When the world seemed to be ending between 2008-2010, the digital nomad movement took off. Without strong job prospects, people took to the internet to earn a living half way around the world in cheaper locations like Thailand, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. For $1,500 a month, you can live like a King or Queen!
Now that billions of people have been cooped up in their homes all year due to the pandemic, I’m pretty sure the digital nomad lifestyle will become extremely popular again. So many of us are itching to travel once the pandemic dies down.
I, for one, plan to at least spend a couple months in Hawaii in to make up for so much lost time. Although, traveling with two young children now is a lot of work!
Dreams Of Being A Digital Nomad
So what can digital nomads do to make money online? Digital nomads can work as a freelance writer, designer, or techie. They can run a drop shipping business that doesn’t hold inventory. Digital can run an online course or come up with a product to sell. Or they can run an online media company that generates advertising revenue.
In short, there are endless ways to make money online. I’ve shared my reflections of making money online since 2009. And if your target revenue is only $1,500 a month to live a great lifestyle, then the possibility to live such a life style is higher than you think!
For almost four weeks, I pretended to live the digital nomad lifestyle while traveling to South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Taiwan. This was a couple years before my wife and I had kids.
All I needed was internet access and my laptop. Thank goodness internet was everywhere to be found back then. In 2023+, high-speed internet is ubiquitous. Being a digital nomad with or without kids is easier than ever before.
Over some scrumptious mangoes, I hosted our semi-annual board meeting in Kuala Lumpur, and got to discussing all the takeaways about running a business abroad. Living in such a low-cost country made me feel so rich!
In the next life, I definitely plan to spend at least a year being a full-time digital nomad. Now, things are much more difficult with two kids. Then again, if we homeschool, anything is possible!
Digital Nomad Lifestyle Takeaways
Here are some takeaways I had from living like a digital nomad for a couple months.
Lesson 1: If you’re used to expensive living, being a digital nomad is a piece of cake.
Despite my musings that San Francisco is one of the cheapest international cities in the world, San Francisco is still expensive compared to cities such as Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Siem Reap, and Taipei.
I’m biased towards expensive city living because that’s most of what I know best. There’s only upside when you leave an expensive city to travel anywhere else in the world because everywhere else seems so much cheaper. Going to Asia simply magnified the upside.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I finally felt rich. And in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I felt like an impostor who shouldn’t be there because the country is so poor. But despite the low cost of living, Siem Reap did well to charge “tourist” prices for everything, which felt bad.
Deeper thought: Perhaps the real challenge of being a digital nomad is not going to one of the cheapest areas to live, but seeing if you can be a digital nomad in one of the most expensive places to live. There’s no Olympic event for those who can jump the lowest. I’d like to see more digital nomads live it up in places like Monaco, Paris, Zurich, and London!
Lesson 2: Work is much more efficient while traveling or living abroad.
As a businessman, the first thing I always did when I landed in a new country was see if the airport had free WiFi. Going for three-to-twelve hours at a time without checking the internet as a digital nomad really builds a lot of anticipation!
But since I wanted to spend the least amount of time at the airport, I forced myself to quickly respond to all important e-mails and comments and leave the rest for later. In other words, I became adept at prioritizing.
After going dark for another hour from the airport to the hotel, once I got to my hotel room, I would once again check to see if anything happened online. Since I didn’t want to spend a ton of time in my hotel room when there were UNESCO World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat to see, I kept my internet usage only towards important action items.
Balancing Work And Life As A Digital Nomad
I’d spend about six hours every day in Asia exploring without checking anything on my phone because I refused to spend any money on cellular data. Although I found myself longing to take a pitstop at a Starbucks for wifi, even though I don’t drink coffee, I successfully resisted more times than not.
What I realized during my travels is that nothing really important happens during the day that needs immediate attention. You can always respond to someone at the end of the day or the next day.
