Are you making the wrong assumptions about digital nomads?

19 homes, one year

Our mental calendar is chock-a-block with lovey-dovey anniversaries: the first time we kissed, the day we moved in together, the day Rob proposed, our wedding, the first time I popped his blister… I say “our” mental calendar, but obviously I mean “my”: gender stereotypes are alive and well in the Mish ‘n’ Rob household.

Now though, we have a brand new type of anniversary to celebrate – and this is one that Rob’s been looking forward to as much as me: one full year as digital nomads. On this day (14 March) last year, we flew off to NYC, having left behind our jobs, our home, our favourite Indian takeaway and our Oyster cards.

Since then, we’ve lived in 19 different “homes” – sometimes for just a week, sometimes for whole months. We’ve set up a web design and copywriting business, written five books, started two blogs, invested in a buy-to-let property, and had the best year of our lives.

Yet almost every day we come across misconceptions about digital nomads that might put people off from doing it themselves – so I thought I’d use our one-year anniversary to set the record straight from our point of view…

Daddy isn’t paying

You don’t need a trust fund or a recently deceased millionaire relative to quit your job and start out on your own.

For the past year, lots of people have assumed we’re receiving banker’s-bonus-level pocket money so that we can afford flights, accommodation and an obscene amount of coffee – otherwise, the thinking goes, we wouldn’t have the guts to do all this.

Not true – and not true for most digital nomads.

Even if WERE gazillionaires though, would we ever stop washing our clothes in hotel baths? Not sure…

It just comes down to planning and being sensible. For example, we’d planned to quit our jobs a full year before we actually handed in our notice, and although we had absolutely no clue what we wanted to do after quitting, we knew we’d need some savings to tide us over.

I’d been saving up half my salary ever since I started a proper job after uni, and Rob had done the same. So we upped our savings ratio slightly in the final year, just to have as much as we could. (Admittedly we had a honeymoon that year, which ended up wrecking the budget slightly.)

We’d also been doing some Elance work on the side – to get into the mindset of being freelancers and earn a bit of extra cash.

We took a risk, but it was a calculated one. We had backup funds to support us while we figured out our best skills and our favourite kinds of work.

This is sustainable forever 

Pork belly, crispy pork and wonton soup with noodles for 40p

Lots of digital nomads make the most of “geographic arbitrage”: as freelancers, they get paid Western money to live like royalty in the far-cheaper Asian/South American countries. Which is awesome,and we’re having a week of that lifestyle in a swanky Bangkok hotel right now.

But many of them know they’d struggle financially if they had to move back to their home country at some point.

Plenty of other nomads, however, use geographic arbitrage in a different way. By earning Western money and living in cheaper countries, they only have to do a small amount of client work to meet their living expenses. The rest of their time can be used to set up businesses that don’t rely on trading time for money – and once this “passive” income builds up enough, they can go and live anywhere.

We’re in the middle of doing that. When we lived in Chiang Mai, an apartment cost £180 a month and a restaurant dinner was £3 for two people. Our money went much further, which meant we could take on far less client work and devote the rest of our time to setting up two new soon-to-be-launched businesses.

The intention is that these businesses will soon allow us to live anywhere without gasping in fear at the price of something.

…Even if you have a family

We’re pretty honest about how petrified we are about having kids: we’re just convinced they’ll be overloaded with a double whammy of all our combined issues and hang-ups.

Funnily enough though, one thing we’re no longer scared of is giving up this lifestyle for nappies, Teletubbies and inane chatter about teething – because we won’t have to. We’ve come across and read about so many amazing digitally nomadic families, and it really does seem like having kids in this sort of environment gives them a better education, and can make them more stable, happy and sociable.

If you want proof of how amazing it can be to travel with your kids, check out these blogs:

  • Escape Artistes: Theodora travels around the world with her ridiculously intelligent 12-year-old son, Zac.
  • A King’s Life: Two parents and two toddlers travel the world and aim to “live like a king”: richly, broadly and without the baggage of too much stuff.
  • Pearce on Earth: Brandon Pearce needs to work just a few hours a week so that he and his family can travel the world together.
  • Laptops, Nappies and Paradise: Carrie and Dave gave up their corporate lives in London, moved to Argentina, had a baby, and set up their own location independent business.

