Never Buy A Boat

i'm_on_a_boatI just returned to San Antonio from vacation with my family on Cape Cod, where my daughters and I gratefully survived an afternoon excursion on my brother’s boat.

Our survival requires a bit of explanation.

As you’ve come to expect, my tale has a pithy moral and financial lesson at the end.

In the summer-oriented village on Cape Cod where I grew up, there are only two types of families: Tennis families and boating families. We were the former. Meaning, we could wield a Wilson Pro Staff on clay like Excalibur, but give us the main sail in a quiet harbor and we’d run the bow straight into a dock, probably tangling up everybody’s fahkin’ lobstah pots in the process.

I recall this family history because my brother shockingly transgressed the sacred Tennis Family/Boat Family divide four years ago: He bought an 18-foot Boston Whaler, an ‘unsinkable’ vessel common to these parts.

I put ‘unsinkable’ in quotes because he nearly drowned the whole family shortly after we left the harbor.

As a finance guy, a part of my brain began to calculate the per-hour cost of boat ownership, even as we gunned the engine out of the harbor at top speed, slapping the hull from wave-top to wave-top. (Yes, I know, this is the part of my brain where fun goes to die.)

My daughters seemed to enjoy the brutal bouncing over the choppy waves well enough.

For my part, I white-knuckled the ride out. Does my brother really know how to drive this thing? Will we hit a rogue wave and my five year-old will just bounce up and over the side? Also, do I detect the distinct smell of burning money?

A close call

By his own telling, my brother hardly knows what most of the buttons on the dashboard to his Whaler do. Once out on the bay he (inadvertently I guess?) pressed a button for automatically filling up the hull with fresh sea water, (intended, we later learned, to preserve newly caught fish, but what did we know?) but he neglected to put in place the ‘stopper.’ Ocean water poured in around everyone’s feet. A hurried dash for the safety of the harbor followed. Only when we reached the guys on the dock – to complain bitterly to them about some defective hole in the bottom of the boat – did we learn that there’s a button to control the inflow and outflow of seawater. So, yeah.

Now, as I mentioned already, boat ownership and a death-defying expedition like this offer important moral and financial lessons for all of us about what not to do.

Of course, the unforgivable sin isn’t so much the near boat-sinking part. We had life vests. Nor is the central issue my brother crossing over the Tennis/Boat family borderline, as radical as that undoubtedly must sound to all of you. No, for me as the finance guy, it’s the cost of this damned thing.

Note: Not my actual terrified family, just a Google image

I know roughly what he paid for it. I know more or less what he pays for storage at the harbor throughout the year. There’s the Spring and Fall mandatory maintenance costs, prep for the Summer season (about three months long) and Winter in storage (about nine months). Plus fuel, insurance, and tips for the harbor guys.

Here’s one of the problems: my brother can’t use it very often. The season on Cape Cod only lasts a few months. It’s only fun in a Whaler if you can go with other people, but that’s not easily arranged. His son gets motion sickness and refuses to step on the boat.

I noticed my brother’s Whaler dashboard showed 44 hours of use since he bought it four years ago. Then I calculated the per-hour costs of boating because – as I mentioned – I hate fun. I don’t know if you know this, but boating is an expensive activity. It’s a bit like golf, only if golf cost 100 times more per hour. Seriously. I did the math and everything.

The Lesson

The financial point here is two-fold.

First, obviously, never ever buy a boat.

Never thought I’d be on a boat…

A yacht-owner of my acquaintance once told me he rued the day his childhood best friend introduced him to the joys of boating. “One of the most expensive decisions of my life,” says the yacht-owner.

When it comes to boats, that’s the rule, not the exception.

Boat ownership is like taking out your net worth into the open ocean, weighing it down with stones, and making it walk the plank. Boat ownership is like wadding up a tightly packed cannonball of all your $100 bills and firing it at Old Ironsides. Buying a boat is like sending your life’s savings into the Bermuda Triangle in the midst of hurricane season.

Be the First Mate

But what if you really love being out on water? The best strategy there is to find a friend or a relative who has a boat, and be the go-to First Mate for their boating needs. The boat owner – desperate because his son never wants to go with him, or his wife doesn’t really love wake-boarding, or there’s only so many hours of silent beer-drinking-while-staring-at-the-horizon his friends can handle – will always invite you out.

As that go-to friend you’ll get all the benefits and none of the costs of boat ownership. What I’m trying to say is I think being a boat-mooching hanger-on can be a really smart financial decision.

The second more general lesson – applicable to all manner of financial situations – Don’t buy into something you really don’t understand.

You’ll end up like my brother, stabbing at buttons on the instrument panel, nearly drowning your relatives on a calm day just outside the harbor.

A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News.


Post read (11665) times.

8 Replies to “Never Buy A Boat”

  1. I went out on Jim’s boat today – tightening my life-jacket straps before we got underway, having read the blog. Perfect weather and only a light breeze but still a fairly rough ride. We only went a half hour away, waded ashore for lunch, and then zoomed back. Hard to beat for a beautiful two to three hours if you are looking for pleasure and not worrying about the cost! Part of the cost comes from the guys meeting us at the dock, us hopping off, and their taking care of the boat from then on. Loved it!

  2. Of course there’s another side of the coin. Having spent several yrs with my wife and 2 kids on a sailboat, sailing nearly all the way around the world, we then sold the boat for more than we paid for it. Including ALL net costs over 3 yrs, we significantly underspent the typical family-of-four’s living expenses. Not unusual, and clearly a different boat & lifestyle than described, but let’s not throw the boat out w/ the bathwater, just be smart about it.

  3. “A boat is a hole in the water that can only be repaired by shovelling money into it”.
    I forget who said this first, but it is so true.

  4. I really love your writing style. I laughed out loud at some of your descriptions. I also love “fahkin’ lobstah pots”.

    I owned a Whaler too many decades ago. Was almost sucked in to plopping $70k on latest and greatest here in 2018…but I won’t !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please Complete * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Public Speaking


I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

Michael C Taylor's books on Goodreads


The Financial Rules for New College Graduates: Invest Before Paying Off Debt--And Other Tips Your Professors Didn't Teach You


Most Viewed Posts