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the daily expenses of a vacation are not so much more than those of the usual drab workaday lifestyle, but that the usual drab workaday lifestyle generates some income, which the vacation lifestyle does not. A subtle difference, to be sure, the net result on cash flow being the same, but it is an important distinction. People we meet sometimes have a bit of trouble wrapping their heads around this:
“Five months straight? Wow! Don’t you get tired of it?”
“No. It’s great. I write a blog.”
“Oh! You get paid for blogging! Must be nice.”
“No. I just write it for fun.”
“But Tesla pays you to drive around and promote their car?”
“Does your blog sell ads?”
“You’re not getting paid to do this?”
“No. Well sometimes.”
“Can I have five dollars?”
Interjection – Here follows a list of projected expenses and then a list of actual expenses. You engineering types are going to scroll up and down and up and down and up and down to compare. (SO predictable!). No need. I’ve put the numbers side by side down at the bottom. Go there.
So here are my projected numbers (numbers are PER MONTH), from back before we even took delivery of the car, with some comments about what the heck was I thinking:
$300 Electric fuel for the car – I figured we’d pay 15 bucks per charge for a mid-day charge, which I thought we’d need 20 days out of each month.
$825 – 1085 Campgrounds – Figure $35 per night at an RV park
$500-800 Groceries – $16 to $26 per day. Total guess. A little worried about this one.
$180 – 480 Hotels – I thought we’d want to take a shower 2-3 times a week, or maybe an RV park wasn’t convenient, or RV parks suck maybe
$60 Cooking fuel – Propane in small canisters for the camp stove
$90 – 180 Entertainment – Movie theaters, museums, carnival rides, drugs, whores
$170 Internet access – Cell phones and Netflix
$360 – 800 Restaurants – I guessed $9 each for breakfast, 13 for lunch, and 20 for dinner. I knew that we’d prepare most of our meals ourselves, but c’mon. So I allowed one dinner out per week, and 4 lunches ‘cuz setting up the kitchen in the middle of the day’s a pain, and 1-2 breakfasts a week.
$150 – $450 Gifts – My god, you’re driving around in a Tesla and you can’t spare five bucks for the homeless veteran?
$150 – 300 Daily Treats – Starbucks, diet coke, candy bars, massage chairs. 10 bucks a day doesn’t seem excessive. I’m a worthwhile person and by gosh, people like me. So I’m going to have a latte.
$60 – 100 Car Washing – ‘cuz the black looks so bad-ass when it’s shiny
$130 – 330 Sundries – I don’t know, it just seemed like we’d need some stuff now and then. Ibuprofen. Batteries. An umbrella. Just a guess.
$85 – 160 Necessaries – I don’t know, stuff that isn’t Sundries. A new pair of socks. What if Laura loses her sunhat? As if she can live without that. Whatever. Just a guess.
So yeah, came out to $3,585 to $5,215 per month.
I know, right? I was shocked. But I figured if we started to run low on cash we could pick up aluminum cans or panhandle. Now let’s see how the actual numbers compare. This is monthly average from 7 months of data: (Want to see the numbers side by side? Scroll to the very bottom)
$6.50 Electric fuel for the car – Yeah, that’s right, we’ve had to actually pay someone to let us charge the car 4 times in 7 months and 35,000 miles. Twice at $15, a 10, and one poor sod sheepishly asking if we’d be willing to stretch as much as 5 bucks.
$157 Campgrounds – Turns out we often stayed in state or national parks for $7-15 per night. Mooching off friends was free. Friends are great. We must make more of these.
$318 Groceries – Like 10 bucks a day! But mooching off friends and family drops the average.
$275 Hotels – Highly variable. Some months nothing, 2 months ~ 200. One month we went to a convention, so 650, and when we drove to Indiana and back in the winter it was every night, so 850
$0 Cooking fuel – We decided to use an alcohol stove and are still on our first bottle.
$327 Entertainment – Ooops
$198 Internet access – I almost immediately broke my phone and signed up for a more expensive plan
$757 Restaurants – One of the least variable expenses, month to month. Low 450, high 925
$104 Gifts – Fewer homeless on the interstates than anticipated
$85 Daily Treats – Gave up diet coke 1/2 way through and never did crave the latte’s like I thought I would. And Laura always has been a cheap date. It’s why I married her.
$26 Car Washing – Should have been more. Savings here mostly due to apathy
$132 Sundries – Nailed it
$0 Necessaries – I forgot I had this category. So no entries
Note that the above doesn’t include things like car and health insurance, mortgage payments, etc. Oh, and 75 bucks or whatever it is for the yearlong national parks pass, but that paid for itself over and over.
