As I shared in my post about planning our Alaska road trip, this isn't a cheap vacation by any means. I think a lot of people (including myself, initially) think that a road trip is an economical way to travel. When covering short distances, it is. For example, driving from LA to San Francisco is always going to be cheaper overall than buying a plane ticket. But when you start thinking about being on the road for several weeks or a month, it adds up SO much because you have to pay for accommodations for every single night. Also, Grace and I will be making $0 during the time we are gone--we're not using paid vacation time or anything like that. So I've had to save up about 2 months worth of rent and other bills to provide a safety net for that gap.
If you're not planning a long road trip or particularly interested in finances and budgeting, you might want to skip right over this post. It's hard to make this stuff anything but dry. However, my hope is that this post will be helpful for someone who is starting to plan a long road trip. Below, I'm going to talk about all of the major categories of budgeting and spending that went into planning this trip, as well as a few random expenses that you might not imagine would crop up!
But first, I want to link to a blog post that was inspiring to me, from photographer Jenner Kutcher who recently spent a month in Hawaii with her husband. She writes, "The truth is, nothing is promised. What would it look like for you to set aside a few hundred dollars each month? What would it look like if you sat down and ran the numbers to see if you could make that dream happen? What would it look like for you to budget so that these dreams could become a reality? When you hear we will be in Hawaii for a month, instead of wondering how we are making it happen or questioning if we won the lottery and didn't tell anyone, understand that when you learn how to budget, save, and spend carefully, you are granted opportunities that might not be in reach otherwise!"
Yes. That is my philosophy for this month-long vacation in a nutshell. I hope this post inspires you to consider the same!
Basic Costs of the Trip Itself:
The first and most obvious cost of a trip like this is accommodations. Per night, our costs of accommodations range from free (thanks to my sweet college bff Anna who is hosting us in Portland), to $30-40 for a campsite, to around $500 for some splurge hotel stays. All in all, we're averaging about $80/night, which isn't too bad in my opinion. But there are clearly some major outliers on either side of that. In some places, we could have certainly saved money and chose not to, but be prepared that in some of the tiny towns in remote parts of British Columbia there is usually 1 dog-friendly motel that costs about $150 a night, and that's your only option. And it might be 100 miles to the next town. I'm personally not comfortable (safety-wise) with pulling over to the side of the road and sleeping in our car, but people do that for sure. So your costs could vary completely based on what type of experience you want to have.
Next, be sure to budget for fuel. We're expecting to fill up once or twice a day (Grace's car can make the drive from LA to San Francisco on one tank of gas, which is a little longer than the average distance we'll be covering per day). I've heard that in Alaska and some remote parts of Canada, gas can be extremely expensive. Gas is sold by the liter rather than the gallon in Canada, and it also is (obviously) going to be in a different currency. I found this formula for translating the price in CAD per liter to roughly the price in USD per gallon: multiply the price per liter by 3.785, and then adjust for the exchange rate (multiply the result by roughly 0.8, based on the current exchange rate).
Food and incidentals along the way. I'm not expecting this to be way higher than our usual cost of food at home (especially given that we live in a very expensive locale to begin with), but I've budgeted a bit extra than usual in this category so that we can try everything we want!
The Backend, "Real Life" Costs:
One thing I was adamant about on this trip was that I wouldn't go into any debt and wouldn't financially disadvantage myself for when we come back (sidenote: we paid for this trip 100% in cash/debit and plan to do so the entire time we are traveling. I know you might be thinking we're crazy for not utilizing credit card points or whatnot, but we are big big believers in just paying for things outright; neither of us has ever had a cent of debt in our lives and we consider ourselves extremely lucky! We love the feeling of the financial side of things literally and figuratively being in the rearview mirror the whole way--we're not the "enjoy it now, pay for it later" type of people. Also, this isn't to say that it's bad to pay for things with credit or that people who use credit cards are necessarily in debt. Take with a grain of salt, this is just our philosophy). So, with all of this in mind, a very real and not-so-fun budgeting portion of this trip has been that I have saved up enough to cover 2 months of living expenses for when I get back. I'll be starting my new job in that time, but I don't want things to be tight, so I built this safety net and I'm so glad I did. I think I will enjoy the trip 10 times more because of it.
