Cecilia Meis, 30, hasn't called anywhere "home" in more than three years. In October 2017, she was working as a freelance editor in Dallas when she decided to pick up and move to Thailand. Since then, she and her boyfriend have lived in eight different places, staying no longer than six months in one destination.
As a digital nomad — a term 7.3 million Americans use to describe themselves, according to a 2019 report from MBO Partners — Meis has had to learn how to balance her living and travel budget while managing multiple freelance gigs and bringing in a steady stream of passive income.
Here is her best advice for how to budget for a digital nomad lifestyle.
Upon moving, Meis "didn't have a solid financial plan," she says. However, she did have $5,000 saved should she need to come home or encounter an emergency expense.
Many travelers don't plan for flights home, says certified financial planner Mark La Spisa, the president and managing advisor of Vermillion Financial Advisors in South Barrington, Illinois. But that's a crucial financial step.
"Most people don't think about the cost to travel back to the U.S. to their hometown," he says. "They are going to do it. People are still going to get married in their old circle, and people are going to have kids. There's going to be all these events they are going to come back for."
Even if you have a steady stream of income while traveling, it's smart to save enough before leaving for at least a ticket home, should something happen.
Because Meis didn't have a financial plan in place when moving, she sometimes had to dip into her $5,000 savings. Now she keeps to a "strict daily budget" to ensure she doesn't overspend and can preserve her savings.
"So much changes so quickly when you're traveling that there is too much wiggle room in a monthly budget," she says. "We break everything down into a daily cost to stay on track. For example, we budget about $30 a day for food, which includes eating out and groceries."
Over the last three years, she's become more strategic with her budgeting and has accounts set up for savings, spending, investment, and retirement goals. "A lot of this planning came from simply living that experience and tweaking the plan as I learned," she says.
"Cost of living plays a big role in where we decide our next location, but mostly in terms of duration," Meis says.
Thailand, for example, had a lower cost of living, so her budget stretched further. This meant that she could not only stay longer but also experience more parts of the country.
Hawaii was a different story, however. "When we're in pricier places, such as Hawaii, the budget itself doesn't change — it's simply reallocated," Meis says. "We funneled more from the 'fun' category to the 'lodging' category. That just meant getting creative with free or low-cost activities, which is pretty easy to do in Hawaii. It also means we may not be able to stay as long."
When creating a budget for each destination, keep in mind that its cost of living will vary, and so your distribution of funds will, too.
In many of the places Meis has visited, "every price is up for negotiation," she says. "We've negotiated everything from monthly rentals to fruit at the local market."
Negotiating down rent might make it possible for you to stay in a country longer, or allocate more money toward leisure activities.
Remember that "80-plus percent of your expenses are considered travel," Meis says, so take advantage of credit cards with good travel benefits. Not only can points help you pay for trips, but there are also added perks like airport lounge access, lost bag coverage, and car rental coverage.
"We pay for a significant amount of travel with points every year just by using a travel card for our everyday purchases," she says. "Just make sure to pay off the balance every month because the accrued interest easily offsets any money saved through points."
The best travel rewards credit card for you will depend on what type of digital nomad you are, says Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy. "If you're frequently staying in chain hotels, consider a hotel credit card that'll get you elite status or other perks," he says. "If you're living out of an RV, choose one that offers bonuses on gas purchases. And while international travel is highly restricted right now, if you plan to head abroad in the future, a card with no foreign transactions fees is a must."
Some of the best options right now, according to Ewen, include:
- Capital One Venture Rewards, which awards new cardholders up to 100,000 miles as a welcome bonus and double miles on all purchases
- American Express Gold, which offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 points plus 4x points at restaurants and grocery stores
- Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express, which offers 6% back at supermarkets and 3% back on transit purchases and at gas stations. Plus, the annual fee is waived for the first year
Video by Mariam Abdallah
"Diversify your income streams so you're not stranded in a foreign country without any reliable income," Meis says.
The largest portion of Meis' income comes from three different jobs: An editing gig that earns her $1,600 per month, an editing and strategy gig that brings in $3,500 per month, and freelance writing, which earns her between $1,500 and $2,000 per month.
She also makes about $600 per month in passive income from selling templates that can help other digital nomads track their budget, travel, freelance projects, and other goals.
The best advice Meis has for pursuing a digital nomad lifestyle is to be flexible and expect things to go wrong: "Have a backup plan, and then have three more backup plans."
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