Career & Money

Competitive Camping and Fried Chicken: A Cross-Country Road Trip Money Diary

A friend of Man Repeller's keeps a money diary while on a road trip.

In this edition of MR Money Diaries, Annabel, a 29-year-old who’s on a road trip amid a life transition, documents her expenses for seven days.

I’m in the midst of starting a new life chapter. My husband, our cat and I are moving from San Francisco, where we’ve lived for the past seven or so years, to New York. The move was decided last fall when we realized we could no longer bear the questions from our families about when we were going move back (we’re both from the East Coast). Luckily, we had both hit a good place in our respective work lives to move on to the next project or whatever, so we decided that would be our last lease renewal.

We decided we didn’t want to just get on an airplane and show up in Manhattan. Instead, we’re currently taking a month to drive through the West, Canada, and New England, mostly camping with a few stops to stay with friends and in Airbnbs along the way. Noah, my husband, built out the back of our 2001 Honda CRV with a platform for a bed and lots of storage space. We do a good amount of camping in our regular lives, so we already had a lot of the “gear” required. Don’t worry; I flew our cat, Baby Angel, back to my mom’s house in Jersey. We’re not extreme enough to try to bring her on hikes.

I’m 29 and have been working in tech for the last three years. Noah is a woodworker and runs a skateboard magazine called Skate Jawn. God, we sound like two hipsters who have a million-dollar budget on House Hunters, but that’s not the case. Money is indeed a worry. I don’t have a job set up for when I get to New York, so watching my cash flow is a high priority. Noah and I also did a good amount of saving for the overall move. We are aiming to only spend the savings from two rainy day funds throughout this trip:

1. We began saving and rolling our loose change when we first got to San Francisco. Seven years later, we ended up with a little over $1,200.

2. At one of my restaurant gigs, I got some great advice from another server: Save every one dollar bill you ever get. If you get ones in your tip outs, save ‘em. If you break a five and get ones back, save ‘em. I didn’t 100% honor this, but after about nine months, I ended up with $1,000 stashed away. The little things, ya know?

Okay, enough with my Suze Orman impression; let’s get down to business. Here’s what I spent over the course of one week of our road-tripping.

Our seventh day on the road: Jackson Hole, Wyoming → Yellowstone National Park

Woke up to watch the sunrise on the Tetons with my buddy Jill, who’s been hosting us for the past two nights. We had to get up so early that the coffee shop in town wasn’t even open yet, so we tailgated and made coffee using our camping stuff while that big ole sun came up.The three of us got back to Jill’s house by 8 a.m. and pretended we were going to make breakfast and go for a hike, but really we all fell back asleep until 10:30 (come on, it’s Sunday).

Noah and I said our farewells and hit the road around noon. We spent half an hour in the parking lot of a gas station deciding if we should go west into Idaho to go on a waterfall/hot spring/campsite adventure (did I mention we’re trying to go to as many natural hot springs as possible?) or go straight to Yellowstone. Decided it was risky to go to the hot spring since it’s early in the season and it might be muddy or cold from the snow melt and headed for the Yellowstone west entrance instead.

It was kind of hectic when we got to the campsite. It’s first come, first served, and there were only a few spots. Four other campers pulled up as soon as we got there and jumped on claiming a spot before we could figure out what to do. It worked out in the end — we got a site, but there was a lot of pressure coming from adults trying to sleep outside for a minute.

Felt good about the amount we spent today. We prepped a bunch of food at Jill’s house the night before, so we were able to eat that instead of buying any meals.

Our eighth day on the road: Yellowstone National Park

We woke up and immediately reserved our site again after what we saw go down last night. One fun/gross thing about this campsite is there are elk and bison wandering through it almost all the time. It’s pretty cool, but there are huge mounds of scat (a.k.a. poop) everywhere. Neither of us stepped in any, but I wanted everyone to know the facts.

We’re pretty much sleeping on a wooden plank with two inches of padding on it, so I did a little fake yoga (stretching on a yoga mat) while Noah made coffee and breakfast, which was breakfast burritos we made back in Jill’s kitchen our last night there.

After we cleaned up breakfast, we turned our car from a bed on wheels back into a driving machine and headed into town. I stopped at the post office to pick up stamps. I’m trying to be good about getting and writing postcards everywhere we stop. It’s been nice to reflect on what we’re up to and to let the people I love know I’m thinking about them since cell phone service is generally limited most places we’re going.

We drove around to all the hot springs and geysers today. It’s pretty early in the season, so almost all of the trails are still closed from snowfall. There are these built-up walkways going through crazy fields of geysers and hot springs. The colors were nutty, and it kind of felt like we weren’t on earth anymore … but then a huge tour bus would unload and we’d be reminded where we were. We did see Old Faithful and got super touristy at the gift shop. Then we both started getting cranky, so I got us coffee and yerba mate to help us from turning on each other.

Ended the day with a rainbow over the lake and tons of sweet, tiny baby bison with their mamas near our camp. Came home with just enough sunlight to cook dinner (quinoa with veggies and beans) and play a rematch of gin rummy, which I lost sorely. I also wrote a couple postcards.

