Lots of folks have been asking me what it’s like to be a digital nomad. And I’m not quite sure what to say.
By most definitions, I’ve been a digital nomad for quite a few years, but until only recently I would return home to my comfy, cozy home every few weeks. So even though we finally took the plunge and went full nomad, my experience is different than someone who’d been city hopping straight-through. And that’s a whole different story than folks who just up and moved somewhere new.
Everyone’s experience with location independence is different. This is why I sought out some other experienced nomads to give you the scoop on what it’s really like to be a digital nomad.
Digital nomads are internet dependent
When talking about what’s awesome about being a digital nomad, Chris at Lessons Learned Abroad, thinks one of the big perks is that you “can work from anywhere in the world (as long as the wifi is reliable!).”
I hear that. Loud and clear!
I’ve already blogged about how a poor or non-existent internet connection can muck things up, and that seems to be the biggest issue for most other nomads. An internet connection can make or break both the experience and your bank account. That’s why I’ve listed this right up top.
Anna at Global Gallivanting said that her least favorite part of the life is “struggling with the internet, especially in less developed countries which are the places that I enjoy visiting more.” Yeah… I hear that too. No internet equals no work, and no work equals no money..@GlobalGallivant Loves her location independent lifestyle... as long as there's internet available! Click To Tweet
Work-life balance gets blurry
A lot of the nomads who rapped with me had a few things to say about work-life balance. When you don’t have “the man” dictating when and where you can work, following other pursuits than work can during the day is incredibly tempting. Beyond that, juggling work, romantic relationships, family, obligation, and actually enjoying wherever you are can get tricky. Heck, it definitely does for me.
I wasn’t at all shocked when Chris said something I’ve said. He told me:
The downside, of course, is once you make that schedule you have to stick to it. There is no one there to keep you on track – it’s all on you. So it really takes a self-disciplined, motivated, and organized person to make it happen. For this reason, it’s not a suitable lifestyle for everyone.When you're a #digitalnomad there is no one there to keep you on track. - @learnedabroad Click To Tweet
Monica of The Travel Hack also told me something all too familiar. She said:
The worst thing about being a digital nomad is that there are no boundaries when it comes to the work/life balance. It can be hard to switch off and stop thinking about work because you don’t have the usual office environment or the ability to switch off from work when you leave the office. In some ways you don’t feel like you’re working at all (particularly if you’re working from the beach somewhere hot and exotic) but in other ways it can feel like you never stop working so it can be difficult if you’re working on a stressful project.
As someone who is working on this post at one in the morning, I feel this. Sure, I get to read for a bit in the afternoon by the pool, but those thirty minutes on my Kindle app are eclipsed by the hours I spend working even though it’s after “office hours.” But sometimes the pendulum of work-life balance swings to the other end.
“It’s a great lifestyle but it’s not for everyone,” said Anna from Global Gallivanting. She went on to say:
You need to be really motivated and self-disciplined to turn down days on the beach or nights out because you need to work. Also, moving and traveling constantly is counter productive so you really need to be able to find a balance that works for you. Trying to combine work and travel can be tiring so I find I need to travel much slower – spending at least a month in a country and renting an apartment instead of flying through ticking off the tourist sites but this means you get more immersion into the local life as well as more time to work on projects. You need to put the work in, it’s certainly no 4-hour work week (for me anyway)!It’s a great lifestyle but it’s not for everyone. - @GlobalGallivant #digitalnomad Click To Tweet
The hardest part is the stress that comes with building a business from scratch and having unreliable income. It’s hard knowing my family full depends on me financially and it was really hard working for months and months without any guarantee that it would pay off. It’s also really hard working, traveling full time and having young kids! Finding a balance is very tricky..@wheressharon says: It's really hard working, traveling full time and having young kids! Click To Tweet
Freedom is fabulous
Once you have internet access on the regular and a work schedule on lock, enjoy some of the radness this location independent lifestyle brings. And freedom is likely on the top of that list–it was for almost every nomad I spoke with!
And it’s at the top for me too! I luxuriate in the freedom and flexibility the location independent, remote work lifestyle offers me. I’ll let Chris take it from here, as I couldn’t say it any better:
The best part of being a remote worker is that you have incredible freedom for when and where you work. YOU make your own schedule, set to how YOU want to live. Many a day I just work in my pajamas, because why not! My life, my rules. You really can’t beat that.YOU make your own schedule, set to how YOU want to live. - @learnedabroad #remotework Click To Tweet
The best thing about the digital nomad lifestyle is undoubtedly the freedom to travel anywhere (as long as there is decent internet!) and to work on something you’re passionate about and to make up your own work schedule.
