We’ve all heard money is the root of all evils. I’m not sure about that. I would say money is more so the root of all decisions. Frustrations. Possibilities. Personally, I don’t really value nice things. I’m not a foodie. Or a fashionista… except maybe in my own alternate reality ;). What I do value is freedom. And for better or worse, I think money allows people freedom. Freedom to not cook your own meals every night. Freedom to move to a nicer neighborhood. Freedom to spend more time with their hobby. Freedom to take off for a yearlong dream trip.

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Without money, we wouldn’t have the freedom to quit our jobs or the possibility to travel across the country for a year. We knew money was one reality we had to face. We can’t power our to all the National Parks with dreams, or pay for campsites with smiles. So we want to share and be transparent with our financial information and budgeting process because it is an unseen, unsexy, super important part of our trip. I just hope you all don’t go to sleep on me.

 

Our trip is entirely self-funded. No loans, monetary sponsorships or “go-fund-me” crowdsourcing solicitations. We are very proud of that because we believe it proves that you can follow your dream with enough preparation and determination. Money is a factor, but it isn’t a limitation.

 

Almost two years ago, before we had decided for sure to take this trip, we had to see if it was even financially possible. It was a big IF. And since there’s no denying that I’m the money guy in our household, I got to work. I didn’t know exactly how to go about it, but I figured making a budget would be a good start. Here are the expenses I guess-timated for our year traveling to all 59 National Parks:

1. Gas = $2,778

(30,000 miles / 27 mpg * $2.50 per gal) I actually Google mapped the most efficient route to travel to all the National Parks (~24k miles) and added a few thousand miles for driving within the parks and miscellaneous stops to get to 30k. Since our planned route is definitely not the most efficient route anymore, 30k could be a bit low. Our 2015 Ford Escape gets 28 mpg highway, and since we wouldn’t be in many cities I guessed we’d get 27 mpg on average. Our trip average is ~26.2 mpg. Gas has dropped significantly since I did the budget over a year and a half ago (currently a national average of under $2 per gallon for the first time since 2009), so this savings might be what keeps the gas estimate alive.

 

2. Food = $4,380

($12 * 365 days) I took a shot in the dark that we’d average $12 a day for food for both of us. If we are good about eating groceries (AKA Ramen and hot dogs…. jk….but not really), we are well under. But when we average eating out 3 times per week (seems like a lot, but not when you’re on the road 24/7), we are usually  overeating our budget.

 

3. Camping = $2,200

($7 * 312 nights) I don’t know what fantasy land I was living in when I thought we’d average just $7 per night camping. It can be expensive! Our goal is to camp in the National Parks when at all possible to get the full flavor and they do not cut you any breaks (Unless you are 62 or older and you get a lifetime parks pass for $10, half off camping fees and half off almost all other tours/tickets/expenses! But that’s another story). In Acadia there was one campsite open because it was their off-season and they still charged $30 per night. We stayed 4 nights. However, sometimes you can camp for free in the backcountry like we did with our insane misadventure in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. So judging the nights we’d spend in a campground vs backcountry was difficult and my estimate had a range of $1,806. We’ll probably be closer to the max of that range, $3,353.

 

4. Hotels = $2,950

($59 per night * 50 nights) I estimated one hotel night for each week we were on the trail. Fortunately we’ve had many gracious hosts from our friends family, family and couchsurfing.com. We’ve been hosted 18 nights and spent only 6 nights in a hotel over the 17 weeks between Leg 1 and Leg 2. This is actually one category where we aren’t in the red!

 

5. Insurance (health, dental, accident) = $3,000

Picking this number was about as educated a guess as picking a Powerball ticket based on Teddy Roosevelt’s birthday. All I knew was insurance would be expensive, especially when comparing self-insuring to the coverage we’d just lost when quitting our jobs. It was one of 2 big unknowns However, as I was looking for insurance quotes my number got on some list and I got all types of calls from insurance brokers. One of them told me about short-term insurance. It just  happened to be perfect for our situation and only $540 for both of us for the maximum 6 month term. And for 2016 we just started our coverage through the federal marketplace. For free. A side effect of having near 0 income. Now, I’m definitely not proud that tax payers are covering our health insurance, but I also figure Elizabeth and I – young, healthy, ice-cream-carton-gorging specimens that we are – will be covering our beloved older, sicker countrymen’s bills for a long time to come. So I don’t feel too guilty. And since we dropped our $33/month dental (crunching the numbers proved it was depressingly not worth it), the only personal insurance expense we’ll have for 2016 is $45/month accident insurance. Chalk insurance up in the black.

 

6. Car insurance = $1,200

($600 * 2 six-month terms) Except I just learned Progressive was raising our rate for renewal on January 7th by $80 because claims were up last year in the state of Missouri (where we are registered). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a business where people are required to buy your product and you can set the price at whatever amount you want to guarantee you won’t lose money??!! I’m not a huge fan of insurance. The nice thing is that I let our policy lapse while we’re in Hawaii and American Samoa and our car is parked in the in-laws driveway all January. So that’s one month saved. And when we get back you can bet I’ll be shopping around again. “Rate Stabilization Policy” my foot.

 

7. Cell phone = $600

No, we aren’t too proud to still be on our parents’ plans. You know how much cheaper family plans are?!

