2020 Cost of Being a Nomad

Driving around in Tucson as the sun sets.

On January 1, 2020, Greg and I woke up in a cold practically featureless field in the middle of nowhere Louisiana. New Year’s Eve had been spent doing the usual, supper eaten on top of the fridge/dinner table, reading ebooks on our tablets, turning the couch into a bed, and then topping off the night by watching a downloaded TV show on our computer before turning off the lights and going to bed early in Ballena Blanca our campervan and home. Despite our lack of excitement ringing in the holiday, we had big plans and brand new adventures planned for the ensuing twelve months. That morning we headed to the Gulf Coast to start a journey south along the water, camping on the beaches, looking for wildlife, kayaking, and occasionally coming inland to visit museums. We thought we’d spend much of the next couple of months exploring Texas, a state we had mostly rushed through before in order to either get west or back east. But then, a month into our plan, one of Greg’s teeth broke. So at the beginning of February, we left Texas and hightailed it to California where we would cross the border to visit Greg’s dentist in Mexico. And then shortly after that, the whole world broke and our traveling aspirations completely derailed.

2020 was the first year we traveled full time – no summer break in Cabbagetown house sitting and working. We were plotting a path to Alaska when the pandemic changed everything. Many nomads left the road, but some like us keep moving at a modified pace. We still got to experience wonderful things because this country is full of them. We continued to learn about our environment and the new places we visited. We social distanced but still made new friends, hung out with old friends, and got to meet interesting people.

But it’s time to get to the numbers and what everyone really wants to know. How much did all this cost?

And our total expenses for 2020 were…

$20,804.38

Now it’s time to look at some colorful charts and understand what went into making up that number!

Total Expenses by Category

As you can see Consumables and Van were the dominating categories followed by Personal and Health. We like to keep Health low but Health often doesn’t cooperate. And Personal – well despite that we try to be minimalist and have very few things sometimes we just have to shell out a few bucks for something nice.

Let’s break these categories down a little more to get a better idea of where all that money went.

The Van

The Van category is the same kind of expenses one would have with their regular non-living-in vehicle.

Gas clearly dominates here. Our gas average for 2020 was $230.55 per month. Our average gas cost was 16¢ per mile and our average cost to operate the van including insurance, repairs, and maintenance was 31¢ per mile. The Insurance category also includes our bi-yearly registration in Florida this year. Maintenance included new tires, an oil change, windshield wipers, and car washing. I included replacing a lost key fob, new brakes, and our deductible after an accident with a ladder that destroyed the driver’s side mirror in Repairs.

Van Life

The Van Life category includes expenses that pertain to living in and traveling in a van. Some of these are the same kind of expenses you would have living in a house or apartment.

  • The Upgrades and Repairs category here is for our van build. The van continues to be a work in progress and I continue to make improvements that make our life in the van easier and more comfortable.
  • Utilities are for water, propane, and any ongoing expense for our composting toilet. We filled our freshwater tank with 415 of water this year. This averages out to 34.5 gallons per month. I realize this seems like very little and perhaps I should be hydrating more but we have also developed systems using minimal water for dishes and bathing. Our propane consumption was 11.2 gallons.
  • We try to do as much free Camping as possible but sometimes we pay for the convenience, a unique experience, or because the price of camping includes other amenities like a shower.
  • Household is for things we need for the “house” that aren’t part of the van build like sheets, cooking utensils, and decor.
  • We tend to do Laundy about every three weeks. We have minimal clothing but find that we can wear shirts and pants multiple days in a row. Friends often let us do laundry at their homes when we visit them which keeps the laundry expense low. But when we are out on the road we do our washing at laundromats. This is a hit-and-miss process because we are often in a new town so I have to comb through reviews trying to find a place with the best service and value. It is always a bonus when they have free wifi too.
  • I added a Shower category this year because I decided that we should take a real shower every week or two and I wanted to track this expense. Unfortunately, most showers closed for the pandemic. BTW – this doesn’t mean we don’t bathe but a nice hot shower is like a spring cleaning every few weeks.
  • Tolls/Parking/Travel are for any traveling expenses to visit particular places – like auto insurance for Mexico or paid parking for a museum.

