The big problem with living in a cheap country (and how to deal with it)

cheap hotel in bangkok
Yes, it’s a five-star hotel. No, it means nothing.

When we started our own business, we did what so many location independent entrepreneurs did: we flew to Thailand for a few months to keep costs low and live an incredible lifestyle full of mangoes and massages.

We’re from a country where a supermarket sandwich costs £4, so it was a bit of a hand-clappy moment when we realised that the digital nomad blogs weren’t lying: our money really could go on for miles. And we knew that even if we didn’t pick up a single client or sell one solitary book (our two income streams at the time), we’d be fine.

And therein lies the big problem that no one seems to talk about:

When you live in a cheap country to start up a business, your runway is too bloody long

In business, a runway is the amount of time you’ve got to make your business generate a profit. The length of your runway is equal to the amount of cash you’ve got in the bank, divided by your “burn rate” – or the amount of money you burn through in a month.

If you’ve got a bit of cash in the bank and you’re doing odds and sods of freelance work (or you’ve got a book on Amazon that sells a few copies a month), that wouldn’t get you very far in a Western country. But in a Southeast Asian country, that’s possibly enough to get by on FOREVER.

“What’s the problem with that?”, you might ask. “If I never had to worry about making money or spending money, that would be pretty amazing.”

Not so.

Why is a long runway a problem?

You’re less likely to make a real go of your business

Money pressure is a big deal: it’s terrifying to be in a position where you need to start making good money soon. And for that reason, it’s also really motivating: when you need to make money, you put all your effort and focus into that.

In a cheap country, that form of motivation has a risk of going AWOL – you can live in luxury without any form of business success. And because of this, many people lose their momentum as soon as they arrive and realise they can have a two-course dinner in a nice restaurant for less than the price of a lip balm.

It’s such a wasted opportunity, because digital nomad hubs like Chiang Mai, Saigon and Ubud are perfect for knuckling down: there’s a plethora of wifi cafes, heaps of likeminded individuals, and services on tap so that you don’t have to take time away from your work.

If you don’t make a go of your business, you’ll find yourself with an accompanying problem…

You won’t want to live in cheap countries forever

Well, you might. But you’d also probably like the option of living in any country of your choosing. Also, your family is bound to get miffed if you never return home for weddings and holidays.

Basically, you NEED to make good money so that you have the option to move around freely. It’s wonderful to be somewhere like Chiang Mai, but I’m sure we’d think of it as more of a trap if we knew we couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.

You’ll start to think you’re more successful than you really are

You can get massages every day. You can order seafood in restaurants. You can charter a taxi to take you up to a resort in the mountains, wait all day for you, then bring you home again. You can eat fresh fruit all day every day. You can stay in an apartment with a maid service, pool and gym.

None of this means you’re rich OR successful. It means you’re living in a cheap country.

We’ve come across many people who think they’re mega-successful, even though back home they’d be nothing of the sort. Our friend calls them “Losers at Home” – or LAHs. You don’t want to be one – firstly because you’ll come across as a knobend, and secondly because it’s not a nice feeling to go home and realise you were kidding yourself for a few months.

What can you do about it?

Give yourself goals to reach

If you give yourself specific goals – rather than have a vague hope to “set up a business” – you’ll be more likely to achieve stuff.

The more specific your goal, the more you’ll be able to find ways to achieve it. When you write down your goal, try to include as much who/what/where/when information as possible. E.g. “By the time I leave Thailand on x date, I want to have at least 60 people paying me monthly for my SAAS product.”

(We wrote a whole blog post about goal-setting here.)

Know what you’re doing before you go

If your aim is to travel to SE Asia and figure out your business plans when you arrive, you won’t even be in a position to set the goals mentioned above. And that, combined with the alluring cheapness and realisation that you can live perfectly well without setting up a business, could lead to many lost months – possibly even years.

Embed yourself in groups of other people who are pushing themselves

Both offline and online, find hard-working and ambitious people who live lifestyles similar to yours and will keep you motivated and positive. You know the Jim Rohn quote: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

You could also join a forum. There are many out there, and we also have our own – The Anywhereist Group. It’s great at motivating people and helping them through sticky patches with their businesses, but it’s also fantastic for accountability – thanks to the “Progress journals” section. Basically, whenever anyone is about to start a project or wants to improve a certain aspect of their business (or indeed start a new business), they can write a progress journal about it. They add updates as they go along, and others in the group can chip in with ideas, suggestions or general support.

We’re astonished by the huge progress everyone’s making towards their goals – wherever they happen to live – as well as the invaluable advice they’re getting from others in the group.

Find out more about our forum.

Don’t lower your prices just because you’re somewhere cheap

Whether you’re selling services or a product, the fact that you’re living in a cheaper place has absolutely nothing to do with how much you charge. How much you charge is based on the value your service or product provides – and nothing more.

Also, what happens when you move somewhere more expensive? Your clients and customers don’t care that you’ve moved from Saigon to Sydney and the price of a baguette has suddenly gone up tenfold. They’re going to resent it if you increase your prices despite no discernible improvements in quality or service.

By keeping your prices in line with the value you provide for Western customers and clients, you’ll be able to make more money and move outside cheap countries when you’re ready.

Don’t think it’ll be easy just because other digital nomads are doing so well

If you choose to live in a city where lots of other digital nomads hang out, you’ll come across them frequently at wifi cafes or coworking spaces. And not meaning to generalise too much, but lots of them will do a lot of fist-pumping about yet another “big win”; they’ll talk loudly about acquisitions, tax-avoidance and investors; and they’ll spend precious little time getting down to any proper work.

And while you might hate their attitude, you might also start to think that building a business is easy. If these douchebags can become mega-successful despite spending most of the time tilting their chairs too far back and extolling the benefits of organic coconut oil, you’ll be fiiine: the opportunities and money will just start to roll in.

Except that often, it’s not real. Those douchebags usually aren’t nearly as successful as they make out; instead they’ve fallen into all the dangers associated with a long runway.

What do you think?

Do you struggle with motivation when you arrive in a cheap country?

Or do you have any advice for anyone who’s struggling with the transition?

Are you still living in your home country but planning to move out soon?

Let me know in the comments!