My wife and I are new to camping. Well, it sure seems that way. When we came to America over 30 years ago, we bought Kermit, our green camping van, which we took coast to coast three times.
We were young, our hair still had color. And we (being students) had time enough to see all the states (except, for some unexplained reason, West Virginia). But then, what I playfully call the American experience got hold of us: Work, work, work — no vacations, trying to get ahead, not being as financially responsible as we should have been. Before we knew it, 30 years had gone by … and we had forgotten such a thing as camping even existed. Because of work, our travels changed to ritzy resorts all over the place where we usually stayed for free (long story).
So, when my wife retired, our question changed from “What can we cram into a few days?” to “How are we going pass a whole year?” We knew the answer to at least part of that question when her Swiss nephew and his family came to the U.S. for their annual vacation. Because vacations in Switzerland are typically five weeks or more and our nephew's family wanted to tour several of our national parks, we offered our home as a place from which they could stage their adventures.
Jarred by an example of minimalism
They are 40-somethings with two kids, and they took with them the minimum you would need: tents, lanterns and a utensil or two. They got carried away by a million mosquitoes, rained out of their tents by several rainstorms, and then baked to a crisp by the ferocious summer sun we know all too well in the West. But … you couldn't wipe the grins off their faces with a Brillo pad!
I have to tell you. My first reaction to their minimalist approach was the line Tom Arnold delivered in the movie “True Lies”: “I've got two words for that. In. Sane!” No way was my creaking body doubling like a pocket knife and sleeping on the ground between the cactus and the ants.
Reassessing our assumptions
But then someone mentioned that uniquely American invention called the pop-up camping trailer. Long story (and it is a long one) short: We bought one last fall for $2,300 and stuck our toes in the camping water. Before Christmas, we went to Death Valley, California, and earlier this month we went to Moab, Utah. Along the way we learned a lot. The first time we set up camp, it took an hour and a half. Last time, we got it down to just over 20 minutes! We're still not what you would call savvy campers, but we're definitely getting there … slowly.
As we drove back over what I think is the prettiest stretch of interstate in the country (I-70 between Grand Junction and Denver), I got to thinking about what we've been learning and how it applies to managing money. Here are my takeaways.
7 things camping can teach you about managing money
1. It's always possible to save money. You can camp for $80 a night without batting an eyelid. But you can also camp for free. The only difference is your tolerance for DIY and your dependence on indoor plumbing.
We looked at the supposedly nice campsites and observed that they typically just had hundreds of enormous rigs packed together like sardines, with no space, view or anything to do with the outdoors. Essentially, they appear like urban apartments to me, just with a different address.
On the other hand, there are scenic campgrounds aplenty, costing from $5 to $15 a night. (It's $20 along the coast.) It takes a little research to track them down, but that work pays off with the money saved.
Here is our site. (That little white dot bottom right is our little camper, from across the Colorado River.)
Not too many Hyatts or commercial campgrounds offer a setting like that, or a view from the dinner table like this:
The best part to me was our old, retired, creaky bones could sit on decent chairs, sleep on soft, king-sized beds perched high off the ground, and eat at a proper table.
For $5 a day with our Senior Pass!
Were we younger, it would be $10 a day. (Being old has its benefits, as we pointed out earlier, but even $10 a day is hard to beat.) The very first camping trip we took (with friends showing us the way) was in a national forest … and it was free!
In life, there are also plenty of opportunities to save money and pile it into your savings account if you put your mind to it. You can decide to eat out less, drive less, live in cities/suburbs with lower insurance rates, endure a little heat or cold. If you look for reasons not to save, of course you will find them; but if you look for ways to save, you'll find those too. It all depends on where you focus your attention.
2. It takes a bit of work to save money. This is true for any expense, as pointed out above. With camping, you do everything yourself — the maid service, the laundry, the maintenance, utilities, etc. — but you save a ton.