Communication

Communication includes our phone plan with Google Fi and our mail service with St. Brendan’s Isle.

Our Phone plan includes unlimited calls, text, and data (22 gigs of which are highspeed). It costs us $70 plus tax every month. It works internationally and we don’t pay extra for international data.

Our Mail service gives us a mailing address in Florida. When mail arrives they scan the envelopes which we can view online. All for around $20. For a small extra fee, they will open the envelopes and scan the contents. We can download the scans and then either have the mail shredded or mailed to us on the road. Our mail plan was costly this year because we had mail that we needed to be sent to us (new credit cards, new passport, stimulus check, etc) express mail quite a few times while we were on the road.

Consumables

This category is all things we consume. Not only food and drink but things we buy on a regular basis like paper products, cleaning products, and medicine cabinet products.

Here Food clearly dominates. We averaged $283.46 a month on food. Not too bad for two people.

Entertainment

There wasn’t a lot of money spent on entertainment this year because of the pandemic. But we did manage to spend a little before going out became unsafe. And as the country started to mask up and open up a little we found a few more opportunities to go out and treat ourselves safely.

Health

Good ‘ol Health – can’t live without it. And teeth are pretty important too. Although we spent a good chunk on the Dentist last year we don’t have any big health issues – just bad eyes and bad feet which we spent a bit on for readers from the Dollar Store, contacts, and shoe inserts.

Personal

This category is everything else. Gear is personal items – things we probably can live without but like to have. This category includes our subscription to the NY Times as well as big-priced items like electronics and little items such as souvenirs stickers.

We got a little spendy in the personal category this year. New boots for both of us, some souvenir t-shirts, a couple of new hats, a new pair of gloves, and some everyday clothes from the thrift store in the Clothes category. Gifts/Charity includes buying Christmas gifts for family for the first time in many years, periodically sent gifts to Greg’s grandson, and gave a little to a GoFundMe. We spent some big money on new Gear – a new camera and a new tablet were the biggest ticket items.

What I didn’t report under Gift/Charity is that we also gave away all of our first stimulus check. Since we probably wouldn’t have spent this money or as much of it otherwise, I didn’t include it in my report.

A Monthly Comparison

Here is another colorful chart. I thought it’d be nice to compare each month in 2020 while at the same time looking at the portion each category consumed each month.

Due to the pandemic, April was our best month. We traveled little after things started getting serious and did our best to keep shopping at a minimum.

As you can see here Health – our surprise trip to the dentist -made February our worst month. And my new really expensive camera made the Personal category shoot up in September, making it our second most spendy month. Hopefully, you all have been enjoying the results from the new camera and I know Greg is enjoying his new teeth.

Comparing 2020 to 2019

I have been tracking expenses for over three years now. The first year – 2018 wasn’t a full year and included many expenses related to our sailboat so I didn’t include it here.

We spent $1,330.89 less in 2020 than we spent in 2019. There are some big differences in some of the categories due to van break downs, dental visits, and probably due to that we traveled the entire year in 2020 and didn’t go back to Cabbagetown to house sit for the summer as we did in 2019.

Let’s look at the breakdown of some of those categories.

Comparing 2020 to 2019 Categories

That’s a really big chart, isn’t it?

Here are a few notes on these numbers:

