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  1. Quick facts
  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
  • Days Camping: 389
  • Days Indoors: 202

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USA Budget Recap

Written by Jared on November 15, 2011

This article is part of our Budget and Money Report series.

Our per diem expenses cover food, lodging, gas and other supplies and travel costs for three people. We travel in a 1997 Toyota 4Runner, tent camp in paid facilities roughly 70% of our nights and eat less than 10% of our meals in restaurants. This budget does not reflect personal spending money, which is mostly used to buy souvenirs and booze. We don't track this money, but we do know we have not come close to spending our budgeted amount of $10 per person per day.

This is part one of a series of articles that aim to provide fellow travelers with an overview of our expenses as we continue our journey through the Americas. This article covers the 30 days we spent along the west coast and southwestern states of the U.S.

Why go to all this trouble, you my ask? And why should you care? First, if we had more resources such as this as we planned our trip it would have taken us a lot less time to come up with a budget had faith in. And second, if you are thinking about traveling but have no idea how much it might cost or how you can save money, our budget recaps should give you a few good pointers.

Our cost estimates for this part of the trip average quite a bit more than the rest of the countries we plan to visit. This is largely due to the number of miles we had to drive and the higher costs of food and lodging.

In our initial plan we hoped to offset some of these higher costs by spending more time camping and cooking meals ourselves. We knew what to expect in terms of costs, so we intentionally trimmed our budget as much as possible for these 30 days, leaving us without a lot of room to spare. Let's see how we did!

Budget Recap

Number of Days in Country:  28
Budgeted Per Diem:  $121.41
Actual Per Diem:  $126.93
Total Spent:  $3,554.17
Total Budgeted:  $3,399.48

We went over budget in the last few days, mostly due to an evening out at the Stone Brewery where we racked up a $200 bill for food and delicious beer. We decided to cross into Mexico a couple days early and thus reduce our per diem by about $50 a day, that made this easier to justify. Also, there was delicious beer, and you can't say no to delicious beer.

As you see below, we also spent an unaccounted-for $133 on gear. This included six tubes of superglue, one coffee maker and a battery monitor for Blue's dual battery system. We waffled on buying these items before we left and decided to wait to see if we needed them. Turns out, we need them.

Per Diem Breakdown

What follows is a rough breakdown of how we spent our money. Not all transactions were recorded, but we're off by less than 2%, so we didn't miss much.

Lodging:  $839.00 24%
Gas:  $744.73 21%
Eating Out:  $653.00 19%
Groceries:  $488.00 14%
Coffee/Booze:  $259.00 7%
Firewood, Charcoal & Fuel:  $143.00 4%
Gear:  $133.00 4%
Park Fees:  $110.00 3%
Vehicle Maintenance:  $54.00 2%
Tolls & Parking:  $21.00 1%
Entertainment:  $21.00 1%
Laundry:  $19.00 1%
Internet  $17.00 1%
Transportation:  $12.00 1%

Food & Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping 80% 92% +12%
Average Camping Cost $20 $27.58 +$7.58
Average Hotel Cost $100 $88.50 -$11.50
Daily Food Expenses $40 $40.75 +$0.75

Out of 28 nights, we spent 24 camping, two in a hotel and two crashing on a friend's floor (thanks again Marcell!). Our two nights in a hotel were due to freezing cold weather and close proximity to a delicious beer brewery. Both completely out of our control, I guess.

We ate out 18 times, and that was usually breakfast or lunch. A couple of expensive dinners definitely made a big difference. Three days of groceries = two plates of meaty goodness at the BBQ shack.

It's also worth noting that if you included money spent on coffee & booze with our daily food expenses we'd be about $10 per day over budget. The coffee was mostly purchased in internet cafes so we could get connected on work days, and the booze helped us endure freezing nights and screaming children.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG 13 19 +6
Average Gas Price/Gallon $3.50 $3.93 +$0.43
Miles Driven 3,500 3,720 +220
Total Spent on Gas $942.31 $744.73 $197.58

We knew gas would be a bit of a question mark. Ideal mileage for our car is around 17, and we got 19 thanks to a lot of highway driving. We estimated 13 MPG for the entire trip and assumed we'd get the best results in the U.S. To offset that we intentionally lowered the cost of gas. The fact that we came out $200 ahead of budget is a bit of a surprise, especially considering we drove 220 more miles than expected.

Lessons Learned

  • Eating dinners out is expensive. For the cost of three dinners we could have bought two weeks worth of groceries for three people.
  • Expect to pay more for camping if you want showers, laundry and wifi. It may cost $20 to stay in a state park, but an RV park with tent camping and all of the amenities will be more like $30 or $35 near popular destinations.
  • Free wifi in internet cafes is not free. If you sit in a coffee shop, you should buy something to drink or have breakfast or lunch. Those costs can add up.
  • Free wifi at a campsite is a big bonus. The weather can be a hassle, if it rains you may need to hole up in the laundromat, or if it's sunny, find shade. Either way, if you need to spend a day online, wifi camping is probably your cheapest option.
  • Long driving days tend to be the most expensive on average. One or two fill-ups at the gas station and the possibility of eating out for lunch or dinner will easily run you over budget. Pack lunches and plan easy-to-cook dinners once you arrive at your location.


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