The 9-to-5 way of life isn’t necessarily the norm these days. Having flexibility and the freedom to pick and choose projects is luring millions away from the traditional office setup that once dominated American work culture. One report from Emergent Research and Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of U.S. workers will fall into the freelance camp.
But some have taken it further than others. Within this larger trend is a smaller one: the rise of digital nomads, or independent workers who are trading permanent addresses for life on the road. Leveraging the array of options for working remotely and staying connected virtually, they’re setting up shop all over the globe—and building their careers in the process.
We caught up with some to find out how they earn, spend and save for the future, while soaking up the nomadic lifestyle.
Adam Nubern, 29, a CPA, and Lindsey Nubern, 29, a writer
“In 2012, my wife Lindsey and I were living in Colorado Springs, working in marketing and as a finance director, respectively. The only problem? Being chained to desk jobs wasn’t helping us check off a key item on our pre-baby bucket lists: traveling the world.
In order to pull that off, we knew we had to revamp our finances and maximize our $80,000 household income.
Preparing to take off: We started saving for what we hoped would be a two-year adventure on the road. We trimmed our spending, eliminating splurges. And when one of our cars was totalled in an accident, we downsized to one vehicle and banked the $7,000 insurance check.
By spring 2014, we’d paid off $17,000 of student and auto loans and upped our savings to $45,000. We earmarked $15,000 for emergencies, which left us with $30,000 to live on for the next two years. At this point, my employer and I parted ways, though Lindsey’s company agreed to let her work part-time while traveling.
Life and money on the road: Since our travels began, we’ve lived everywhere from a condo in Thailand to a camper van in New Zealand, and we’re currently at a campground in Vermont. We usually explore each new locale for two to three months, and spend about $1,500 a month on food, lodging and entertainment. We sometimes offset those costs by picking up odd jobs wherever we are. For example, this October, we may work at a fair, selling apple turnovers for a friend we met hiking.
But the majority of our money comes from our businesses. Not long after hitting the road, a friend asked if I could do some freelance accounting work. Launching a business wasn’t part of my original travel plan, but I was interested in giving it a shot. This ultimately led to more work, and the natural evolution of my company, Nuventure CPA. Lindsey is earning money a freelance writer, a passion she discovered while traveling. (We also rent our Colorado home, generating about $300 a month of passive income, which we direct to a separate account for future home repairs.)
Altogether, we’re bringing in around $30,000 annually. That’s a lot less than what we made in Colorado, but our cost of living is much cheaper. As a result, we never feel stressed about money—even after spending the last of our travel fund—and our quality of life is significantly better.
We even have enough wiggle room that we’ve started saving up for a baby. It may be unconventional, but we’ve met tons of digital-nomad families with kids. Our goal is to save $20,000 before we start trying, and we’re already one-fifth of the way there.
Their advice for aspiring nomads: Sit down and make an actionable plan before you quit your 9-to-5 job. Wiping out your savings or going into debt is no way to finance your dreams. Instead, start saving and be patient.
Doing this will allow you to travel with no pressure. If things don’t work out, no big deal; rejoice in the fact that you’ve discovered something you don’t want to do!”
Nora Livingstone, 32, founder of an animal volunteer organization
“Animal welfare has always been a big passion of mine, which is what motivated me to launch my own startup three years ago that connects volunteers to animal conservation programs around the world. This requires a lot of traveling—to places like Sierra Leone, Ireland and Bulgaria—and I typically spend one to two weeks at a time at each new shelter, sanctuary or conservancy we work with.
Shortly after we launched, the $700 rent I was paying back home in Toronto no longer felt like a good investment. Given that an Internet connection is really all I need to run my business, the digital nomad lifestyle seemed like a perfect fit.
Preparing to take off: I took a hard look at my finances, and decided to sell off the things that I couldn’t take with me, like my bike and bookshelves—netting about $500. I also invested in a solid backpack, a good pair of shoes and some well-made outerwear. I was spending a bit more upfront to avoid replacing these things later.
From there, I organized my income streams—from my company, as well as odd jobs like house-sitting and dog-walking—and projected what my on-the-road expenses for things like groceries and my cell phone plan would be. I’m lucky in the sense that my business pays for flights on work-related trips. [Editor’s Note: Animal Experience International is a B Corporation. Some of the fees paid by volunteers cover expenses to arrange placements and develop new placement opportunities.]
Looking at it in black and white actually made the idea not seem so crazy. I was earning enough to cover all my expenses and still set some money aside for retirement and general savings. So off I went!
Life and money on the road: Since starting this adventure in April 2013, my ‘home offices’ have included a yurt in Mongolia, castles in Europe and tents and cabins in national parks throughout the world.
Meanwhile, my money management system is super simple. I use direct deposit and online banking to keep an eye on my funds, and stick to a strict budget. It’s all about trade-offs. Instead of splurging on, say, new clothes, I take advantage of clothing swaps. This, in turn, pads my travel fund, which is beyond worth it to me.