  • We had lower Gas costs this past year than we did in 2019 which is interesting since we drove 1,889 more miles than we did in 2019. Two and half months of 2019 were spent in Mexico which had much higher gas prices and overall gas prices were much better in 2020 than they have been in a few years.
  • Although it looks like we spent more money on Insurance in 2020, our insurance figure also contains our vehicle registration expense. We actually spent $59.52 less than in 2019. Our insurance company, USAA, gave us some discounts since during the beginning of the pandemic people were driving much less.
  • Maintenance in 2020 included new tires in addition to an oil change.
  • Every vehicle on the road as much as we are is eventually going to need some Repairs. Repairs really broke the budget in 2019. Thankfully we had nothing major in 2019.
  • Camping and Parking/Tolls/Travel were higher in 2019 due to our 2 and a half months in Mexico. Mexico doesn’t have the same kind of free camping as we do in the US but it is often pretty cheap and a tour through Mexico is worth it.
  • Our Phone expense was less in 2019 because of the 4 months we spent house sitting. Besides the plan we are on now with Google Fi, they also have a plan with a base price of $20 with an additional $10 for each gig of data used capped at a cost of $60 and a limit for high-speed data of 16 gigs. When we are house sitting we mostly use the internet in the homes we are staying in so we switch to this metered plan to save money.
  • As I mentioned earlier our Mail expense was higher in 2020 because we had so many things mailed to us on the road. We always use the expensive express mail so that we have tracking and because we are never know how long we will be staying in any one place.
  • I was perplexed at why our Food expense was higher this past year than in 2019. I thought maybe we were eating more expensive food or because we ate out less. Then we arrived in North Carolina and I did some shopping in Aldi and was floored by how much cheaper the food is there. I firmly believe that the food expense was higher because there were no Aldis where we traveled this past year.
  • I have been pretty much a social drinker – only drinking when we go out – to dinner, to parties, to concerts. But this year we didn’t have any of that. I have started having a nightly cocktail before dinner which might account for the higher Booze costs this past year. I have no doubt that I wasn’t the only one who started drinking more in 2020.
  • Because of the pandemic there wasn’t much Drinks/Eating Out, or Museums/Attractions/Music this past year. Also, there wasn’t a lot of eating out because we didn’t spend 4 months in Atlanta hanging out with our friends.
  • The personal categories, Clothes, Gifts/Charity, and Gear all shot up this past year which I addressed earlier. It was good to spend money on our friends and family and buy a few things for ourselves.

How far we traveled

We traveled 17,804 miles in 2020. Stretching east from Attakapas WMA in Louisiana, south from Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, west from Walters Ferry where we crossed the Snake River in Idaho, and north from Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park. We visited two countries last year and 14 American states, adding 6 new states to our travels in Ballena Blanca. We slept in Ballena Blanca 249 nights in over 100 different locations and in a house 17 nights in one location.

We camped 29 nights in locations with set camping fees and 15 nights in locations that had no fees but asked for donations. The remainder of those 289 nights were completely free!

I find it interesting the different types of places we camp so I have made a list if you are interested too.

  • 85 nights on BLM (Berue of Land Management)land.
    • This included 46 nights boondocking,
    • 15 nights in BLM campgrounds,
    • 10 nights in designated dispersed campsites,
    • 6 nights in a National Monument, and
    • 8 nights in a National Conservation Area.
  • 80 nights in National forests.
    • This included 54 nights dispersed camping,
    • 13 nights in campgrounds,
    • 7 nights in designated dispersed campsites, and
    • 6 nights dispersed camping at a National Grassland
  • 56 nights at J & J’s Urban Boondocking Kitty Casita (our generous friends in Tucson)
  • 16 nights at National Park Service Campgrounds,
    • This included 8 nights at National Parks,
    • 3 nights at a National Recreation Area,
    • 3 nights at a National Seashore,
    • and 2 nights at a National Monument and Preserve.
  • 15 nights on the beach along the Gulf Coast
  • 12 nights in a City Park
  • 11 nights at a Montana Wildlife Management Area
  • 11 nights at Walmart
  • 11 nights in a National Wildlife Refuge.
    • This included 7 nights designated dispersed camping
    • and 4 nights dispersed camping.
  • 9 nights at an Idaho Power campsite
  • 7 nights in a Friend’s driveway
  • 6 nights at Boondockers Welcome locations (for more about Boondockers Welcome click here.)
  • 5 nights in a Cabella’s Parking lot
  • 4 nights at an Idaho county park
  • 3 nights at an Arizona State Wildlife Area
  • 3 nights at a Private free (donation) campground
  • 2 nights at the Hippie Hole
  • 2 nights in an Idaho State Park
  • 2 nights at a Military Range
  • 2 nights in a Nebraska Wildlife Management Area
  • 2 nights at a Reservoir
  • 2 nights at a Visitor center/rest area
  • 1 night at a Brewery (no we weren’t too drunk to drive, they offered camping in their parking lot for a fee)
  • 1 night in a City parking lot
  • 1 night at an Idaho Fish and Game boat access site

In Conclusion

On December 31, 2020, we found ourselves at a hot spring in California. We were camped some of our best traveling friends who had each ushered in 2020 in totally different parts of the country with different hopes for the year. Some of those aspirations became realities and some had to be abandon. But so goes the traveling life – you never know exactly where the next road is going to lead you or where you will end up next.

