03 July 2019

FI Chautauqua and the Cost of Living on a Boat in the South of France

So I spent last week at FI - Chautauqua, in the UK.

You know, the whole FIRE movement - "Financial Independence Retire Early" thing. 
This get-together was in Shakespeare's home, Stratford-upon-Avon. 
At a pretty spiffy ol' mansion, Ettington Park. 

A friend of mine, JL Collins, started the idea years ago, and it took off.  

There were about 30 attendees and a half dozen FIRE movement bloggers, including Brandon, The Mad FIentist, Kristy and Bryce from Millennial Revolution, Alan and Katie and Simon and Henry of Pop Up Business School, Carl - Mr. 1500, and Jillian from Montana Money Adventures.
And Jane and - Jim Collins, who wrote "The Simple Path to Wealth". (and I did the cover art!)

Beautiful location, well organized, and - a perfect time to be in the UK. 
It was fun - there was a murder mystery, a Shakespeare play, Oxford nearby, sticky toffee pudding - and the library had a proper secret door. 

Everyone seemed to be talking ALL the time.

When I mentioned that living on a boat is low cost, I got some weird looks. 
"Isn't a boat a hole where you pour in money?" was a frequent comment. 

But - really? Compared to a HOUSE?

For those who don't know, Stan and I spent this past winter getting rid of all of our STUFF. 

Selling the house. The cars. The motorized bicycles. Antiques. Rugs.
Giving away tools. The cat. Guitars. Clothes. Art. 
Books (many carloads of books-). 

One corner of the house - before.
We kept in our minds the vision of leaving.
Just the backpack, hopping into a taxi (all cars sold-). 
Taking off, waving to the new owners of the house. 
Hittin' the road.

And - it happened pretty much just like that. 
But it was a LOT of work.

The same corner of the house - after.
So now, our only "home" is a canal boat. The idea was to continue traveling, which we've been doing for the past 5 years. Without needing to return to a house to maintain things. We wanted a place where we could easily close up and leave. A "turnkey operation". A boat works. It's simple. And it's cool. I like it.

It was accidental that it turned out to be inexpensive. That wasn't our main reason for doing it.

I mentioned at Chautauqua that a boat, a canal barge, is low cost living. So I got to thinking about it. Just how much does it cost? Then again - when this post appeared on a subreddit, "I Want Out",  I noticed people were asking - so how much?

So in the spirit of the Chautauqua, where people are pretty open about financial stuff, here are the numbers. (I put it in dollars - so the comparison is easier) Remember, we weren't trying to live cheaply. This is just what it cost. (all numbers are estimates)

Here's what I was paying to maintain the house in New Mexico per year:

$1200 home insurance
$3100 property tax
$2300 electricity and gas (ok, we had a pool)
$900 water and waste (it's NM. Water can be $$)
$1500 wi-fi (Xfinity. SO expensive. So annoying.)

So it was about $9000 a year. 

Granted, it was a pretty sweet house. My dream house. A 100+ year old adobe in the Rio Grande valley. A house also requires more general maintenance stuff - garden hoses and plants and parts and cleaning supplies. We had a big yard. Gardens. Ponds. A pool. But I have no idea how to calculate how much that stuff cost. I know we spent a LOT of time at Home Depot.

Once you have the boat, here's what it looks like on an annual basis:
(again, the goal was not cheap living. The goal was simple living - and a turnkey operation.)

$600 boat insurance
$1000 mooring fees (calculated by boat length. Our boat is 14m long. 80€ a month.)
$150 for water - waste is free. We use about 10€ a month for water.
$150 propane
$300 wi-fi
$600 canal usage fee. The French waterways system (VNF) charges us to use the canal.
$100 residence tax - .20 per person per night on the boat. (We'll pay less since we travel a lot.)

We don't need electricity, since we have solar panels.
Remember, we're not on the ocean. We're on a canal. No salt water, which is hard on boats. 

So that comes to $2900 a year. About $241 a month.

We do pay for our resident visas, almost $300 a person, each year for the first 5 years. You don't need that if you have a euro passport. But - as a resident of France, I pay less US tax, so I didn't count this part. Here's more info on getting the original long-term visas. (It gets a bit easier after the first time.)  

Also, we're on the French health system, which is free. I was paying $630 a month in the US for insurance. That was the cheapest I could find, with a $7000 deductible. 

Then, obviously, there's the cost of the Boat itself.

Prices range widely. There's a single guy down the canal from us on an old sailboat. You could probably buy one like it for $3000. But since he usually finds a girlfriend to live with, he doesn't spend all that much time on the boat. Works for him.

You can find a good live aboard boat anywhere between $5,000 and $200,000.  (A lot of our friends would cringe at that top number. I made it deliberately high. There are some wonderful luxury boats out there, too.) There are always a LOT of boats for sale. Pretty much any price.

Again, I'm not talking budget living here. I did that in the 70's. Had the ol' self-sufficient farm, off the grid. Catching fish and rabbits, collecting mussels and growing potatoes out in the West of Ireland. 

Hitchhiking around Europe, sleeping on the ground or in haystacks. 
I'm not living that way now. 
There's a time for everything. 

That's JL Collins. Digging turf at our place in Ireland with the landlord. 1975. He was a good sport about it.

You can do all of this for much less. And it would be just as much fun. 

Yes, there are also very inexpensive houses in the French countryside. Roll up your sleeves, those can be serious work - and time. If that's how you want to spend your days, fine. Our goal was to make our lives simpler. Have more time for art, music, and exploring the world. That it was also less expensive was a plus, not the original intention. 

Here's a place to start. Try looking for canal barges.

Our boat has 3 cabins and 3 bathrooms, which is pretty ridiculous, and more than we need. But - we have kids and friends and family who visit. And since Stan and I are not boat specialists, we wanted one where all the systems were integrated. 

Another question I get a lot - do you have to know your way around boats? Not really. Here's how much we really didn't know. 

The canals and ports are filled with people who know all about boats. They've built their own boats. Sailed around the world with them. These are people who grew up with boats. Although it helps to be mechanical (doesn't it always?), we've found people are more than willing to share their knowledge. It's a good community. 

More about the boat hunt here. And finding a boat

So that's the basic financial picture. 

Plus, when you sell a house, there's a nice chunk of money to invest. 
FI types like that. Your income grows, too. 

Also - did I mention wine? 
Do you know how good the wine is in France - and how cheap, compared to the US?

Sometimes I wonder just how much we save on the wine alone...
I know a boat isn't for everyone. 
It's just - another possibility. 
Like van dwelling, but somehow cooler. 

It gives us the chance to spend more time on the things we love doing. 

With the plus side of working out way less expensive than we'd planned. 


  1. The cost breakdown between house living and boat living is very interesting. Thanks for that!

  2. Awesome write up! Thanks for taking the time to break it all down.

  3. I just found this from FIRECracker's post about Chautauqua and man, did it resonate -- my folks spent summers on a canal barge in the Netherlands for five years and loved every minute of it. Apparently when you're flying a US flag off the stern and a Maryland flag on top of the cabin you get a lot of attention from the locals. They kept the house back home for the other 9 months of the year; came in handy later when mom got sick. I went back with dad to help clean the boat out in 2017 and it seemed like a fantastic lifestyle. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    And thanks, too, for posting about Chautauqua. I'm planting seeds now trying to get my wife onboard for next year's edition...