Even if your main business is freelancing, which mine isn’t, you still don’t have to be crazy responsive if your clients are overseas. They’ve got to sleep too, and will appreciate waking up to an e-mail or text response during their mornings. From now on, I’m all about “chunking” my activities for better efficiency.
Questions: What the heck are we really spending so much time online for? I’ve got websites to run, which is the main reason why I’m on my phone outside of my house. But why are other people, who don’t have an online business, spending so much time online? Has the internet become like the TV where it sucks us in and kills off productivity?
Lesson 3: Every year, the world is becoming much more connected.
When I was traveling abroad five years ago, it was much harder to find establishments with free WiFi. For my latest trip, everywhere from the airport to the train to the city to every coffee shop or restaurant I patronized, there was free WiFi. If there was a lock symbol, all you had to do was ask for the password to gain access.
Part of the reason why I’m so bullish on web businesses in general is due to continued internet penetration. Sure, there really was no readily available internet access in Siem Reap, but the internet was great at the hotel.
Web businesses are inexpensive to operate and incredibly scaleable. Theoretically, the entire English reading population could be a reader of Financial Samurai. If you run a laundromat, not so much.
Now that we’ve gone through a global pandemic, owning a business that can’t be shut down has become even more valuable!
Questions: Why would you ever start a capital intensive business when you could start a capital light business that allows you to travel anywhere in the world forever? Freedom is one of the main reasons why people start their own businesses. Why be tied down? Here’s my step-by-step guide on how to start your own website in under 30 minutes.
Lesson 4: There’s an expat community almost everywhere you go.
No matter where you go, you can find people who look and talk like you if you want. In Taipei, there’s the American Club. In Kuala Lumpur, there’s ISKL and the Mount Kiara community. If you miss a juicy cheeseburger, there are plenty of American fast food restaurants and steak houses in Seoul.
It’s easy to get lonely when living the digital nomad lifestyle. Heck, I got a little lonely working for a year and a half by myself in San Francisco while everybody went to work.
But since there are so many online entrepreneurs living abroad now, it’s very easy to meet a lot of people who share your same interests. In fact, you’ll have the best of both worlds with local friends and foreign friends. Don’t be afraid of loneliness!
Something to note: If you live for fewer than 180 days a year in a foreign country, you may not have to pay any local tax. There’s also the foreign exclusion tax for the first ~$96,000 or so if you do go past 180 days. Of course, check with your tax account as individual country laws may differ.
Lesson 5: Travel can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be.
The most I spent a night was $220 all-in at the five-star Taaras Resort & Spa in Pulau Redang, Malaysia. I had a huge room with a tub, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. The cheapest room was actually free at my friend’s place in Kuala Lumpur and then my mother’s place in Taipei. Figure out your adjusted NHER to know how much you should spend on a hotel.
The really amazing thing about traveling in Asia is how cheap flights are within the region. For example, I booked an Air Asia flight the day before from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, Cambodia for only $53 one way! From Siem Reap to Taipei was about $330. Not too bad.
A quick summary of my trip’s total travel costs for two people is below.
Airfare Overseas Is Cheaper
Considering the airfare included one-way flights from SF to South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Taiwan it’s not that bad. The most expensive leg was the flight home from Taipei to San Francisco for $754 per person, which I literally bought the day before departure so I can’t complain.
The hotels were all clean, well managed, and spacious throughout the trip and were all 4.5 stars or above. Most of the food was quite cheap too and crazy delicious.
Seoul and Pulau Redang were the only places I felt food was expensive, but it also was due to where I ate. I tried the best barbecue restaurant near my hotel in Seoul, which was around $50/person. Since it was too hot to venture outside of the grounds of our hotel at Pulau Redang uphill on foot, we obliged to pay resort prices. Everywhere else the food was quite cheap and a welcome change to San Francisco prices.