In life, the same is true for many things. Doing your own gardening, washing your own car, doing your own nails — there are pages of ways to save by doing the work yourself. When you do splurge and go out for a nice dinner, for example, self-park rather than use the valet.
3. You usually have to sacrifice something to save money. As the saying goes, you get nothing for nothing. In our case, we sacrificed air conditioning and maid service. Moab in June is, shall we say, not the coolest place on Earth. However, we endured nothing like the family in the picture above did. We were fortunate to have a short blast of rain every afternoon to cool things off. (Hooray for our waterproof camper!)
In life, the same applies: a smaller home, smaller car, lower end of the fashion ladder. These sacrifices all translate to savings; the payoff comes in the future if you keep at it and build your savings account and investments.
4. Saving doesn't need to mean extreme deprivation. It's not like we had to eat toads or anything like that. In fact, we brought along pretty much what we would have eaten at home. (Okay, maybe a few meaty treats for the grill slipped into the cooler by themselves. But we made them pay. haha!) And on the final night, we had to use some bug spray to fend off a few pesky mosquitoes. But that was about it.
Staying in a smaller home is not the same as having to sleep in your car, and eating more vegetables because they're cheaper than meat doesn't mean you have to die of hunger. If you apply #2 above, it's amazing what options are out there to save without reverting to extreme deprivation.
5. You can have fun while you save money. There are always other things to do. We elected to drive around and that used up gas, but there are several other activities which cost nothing. We scouted out the area for other campsites and I remember one lady sitting by the picnic table at her site, just reading, as the Colorado River flowed by before her. I felt a wistful pang: I wish I had thought of that.
I still wrestle with the mindset that if I take the time and effort to come this far, I had better cram my days full of sightseeing, by golly. But really, what's wrong with sitting by a picnic table overlooking a river flowing by and doing, well, nothing? Some people bike, others hike, and many float down the river in their canoes. They're all fun activities that really don't cost that much.
The same applies to real life. We don't have to spend every weekend in a movie theater or at a ballgame eating $8 hot dogs to find enjoyment.
6. A money-saving mindset can lead to experiences you would miss otherwise. If we didn't decide to save money on our travels, we'd never have met the little girl who loved our little dog so much she insisted on inviting it to her next birthday party.
If you apply this to regular living, you find that, for instance, playing board games with friends is a terrific way to add memories and build relationships.
Call me old, but I have come to realize that, when you look back in life, it's the relationships we remember, the happy times of laughing that really matter.
I once had one of the coolest cars in the country, but over time that joy has faded compared to the happy times I've spent with friends and family (and we're blessed that we're friends with most of our family).
7. Saving money always leaves you feeling better. This is true in many ways. We are pretty proud that our week in Moab cost us not much more than $20 in accommodations. Not only is it nice to have some money that otherwise would have disappeared into something that's gone now, but there is a sense of achievement that's hard to put your finger on. “Yeah, look at that: we were able to score such and such.” We've been to Disneyland many times, but the one we remember best is the one where we got in for free because we did some work for them and an employee gave us her pass for the day.
Why is that? I don't know. All I know is that every time we find a way to save on something, it imparts that little warm glow of: we did all right! Landing a deal with a low-cost cell phone contract just makes us feel better. Saving just does something inside.
To be honest, I wasn't convinced “they” would be able to turn me into a camper. But now that I see how much cheaper it is, the lack of air conditioning is more than made up by the rest of the experience. Same with all those saving choices we made when we went into our “emergency catch-up” savings mode.
Has camping taught you about managing your money? Please share if your perspectives have changed about camping or about how you manage your money in the comments!
Author: William Cowie
William Cowie spent 30 years in senior management (CFO/CEO) before retiring. He has a bachelor's, a master's, and a partial doctorate in management and strategy. Author of the book “The Four Seasons of the Economy,” William also assists medium-sized businesses in the use of the Four Season Strategy to help them capitalize on economic cycles. He runs two blogs: Bite the Bullet Investing (investing) and Drop Dead Money (the economy) and writes for several other blogs in addition.