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Beg, borrow and (get it for a) steal – budgeting for a family gap year

How can we afford a family gap year in a skoolie and has our budget gone to plan?

You can’t expect to give up your job and travel the world without a little tightening of the purse strings. But how tight does tight have to be to fit within budget? As we head into month three of our big adventure and everybody else heads back to school and work, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about how we we are managing to afford a gap year in a skoolie in North America.

Two months into our trip and we can already see that some of our budgeted figures were wildly wrong. Whether it is because of our location and the varying costs in each state, the impact of Brexit on the value of the British Pound or the unforseen costs of having to furnish our skoolie, keeping within the parameters of ‘the budget’ has been more of a challenge than we were expecting.

‘Guestimating’ our original budget

Working on the budget on a laptop in the skoolie
When the boys go out to play, Mummy sits inside and balances the books and sometimes writes blogs!

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. After all, to make this trip last a year we need to know we can afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit the attractions that we have travelled so far to see, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and suck up the expense of owning and furnishing a bus in North America.

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

Hidden lake overlook at Glacier National Park
Our budget included an ‘America the Beautiful’ pass, which gives us access to all of the National Parks for free. We hitched a ride up to Logan Pass and trekked to Hidden Lake Overlook. 

We researched all the fixed costs (visas, national park passes etc) and included money to cover purchases like bikes. We built in a generous contingency and then factored in all of our UK outgoings and income. There are pages of figures, which I won’t bore you with unless you specifically want to know them!

In the end, it all boiled down to two crucial sums:

  1. Did we have enough in our savings for the initial outlay of the bus?
  2. Were our monthly outgoings likely to be less than our monthly income from the UK, making it a ‘cost-neutral’ year?

For both answers we came up with a yes.

The (rather large) cost of a skoolie home

Budgets must include full bus equipment
It’s not just the structure of the bus we had to think about. We had to fully equip our home for the year, make it feel cosy and prepare it for all kinds of weather – we needed everything, from blankets to bikinis. 

The bus cost about the same as a house extension, which in a funny kind of way it is. While we hope to get some money back if we sell it at the end / use it somehow in the future, we also had to accept that we may not make anything on it. If it breaks down and can’t be fixed or blows up in a huge propane explosion, our investment goes with it. Of course, after two months going feral in the wilderness, there is also the distinct possibility that Guy releases his inner Thelma (or is it Louise?) and drives us all into a canyon shouting “I’m never going back to work again”!

As discussed in our earlier blog, How to buy and convert a US school bus from the UK, we could have gone with a cheaper bus, i.e a secondhand one off eBay, but we felt there was too much risk. We also couldn’t justify the prices the more established conversion companies were quoting for a new bus, so we took a gamble with a new company who were prepared to reduce their prices to get the business. We wrote a detailed contract and ensured they bought insurance to make sure everything could be delivered safely and within the price agreed. We kept a small contingency aside just in case.

bus overhanging cliff with budget bikes hanging
We just wanted to get on the road and start enjoying ourselves (and park in the tightest of parking of spaces!)

It almost worked to plan. The budget ran out just a couple of weeks before we jetted out of the UK so we made the decision to use our contingency in order to get the bus finished. It wasn’t enough to cover everything, but it was enough to get us on the road.  

Lots of people have asked us about the contract and why we had to use the contingency. We just wanted the bus done in time for our arrival and this was the only way.  We figured it was all part of the skoolie-build learning-curve for both the company and us. When you are new to something, mistakes happen. You live and learn. We love our bus and it is mechanically sound, which is what matters.

Budget living means DIY whilst camping
Shelf building… that sucks. No-one else on the campsite has to do DIY!

The upshot of an unfinished bus is some unexpected DIY. We hoped we’d seen the back of tools and loose screws after trying to get our house, campervan and rental properties sorted before we left, but it turns out that ‘Guy the handyman’ has had to come on holiday with us; we furnish as we go – curtains here, shelves there – something new every month. It sucks up a lot of our cash as we have to buy materials and tools and we also spend more time in hardware stores and less time at attractions or dining out – such is life.

Grocery shopping – a budget busting exercise

noodles - the best budget meal
Noodles, mercifully, are cheap everywhere. I’m not quite sure we need this many packets though.