Questions: Why wouldn’t you want to explore what else is out there? I met plenty of students and lower income foreigners on my travels. They outnumbered working or much wealthier people 10:1! Isn’t it ironic that wealthier people don’t seem to travel as much or as long as less wealthy people. Is it because they are working too much?
Lesson 6: The digital nomad lifestyle gets boring after a while.
Although traveling to a new place every week or month can be exciting, there will come a point where all you want to do is sleep in your own bed, eat at your favorite local restaurant, and do nothing.
Although it would have been cheaper to go to Palau for some amazing diving on this trip, I decided to just book a flight home from Taipei to rest instead.
Besides the comfort of my own home, I still had to make sure my contractor and his workers were working on my master bathroom construction which was two months past due. I wanted to touch base with my consulting clients in person so they knew I was still alive. I also wondered about the mail piling up.
Work And Things Start Piling Up At Home
It’s amazing how much less people work and how much poorer the quality of work is if you’re not around to supervise.
For example, my general contractor said the shower valves and shower heads were all good to go. But when I tested them out, one of the shower heads was leaking and there was no cold water for either shower! WTF. Nobody cares as much about your stuff as you do.
Ideally, it would be nice to have a second home in a major city in Asia, Europe, and Latin America to fly back a shorter distance to. Instead I had to take a 12 hour flight all the way back to SF, and then fly another 12+ hours again if I ever wanted to return.
Deeper thought about being a digital nomad:
A simple life allows you to travel more freely. For 4 weeks, all I had was a backpack. The problems with my bathroom construction and not wanting to spend too much time away from clients put a crimp on my freedom.
I have a feeling something will always restrict me from absolute freedom because that’s just the way life is. Something always comes up, and nothing ever runs smoothly.
Hence, minimalism and early retirement is the perfect combination. The less you have and the simpler your life, the better!
A Hybrid Digital Nomad Lifestyle Works Well
Too much of one thing is never sustainable. For me, the ideal amount of travel or vacation is 10 weeks a year. Any more and it feels like I’m too unproductive, even with a location independent business.
Having a home base for more than six months a year plus the ability to work abroad for two to three months a year sounds about right. There’s San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Honolulu, and a rotating international destination on my living agenda every year.
For those of you who are too worried about breaking free from your steady paycheck, even though you might hate your job or be bored out of your mind, just know that there are thousands of people who are doing just fine overseas living on much less. I’m not sure whether such folks can really be able to amass a large net worth for retirement, but if they are living the retirement lifestyle now, who cares?
Start An Online Business Already
There’s nothing better than starting your own website to own your brand online and earn extra income on the side. Why should LinkedIn, FB, and Twitter pop up when someone Google’s your name? With your own website you can connect with potentially millions of people online, sell a product, sell some else’s product, make passive income and find a lot of new consulting and FT work opportunities.
Financial Samurai started as a personal journal to make sense of the financial crisis in 2009. By early 2012, it started making a livable income stream so I decided to negotiate a severance package.
Years later, FS now makes more than I did as an Executive Director at a major bulge bracket firm with 90% less work and 100% more fun. Learn how to start your own WordPress website with Bluehost today.
You never know where the journey will take you! Being a digital nomad today post pandemic is a no-brainer. Take advantage of changes in the world!
Digital Nomad Post Pandemic
Now that the pandemic has died down and borders are reopening, now is a great time to be a digital nomad. We are likely going back into a recession with millions of jobs lost. Hence, if you find yourself unemployed, now is a great time to travel and start an online business.
I spent four weeks in Paris, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna while working on Financial Samurai. It’s when you can see the world while working on your business where you realize the true value of being a digital nomad. Life truly is pretty awesome when you’ve figured out how to leverage the internet!
For further suggestions on saving money and growing wealth, check out my Top Financial Products page.
In addition, if you enjoyed this article and want to get more personal finance insights and tips, please sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. You’ll get access to exclusive content only available to subscribers.