 

8. Airfare (USVI, Hawaii, intra-Hawaii, American Samoa) = $300

The plan was to get all those tickets for free using reward miles. The $300 was for the nominal taxes and ferry ride from Samoa. The plan was not a complete success. But you should definitely read all about that (and learn how to get your own dream vacay tickets for free) in my last travel hacks post.

 

9. Alaska bush planes = $2,000

This is the second great budget unknown. 5 of the 8 parks in Alaska cannot be accessed by roads. We’ll ferry to one and hike into another, but there are at least 3 we will need to fly to. One horrifying quote I got for a chartered bush plane was $600 an hour. So my allotment could be a skosh low. Perhaps you can understand why paying for Alaskan travel was one of my 8 fears for the trip. But we’ll keep calling tour companies, working through a friend’s bush pilot contact and crossing our fingers.

 

10. Miscellaneous = $1,500

Because one of the thrills of travel is that it’s unpredictable.

 

TOTAL BUDGETED FOR TRIP = $20,908

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Since I like a challenge and I like whole numbers, I rounded down to a very ambitious budget of $20k.

 

Next, I figured our combined monthly income from Elizabeth’s job as a 6th grade teacher and mine as a health care IT consultant. Then I calculated a shoestring monthly budget for the year leading up to the trip…. $2k. If we limited our monthly expenses to that number for the remaining 14 or so months before takeoff, we could easily save to our goal of 20k.

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We barely ever hit that number. We went out with friends, I lost my tooth, Elizabeth ate really healthy for a while on Whole 30, I went to China for 2 weeks, I got Lasik, I started a small business and we bought a new car (because our old one was not big enough or reliable enough for the trip). Our lives didn’t stop. And extra expenses added up.  But the one thing that kept us on track was our supplemental income. Elizabeth refinished and sold furniture and home décor and did summer school. I worked on my home efficiency business and drove for Uber. Then we sold everything we could (minus gifts and other sentimentals) to trim down our stuff for storage and make a last bit of cash. I didn’t love spending an average of one weekend night a week driving for Uber from 8-3am, but the extra ~$500 per month from supplemental income was the extra kick that really got us to hit our savings goal.

 

Every 10 days I had a system of going through our accounts to write down and categorize all our expenses for that period. This helped me understand what areas we needed to cut back and where we were on track. It was not always pleasant. But in the end we saved over $26k for the trip – comfortably above our $20k budget. Combine that with our emergency fund, our retirement savings and funds from my companies stock purchase plan and I was very comfortable with our financial position… as long as we could stick to our trip budget.

 

I’ve found it’s really hard to tell if we are sticking to our monthly trip budget. Our expenses are far from routine. We must make reservations far in advance of the month we’ll use them. Some legs are much more expensive than others ($Leg 1>$Leg 2). After 4 months on the road, being 1/3 done with our trip, I estimate we are $200 over budget.

 

We have some expensive unknowns looming in the rest of our trip. I’ll probably keep being a tightwad and Elizabeth will probably keep reminding me to ease up. But for now, the dream is alive… and funded!

Written by Cole

  • Marty

    We are wondering about cost of bush pilots and lodging. Plan to finish 7 parks in next two years. We are old 70 and traveling at a slower rate!,
    Love your articles.

    • Cole

      Many times I wish we were traveling at a slower rate too 😉 But it’s been a blast. Thanks for reading!

  • I’m curious – did you factor in at all your lost income for the year? Whenever I am tempted to let myself entertain an idea like this (I would love to thru-hike the PCT), I can see how I could save up for the trip costs pretty easily, but I really struggle with the idea of not bringing in any income, as well as not saving for retirement and losing out on that compounding. I realize this makes me sound like a total Debbie Downer, but I’m an accountant and can’t help but think about those things!

    • Cole

      That’s a really good point, Rebecca. We factored the lost income (and lost retirement saving) into our decision of whether or not to take the trip, but not into our budget numbers.
      In the end, we figured it was worth it to take a year from our youth instead of waiting for retirement. We figured the job opportunities and income will be there when we get back and we’d have plenty of time to continue being grown-ups. But our opportunity to live a dream wouldn’t be around forever (especially once we start a family). But I can’t say the numbers aren’t still intimidating. Everyone has their own decisions, values and priorities and there are many right paths.

      Hope you enjoy the blog and keep an reevaluating if the timing is right for your own adventure! The PCT would be incredible – we’ve talked about doing the JMT section one day!

  • Tammy Donelson

    This was very interesting. I wondered how you saved the money and did the budget. Now i know.

  • Helen

    Enjoyed reading this article. You really thought long and hard about making this adventure a reality. Glad to see young people budgeting. We live/work within a budget, is seems to give me a peace of mind.

    • Cole

      I agree! Hopefully it can be more of a liberator than a restraint because you aren’t stressing about when and if to spend money. It’s already decided in the budget! We need to keep working on this state of mind 😉

  • Thank you for your honesty! I agree with you about money- it gives you freedom. So great to know you guys were able to do this all on your own. It gives a lot of us inspiration to know that so many more things are possible- more than just the typical life we find ourselves in not by choice, but by default.

  • Leigh

    Isn’t is crazy how expensive camping is? I’m planning a 6-month road trip and like you guys, planning about 1 hotel night a week (got a Holiday Inn credit card to earn points) and the rest camping. I will have to look into the short term insurance. My other thought is just to head to Mexico and get traveler’s insurance. Curious…what did you use to track expenses on your trip? I would love to compare to my budget as I go along – currently just using Google docs.