Our ninth day on the road: Yellowstone → Montana

We woke up and did the usual cook-breakfast-and-break-down-camp thing. Camping takes a lot of work. There isn’t really that much time to sit around and chill because we’re alway cooking or cleaning something. Sort of missing city life where I can go out and get a slice of pizza and not worry about having enough sunlight to finish up before the bears come. Just kidding about the bears (but not really).

Leaving Yellowstone today. We took one last walk around some very pretty and very stinky hot springs.

Made it to Montana! Hung out with our friend who makes pretty jewelry filled with the ashes of people’s dead pets. He took us out for some really good fried chicken, which felt fitting since we’ve been eating pretty lean the past couple of days. Went to the hardware store to get some stuff for reinforcing our bed in the car.

We took a drive to watch the sunset over some mountains. I’m sad to say that I’m getting a little numb to all this nature and beauty. I’m sure I’ll miss it once we get back to a city, though.

Our tenth day on the road: Montana

This was a big day for prep. We’re planning to be off the grid camping for the next week or so, meaning we need to have enough food ready to go. To make things easier, we like to pre-cook a few things and pre-chop as many veggies as we’ll use because chopping veggies outside can be a bummer.

Went to the little grocery store within walking distance from our friend’s house to get a couple things to make breakfast with. Then spent a few hours re-sewing the curtains we hang in the car for privacy while we’re sleeping. Noah took the opportunity to re-pack the car for the fourth time! It’s really getting more efficient, but he’s completely obsessed with everything having a place in the car. We then went to town to get more groceries at a bigger grocery store with more options for our next camp . Then back to prep mode.

Finally, we went out to dinner in town. Probably spent a little too much, but we wanted to say thanks to our friend for putting us up and showing us around town.

Our eleventh day on the road: Missoula and Flathead Lake, Montana

Very chill day, money-wise. We woke up and made breakfast and then hit the road to head north. Stopped in Missoula to do laundry at a laundromat and use Wi-Fi for planning, then kept heading north to a free campground near Flathead Lake. It was a really pretty drive; the area around Flathead is a microclimate where they can grow great cherries. It was too early in the season for us to actually try the cherries, but all the orchards were blossoming — very pretty stuff.

It was rainy when we got to the campsite. We caught a break in the rain to cook dinner and play some cards and then passed out. The rain sounded nice on the roof of the car.

Our twelfth day on the road: Lussier Hot Springs, Canada

Woke up from a rainy night camping by the lake and made a quick breakfast, then got outta there. We’re heading for Canada today! We stopped in the town near Flathead Lake to hit Safeway for some orange juice and kombucha because we felt like treating ourselves.

We made it over the border in no time, which I was worried about just because we have so much stuff with us. Not that there’s anything bad news in there — it would just take forever for them to search it all.

When we got to the hot spring, we met some friendly folks who had lots of tips about what to do in the parks. Eventually we found a nice campground near the hot spring, split a bottle of wine cause apparently it’s Friday and watched an epic sunset over the nearby lake.

Our thirteenth on the road: Banff!

Woke up a little later than we hoped. We were going to get a sunrise soak in the hot spring, but kinda overslept. Thanks Friday wine. We did eventually wake up and make it to the hot spring, though. Got a quick soak with a badass older couple who were chilling up to their chests in this very steamy water. Made coffee, breakfast and then lunch roadside, so we saved some money there.

It turned into a pretty expensive day once we got into Banff. We found a visitor’s center to get on Wi-Fi and figure out camping/activities, and I immediately needed greasy food for some reason. I was craving pizza and a beer, but this is Canada after all, so I got some poutine and Chardonnay. Not sure if that’s the Canadian equivalent, but I dug it.

Thanks to some tips we got from those hot spring friends we made yesterday, we shot to camp in the town next to Banff because the town itself is crazy expense. We found a nice little campground in Canmore. They didn’t have potable water available, so Noah went to the gas station down the road where apparently Dasani is doing a promotion and only selling water in six-packs of plastic bottles instead of one big jug … hi, we have too much plastic in the ocean, how is this a promotion? We got them anyway, so there’s that.

Went to bed early because we’re planning on a little kayak trip tomorrow.

I feel okay about the amount of money we spent. I think we were hoping to find more free camping along the way and not have that extra expense. For two people who are technically on vacation, this feels like a pretty low number. To be honest, we were already keeping track of our spending when Amelia asked me to get this going. It was nice to include some journaling on top of the tracking we had going. Cooking for ourselves has been a big change from our life in San Francisco. We definitely do a lot of cooking at home, but going out for drinks or dinner with friends is real life and it adds up. I’m hoping to be mindful of that when we get to New York. Hey, maybe I’ll keep this money diary train rolling, who knows?

Big takeaways and accomplishments are:

  • Got Noah into 2 Dope Queens.
  • Being in nature makes me happy, so I need to find ways to get into it when we live in New York. Ugh, what am I going to do during winter?
  • Going to bed without the TV on really improves my sleep.

Photo by Edith Young; Art direction by Emily Zirimis.

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