[…] earn a large income won’t be retiring any time soon. It’s quite a juxtaposition from digital nomads who move to low cost areas of the […]
Having in control of your own time is what I find best about being a digital nomad. Making your hobby as your source of income is the best fulfillment in working life. Making yourself as a boss is really a good feeling. But the trade-off with this is that you have a firm self-discipline of yourself or else you will not succeed as a digital nomad. This is also the envy of the people from cubicle nation where they have to spend eight or more hours day juggling their best to finish their assigned tasks. A digital nomad is not like this, they were the ones to set the deadline of their tasks, so it is less stress.
A quick note on cell phone data abroad. I’ve sort of hacked this to perfection.
So you know how when the new iPhone comes out, you usually either sell your older model on Craigslist or swap it out at the Apple store? Yeah, well don’t do that next time you upgrade — here’s why.
Once you upgrade to your new phone at home, you can easily unlock your old iPhone by calling your service provider. Then when you land in, say, Cape Town, you go straight to the local cell phone shop in the airport and buy a prepaid SIM card (this will usually cost you around $20 USD no matter which country you’re in and will include anywhere from 1GB to 2GB of data, as well as a local telephone number).
Now here’s the best part of my hack.
Since you have a new local telephone number, use that number to create a new Uber account, being sure to refer your new international self using your established Uber account from back home. You’ll get the $20 referral bonus credited to your established Uber account as well as a $20 referral bonus credited to your new international Uber account. That’s $40 worth of Uber credit all for a $20 SIM card purchase. Not to mention you’ll always be connected while abroad.
**Note: The main reason I always purchase a new SIM card whenever I’m in a new country for longer than a couple of days is not to stay constantly connected to email and social media. The absolute biggest advantage of being connected while abroad is having access to Google Maps.
Disregard my last comment regarding linking issues with PC. My 401K is now linked!!
Honestly I don’t understand how one can get lonely as a digital nomad. There’s two big DN communities you can join — hashtag nomads and Dynamite Circle. Granted, most of their members are in SE Asia (especially Chiang Mai & Saigon) but you’ll find a few in other places as well. And there’s always Internations if you want to meet non-nomadic, ‘traditional’ expats.
To make local friends, there’s toastmasters, various language learning programs (a lot of locals go to the Alliance Francaise in their city to learn French). In Asia, Badminton is pretty popular amongst the locals so you can do that. Meetup.com is popular in most capital cities (and some tier-two cities).
And a lot of DN’s stay long term in one place. So, in a sense they do have a ‘home base’. Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines are the easiest to stay long term–you can be in the country for years just by extending your initial tourist visa (no need for visa runs).
Yes, technically you have to pay taxes if you stay >180 days in most places around the world, but let’s be honest here, the tax depts. of SE Asian countries are way behind the times. They’d be lucky to get compliance from their own citizens let alone foreigners. I’m stating the truth here–following the letter of the law in these countries will get you nowhere. You think the English teachers working in these countries have a legit work visa? Nah.
I don’t think you’ll ever see digital nomads in first world western cities like Paris or London. It’s not just that the cities are expensive, there are other problems too. The first issue is visas. It’s impossible to stay >3 months in European cities on a tourist visa. The second issue is taxes. I don’t think the French tax people will let you get away with paying no tax if you’ve been living in the country long term. And who wants to pay an atrocious 50% of their income to a foreign country’s government?
Life made me travel a lot. I’ve lived in 3 different countries on 3 different continents. Not really a “digital nomad” though, as every single place was long term.
I’ve had my share of travel, but wouldn’t mind the freedom associated with being a digital nomad. I think the right first step is to start getting rid of all the clutter in your home. Ultimately you realize there’s not so much you need from there, beside friends and family.
Amit May says
It sounds a lot better than it actually is. 2009-11 was an exception for folks who got blown out of the water work wise, but even then, making enough consistent cash was a challenge for most “digital nomads.” The main people that succeeded were coders, few writers and a few designers. For most others it was more like pretend digital nomad, lasting 1-4 months.