…Although it’s bloody tough if you have a dog

Sauce the dachsund – quickly brought out of hiding for a drink, a wee and a photo before the cafe staff noticed

Just ask Leanne and Leah, who run Start Somewhere and travel everywhere with their two miniature dachsunds. Taking animals around is a tough one, because they need a whole heap of injections and paperwork, and then you’re limited to accommodation, places to eat and trips/excursions that allow them.

It’s not necessary to always be travelling

The point about being a digital nomad is that you can travel around if you want to.

As Mike Elgan says in his excellent piece “I’m a digital nomad (and so are you)“:

“It’s not about traveling. It’s about choice. So if you can work from another town or another country but choose not to, you’re as much of a digital nomad as someone who does make that choice.”

Just knowing that you can move somewhere whenever you like gives you a great feeling of freedom and control over your life.

Everyone travels at very different speeds. Most of the time, we’re utter slowcoaches: we like to spend at least a few months in each place because it takes us forever to feel settled, and because we want a place to really feel like “home” rather than a travel destination.

Our buddies Ryan and Ang are also pretty tortoise-like:

“We’re advocates of slow travel, plain and simple… We originally thought we’d like to stay in places for three months, but we’re finding that six months seems to fit us quite nicely if we like our location.”

It’s very different from being a professional traveller

“I stayed in this WONDERFUL hotel room in the Sunshine Splendid Resort (they paid but all views are my own)”

“Professional travellers”, as we call them, are very different from digital nomads. These are people who travel almost non-stop and find ways to fund it/make money while they do so – usually by blogging and getting paid through sponsorship or advertisements. They also often stay in hotels or hostels for free, in return for positive “they paid for it, but my words are honest” reviews.

They love travelling, but they have to keep travelling (perhaps at a faster pace than they’d like) because that’s the only way they can make money: if they bore their readers by writing about the same Bulgarian town for 20 posts in a row, the advertisers and sponsors will stop paying up.

Here are some other differences between travellers and digital nomads.

You don’t need to be a techie

No, you probably can’t be a digital nomad if you’re a GP working in a specific surgery. Nor if you’re an estate agent operating in West London. If you want to own a shop, it’s possible to get someone else to project manage the day-to-day stuff, but it’s probably quite tricky.

But you don’t have to be a web designer, or a programmer, or a writer, either. Soon we’ll write a massive blog post about all the different business models that work wherever you are in the world, but for now, here are some ideas:

1: Webcam-to-webcam instead of face-to-face (e.g. online teaching, tutoring, counselling and professional development training)

Digital nomads who do this:

  • Tobin Hunt, a cognitive behavioural psychology who treats his patients online.
  • Jack, who offers personal/executive coaching through a website called BuddySchool.

2: Provide a service without being in the same country as your clients (e.g. HR consultants, marketing professionals, copywriters and accountants)

Digital nomads who do this:

  • Kent and Caanan run an HR consultancy business from wherever they are in the world.

3: Sell products without actually being there (we’re talking online retail here)

Digital nomads who do this:

4: Make passive income by selling your knowledge, experience or ideas without selling your time (ANYONE can do this by sharing their expertise via e-books, online courses and membership sites)

Digital nomads who do this:

  • Lau Hanly, who sells a course that helps women get fit and healthy.
  • Corbett Barr, who (among other things) runs a membership site offering video training to online businesses.

You won’t feel alone

Buddies! Stuart and Eloise from aminearlythereyet.com

We get lots of comments from people back home like “Oh you must be so lonely. And it must be so hard to make friends in a foreign country.” Or, “When you find friends, it must be so hard when one of you leaves. And it’s so sad you’re not making any real friends.”

We don’t feel that way. At all.

Firstly it’s easy to meet other digital nomads. And secondly, when we find ones who we like and they like us, it’s awesome to have a bond with them wherever they are in the world, and meet up when we happen to be in the same country. We keep up-to-date with each other’s lives through Skype and email, but we also have the opportunity to meet even more people whenever we’re travelling somewhere else.

When we go back to England, we always see our “original” friends, and that’s equally fantastic. We adore catching up with them, but we feel far from alone when we’re travelling.

