Accountant retires to cruise ships to avoid land-based living expenses

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When Angelyn Burk, a recently retired accountant, decided to crunch some numbers one night last year, she made an amazing discovery: It would be cheaper for her and her husband to spend their retirement permanently aboard cruise ships than further ashore to live.

“This is how I want to retire,” Angelyn, 53, decided at that moment. “Life is too short.”

She turned to her husband, Richard Burk, and said, “We can do this. Let’s make cruise ships our home.”

To her delight, he was on board. The couple had thoroughly enjoyed nearly 10 cruises together in the past, and they share a shared love of travel as well as a shared disdain for airports.

They researched online and found that they could string trips together on different cruise lines for, on average, significantly less money than their collective living expenses on land. All they had to do was hop from ship to ship, taking small breaks in between.

“We calculated that on about $100 a day we could live pretty comfortably with what we saved,” said Richard, 51, who retired last month as a computer programmer.

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“It became a no-brainer,” said Angelyn, who resigned from her job as an accountant in 2019 and briefly bartended before the pandemic.

The Burks are frustrated by the rising cost of living on land, they said. Along with the mortgage, internet, electricity, property taxes, insurance, and other costs associated with owning their Seattle home, the couple was spending more than $3,500 a month. This does not include food, transportation, entertainment and other expenses of daily living.

On a cruise ship, on the other hand, “there are no extras. The price is the price,” Angelyn said. Spending your retirement at sea, she concluded, would be “so much cheaper.”

“By living on a cruise ship, you get your room, you get meals, you have built-in entertainment, you go to different places,” her husband reiterated. “That’s hard to top.”

Their next cruise is scheduled for July, from which point they plan to cruise back-to-back for about nine months with some short shore breaks. Between cruises they are a kind of nomad, visiting family and friends and staying in Airbnbs and hotels, mostly paying for them with credit card points.

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They’ve put their retirement plan to the test over the past year, with a nine-day carnival cruise from Miami to the Bahamas in November, a seven-day carnival cruise from Long Beach, California to the Mexican Riviera in March, and a 21-day Holland America cruise from Fort Lauderdale through the Panama Canal, ending in Vancouver in mid-May. The couple are now staying with family in Seattle and are awaiting the birth of their fourth grandchild and their son’s graduation from the University of Washington in June.

Although they haven’t sold their house or car yet, they plan to do so soon. Three of her five children, aged 21 to 28, live in her home and pay for the mortgage and other expenses.

Although rare, the concept of spending long distances at sea – especially as a pensioner – is not unheard of. A handful of so-called “cult cruiser” have even gained fame for it, and some lines have started offering them extended holidays for snowbirds.

“It’s definitely caught fire lately in terms of people who see this as a prospect,” said Collen McDaniel, the editor-in-chief of cruise critic, a cruise ship review site. “We’ve heard from a number of people doing this over the years and we’re hearing more and more [of it].

While the pandemic temporarily disrupted the cruise industry, it’s making a comeback, and recently Cruise Critic published a Poll on Twitterasking, “Would you retire at sea?” Of the 141 respondents, 43 percent agreed, “Yes, sign me up!” and 33 percent agreed, “Maybe, if it’s feasible.”

McDaniel said the financial savings are a huge benefit to the long-term cruise lifestyle, adding that the Burks’ $100-per-day budget is “perfectly doable.”

The cost of cruises varies greatly depending on the amenities. Budget-friendly trips can cost as little as $50 per day — not including taxes, fees and tips — and luxury lines, which tend to have more inclusive fares, can cost $500 per person per day, McDaniel said.

Many mainstream cruise lines have loyalty programs, meaning “the longer you stay, the better perks you get,” she said. “By building that loyalty and staying on the same page, you’re really going to save some money.”

Aside from the financial benefits, there’s a simplicity to cruising, she said, as well as a built-in social life.

The Burks said they weren’t concerned about some of the potential downsides of life on a ship – such as seasickness, which they said they were immune to. They are also unfazed by living in a tiny shack.

In fact, on their most recent cruises, they only brought one backpack each. On their last 21-day cruise through the Panama Canal this month, neither of them brought a suitcase.

“It’s more liberating for us if we just have a backpack so we don’t have to lug around a lot,” Angelyn said.

Many ships offer a paid laundry service which they sometimes use, although they often choose to hand wash their clothes in the sink.

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The couple has long tried to maintain a minimalist lifestyle. It all started in 2013 when they were moving to Seattle from Portland, Texas and their moving truck had an accident on the way.

“Everything inside was on fire,” Richard recalled. “We ended up really decluttering our lives. That’s when we started having a minimal amount of stuff.”

Living mostly on ships, the couple said will help them achieve their goal of piling up fewer items and spending less. Additionally, Coordinating her days on land, Angelyn said, is “part of the planning” and factored into her carefully calculated budget.

“I’m not going to say that this is an easy way of life,” she said, explaining that finding good deals and planning cruises sometimes feels like a full-time job.

“We’re constantly going online and looking at different cruise lines to see what cruises they offer and the cheapest way to travel to a certain place,” Richard said. He added that he and his wife would rather book Holland America Cruises for music and entertainment. “We don’t really care where we travel to.”

They said constant cruising is worth the time it takes to plan.

“It’s like being at home,” Angelyn said. “We have a gorgeous living room, an absolutely gorgeous dining room, and a hot tub that never needs maintenance.”

Living on the water means not hearing “ambulances, sirens, screams and roars.” It’s just a quieter existence,” she added.

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The Burks enjoy a variety of activities offered onboard, including film screenings, comedy performances, and arts and crafts classes. They usually disembark to explore the area whenever the ship stops at ports, although sometimes they choose to stay on the ship and relax.

Her next voyage is a 50-day Europe cruise in the summer, followed by a 108-day Australia cruise in the fall.

As long as it remains financially feasible, the Burks intend to continue cruising — forever.

“That would be our dream,” said Richard.

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