If we ignore the additional monthly costs of the bus, we felt our budget was roomy enough to cope with all other eventualities. Then we went grocery shopping. I had budgeted for the same spend as we had in the UK – keeping in mind that we are lazy at home and usually end up at the local Co-op buying over-priced broccoli, potatoes and some kind of 2 for £7 fillets for dinner (why is it that pre-planning meals and shopping in advance at the grocers / butchers seems so impossible?)

As we travelled through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, prices seemed to go up and up. A loaf of wholemeal bread at home, £1.20. You want butter on that? Let’s say £2. In Montana, prices are at least double that for the most basic brands. Cheese, cereal, tins… same story.

Eating on the roofdeck of the skoolie
We have had to down-size our tastes – Guy has resorted to eating tinned oysters instead of fresh, doused in the vinegar I use for cleaning.

The solution to escalating food costs? Give up those ‘middle-class’ tastes! No more handfuls of cashews for a snack, soba noodle soup with pak choi, almond milk on cereal and salads full of seeds and fresh leaves. No more last-minute Co-op. We are still rubbish at planning our meals but we buy in bulk, treat ourselves with ice pops from the freezer, enjoy box wine (it doesn’t seem to last any longer… or am I just drinking more?!) and when we are feeling frivolous, the odd tub of hummus ($5 – about £4.50 for a small tub!). We make do…

Not so healthy living

At the start of our trip, someone we met told us that we need to watch our weight and do more fun runs. It wasn’t based on the sight of us…. the bus was not sagging and the kids were still walking through the doorway without turning sideways, but as a travel tip in general.

The reduced budget has had a big impact on the type of food we eat. Much of the stuff we buy – the cheaper stuff – is full of sugar, salt, additives and preservatives that you just wouldn’t find in the UK. If you want to eat healthily (or even go for food without any of the bad stuff in it) you pay more. Even fresh fruit and veg is almost prohibitively expensive. It will be interesting to see if Canada is the same.

Finding food for free

Don’t worry – we are not foraging in the bins just yet. We have managed to acquire some rather spectacular free foods though. Soren caught a trout on his first ever day fishing, enough to feed us all. Of course you could argue that the fishing license made it quite a pricey meal, but Guy also caught a couple of little ‘uns and it was good sport.

We’ve also lucked out with some of the hosts we’ve met through Boondockers Welcome. Andrew the hunter shared some deer meat and burgers from his last season’s hunt, Ben the gardener gave us access to his vegetable crop and Liz the baker gave us some delicious sourdough bread and ciabatta. Boondocking is the way forward!

Going out

bears or beers
Beers or bears? The former is so tempting but we when you live in the woods most of the time, the latter is more likely. We had to spend our cash on bear spray, so it’s cans in the bus for us!

So far prices have been comparable to the UK. We can go out for a meal in a family-friendly restaurant, spend £50 and get a feed for four with a couple of beers. Of course that is if we were actually going out. This is always the area that gets cut when you are skint – going out.

Most people would think this wasn’t too much of a hardship for us – we have a kitchen so can cook – but life in a skoolie means we spend a huge amount of time living in the woods or out by remote lakes. It is such a treat to dip into a town and live the way we used to.

When we come upon somewhere with a cosy feel, where the hum of civilisation and the smell of coffee beans roasting is like a hug from an old friend; where the fizz of a cold IPA and the laughter at the bar threatens to overwhelm you with the first flush of drunk, it is all we can do to stop ourselves running foward with our wallets open. No can do when you live on a budget. Back to the bus my friend. Make your own coffee. Heat up your own milk in a frying pan and enjoy scraping off the milk skin. Drink your own booze out of melamine cups.

Missed opportunities (sometimes) worth missing

beavertails - a budget breaking treat
Occasionally we’ll find a delicious treat. It’s never a healthy one though (which Kit is very happy about!)

Luckily for our wallets, the opportunity to eat rarely crops up. We spent a month in Montana, which is three times as big as the UK but with a a population 60 times smaller and almost entirely from a different demographic, there is not the demand for the kind of eateries we are after. They don’t have a plethora of coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants around every corner – they couldn’t sustain them. This is not Brighton!