Personally I’d rather just travel to SEA for 4-6 weeks and mainly have fun. Managing my RE assets is doable anywhere, although I’ve been lucky and managed to have avoided tenant turn over while away…so far.
Sam, you left out a digital nomad possibility–investing in stocks! (OK, also trading) You can check your online brokerage account from anywhere. I have long had a retirement daydream to be managing my portfolio from the middle of the Swiss Alps. The special bonus to me is that the markets don’t open until 3:30 pm CST–so you can sleep in, too. Or, you can spend a pretty full day sightseeing before you check out the market open in New York over an afternoon coffee.
I think this needs to be chalked up as an advantage of investing in the stock market over real estate–no need to travel back to visit your investments! I had thought about that statement for a while: there is a danger of losing connection with companies doing business in your area, but I would offset that with the breadth of understanding business in the many places you might visit as a nomad. win-win!
I’d definitely love to have a little digital-nomad-ing in my life, but would also prefer to do it in some of the more expensive cities. Coming from Melbourne, Australia, there aren’t too many places that seem much more expensive anyway, probably very similar to San Fran! Even just freedom to wander around my own city working on my digital business is a wonderful dream, instead of the same old office building day in and day out!
Smart Money MD says
Having the option to travel for extended periods of time, whether or not you actually take advantage of it, is a blessing. For those of us who do have an inflexible career with limit time off, it always feels stressful to take care of all the work right before you leave, and catch up again when you return. That’s the one part I hate about vacations in my line of work.
Reading your article helps remind me that being a digital nomad can be an option. I agree, a hybrid model works best. In the meantime, I’ll keep striving to find a career where I can get an average 10-12 weeks of nomad time a year.
Financial Samurai says
Heard of Doctors On Demand? Could be an interesting side income opportunity by providing virtual counseling!
Smart Money MD says
Yup! Unfortunately it works best for certain specialties that don’t require contact with the patient (internists, dermatologists, general medicine). I don’t fall into that category though. I could consider venturing into the administrative side of these companies as side income though.
Internists and dermatologists don’t require contact with patients ?
Smart Money MD says
Many dermatological problems often only require visualization, which can be diagnosed and treated remotely. Likewise, many general medicine/internal medicine complaints can be triaged through discussion and some visualization (webcam). These are the target specialties that can work well with telemedicine.
Obviously any more involved treatment plans or complex problems still have to be directed to a doctor who is physically present. The goal of these startups is to offload the already packed medical clinics and emergency rooms.
Financial Samurai says
What type of medicine do you do? Seems like anybody can be a general practitioner at the very least no?
Smart Money MD says
It boils down to a legal and liability thing with the specialists. All doctors are trained in general medicine, but you actually have to go through additional training in a particular area in order to qualify to become licensed to do that particular thing.
For instance, Dr. Oz is a cardiac surgeon, but he gives general advice about health only anecdotally on TV. He isn’t allowed by law to practice pediatrics, for instance because he is not trained to do so.
I am a surgeon. So nearly all of my care involves interaction with patients and operating. Obviously you can’t do exactly that with telemedicine. Medicine is a highly regulated profession (for good reason), but it also is very restricting.
Living over seas and working online is my dream of dreams. I can’t think of much I would rather have then being able to work online a few hours a day or even just a few hours a week and spend the rest of the time living the life that makes me happy. These are great tips you left and I’m saving this under things that I will look at more when I am about to move abroad.
Financial Samurai says
It’s closer to reality than you think!
I don’t really see myself being a digital nomad 100% of the time. I like having a home base that I’m grounded to and then taking trips spread out across the year. When I had my old job I had an extra cell-phone that had an international plan so I didn’t need wifi too much. Now that I just have my own phone, wifi is really important. And luckily it’s pretty accessible everywhere now, albeit slow in some remote and less developed areas. I really enjoy working on the road for weeks at a time. It’s a great way to see new things, reconnect with people, and have a lot of flexibility.