I do sometimes wish I had a place of my own, but I’m honestly loving the ride right now and wouldn’t change a thing. So I’m taking it all day by day, and looking forward to wherever my path leads.
Her advice for aspiring nomads: “Never, ever dip into your savings while traveling. I’m really disciplined about not touching this money since it’ll be my saving grace if I ever find myself in a true emergency. It’s not much, but I’ve managed to keep a cushion of about $1,700 for this purpose.
I also recommend finding creative ways to finance your travels [like] loyalty programs, rewards cards and airline miles…Lastly, try not to compare yourself to other digital nomads that seem more successful than you are. Try and remember that everyone’s walking their own path.”
Nick Schneble, 34, freelance software developer
“During a 2009 vacation in Norway, I got word that the company I worked for in California was shutting down. Before hunting for a new job back home, I took my severance package and did a round-the-world trip with my girlfriend Kit, who was already freelancing as a social media consultant.
The only problem was that when we got back to Los Angeles afterwards, we didn’t want to stop traveling! Luckily, a chance, and very cool, freelance opportunity came my way before I could re-settle. All I’d need was Wi-Fi and a laptop to make it work. That was enough to convince us to leave for good.
Preparing to take off: Before we left, we got rid of our apartment in Santa Monica, which freed up $1,650 per month in rent. An unapologetic minimalist, I enjoyed selling off everything we didn’t need on the road, and throwing the rest in storage.
Life and money on the road: Ever since, Kit and I have been able to earn enough through freelance gigs to cover our nomadic lifestyle, which costs us about between $4,000 to $6,000 a month on average, which may seem like a lot, but is cheaper than the 9-to-5 life we had in L.A. This includes everything for two people who no longer live like backpackers—decent lodging, food, health insurance, yoga classes, you name it.
Since I don’t have a mortgage or rent to worry about, I tend to stay in Airbnbs, usually for a month or longer. Costs vary wildly, from upwards of $2,000 (a month) in London to lows around $700 in Mexico and Thailand. The rest of our funds go to adventures like snowmobiling in the Arctic Circle or hiking glaciers in New Zealand.
Managing my finances requires careful tracking of both income and expenses, which I do with a series of interconnected spreadsheets. It sounds dull, but being diligent prevents me from overspending and helps me visualize our financial lifeline. At any given point, I’ve usually got between two to six months’ worth of living expenses in the bank (plus my Roth and traditional IRAs).
The only small gripe about being a digital nomad is that it can be a lonely affair. This inspired me to start a community for long-term digital nomads. My company, 7in7, was born out of that need for community. We’re all about connecting nomads and making our lives better by covering everything from dating and having a family, to passive income and whether to have a home base—all while cultivating an atmosphere of togetherness.
His advice for aspiring nomads: If you plan on making your living as a freelancer, consider taking a 9-to-5 job for at least six months to build up your network, establish connections and form professional relationships. In all my years as a nomad, I’ve almost never had to actively search for work, thanks to the network I’d established beforehand.
One other bit of advice: Be disciplined about saving for retirement. Without a company 401(k) to fall back on, prepping for the long term falls solely on you.”
Aaron Dutil, 41, a behavioral consultant
“The truth is that I never set out to be a digital nomad. I initially began traveling to mend a broken heart.
Last year, my stress level was off the charts: I’d just been through a divorce and was working as a crisis therapist in the ER unit of a hospital. My situation really got me thinking about psychological resiliency, which created this longing to write a book.
Preparing to take off: On a bit of a whim, I sold my house in Washington D.C.—fast, thanks to a booming seller’s market—quit my job and fell back on my $26,000 emergency fund in order to travel and write.
I soon found myself in Canada, then Mexico, then Thailand, wandering, connecting with other nomads and healing. I also discovered that this subculture had a real need for behavioral health counseling, so I began slowly building a digital life coaching business on the side, geared toward this community. Soon enough, some influencers became my clients and started spreading the word about my work.
Life and money on the road: By accident, my life and career took on a new trajectory. Since I used to have a private psychotherapy practice a few years ago, the financial management aspect of running a business wasn’t new to me. It’s all about having regular money check-ins with myself to examine my budget, project my expenses and save accordingly. And I must be doing something right, as I’m earning enough to pay my bills, save for retirement and afford fun activities like swimming and hiking. Fortunately, the pastimes I enjoy happen to be inexpensive.
I usually rent small, furnished one-bedroom or studio apartments through Airbnb, VRBO or Craigslist, then I go exploring. A cool thing about not having a home base is that it really stimulates my creativity, so I tend to pack up whenever a place is starting to feel stale to me.
I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up this lifestyle, but right now I feel like I’m growing by leaps and bounds. I’m meeting incredible people, interacting with vibrant cultures, and getting to know myself in a whole new way.
His advice for aspiring nomads: Look into international emergency health insurance through companies like World Nomads. Most U.S. health insurers won’t cover you if something happens outside of the country.
On a personal note, try to build a tribe of like-minded professionals while on the road. It’ll help keep loneliness at bay. And finally, set business goals for yourself and remember that you’re not on vacation; when you’re working, you’re working.”