The reality of eating out is desolate looking cafes that serve pie and ‘drip coffee’, burgers and fries, pizza slices and fries, grilled cheese (not as nice as it sounds because American cheese is like eating slices of of plastic) and fries. If you want something better / healthier, you spend a whole lot more and then the kids complain it’s horrible and only eat the fries.

I think we may find more choice when we hit the west coast, but it’ll cost even more. Canada is already is proving to be tastier – we had some ‘strong’ cheese earlier that was faintly reminiscent of a mild UK Red Leicester. I was very excited!

Best shared with friends

Sitting around table
New friends! This is David – a mine of National Parks knowledge – who joined us for beers (not bears) in Glacier NP

Going out for dinner with the family is one thing but socialising is another. Because we are camping this is in many ways made easier. We’ve been invited to join people at their bonfires for s’mores (toasted marshmallow sandwiched between crackers with a chunk of chocolate), for card games with neighbours and then there is just the general interest in the skoolie, which means anyone passing stops for a chat and a photo.

A British love of booze

Harvest Hosts brewery
An overnight stay at a Harvest Hosts brewery is free… if you don’t count all the money you spend on beer and pizzas at the bar!

There is not so much of a drinking culture here – only one couple have invited us over for a wine and they were, ironically, from a town a few miles away from where we live in the UK. Guy lives in hope and when someone shouts ‘come join us’ from a firepit or they pop in to see the bus, he always brings out a couple of cans in case he can tempt someone. It rarely works – one fella drank half a can to be polite, another asked for ‘English tea’ instead and the third had a massive rehab story that kept Guy chatting, beers hidden in bag, for a good hour!

One place we have enjoyed a tipple is at the distilleries and breweries we’ve stayed at as part of the Harvest Host‘s scheme. They let you park for free as long as you sample their wares. It ends up costing more to stay at one of these places than the cheap campsites though as the quality of the booze is good and after one or two drinks, who cares about the budget?!

Fun on a budget

boy in rain
I am not bored.  

Now there’s a word. Holidays are fun – a couple of weeks of camping and mucking about in the woods is brilliant. How about 2 months of it though? Well I can report that it is still fun. Whether it is because we have slowed our pace down so much that the days just drift by, or because we are connecting better with the boys, the days seem to disappear with very little complaint.

I’ve banned the ‘b’ word, which helps (and no, that is not ‘budget’).  If anyone says they are bored then they lose a point. The points don’t come off anything particular but they seem to do the job of motivating the kids to stop saying they are ‘b’ and that is sometimes enough to stop it happening!

Paid – for activities vs free

kayaks are a good budget activity
Who needs to pay for a boat trip when you have packed your own boats?!

This is really for the kids. Guy and I don’t feel any desire to pay for aquariums or cable cars. Quite amazingly we manage to avoid most expensive activities by substituting them for cheaper / free versions. We dispensed with the Columbia Icefields explorer trip (a bus that goes onto the ice) by hiking up a mountain next to it instead – we had an amazing view of all the people trekking in a line towards the glacier lookout and all of us were glad we weren’t in it.

The wonderful Noni (my mum) bought us kayaks, so that keeps us busy near water. We bought the kids fishing rods which, if we have a license, means hours can pass untangling reels. The best thing has been bikes though (currently Soren’s favourite hobby – running, fishing and, mercifully, whistling have been relegated!). The boys go round and round campsites on an endless imaginary mission and when we are close to a point of interest, we have alternative transport to a 37 ft bus. What would have been a massive motivation mission to get the kids to walk a couple of miles /a massive motivation mission to strap down the whole bus and drive, now becomes a super cool bike ride.

Biking bonus

But how did we afford these bikes on our budget? Again, we found they were double the cost of those at home and so we started looking around in pawn shops and thrift stores. We were almost defeated by the lack of places big enough for these kind of stores, but then we got to Missoula which is a university town. This gem of a place was full of love for bikes and all those that ride them – “you want to get yourselves to Freecycle – they have second-hand bikes” said a friendly thrift store worker. And they did. For free. FREE! “We don’t sell them ma’am, they are free!”.

Come again? Free?

