After deciding to become a digital nomad around South America, I got the chance to land jobs in running a hostel in Ecuador, shoot stunning travel photography, and experiences I’ll never forget. In this post, I’ll show you the exact plan I would follow if I could start over again. But first, let’s get a little background information.
What is a digital nomad? A digital nomad is a traveler who earns money through technology like the internet, computers, and other digital mediums. Since their lifestyle is mainly location-independent, they can find it beneficial to work in foreign countries, coffee shops, and in coworking spaces.
What is Digital Nomad Lifestyle?
Digital nomad lifestyle means earning money through the internet in while moving from place to place. Not having to stay in the same town or city in order to work means that you can live a location independent life.
The idea actually came from some very simple concepts. Nomads in the traditional sense are people who move from place to place in order to increase their chances of survival, and doing the same in digital format is not much different.
Suppose you live in a place where rent costs you $1,000 USD, car insurance, medical insurance, groceries, entertainment, and taxes all cost you too much.
If you’re from the United States, you’ll have a couple of options which include working three jobs, or you may want to move to a cheaper place to live, where the cost of living in lower. Well, with the introduction of the internet, that’s all changing.
Now, you can write an ebook and sell it on your own website or through digital marketplaces. You can be a freelance writer and email your work in exchange for payment. You can design a website for a client 5,000km away from you and charge through an online payment system.
Architects can design floor plans for clients in other countries, programmers can make Android apps for clients or sell them on their own, and developers can make websites for clients around the world.
This is all happening right now.
For a low end project, I charged as little as $400 for a website design for a client in Australia, and the money would last me an entire month in South America. From just one project.
How to Become a Digital Nomad
You can become a digital nomad by profiting from a product, service, or investment that can be managed from anywhere through the internet while you travel.
A nomad basically follows one of a few of several models to earn money. Figure out which one you’re most likely to succeed in, and learn more about it before jumping in. Here they are:
- Freelancing or consulting
- Telecommuter or remote job employee
- Established online business
- Earnings on investments
You’ve heard about it from reliable sources, from “bro marketers”, and from jerks making an income through Instagram with fancy cars and girls in bikinis.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was in a position where I had no money saved up, no real plan, and a sense of desperation. Staying in the same place (California) was going to cost me around $1,200 USD per month just to pay an apartment.
My plan was to freelance abroad as a web designer, teach English, and volunteer at hostels, while working on building an online business. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that things didn’t turn out that way.
Analyze Your Current Situation
These plans don’t fit everybody, but the paths to success as a nomad are unlimited. Some people already have a head start if they have a large savings account, or have a strong advantage just from being born in a different country than you. So you might have to work extra hard.
For the purposes of this guide, I’ll pretend like I’m writing to myself, a desperate U.S. citizen with student debt, a passion for travel, and not much saved up.
What are your options? Answer these truthfully. Take inventory of everything you owe and income that you’re currently making. Do any members of your family depend on you? Do you have children? Some families can travel indefinitely, so not all hope is lost.
If you are in debt, can you go on a consolidation plan to lower your payments? Here’s where I get a lot of criticism, and it is completely understood. Why would anybody be traveling while they have debt? For me, it came down to priorities. I was falling ill, started losing my hair, and had serious symptoms of depression. If I didn’t make a sudden change, I would probably get sicker and die.
Live your life for yourself, and if you can power through and get rid of debt before traveling, by all means, do what’s best for you. Don’t go off ignoring your problems, consolidate your debt and establish a manageable payment plan. Or save up and pay off your debt. Or invest in yourself while managing your debt to later come back and tackle the debt with a clearer mind and new strategy. Find your way.
Can your job offer a remote option for the work you’re already performing? You’d be surprised at the options available if you just ask. Do you run an existing business? Can you make it run without you? Have you thought about selling it?
Come Up with a Strategy
Don’t just jump in! Sure, you might be a risk taker and thrive on hard challenges, but I’ll tell you right now: You don’t know everything. When people are learning how to perform dangerous stunts, they always do this with a safety net, and so you should you. You will not have a friend’s apartment to crash on for a night if you’re in a foreign country.
I screwed up. My chosen strategy was:
- Go somewhere and find jobs doing anything
- Volunteer at hostels for room and board
- Work on an online business while I’m there
The sad truth was that there were hundreds of other backpackers doing the same thing. Some food-stealing hippies gave us all a bad reputation, and finding a place to stay for free was much harder than I thought. The pressure gets intense, and it becomes tiring after a while.
The choices were much better the second time around. My recommended strategy is the following:
- Research ideas and ask questions
- Come up with a financial plan
- Put your money plan in action
- Plan your trip (loosely)
- Strategize toward a long term business
Obviously this is a very simplified approach that may not fit you exactly, which is why it is necessary to first figure out where you are on the digital nomad roadmap.
The roadmap is divided up into three stages: freelancing, business-ownership, and investments. Though these are not sequential, the most valuable of these is the investment stage, where you invest time, effort, and/or money into an asset such as a property (web or physical), an online business (website, informational product, etc.), or partnerships with other companies or financial institutions.
The most common way to launch into working while traveling is to begin freelancing online and offering services. In a way you become an owner of a service-based business with a sole-employee. Some of these digital nomad jobs are more common than others, and for good reason too! There is high demand for certain types of jobs in the online world, anywhere from copywriting to software development.
Don’t limit yourself, though. There are people who earn a living through transcriptions, translations, narrating, photo editing, and countless other opportunities.
What Are Your Skills?
Take a good hard look at your skills and interests. Trust me, I’ve tried editing photos or designing creative works for business brochures and cards and almost bored myself to death several times. Sure, I can open up Canva and make a decent-looking invitation, but when it came down to making custom fonts, icons, and displaying that work for others to buy… nope. But I found my stride in other ways.