Nowwww… over to you

So what do you think? Are you a digital nomad, and do you agree or disagree with my attempts to iron out the misconceptions? Do you even come across these misconceptions?

Are you thinking about becoming a digital nomad, and if so, what’s putting you off?

Have I made any incorrect assumptions myself?

Let me know in the comments!

  • http://global-goose.com Lee Carter @ Global Goose

    Whilst I follow Mike Elgan and love a lot of his stuff. I disagree with his assertion of being a Digital Nomad is just about “having the choice to travel” whether you want to or not.

    I am not saying you cannot travel slow. Settle down for a while in between. I just think a Nomad is someone who moves, no matter how slowly, just that they move.

    • http://jetsliketaxis.com Ryan from Jets Like Taxis

      I agree to an extent. The term I’d use here is “location-independent.” The very definition of “nomad” is one who is on the move.

      We’re both (albeit slow as they said), but I always tell people that they don’t have to be on the move. They can live wherever – forever – if they want to. The idea is to have the freedom to do so, or not to do so.

      Either way, we undoubtedly agree with what Mish and Rob, our UK doppelgangers, had to say in this post.

      • Rob @ Making It Anywhere

        Totally with you on this Ryan. I don’t really see how you can be a “nomad” without travelling, whereas “location independent” just connotes the possibility.

        I prefer “location independent” because (like you say) the freedom of having the option is 90% of the mental benefit.

        But then I always waste ages wondering if I should be hyphenating it or not, so digital nomad it is :)

        • http://jetsliketaxis.com Ryan from Jets Like Taxis

          Damn hyphens. Can’t win with ‘em, can’t win without ‘em.

          • Mish

            The hyphen issue drives me nuts! I’m convinced the term needs one (especially when there’s a noun after it, like “location-independent business”, but no one really uses one!

            Up until now, I’ve tended to use the terms “digital nomad” and “location independent/location-independent” interchangeably, but I think you, Lee and Rob are right that there’s a difference and that “nomad” implies at least a smidgen of movement.

  • http://aminearlythereyet.com/ Stuart Edwards @ Am I Nearly There Yet?

    Ohh you’ll miss those £3 shared dinners!

    One definitely doesn’t have to be a traveller to be a digital nomad.

    Being able to do what we do from the comfort of a sun-lounger is just one of the perks of running your own location independent business!

    Ultimately I want to work for myself, and if internet/blogging/writing and other avenues make me a digital nomad, then that I am!

    People definitely look shocked when we say we’ve been travelling for 2 years and that we make money on the move. I feel proud when I can say Eloise and I are digital nomads and have the lifestyle we choose!

    Nice picture of us guys by the way, it looks like you’re wearing one of Eloise’s floral headpieces ;)

    • Mish

      Oh goodness – it’s one of those “funny things sticking out of the head” photos and we didn’t even notice!

      We’re back in London and throwing a bit of a wobbly about the cost of our Sainsbury’s order (and the fact that we’ll have to darn well cook it ourselves). Missing the £3 dinners already!

  • http://www.colleeneakins.com Colleen Eakins

    Great post and great tips! I started doing my freelance business full-time a year ago and when I started out my intent was to be able to travel and work, but I did not know about digital nomads then. I am not fully nomadic yet, but I plan to be fully or semi-nomadic within three years. I am actually taking a reverse approach than most. I’m working hard on getting my business and passive income streams to a place where I wouldn’t have to worry about supporting myself once I am an “official” digital nomad. In the mean time, I have been travelling, but not on a global scale. I consider them test runs from a business perspective while still getting my travel “fix.”

    • Mish

      Thanks for SUCH an awesome comment, Colleen! I love your reverse approach – it makes a heap of sense and now I’m wondering why more people don’t do it (although perhaps they do?).

      I’d love to know more about your business and passive income streams!

  • http://aminearlythereyet.com/ Eloise @ Am I Nearly There Yet?

    We’ve really slowed down since the start of our travelling adventure and found that staying put for longer suits us much better. It’s good that you’re ironing out the misconceptions of being a digital nomad. It’s hard for people back home to understand what a digital nomad life is like. Looking forward to seeing you guys again!

    • Mish

      Thanks Eloise! Yep, travelling slow is definitely our preferred approach too. For the past month we’ve been moving about all over the place, and although we’re a bit miffed to be back rainy London, we’re relieved to be staying put for a whole month.

