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When my mother told her sister that I would be embarking on the life of a nomad, my aunt fretted. “Where will he be? How will he know where to go?? How will he keep track of everything???”

My mom, in a display of knowing me all too well, calmly assured her: “He’ll have a spreadsheet.”

She was right: I’ve used not only spreadsheets, but also TripIt, Todoist, WordPress, You Need a Budget, and many other tools to manage almost all details of my adventures these past three years. And, after enough time, those tools have accrued enough quantifiable data that I can generate some meaningful reports about my experiences.

Early in my travels, I wrote a blog post, “How can I afford to be a digital nomad?” Based on just five months of pre-pandemic travel, I offered numbers that estimated my constant travel would produce significant financial savings over an anchored lifestyle. Three years later, does that prediction still hold true?

The answer: it does. And here are the numbers to back it up.

Ken with money
Photo by Stavros Karatsoridis

Rather than examine my entire budget, I’ll be focusing on the cost of rent and utilities, with my previous sedentary lifestyle as a baseline. When I moved out of a suburb of Boston in September 2019, my rent, heat, electricity, and Internet totaled $2,156 per month, or $25,872 annually. And that was over three years ago; this inflation calculator suggests I’d now be paying 15% more, or $29,761 per year.

What kind of travel accommodations can I get for that money? My nomadic destinations are broken into five broad categories: rentals (which includes Airbnb, Vrbo, and short-term leases); hotels (used only as in-transit layovers on long road trips); family/friends (I may treat them to dinner or give them a gift, but I don’t count those among my lodging expenses, which are otherwise free); housesitting and petsitting (which are free); and work-sponsored travel and accommodations (also at no cost to me). In other words, only the first two categories incur costs.

Here is the frequency of how many nights I spent in each of those sources of accommodations over my first three full years of nomading, as well as the average and total costs per year.

YearRentalHotelFamily/FriendHouse/PetWorkNightly AverageAnnual Total
202027996905$43.46$15,863.19
202130525300$66.45$24,252.50
20222125221190$45.38$16,562.86

That’s a huge leap in expenses from the first year to the second! I thought that was because my second year of nomading included some high-value destinations: San Francisco, Boulder, Yosemite. I assumed those expenses would be balanced out by visiting less popular cities in 2022, where the Airbnbs would naturally be cheaper.

So when I filtered my expenses to just rentals, I was surprised to find their average costs over the last two years were actually very similar:

YearAirbnb Nightly AverageAirbnb Monthly Average
2020$66$2,010
2021$99$3,024
2022$91$2,767

If I had stayed in Airbnbs exclusively this past year, my expenses would’ve been nearly identical to what they were a year earlier. The fact that I did not go to San Francisco, Boulder, or Yosemite this year had no meaningful impact on bringing my total costs down. It’s no wonder: Airbnbs are averaging 37% more expensive than they were pre-pandemic, exceeding even the rate of inflation. Choosing to stay at an Airbnb at all is becoming an expensive choice!

In other words, my total costs are most affected not by what cities I stay in or which rentals I choose, but whether I’m paying for my lodgings at all. That may be obvious, but I didn’t expect it to be as big a factor as it was.

Petsitting

Whereas my 2021 lodging expenses were on par with my prenomadic life, I nonetheless cut my costs by almost $8,000 in 2022. The biggest contributor to those savings was the introduction of petsitting and housesitting to my itinerary. Some of that was for friends, co-workers, and family, but most of it came through Trusted Housesitters. Access to their website and app starts at $100/year, after which I can search for families in need of long-term petsitting (anywhere from a week to several months). That’s how I got to spend six weeks this past winter (and one weekend in October) with Summer and Biscuit in Golden, Colorado, and another two weeks with Evie in Grand Junction, Colorado. The pet owners don’t pay me for my service, nor do I pay them for lodging: they get their pets taken care of for free in exchange for my free housing. It’s a win-win! And you can get 25% off your own Trusted Housesitters membership using this referral link.

A brown and white dog, his head resting on a leg, looking up at the camera forlornly
“LOOOOOVEEEE MEEEEEEEE for FREEEEEEEE”

There are three downsides to Trusted Housesitters. The first is that planning an itinerary around Trusted Housesitters is more restrictive than Airbnb, since you’re limited to when and where your services are needed. Flexibility is key: for example, it’s easier to find a petsit if your goal is spending a summer in Montana than it is with the goal of spending June 13–30 in Missoula.

The second caveat is that it’s harder to make plans in advance. Right now, I know I want to spend May 2023 in Massachusetts, but there’s not yet anyone in need of petsitting in that time and place. Should I book an Airbnb now? Or wait for my Trusted Housesitters email alert to find a match, by which time all the Airbnbs might be booked?

The third downside is the customer service. My interactions with Trusted Housesitters’ customer service representatives via email have been exercises in frustration and futility. They rarely take the time to genuinely understand my question, instead identifying keywords and sending template responses that have little to do with my inquiry. And they certainly never take the time to volunteer information that might get at the root cause of my issue. My last ticket was closed with no resolution, suggesting a lack of commitment to customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately, while there are other services similar to Trusted Housesitters, none of them have the reach and volume of users. It’s best to hope the Trusted Housesitters service works as advertised and that you don’t need additional support.

Looking ahead

More than one person has assumed I’m independently wealthy to afford all this travel. The reality is that my travel contributes to my wealth — both financially and experientially. Unlike my previous life, I don’t need to save for travel; travel is now how I save. And with the money I save, I’m not only putting away savings for retirement, but I’m also able to afford everything from a trip to Disneyland to a backlog of video games.

Still, it can be challenging to budget as a nomad, since my rent can be $3,000 one month (if I’m staying in Boulder or San Francisco) and $0 the next month (if I’m petsitting or housesitting). So I recently signed up for the You Need A Budget software to help me better track, understand, and predict my expenses. A year from now, I expect to have even more insight into my finances than can be found in my spreadsheets.

Money and travel are intricately intertwined, and I’m enjoying this rare opportunity to make the most of both!

(Featured image courtesy Andreas Breitling from Pixabay)

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

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Frederick, MD

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Three years ago, I drove from Raleigh, NC, to Pittsburgh, PA.

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