And Monica takes it a step further, saying:
The best thing about being a digital nomad is the fact that every day is an adventure. You don’t have to live for the weekend because every day can feel like the weekend. You feel like you work to live, rather than live to work and it can be a much healthier and happier attitude to the normal rat race.The best thing about being a #digitalnomad is every day is an adventure. - @TheTravelHack Click To Tweet
It could be for everyone
I talked with Kevin–The Jet-setting Copywriter –and his “best” thing about digital nomad life is something that I’ve been saying all along: being a digital nomad can be for anyone! He said:
The best thing about digital nomad life is that it’s accessible to anyone who can find consistent paying clients, work hard and market themselves effectively online. I made more money than ever last year and visited several amazing countries, but only needed to work seven months out of twelve. Hard to beat that for a lifestyle!The best thing about #digitalnomad life is that it's accessible to anyone. - @remoteriverman Click To Tweet
But maybe it’s getting too accessible. Kevin went on to say:
I think the worst thing about the digital nomad lifestyle is how commercialized and timid it has become these days. All the co-working spaces, co-living spaces and other manifestations of what I call ‘the ‘DN hand-holding industry’ are leading to a herd mentality where everyone goes to the same places and the adventure aspect is hugely diluted.
Hunkering down in a Chiang Mai dorm room crowded with other US and Canadian expats isn’t exactly my idea of adventure. But I do think everyone’s digital nomad experience can be what they want it to be–back to that freedom thing. If what amounts to a chartered tour is what it takes to get someone who desperately wants to work and travel into digital nomading, awesome! And someone else handling logistics does free one up with more time for work and play.
But this level of accessibility also lures in people who don’t have any business (yet!) calling themselves a digital nomad. This includes folks who sign up for digital nomad tours or experiences or book themselves into co-living spaces 3,000 miles from home and have no idea of how they’ll make money.
Please figure this out before you hit the highway! Regardless of how inexpensive your new digs may seem to be, everything is going to be expensive when you’re not making any money.
To be a digital nomad, you need to work. This means freelancing for most people, but some folks are like me and run businesses while galavanting, and others hold down proper (yet remote) jobs.
For those in the freelancing space, it’s not just about finding clients, hard work, or marketing–but those things are huge parts of the equation. You also need to have some skills and experience doing what you do in order to bring in the bucks to fund your lifestyle. And here’s some good news: almost everyone most likely has skills and experience in something that folks hire remote freelancers for.
Everyone is different
Almost everyone I spoke with emphasized that a digital nomad is simply someone who is location independent with their work. Or they could be if they wanted to!
Because of this, some folks have home bases they return to regularly like I did until recently. Sharon does, and she loves it:
The most surprising part is how happy I have been having a base that we travel from rather than traveling all the time. I used to like being in a different country every week but with a business and kids, that would be horrible. It seems as long as I have the freedom to be wherever I want, that I’m much happier staying put!
Others are striving for this too, like Jeremy at Living the Dream. He’s on a quest to build his perfect lifestyle design. For him, that is going to include a home base in the States. He said:
Part of my struggle is that I want to live in the USA full time and travel as I please, which, as anyone can tell you, is much more expensive than living in cheaper locales around the world while working. This means we have to work even harder, grow that much larger, and make an extra income in order to make it happen. I’m up for that challenge.
And some, like Monica, previously were fully nomadic, but realized having a home base was really what they wanted.
Whether or not someone has a home base, remains on the road, or simply moves away is one big difference. But why folks get started as a digital nomad is a big difference too.
I became obsessed with portable careers when I was broke and living overseas, unable to work. I couldn’t make it happen then, but I was lucky enough to eventually pull it off once I was back in the States. Creating a location independent life almost guaranteed that I’d never be that broke again, and it had an added bonus of allowing me to pursue all of my travel-related aspirations.
Others go there because they don’t want to buy into doing what they’re “supposed to” be doing just because they’re supposed to. This would include David at The Luxpats. He and his wife Sarah decided to give up “The Script” and its false promises of freedom. They, along with their cute kiddo Spencer, are chasing their own American dream.
And then some do it just because they want to travel. Others want adventure. Others do it because they can. And many folks are digital nomads, but they just don’t know it yet. Heck, I guess I was a digital nomad for a good year or two before I took my laptop further than my living room, patio, or favorite coffee shop.
Not everyone makes it
Not everyone who gives digital nomading a go is a stunning success. Most folks selling digital nomad tours or accommodations or courses or whatever don’t usually tell you that. Everyone seems to be a winner bringing in the big bucks, but you and I know that’s not the case.
Keven told me:
The most surprising thing about digital nomad life is that you always hear about the successes, but never the failures – and there are lots of them. As a lifestyle, it’s much harder work than many people realize..@remoteriverman: As a lifestyle, it's much harder work than many people realize. #digitalnomad Click To Tweet
Some people just don’t have what it takes. Working independently takes its toll, as does traveling, being away from loved ones, and having to possibly cope with a culture very different from your own.