Sounds like a amazing trip! No diving in Palau!?! I like your comment regarding how most of the people living it up are students or less wealthy. When I was a student I traveled all over even though I could barely afford the cheapest hostel around and street vendor food; now I work all the time and am lucky to take 2 weeks of true vacation per year. I wish I could go back to “the old days”!
Financial Samurai says
I was VERY tempted to take the 4 hour flight to Palau from Taipei. Alas, I had to come home due to some responsibilities that needed addressing.
The good thing is, I look forward to another nice trip to perhaps Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos next. Maybe we’ll hit Palau on the way back. I heard once you go to Palau, every other dive is a disappointment.
I’m dying to start the digital nomad life. I figure I’m about three years away from having enough invested that even if my online income falls to nothing I can still survive.
In the mean time, I’ll keep building more sites, if one more site starts being reasonably lucrative I’ll bring that date up earlier.
Unlike you though, I plan on only having the backpack, there won’t be a home base for me. Too much expense.
Financial Samurai says
Make sure to domicile yourself in a no state income tax state if all you have will be a backpack!
I agree that 10-12 weeks of travel per year is optimal. Any more and it just seems pointless or borderline wasteful. Any less and you start to dwell on inadequacies in your life which is a side effect of being human and never being satisfied.
I definitely couldn’t be a permanent nomad. I value a place to call home and be in a healthy routine. I’ve always said I hate traveling, but love to be in different places. Ideally, it would be nice to hyper-transport yourself and your friends/loved ones to the destinations you want to go to. Traveling alone sounds appealing but can be pretty miserable too.
Financial Samurai says
If you travel alone, I recommend going the hostel route to immediately meet some interesting people all over the world.
Mike Hunt says
Too bad you didn’t see me in BKK, you would have a few more good articles to share.
I’d agree that after doing the digital nomad thing for a few months, going back home and eating locally is a blessing. At least that’s the way it was for me. We are all creatures of habit and running through airports is one habit I didn’t want to entertain forever.
PS- was just in NYC staying at Union Square… it is absolutely a wonderful place on a cool summer day!
Financial Samurai says
Will be in NYC for the US Open and a wedding this year.
This article is insanely timely for me. Being a digital nomad has been on my mind for years, but over the last couple weeks it seems that is the way I’ll be going in the near future. I’ve been working on getting my online income going strongly in order to leave everything in a year’s time. I’m a real estate agent in Chicago, but it’s just not fulfilling to me. I feel the need to do and experience more in this world. The hardest part is making the leap. But everything you said rings true. You can live a very extravagant lifestyle overseas for a fraction of the cost here and save an incredible amount of money if you do well in your online endeavors. Thanks Sam!
Financial Samurai says
No problem Andy. Try and go on vacation at your desired place of work. Keep on visiting such places once a year until it’s time for you to pull the plug! Trying before buying is always a good move.
Great point Sam..Too much of one thing is never sustainable. So we should have moderation, balancing in life. We can understand from the time this article is published(contrary to your regular blogs get published early morning PST) you are travelling/away from PST zone:)
Financial Samurai says
Good observation! Or, maybe I’m just testing out a new publication time format :)
I’m back in America, playing a lot of tennis and tying up loose ends before some more travel later in the summer.
Lifestyle Accountant says
Sounds like a really interesting trip. And I’m sure it helps that some of it was tax deductible since it included a board meeting. I really agree with your hybrid model as working best. There’s nothing like having a home base to come back to but being able to travel for months at a time is a wonderful thing. Something that most 9 to 5 workers can’t do. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to retire and would rather have a great lifestyle now (while still saving) but build an accounting business that allows me the flexibility of working anywhere with an internet connection. Two to three months a year internationally sound perfect!