      We’ve discovered it’s pretty hard to get stuff done if you spend half your time weighing luggage and hoping that the number will magically go down 2kg after removing a deodorant stick. (Our last morning in Bangkok was about an hour of this sort of thing.)

      Looking forward to seeing you soon too!

  • http://www.adventurous-soul.com Shayna @ Adventurous Soul

    Great post. One assumption that I keep running up against (although this technically applies to anyone who works from home on a flexible schedule) is that because my schedule is technically flexible and set by myself, I have a LOT of free time / am available anytime.

    It always makes me feel slightly guilty when I say “no” to social invitations citing work as a reason… because I know that I technically could rearrange my schedule to go, but I’d have to give up something else and/or put in extra hours elsewhere in the week – whereas if I had a typical 9-5 the decision would be a no-brainer.

    Incidentally, I could NEVER be a “professional traveler” picking up jobs as I go – wouldn’t be able to stand the financial uncertainty. Somehow the uncertainty of wondering how many customers on my list are going to buy my next product is far more bearable than the uncertainty of going to a new city and “figuring things out” financially upon arrival!

    • Mish

      I KNEW I’d forgotten one on my list! We have exactly the same thing: because we can technically pick our hours, people assume we’ll always be free for the hours they pick for us to see them too.

      And I totally understand their point of view: if we talk about how we’ve just been to a 5pm movie (because we knew when our client calls would be that day and because we were up since 6am working), they’re bound to think we’re fine for a 5pm coffee the next day. I don’t think I can really blame anyone for thinking we have a lot of free/flexible time, but I do wish I could find a good way of explaining better that we don’t!

      We couldn’t do professional travelling either. In the post I sort of implied that I didn’t approve of that way of doing things, but I also think it takes a lot of chutzpah.

  • http://bkpk.me Ashray

    I really love this post. Came across your site through twitter reading the post about all the different business avenues you guys are exploring.

    It’s incredible how you guys are doing so much at once! Just want to say that being a digital nomad or a professional traveler aren’t mutually exclusive. We do both as and when the opportunities present themselves and we’ve stayed at some pretty nice places because of the ‘professional traveler’ bit. ;)

    In fact, our professional traveling could be counted as another one of our ‘business ventures’ :)

    By the way, where are you guys right now ? If you’re still in Thailand, we’d love to meet up! We’re heading to Thailand in 5 days (Woohoo!)

    • Mish @ Making It Anywhere

      Hey Ashray!

      We’re not in Thailand until January I’m afraid! How long will you be there, and which part of Thailand are you staying in? It’d be fab to meet up!

      We tend to differentiate between professional travellers and digital nomads, but I do see how they can overlap sometimes!

      Thanks for the comment, and hope to meet you soon!

      Mish

  • http://escapeartistes.com Theodora

    “Ridiculously intelligent…” Aw, bless you!…

    I think one point I’d caution against, though, is the idea that this life is achievable for all, or, for that matter, enjoyable for all. I see plenty of people, particularly with families, setting out on a big adventure and deciding it doesn’t work for them: that’s a learning in itself, and a valuable experience, and I’d still counsel everyone just to go.

    But it’s good to be aware that juggling work, travel and family can be extremely difficult. I suspect many of us also underestimate the skills required to achieve whatever it is that we achieve professionally: there’s only a relatively small subset of people who can make freelancing work, let alone businesses, and travel adds another layer of complexity into the mix.

    • Mish @ Making It Anywhere

      OK so this is probably THE uncoolest thing to say, but thank you so much for your comment! You’re one of our heroes!

      I know some digital nomad couples who’ve already planned to “settle down” as soon as they have kids because they just can’t bear the idea of all the juggling. So I totally understand (and agree) that the digital nomad lifestyle isn’t achievable or enjoyable for all families – even in cases where the parents had a stint at digital nomadism before having kids.

      But for us (and for lots of other couples), I think it’s just a massive relief to see people like you who ARE making it work, and who seem to be having the most amazing, fulfilling life. It shows it’s possible – and that there are huge benefits to it – even if it’s far from easy.

      Thank you for the constant inspiration and brilliant blog posts!