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!
So what can digital nomads do to make money online? They can work as a freelance writer, designer, or techie. They can run a drop shipping business that doesn’t hold inventory. They 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. 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. All I needed was internet, and thank goodness internet was everywhere to be found. 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.
DIGITAL NOMAD TAKEAWAYS
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.
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.
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. There’s no reason not to travel anymore.
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.
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 and 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. Things that need to be done back home start piling up as well.
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 is now 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.
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 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: 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.
THE HYBRID MODEL WORKS BEST
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?
STARTING AN ONLINE BUSINESS
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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!
Updated for 2017 and beyond. 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!