“How can you afford to be a digital nomad? All that traveling must be expensive!”
This is the question I get asked the most. As it turns out, being a digital nomad is cheaper than remaining in one place — depending on where that place is.
Let’s break down the numbers.
The biggest expense of staying in one place is monthly rent or mortgage. When I moved out of a suburb of Boston in September 2019, I was paying $1,900 per month. Utilities averaged another $256: $110 (Internet & landline) + $84 (heat) + $62 (electricity). I also paid $44 for the luxury of a milk delivery service (glass bottles!) and $24 for composting pick-up. And my renter’s insurance was $19 per month.
Other expenses added up, too. A monthly, non-dedicated desk at a co-working space was $400 per month, of which my employer covered only the first $250, leaving me $150 out of pocket. I spent another $30 per month in public transit to get to and from the co-working space.
Then there’s personal health, including monthly visits to a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and a life coach — that’s at least another $200 right there.
Altogether, these essentials and add-ons cost me about $2,600 per month.
Few of these expenses translate to the nomadic lifestyle: I don’t pay for utilities, milk delivery, or composting; co-working is cheaper outside of Boston; I walk or drive my Prius most places; and I’m not getting non-essential medical care. (I still see my primary care physician, dentist, dermatologist, and optometrist back in Massachusetts once or twice a year.) That’s $673 in monthly savings right there.
Let’s instead look at the expenses that are unique to nomading. Most of my worldly possessions are sitting in a storage unit that costs $150 per month — the same I was paying for co-working. I no longer have my own washer and dryer, so assuming my accommodations don’t come with laundry machines, I’m spending $30 per month for weekly visits to the laundromat. And I pay my brother to forward my postal mail to me via USPS Priority twice a month, which totals about $15. Round that up to $200, and I’m still saving $473 per month.
Those numbers are peanuts compared to the elephant in the room: rent. Most of my stays are in Airbnbs, a cost that is largely determined by geography. A month in my Boston suburb cost $1,900; in Durham, North Carolina, it’s $1,000; in Syracuse, New York, only $700. (Other cities, like Chicago, Illinois, or Havre, Montana, are more expensive, but still generally cheaper than Boston.)
Preference also plays a role: do I want my own space, or do I want to share it with other people? While I prefer (and am accustomed to) the former, the latter will always be the cheaper option, so that’s what I tend to opt for (unless a pandemic makes it unsafe to do so). That tradeoff allows me to keep my monthly rent below $1,400 — an annual savings of $6,000 compared to Boston.
But whenever possible, I don’t use Airbnb at all. No, I don’t couch-surf: I have no wish to be a burden to my friends, especially when I can afford to not be. Instead, I use the website TrustedHouseSitters.com. Similar to Rover.com, this site helps pet owners who are going out of town find qualified individuals to stay home with their pets. Unlike Airbnb, where travelers can book any available property, TrustedHouseSitters lets owners vet applicants before choosing one. I’ve thus far gotten every sitting opportunity I’ve applied to, but not before numerous email exchanges or video calls.
I apply only to stays that last for a week or more, which saves me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in rent. As an example, a month at an Airbnb in Chicago would cost me $1,617 — 15% cheaper than a month in Boston. But if I spent 12 days petsitting, then I’m spending only $971 in rent. That’s 51% less than a month in Boston! At this rate, my annual savings estimate of $6,000 shoots up to $11,172.
All this service costs me is TrustedHouseSitter’s annual membership of $96 — a fee that has paid for itself many times over.
But what about work?
“Does work pay for you to travel?”
I get that question a lot! I work for Automattic, a globally distributed company. They don’t care where or when I work, meaning they pay for my travel the same way they paid my rent in Boston: by giving me a paycheck.
The rare exceptions are when I travel for work, which is twice a year for team meetups. If there’s a meetup in Amsterdam, then Automattic will pay for my round-trip flights — but in between those flights, I can choose to spend as much time in Europe as I want on my own dime. It’s a nice perk to incorporate into my itinerary!
If I were traveling while simultaneously holding down a home, which is the way most people travel, then yes, this lifestyle would be unsustainable. But digital nomading exchanges a permanent address for clear-cut financial benefits. As a digital nomad, I’m saving over ten thousand dollars per year, while simultaneously seeing the world and the country. Every day is an adventure that I didn’t need to scrimp and save for.
People ask me how I can afford to travel. The answer is: I can’t afford to not travel.
What expenses could you do without if you were uprooted from a permanent location? Let me know in the comments!
(Photo courtesy Stavros Karatsoridis at KansasFest 2008)