And then there were expenses that I hadn’t predicted at all:
$15 Repairs – Laura lost her sunhat. And some whatever
$9 Toll Roads – WTF, Northeast States? Who knew
$113 Lodging, Other – New water heater, furnace repair, and a carpet cleaner for the ‘free’ winter house in Kalispell
$133 Medical – This was not my fault
$65 “Unknown” – Maybe these were necessaries. Maybe just poor accounting. I dunno’. Always gonna’ be some of that, right? More than you’d think.
So toting this up: $2,720 per month, actual expenses. I’m OK with that.
Let’s dive deep and rip some of these numbers apart:
Electric Fuel: Why is it that people who drive Teslas feel like the world owes them free electricity? ‘Cuz that’s the way it is, baitch! Deal with it! (LINK)
Lodging: RV parks were more than $35 a night average, more like 40 – 45. The most we ever paid was $100 for a tent site only, no electricity. But many nights we spent free mooching off of family/friends, or very cheap indeed at a simple campground. (Some of these cheap venues were better than the RV parks, I kid you not. Don’t miss Colorado National Monument just a stone’s throw south of Grand Junction). As long as a charge was not needed for the car an RV space per se was not needed. So if you’re anywhere near the Supercharger corridor (Fast and free!) or nearby someone to mooch off of, you can pitch the tent for $10 and save a bunch. (Oh wait, if you’re that close to someone to mooch off of you should just do that). The best bargain? Corps of Engineer parks, $7 -15 and beautifully maintained NEMA 14-50 outlets. No worries about electrical fires in them (Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, Gila Hot Springs RV Park and Vacation Center).
Groceries: We even bought a tiny tub of ice cream once and sat under a tree and ate it.
Hotels: I thought we’d be staying in them periodically just because. But the tenting got to be so second nature that we only opted for a hotel if the weather was actually inclement at the time. Seriously, we got the tent setup down to a science – we’d roll into a spot, throw open all 6 pod bay doors and BamBamBam be all set up in 6 minutes. We literally had people come over and say “Amazing”. ‘Course these were, like, septuagenarians from the RV’s.
Entertainment: yeah, we went to plenty of museums and botanic gardens and aquariums and David Bowie exhibits, but about half of Entertainment was mp3’s, kindle books from Amazon, custom plates for the ride, and a convention registration.
Internet Access: I signed up for 15 GB per month of data so we could watch Breaking Bad when we had 4G but not wifi.
Restaurants: Meals were considerably more expensive than predicted ‘cuz I tip way good.
Lodging, Other: Someone offered us a free house to stay in during the Winter, when camping sounded like a bit of a drag, so we said “Sure” thinking it would put us way ahead on our lodging expense. But you know what? If you live in a house you start filling it up with ‘stuff’. (LINK) Thermostats. Spare keys. Membership cards to the local gym. Cork-board. Graph paper. Bungee cords. It turns out that the reason we didn’t buy a bunch of crap when we were actually driving around all the time was that the car was already full. Also grocery expense went up ‘cuz now we buy stuff we don’t eat. On the road you only buy stuff you think you’ll eat in the next 48 hours.
Based on our experience, if your primary goal was to do this on the cheap, I think you could:
$318 Groceries – Calories are cheap in America. & mooching
$0 Electric fuel for the car – Superchargers and mooching
$80 Incidentals – In case you lose your sunhat
$150 Overnight accommodations – $10 campgrounds and mooching off friends
$7.99 Entertainment – Load the kindle with freebies. & netflix
$10 Cooking fuel –The occasional bottle of propane
$50 Internet access – Minimal plan + wifi hotspots
$0 Restaurants – Just say no
$0 Gifts – Just say ‘sorry, bud’
$0 Car Washing – Mooch a hose and some Joy offa’ friends
$85 Daily Treats – Live it up!
$132 Sundries – ‘cuz who wants to live like a pauper
$0 Necessaries – Apparently not needed
$833 a month. 10 grand a year. Go for it. Not me, though. It’s that extra 2 grand a month that makes life worth living.
SIDE-BY-SIDE for the numbers-obsessed (Significant overs and unders in color)
actual vs. projected
$6.50 vs. $300 Electric fuel for the car
$157 vs. $825 – 1085 Campgrounds
$318 vs. $500-800 Groceries
$275 vs. $180 – 480 Hotels
$0 vs. $60 Cooking fuel
$327 vs. $90 – 180 Entertainment
$198 vs. $170 Internet access
$757 vs. $360 – 800 Restaurants
$104 vs. $150 – $450 Gifts
$85 vs. $150 – 300 Daily Treats
$26 vs. $60 – 100 Car Washing
$132 vs. $130 – 330 Sundries
$0 vs. $85 – 160 Necessaries
$15 vs. N/A Repairs
$9 vs. N/A Toll Roads
$113 vs. N/A Lodging, Other
$133 vs. N/A Medical
$65 vs. N/A “Unknown”