HKS Communications Program
April 12, 2021
What is a digital nomad?
A digital nomad is someone whose job is independent of location; they use this freedom to travel more than half the year. Many jobs have adapted to be fully remote during the pandemic, enabling us to explore the world without waiting for retirement or unemployment.
Why become a nomad?
Nomads have the freedom to work wherever they want. They can go north in the summer and south in the summer, pursuing whatever weather they enjoy. Nomads can try a new city for a month or two, deciding if they like it before committing to staying. They can visit friends and family for extended periods, becoming a part of their daily lives in ways that aren’t possible on weekend visits. The lifestyle requires they shed unnecessary possessions and habits. And nomading slows down time, creating unique experiences and memories that prevent the days and seasons from blurring together.
Where does a nomad stay?
If you want cheap or free accommodations, try TrustedHouseSitters.com or MindMyHouse.com. For a small annual fee, you’ll have the opportunity to house-sit and pet-sit for others, rent-free. Potential downsides are that you’re limited in your choice of destinations and dates,.
More traditional options are available on Airbnb.com and VRBO.com. (Always check both, as some places are listed on both at different prices!) You can filter by Airbnbs with flexible cancellation policies or that offer discounts for stays of at least 28 days. If you’ll be staying longer, and if the stay is reputable, inquire if you can sign a short-term lease outside Airbnb; many reputable landlords will be happy to bypass Airbnb’s fees and pass on the savings to you.
If you know someone in the city you’re going to, you can also ask them whether you’ve chosen a safe neighborhood, or where else they would recommend.
What does it cost to be a nomad?
If you think you can’t afford to travel, think again! There’s no need to save now and travel later; you can do both.
When I was living in Boston, I was paying $1,900/month in rent, plus $110 for Internet, $90 for heat, and $60 for electricity. That’s a total of about $2,200/month, or $26,000/year.
By comparison, Airbnb fees include utilities and are usually much more affordable. The cheapest I’ve paid was $1,000/month for a two-story cottage in Arizona with a fenced-in backyard, off-street parking, and laundry, just an hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion — what a great summer! Living somewhere cheaply for a few months also let me live somewhere more expensive for a few other months — a more flexible and variable budget than signing a one-year lease.
Altogether in 2020, I paid a total of $16,000 in rent and utilities; compared to my previous life in Boston, that’s a savings of $10,000/year.
I often get asked how I can afford to travel; the answer is, I can’t afford to not travel!
How does a nomad get around?
If you’re not relying on planes, trains, and public transit (undesirable choices during a pandemic!), then your travels will likely be domestic and will require you have your own set of wheels. If you want to stay at Airbnbs and the like, then any vehicle will do. I travel in my Toyota Prius Prime with a roof rack, and I use Massachusetts’ Out-of-State Verification Inspection Form to comply with the state’s annual vehicle certification requirement.
Recreational vehicles (RVs), campers, and trailers, have several advantages. They provide a sense of consistency and permanency, even as my surroundings change — something couples, families, and those with pets will appreciate. They alleviate the stress and expense of finding new accommodations in each city. And campgrounds can be very affordable — as little as $20 per night, or free via HarvestHosts.com.
But RVs themselves are expensive! A new camper or trailer you hitch to a car or truck can start at $20,000, whereas a self-contained drivable unit (such as a motorhome) can start at $50,000. If you have a large RV, you may also need to tow a smaller vehicle you can unhitch and drive into town.
You’ll also need to consider your Internet connection: campgrounds can be unreliable, while a roaming plan could be expensive. Every Airbnb I’ve worked from has doubled as a home office without issue.
Where does a nomad get their mail?
Standard mail forwarding from the USPS won’t be tenable if you’re moving to new addresses frequently. One alternative is to get a P.O. box and ask a friend or relative to regularly bundle and forward its contents to you. Another option is to use a forwarding address from EarthClassMail.com or DakotaPost.net, which costs about $19/month.
Note that a forwarding address can be used to establish residency; a P.O. box cannot. As part of their mail-forwarding service, DakotaPost can help you establish yourself as a South Dakota resident, which confers the benefits of no income taxes, no annual vehicle inspections, and low vehicle insurance rates.
Where can I get more information?
Don’t already have an online job? Use LinkedIn’s job search to filter by “Remote” as the location. Look for companies that are entirely distributed (like Automattic, where I work — we’re hiring!). Check the Facebook group Digital Nomad Jobs. Find gigs on Upwork. Or consider becoming self-employed: look up anything by Tim Ferriss or categorized as Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE).
And sign up for my blog to hear more tips and adventures from the road!