More Piecemeal/Random Costs:
- Dog-related stuff if you're bringing a dog (so far, we've paid for: vet bills to make sure he's all set for the trip and get him on parasite prevention for parasites/ticks they have in Alaska that we don't have in LA; a doggy raincoat we had to special order (laugh if you want, but it's probably going to rain on this trip a lot and we want him to be comfortable); pet fees where applicable for hotels and home rentals; food in small bags (you can't bring opened bags of dog food over the Canadian border, so we've had to get several 3 or 4 pound bags of food which is not as cost effective); and probably other things I'm forgetting).
- Car storage if necessary (mine is about $150 for a month if you're curious)
- Canada parks pass if you go after this year (it's free for 2017 but will cost after that)
- Car servicing (Grace's car is only a year old but given that we're putting over 7,000 miles on it in the span of a month, she wanted to get it fully serviced before leaving and budgeted a few hundred dollars for that)
- Essentials to keep in the car (probably budget $100 for this--sealed emergency gasoline if we run out; non perishables food items to keep in the car; toilet paper/paper towels/trash bags; firewood and gallons of water, etc.)
- We already have a decent arsenal of camping gear, but if you are doing a camping road trip and need to buy your gear, this is a big area to budget for!
- Fees due at check-in for hotels, like valet parking, pet fees not included in the rate, resort fees, etc.
How Do I Budget?
If you're interested in the nitty-gritty, here is how I stay within budget all month long. First, of course, I make my budget. I carve out my fixed expenses (rent, car, insurance, internet bill, etc.) plus the amount per month I want to save for Alaska. Then I see how much I can spend on everything else and write out a detailed budget. Day to day, I use a modified version of the envelope system. (If you're not familiar with the envelope system, it's where you use 100% cash and have an envelope for each category of spending. When the envelope runs out, you're done with that category for the month. It's like budgeting training wheels because you can physically see how much you have left. If you want to learn more, I found this blog post about the envelope system very helpful). That said, I am not okay with carrying around everything with me in cash everywhere I go. I live in a huge city, alone. It just doesn't seem smart. So instead, I use my debit card and sometimes cash, and I have a tiny budget notebook that fits in my wallet with a page for each category and the amount for that month written at the top. With each purchase I make, I add up the new total and write it down. It honestly gives me so much peace knowing I'm totally within budget on each category! It has made me feel like I actually have MORE money and can spend more freely than I did when I was just "winging it" (which I was for a long time). For example, for August I budgeted $100 for Willie-related expenses. So far I've gone to the pet store three times and spent $16, $16, and $45. I think in the past, without a clear-cut budget and knowledge of how much I can responsibly spend, in my mind I would have been thinking, "ugh, I've already gone to the pet store three times for Willie and I feel like I'm constantly spending on him!" But now, I know that I safely set aside $100 for him and I'm well within that number. It sounds so nerdy, but I LOVE budgeting because I have no doubts if I'm ever over-spending. Also, as soon as I get a direct deposit pay check, I transfer my monthly trip savings amount to a separate bank account. Just to be candid, I've been saving about $700 per month this year for the trip and to cover two months of living expenses. I transfer that immediately so that I'm not even tempted to eat into it. I'm proud of how well it's gone!
Here's some truth: budgeting this strictly for this trip has been hard for me and not always fun. I have had to pick Trader Joe's over Whole Foods for groceries almost every time (nothing against good ol' TJ's). But the pinch is SO worth it. There's a Dave Ramsey quote that has been inspiring to me throughout this process: "Live like no one else so that later, you can live like no one else." I feel like with how much I have limited myself (I've spent maybe $100 on clothing in the past YEAR, for example), I am living like no one else around me, and that is hard. But on this trip we will also be living like no one else--able to have a whole carefree month of travel, with savings for when we get back, totally paid for in advance. That has been my motivation and it's really worked. If you have budgeting inspiration and tips, I'd love to hear it! I hope this post has been helpful, and as always, feel free to Contact me with questions.