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El Salvador Budget Recap

Written by Jared on April 17, 2012

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.

Yeah, I know, it's only been a two weeks since my last budget update. How much more of this can you take? The good news is that after our next country (Nicaragua) you won't have to endure two budget updates in the same month ever again. We're zipping our way through the smaller Central American countries, partly because we don't have much time left on a three-month CA-4 visa and partly because we have places to be and people to meet up with in Costa Rica.

We spent 11 days in El Salvador, the same time amount of time we spent in Belize, where we were over budget by nearly $200. Fresh off the $900 we were over in Guatemala, repairing on damaged budget became a high priority. The good news? We were $200 under budget in El Salvador, and we still managed to spend a bit of money having fun.

Budget Recap

Number of Days in El Salvador:  11
Budgeted Per Diem:  $88.55
Actual Per Diem:  $70.30
One-Time Expenses Spent:  $0
Total Spent:  $773.31
Total Budgeted:  $974.00
El Salvador Balance:  +$200.69

El Salvador uses US dollars, so we were a bit more in our element and didn't have to juggle numbers in our head before every transaction.

Our $200 surplus was due to two big things - our gas budget was (as usual) way more than we needed, and we hardly ever ate out. We camped 7 nights out of 11 and cooked almost every meal. While the nights we spent in hotels were relatively expensive, over $40 on average, the places we stayed had kitchens or were near supermarkets so we could buy cheap food and eat in our room. In the past our gas savings have gone towards higher-than-expected food costs, but not this time.

Per Diem Breakdown

Lodging Total:  $259.00 34.79%
Groceries:  $186.75 25.08%
Gas:  $99.00 13.30%
Entertainment and Tours:  $80.00 10.75%
Eating Out:  $69.00 9.27%
Laundry:  $16.50 2.22%
Coffee/Booze:  $13.75 1.85%
Park Fees:  $10.00 1.34%
Camp Fuel, Charcoal, Firewood:  $9.00 1.21%
Tolls and Parking:  $1.50 0.20%

When lodging, groceries and gas are our top three expenses, everything is as it should be. No car problems, no expensive meals out, no pricey tours or outrageous park fees.

The $80 entertainment cost was for a two hour horseback tour of a coffee plantation. Normally this sort of thing would come out of personal money (not tracked as a group expense) but we were so far under budget we didn't care this time.

Food and Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping:  50% 67% +17%
Average Camping Cost:  $15.00 $13.71 -$1.29
Average Hotel Cost:  $35.00 $40.75 +$5.75
Total Food Expenses:  $255.75 $275.00 -$19.25

Of our 11 days in El Salvador we camped for 7. We ate out a whopping 3 times, a breakfast and two lunches. We cooked every dinner we ate, a big reason we saved money in this country.

Hotel costs were higher than we'd grown used to in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Luckily we bumped up our hotel budget before leaving Guatemala. We heard from other travelers ahead of us to expect to spend a bit more for hotels through the rest of Central America.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG: 13 16.22 +3.22
Average Gas Price $USD/Gallon: $4.50 $4.89 +$0.39
Miles Driven: 600 439 -161
Total Spent on Gas: $99.00 $270 +$171.00

Savings on gas was half the reason we were so far under budget. We drove less than expected, only staying in five locations in the tiny country, plus one half-day side trip from San Salvador.

Gas prices continue to be more than budgeted, largely because we fill up with higher-octane gas whenever possible. But our estimated mileage of 13MPG is far too low, which more than makes up for the difference.

Lessons Learned

  • I've said it before, and I'll say it again: cook your own meals. That's the biggest way you can make a difference on a daily basis with your travel budget.
  • If you care about saving money on food costs, plan ahead and research hotels with kitchens. It's worth paying $10 or even $20 more a night for a hotel if you can cook for yourself.
  • Spend time researching camping in advance. Guidebooks are practically useless, but with a few hours online or buying beers for other travelers, you can discover cheap and excellent campgrounds.
  • Air conditioned rooms are easily 30% more expensive than rooms without, but unless you're used to 95 degree heat, it's worth it if you need a good nights sleep.
  • If you don't want air conditioning make sure you say something if it's unclear what your options are. Hotels may try to sell you the more expensive AC rooms without mentioning the cheaper alternatives.

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