Given a website design, I can make it come to life online. I enjoy coming up with content strategies, launch plans, and lots of other web work.
What sucks about this is that there was only one way to truly find out what my skills and interests were: trying them. If you’re given an assignment and find yourself bored out of your mind and procrastinating the heck out of yourself, there’s either something up with your level of discipline, interest, or skill.
Research and Ask Questions
You may have found some awesome YouTube channels of people who work and travel at the same time and long for the same thing. This might give you a general idea of what you might want for yourself, but it can also limit you to one fixed idea.
Not all digital nomads are bloggers. Not everyone knows how to make a website. Not all speak English.
I’ve met authors who manage their ebook advertising abroad and earn directly through their sales. Some other travelers invested in rental properties and employ property managers and accountants to run their business while they travel. Some travel with their microphones and narrate audio books. Others are photographers selling stock images.
Try some of these while you’re still at home and in your country. Open up a profile on UpWork and start your own website and begin promoting yourself to find projects (or “gigs” as we call them over here). Finding that first client is a challenge, but with persistence and proper setup, you can be up and running in a short amount of time. Do you like working with clients directly? Can you negotiate a cost? Don’t worry too much if you find these things difficult. These are skills that you can learn.
Other options to find clients is to work with an agency that can find you clients, or someone that can refer work for you to finish. They can manage the pricing and pay you a fixed price per project while they deal with the client and payments. This comes with additional fees, but it may be an option. I’ve gotten several questions on how to find these types of agencies, and literally it involves searching around for what you’re looking for within your industry. There is no solid database with this type of information, but there are many job boards online that offer many opportunities.
Reach out to digital nomads online through Twitter, their own websites, and DMing through Instagram. Find out how this works and what it’s like directly in order to stop you from painting an unrealistic idea in your mind about what a digital nomad is.
In short, most of us are freelancers and business owners. We understand how to make transactions on the web through online payment processors. Our jobs don’t require us to be inside of an office. These skills did not come to us magically, we read books, watched videos, and talked to many other digital freelancers to improve our own systems.
Where would you like to visit? There are some countries that simply do not have fast internet connections in many places, and others that have stronger digital freelancing hubs than others (think of Chiang Mai in Thailand). If you were like me, you would be searching for a country that has a low cost of living, generally safe, and a simple visa process for foreigners.
Come Up With a Financial Plan
There is a very simple way of finding out how much money you will need, but it depends a lot on your level of risk and on how you want to live.
I follow a low to medium risk plan with most things, investing a lot of my time into planning and researching something before executing the plan. Here is what I use to calculate money things:
For my past trip to Ecuador.
|What||How Much (monthly)|
|Bills, transportation, and services||$80|
As with a regular business, there are certain startup costs like flights, visas, travel gear, and emergency funds in case you need to leave the country and fly back home.
The total for this for me was $2,600 USD. If you don’t count the items that I already owned, such as my computer and camera, the total ends up being around $1,200 USD.
So what does this tell you? That in order to enjoy a relatively medium-risk launch to your digital nomad life, you’d want to have a certain level of security. Please take into consideration that you’ll meet many, many digital nomads out there who do not have the privilege of an emergency fund and are living day-to-day, risking everything in order to stay traveling.
You can live for much cheaper than this by staying in hostels, volunteering, or getting a job overseas to help pay for some more things. I’ve tried that, and it is quite stressful for me. Not knowing where you’ll be staying the following month and having to call up your parents to ask for $100 to pay your hostel bill is not fun.
When you’re traveling as a nomad, you are a traveling business and you have to be able to offer services or products in order to survive. Well, survive may sound a little extreme right now, but as humans I think we are naturally traders and sellers, so we normally figure things out pretty well on our own when we absolutely depend on ourselves. Yes, this sounds like a lot of pressure because it is, but there are a few steps you can take to make it easier on yourself.
For one, start your business before you begin traveling. Yes, start freelancing right at home. The sooner the better. If you’re planning on launching one of those online-based businesses like dropshipping or affiliate marketing, start executing those plans now. There’s no good reason to wait until you’re in some country you’re not familiar with in order to begin.
You might not meet your monthly goals every month, but you can learn to adjust once you’re out and about in the world, too. This is why I recommend the runway approach, where you give yourself as much room as possible to lift off by saving enough money to last you a few more months. If you fail to make an income and your money runs out, you’ll be forced to start over. Or you might give up because you think it’s too hard when in reality you just didn’t give yourself enough time to make things work.
In conclusion, figure out how much money you will need and how much risk you want to take. Once you have those real numbers, you can move onto the next step.
Put Your Money Plan in Action
So you figured out how much you need to meet your emergency plan, your flights, visas, housing, and the gear you’ll be needing to work abroad. You also know how much you’ll be needing every single month. The next step is to begin saving up to meet your total costs for three months.
You can earn this money doing whatever you want, including delivering pizzas or staying in your regular day job. Aside from this, I also recommend starting up your freelancing business and planning out a long-term sustainable business you can work on while you’re traveling.
This is where I messed up the first time. I left without a plan and had to get really crappy jobs working on websites for as little as $120, translating for very little money, and almost took a job teaching English that would pay me $40 per week. Yes, these are not typos.
Eventually, my freelancing gigs got better, and I got paid some more money, but it took a lot of time and effort on my part. Had I started sooner, I would’ve reaped the benefits earlier and would’ve had a strong, sustainable business that would give me enough money to live a peaceful life traveling around the world.
How long did it take me? Around two years! Most of that time was spent on figuring out what to do, and the rest was about making it work. It’s different for everybody, so please give yourself the chance to figure this out on your own. You’ll soon realize that there are a lot of job opportunities out there for people who work online, and you can even come across some potential business partners right on the beach.