Yep. Freecycle is a community project to support bike-riding around Missoula. People donate old bikes or broken bikes to Free Cycle, they put them in their warehouse / yard and they teach people how to bring them back to good health. You do a course in bike maintenance, volunteer 4 hours and then choose your bike, they have all the tools, equipment, bike bits (from the stripped bikes that could not be restored) and lots of helpers. It’s such a winning idea, I loved it. Kids don’t have to volunteer, so they just get the bikes for free. And, bonus for us, if you can’t volunteer then you can just donate $30. We ended up walking out (or biking), after just 2 hours of hunting and maintenance, with 4 functional bikes. All for $60.

Livin’ in the city (or forest or prairies or the driveways or the car park)

skoolie parked by lake
Camplife. We never know where we will end up but it’s almost always beautiful and usually inexpensive

I mentioned in my last post – http://camping that our preferred camp spots were the free / low cost dispersed or un-serviced sites. That is still the case. Luckily, we are coming in way under budget on camping which has offset the high food costs. Hopefully, as we move to more populated areas, food costs will come down as I don’t think free campsites will be so readily available in places like California.

Of course you can’t always go for free. We have solar panels, water and propane so we can live off-grid for several days at a time, but not indefinitely. Water is usually available for free but we do need to plug in now and then to give our battery a boost. We try and tie those days into power, WiFi, laundry and lengthy shower bundles – get all the jobs and the enjoyable things done at once. It means we spend a shed-load but we all end up clean and sparkly!

Talking of laundry, we spend about $20 USD every 2 – 3 weeks. We could probably do it less but I can’t bear all the dirty stuff all over the bus. It’s a budget saving that I am not prepared to make!

Keeping the bus on the road

My transport budget covers fuel but also bus issues. Fuel has been cheap in comparison to the UK, but we had predicted as much. It’s more expensive in Canada but then they don’t charge as much for groceries – it all balances out. It costs us about $120 USD to fill her up.

We’ve only had one RV mechanic call-out for the bus – the batteries were dead and we couldn’t charge them. We also couldn’t get the heater to work. In the end, both issues ended up being settings errors and we were soon on our way.

The one thing it doesn’t cover is the decorating I mentioned earlier. We did some massive shops at Walmart and Ikea, which got us sorted on bedding etc, but with no budget set aside for this kind of thing and all our contingency gone, it is pretty painful to hand over the credit card. 

Feeling the goodwill

Now that we’ve found a few more charity shops, we have cut our costs significantly. We’ve come to rely on them and why not – they are well-stocked and cheap. We’ve replaced the hats that both boys have lost, the sunglasses that both boys have lost (twice), the shoes that both boys have lost, found life jackets, baseball mitts, bike helmets, school books, t-shirts for the kids, kitchen stuff, books, movies – it’s a budget shoppers paradise!

budget patchwork quilt from yard sale
A patchwork quilt for just $25 – bargain!

We’ve also made good use of yard sales. I was looking forward to these – sifting through piles of useful bus stuff whilst drinking homemade lemonade… that’s what happens, right? Evidently not. I’ve only found one so far and it was a miserable affair down a long, deserted road in a lot full of garages. All she was selling was old VHS videos and romance novels. I was just about to give up when I found a rather lovely king-size patchwork quilt. Just what I needed. Hurrah! There may not be lemonade but I’m still gunning for yard sales for potential bus furnishing on a budget.

And so the budget for next month…

Eating dinner outside
We’ve made it work for 2 months – let’s hope we can carry on for the next 12

It’s not quite Thelma and Louise time yet, we’ve managed to stay within budget both months and will hopefully stretch those good times for the next 10. Our balancing act will continue – the West Coast is potentially more expensive for camping but we’ve hopefully got less to spend on bus decoration. We have more visitors coming, which means more going out for dinners, but perhaps food costs will come down because more people = more choice and cheaper options. Then again, perhaps it won’t. Perhaps Brexit won’t happen, the pound will become strong and everything will be affordable again. Then I’ll be going out and hitting more than that first flush of drunk!!!

4 replies on “Beg, borrow and (get it for a) steal – budgeting for a family gap year”

Darn Autofill.. replaced my comments with my email address! Save me some tinned oysters, will bring booze. Over.

Hello Mr Pooding Kit and Soz – did you eat all the Huckleberry pie?

Hi. This is Cathy, Guy’ s friend from uni. I love following your journey. It seems amazing. I look forward to the next installment

Cathy 💕

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