Making a living as a digital nomad

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May 14, 2021
5 minute read

If you’re looking for more freedom and fulfillment in your life, becoming a digital nomad might be the right move for you. As remote work and self-employment continue to rise, so does the appeal of being able to make a living while traveling the world.

That’s what a digital nomad is—someone who can work from anywhere. They aren’t confined to an office or even a time zone. They can take their work with them wherever they go, opening up an endless range of lifestyle possibilities.

It’s totally possible to run a thriving business on the road. It does, however, take strategic planning and a specific set of skills. In this article, we’ll go over what it looks like to be a digital nomad, the benefits and challenges, and ways to prepare for life on the road.

What is a digital nomad?

When most people hear the term digital nomad, they imagine someone jet-setting around the world or working beach-side from their laptop. While this can certainly be the case, a digital nomad is simply someone who is location independent. Instead of just running a business from home, they get to choose where and when they work. The way someone takes advantage of this freedom is entirely up to them.

Yes, you can live on the beach and hop between countries on a whim. But many digital nomads travel at a slower pace, moving between long-term rentals every few months or traveling across the country in an RV. That’s right, you can never leave your own country and still be a digital nomad!

You get to decide what being a digital nomad looks like for you. You get to choose where you’ll travel, what pace you’ll move at, and the work you’ll do.

Why become a digital nomad?

Many people become digital nomads because they crave a major lifestyle change. They like the freedom that comes with not being tied down or having the responsibilities that come with homeownership. Digital nomads tend to live a minimalist lifestyle. They are happy with few belongings, constant change, and the joys and challenges that come with an unconventional lifestyle. Some digital nomads travel alone while others travel with a partner or kids.

It’s important to understand that being a digital nomad isn’t the same as going on vacation—you need to make a living while traveling. Digital nomads are self-employed business owners or freelancers. They have a skill, such as freelance writing or consulting, that they are able to monetize with as little as a laptop and internet access.

Benefits of being a digital nomad

There are a host of upsides to being able to live and work from wherever you want. They include:

  • Flexibility: Set your own schedule and design a routine that works for you.
  • Freedom: Choose where you want to live and travel at your own pace.
  • New experiences: Meet new people, explore new areas of the world, and experience different cultures.
  • Owning less stuff: Some people find immense freedom in having less stuff to own and take care of. Many digital nomads sell the bulk of their belongings, including their house or car if they own them, before traveling.
  • Saving money: Many digital nomads are able to maintain a lower cost of living because they have fewer expenses. Owning less means less overhead. You can also live in inexpensive areas.

Challenges of being a digital nomad

All of these upsides, however, come with a cost. Here are some of the challenges that come with so much freedom:

  • Lack of stability: Not having stable housing, or a home base to come back to, can be a stressor. Being self-employed also comes with its own instability. Your income and cash flow might not be consistent month to month.
  • Hard to create boundaries between personal and professional life: Due to constant change and time zone differences between you and your clients, it can be difficult to create a healthy routine. It’s easy to find yourself constantly working which can lead to burnout. It’s important to set office hours for yourself and prioritize downtime to actually enjoy the places you’re living.
  • Constant change can be draining: It takes a surprising amount of energy to acclimate to a new place. Every time you move you have to find your local grocery store, understand cultural norms, and make new friends. This takes more time and mental bandwidth than many expect.
  • Loneliness: Being a digital nomad can be isolating. You lack a sense of permanent community and can miss friends and family back home. It’s important to stay connected with loved ones and find people who support your lifestyle.

Skills needed to be a successful digital nomad

Making a living as a digital nomad isn’t for everyone. Some people thrive on change and new experiences, others don’t. These are some skills you’ll need to be successful:

  • Discipline: You must be able to prioritize work and meet your deadlines. This can be hard when you’re moving frequently or jetlagged.
  • Planning and organization: From sorting out accommodation to managing your finances, you’ll need excellent planning and organization skills to stay on top of your business and life on the road.
  • Self-motivation: Digital nomads are self-starters. They understand that this isn’t a free vacation and they have to put in the work to create the lifestyle they desire.
  • Flexibility: The one constant on the road is change. Being flexible will help you roll with the punches and make the most of every opportunity.
  • Resilience: Being comfortable with uncertainty, learning from your mistakes, and the willingness to keep going is crucial. Successful digital nomads have resilient personalities and are able to balance optimism with practicality.

How to prepare for and test out this new lifestyle

A great deal of prep goes into transitioning to this lifestyle. But you don’t have to dive in all at once. There are ways to test the waters to see if being a digital nomad is right for you.

  • Try it for a month first: If you don’t have experience working while traveling, test it out first to see if you like it. Rent out your home and live somewhere else for a while. Knowing you can return will greatly reduce the stress of trying something new.
  • Know how you’ll make money: Ensure you have a plan to make money online. Start your business and establish a stable income before you travel. Transitioning to both self-employment and location independence at the same time can be overwhelming.
  • Downsize and reduce your expenses: Anything you don’t take with you you’ll have to keep in storage. Decide what you want to sell and what’s worth keeping. If you own a home, renting it out while you travel might give you a sense of security or it might feel like a burden. Only you can decide what’s right for you!
  • Build an emergency fund: Create a savings account for unexpected expenses. A good rule of thumb to aim for is enough money to cover six months of living and business expenses.
  • Set up your business finances: You’ll need a system to manage your invoicing, bookkeeping, accounting, and banking while traveling. Strong financial management is vital to running a profitable business. Try Wave’s free accounting software to keep things simple and do everything in one place.
  • Set goals and create a plan: Have income goals for your business, create a budget for your spending, and make a plan that supports you.
  • Join a community: Finding a community of like-minded people will help inspire you and reduce feelings of isolation. Seek out an online community so that you can stay connected no matter where you are.
  • Have a backup plan: Know what you’ll do if traveling doesn’t work out. If you come back home do you have friends or family you can stay with temporarily? Do you have an emergency fund to help you move back home or relocate?
  • Learn from other people’s experiences: Reading books by other successful digital nomads is a great way to get inspiration and see if this lifestyle is right for you. Some popular books include Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau, and Adventures in Opting Out by Cait Flanders. You can also get inspiration and insights from digital nomad interviews and case studies.

In summary

Making a living as a digital nomad can be both liberating and fulfilling. The sky is truly the limit when it comes to designing this lifestyle. Remember that your version of being a digital nomad doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Get creative, stay curious, and enjoy the journey!