We missed the goal I set at the end of 2019 of only spending $1,500 a month. At a monthly average of $1,733.70, we spent $233.70 too much. We could have made it if Greg’s tooth didn’t break and I didn’t buy that expensive camera. But lest you think $1,500 was an unreasonable goal, check out our friends at Roaming About who also live in a van and only spent $15,136 total last year. You can check out their 2020 expense report here and all their monthly reports here.

Despite not making my goal, I’m not disappointed. We spent the money we wanted to spend and didn’t deprive ourselves of hardly anything at all.

I am setting my goal for this year a little higher. I think we will easily be able to live within a budget of $2000 a month. What do you think?

To see all of our expense reports, click here.

*All pics are click to enlarge.

10 thoughts on “2020 Cost of Being a Nomad

  1. So much to savor about this post. I like the comparisons. Health isn’t something you can control so I can see why that occasionally dominated, maybe through the numbers out of wack. I loved see all the cities you visited–like that app in your sidebar, too. OH, maybe it’s Liesbet who has the one showing where she is currently!

    Take care–love your posts!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks Jacqui! Yes, Liesbet has the thing in the sidebar that says where she currently is. My sidebar has a map that says where we have been (the places I’ve blogged about). So glad you enjoy the posts!

  2. As a guy who has always enjoyed numbers, I am impressed by your detailed reports. I wish we tracked our expenses this carefully. We live comfortably, but I wouldn’t describe us as being extravagant. To see yearly figures is quite an eye-opener.

    • Duwan said:

      I wish I had started tracking sooner. We have been nomadding going on 10 years now. I always thought it would be too difficult to track but I had a sailing friend who did it so I decided to try and although it takes a little diligence, it isn’t that hard.

      I love the numbers and comparisons. And it really does give you an interesting perspective on where all the money goes.

  3. Love your detailed account! Thanks for doing this!

    • Duwan said:

      You’re welcome Margie!

  4. Wow, Duwan! You did go wonderfully crazy with your graphs and pies and illustrations. Love it! Well done. I really liked your phrase “to keep moving at a modified pace.” That’s exactly what the surviving nomads – on the road, backpacking, house and pet sitting, or on the water, have to do.

    Ha, you spent a dollar a day for camping. Like us, your main categories are the van and consumables. I think that’s quite normal. Except for people who constantly stay in campgrounds. I have a feeling that the camping category would beat all others if that were the case.

    This is incredibly valuable info, Duwan. Thank you for doing all the effort of compiling your expenses, the categories, and the comparisons. Like you, we spent more on groceries in 2020 than in 2019 and I wondered why. I do know that having a Trader Joe’s around is not a good influence as we mainly buy “splurges” there that we wouldn’t elsewhere.

    You did pretty well in 2020 (darn health and camera… :-)) and I’m sure you’ll be able to stick to a $2,000 per month average. Actually, I predict a monthly average of $1,700 for the Ballena Blanca crew in 2020! 🙂

    • Duwan said:

      I imagine that we will spend less than $2000 in 2021 to but we will have more income soon and after being so tight with money the last 9 years I’m ready to loosen up.

      I’m so glad you like the charts. I put a lot of work into them and am pretty happy with the way they turned out.

      I didn’t realize the dollar a day for camping thing! That really averaged out well.

      We are pretty good at passing up splurges at Trader Joe’s – but I didiss them this summer in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakota’s because they generally have cheap staples. Perhaps another reason for higher food costs.

      Hopefully 2021 will have less surprise expenses (and surprises in general) than 2020 and way more fun expenses.

  5. Tina said:

    So helpful as always, thanks for sharing. Found out from GVN Karen there is a place in Ajo with .50 cent showers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Belly Acres RV park

    • Duwan said:

      Yes! We have been to that shower. I should have mentioned it in my December expense report. Can’t beat a 50¢ shower!!!!

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