When I asked Monica about this, she said:
I don’t know many people who can do it for more than 4-5 years. Don’t get me wrong, those 4-5 years are probably the best years of their lives, but after a while, most people crave the stability and routine of a home and a community.
And don’t forget work-life balance: some folks just can never quite get there.
There are some hassles
If your digital nomad experience includes freelancing or entrepreneurship, a few extra obstacles to doing business could stand in your way.
Anna points out that “chasing payments and arranging visas can also be a hassle,” and I have to second that.
To be up front, I haven’t had to deal with any visa issues yet. Every country I’ve visited let me roll in with my US passport, but keeping an eye on how long we’re legally allowed to stay has been something we’ve been keen to do. However, any time you start to plan on visiting a new country, you need to do your homework. It would be mighty disappointing to get turned away at a border just because you didn’t do a few minutes of paperwork as you were planning the trip.When you plan on visiting a new country, you need to do your homework. #digitalnomad Click To Tweet
But chasing payments!
It can be hard to touch base with a client who doesn’t understand their bill when neither of you have shared business hours. Sometimes it takes multiple times waking at 4:00 AM to place a VoIP call before you can finally connect and get things sorted.
Then there are folks who want to pay by check. And checks can be a big pain if you don’t have a branch of your bank around the corner, even if you have a mailing address and mobile deposit options.
Checks over a certain amount can’t be deposited via mobile or online deposit, and you have a limit of how much you can deposit remotely over various time periods. Additionally, my bank can only deposit checks from foreign banks (with foreign formatting) at a branch, even if they are in US currency. This is why I once was holding about $6,000 in checks but was about to overdraw our account on a $99 subscription fee, with nothing to be said for other upcoming withdrawals. I think I was sweating a bit as I drove the 300+ miles to my nearest bank branch.
My solution has been to integrate online payment options into invoices with Xero. When able to pay with a credit card with a single click, more than half of my clients now do that, even those who previously insisted on checks or liked to use PayPal. Those who still want to do PayPal can, and it works swimmingly. But for those who want to pay by (a sometimes large) check?
But for those who want to pay by (a sometimes large) check? The mailing address is now our virtual office. They send me a scanned image of each envelope, and I drop one of my friends a line. I pay her a nominal amount each month to run to pick up any mail or parcels that come in and take care of them appropriately. This means depositing checks, throwing away junk mail, forwarding important stuff, and sitting on any random items we may have received until the next time I’m in town.
Other hassles? There always are more. Including the beach!
According to Kevin (and my own experience), that whole digital nomad on the beach thing is kind of a sham! Laptop screens are hard to see in the sun’s glare, working on your lap in a lounge chair isn’t terribly comfy, and tropical drinks and sand aren’t friends with your computer. Despite knowing all of this, I can’t say I don’t try to bring my work poolside or down to the beach–I just don’t manage to get very much done before heading back in.
But it’s so rewarding
What everyone gets out of digital nomading differs, but I don’t know many who have regretted their location independent adventure. Almost everyone I spoke to brought up the freedom they’re enjoying, but the ability to work when and where you want is just part of it.What everyone gets out of digital nomading differs. #remotework Click To Tweet
That kind of flexibility means you’re able to be there for important moments for your family and friends (no PTO requests required) and can pursue your personal interests with impunity. And yes, you can travel… if you want. Otherwise, you can enjoy the luxury of working from your home pants-free or from bed or take breaks to run errands at times when the roads aren’t clogged with folks rushing to and from work.
And if you’re the kind of nomad that took the travel route, there are a bunch of benefits there too. Expanding your horizons, having new and interesting experiences, meeting new folks, being exposed to new cultures, and other things that help you to grow as a person and find life more interesting are all there too!
But wait, there’s more!
For Sharon, she said:
The best part for me has been surprising. It’s actually been giving myself an identity again that’s not being a mum, and in a way where I don’t have to sacrifice being a mum to do it. I can still be around the kids as much as I want while having a very fulfilling and successful career and doing lots of fun travel! There are so many different aspects of your life that can change with building an online business. Location freedom is just one of them.
While I can’t relate to the whole being a mother thing, I can relate to the great changes that entrepreneurship brings to your life. After launching Impressa Solutions, I noticed a shift. Maybe I was acting differently, but people do treat me differently now. A little VIP treatment here, some priority support there, and a sprinkling of introductions I otherwise could only dream of make entrepreneur life super sweet.
So yeah, that’s what it’s like being a digital nomad. Different, interesting, rewarding, at times frustrating, but all-in-all awesome!