It’s a question I’ve been asked so many times. One that I hear from people I’ve known my whole life and people I’ve known for five minutes. As soon as people hear that Luke and I have been living abroad for six years, when they hear we’ve been in a different country every year and traveling for several months at a time, the first thing they say without even meaning to is, “how the hell do you afford to do that?”
I recently received an email from a reader and it got me thinking about how to best answer this question.
How do you afford to live on the road? I see myself traveling full time or for longer periods in the future… But it seems impossible. My husband and I have managed to make do with exchanging our services for room and board in some places. But even then we are never able to save up money doing that.
A lot of travelers I meet get offended by this. They feel like it’s an invasion of their privacy or just plain rude.
“I don’t ask how they afford their expensive cars, diamond earrings or designer handbags,” people argue, “that would be rude.”
I guess I used to see it this way, too. I felt insulted that people thought I had some sort of trust fund or backing from my parents. But then I realized that people are just curious. Most people are genuine in their inquisition. They’re interested in how we do it because they want to know if they could do it, too.
The answer is pretty simple.
This is hard for some people to see because I don’t talk about it on my blog. I post photos on Facebook of Luke and I traveling, hanging out at different bars and restaurants, exploring our neighborhoods. I get it.
But every time we move somewhere new, I’ve gotten a job. A normal day job where I get up at 8, get to work for 9, work for most of the day, head home around 5.
None have been incredibly high paying jobs, most just over the minimum wage of the country that we’re living. But it allowed us to pay rent, explore the city we’re in, travel further afield on weekends and longer holidays.
I got Working Holiday visas in New Zealand and Australia so that I could travel and work. Then I taught English in Korea where I was able to save over $15,000.
Now that I’m a “digital nomad,” it’s even harder to convince people that I actually work. I find myself having to explain what I do on a daily basis because it’s still such a foreign concept to people. Each morning I sit down at my computer and I work, just like everybody else. I just figured out a way to leverage what skills I have on a platform that allows me to do it from anywhere I want (If your job is one of these, you probably can, too!).
I’m a big saver. When we first moved to New Zealand, it became something of an addiction; swapping the leftover money from our checking account into our savings account at the end of each month was such a rush. It became a kind of game to see how much we could live off of each month, to see how much we could put over at the end of 30 days.
I don’t need to have a focus to save. Some people I’ve spoken to like to know what they’re saving for. I just save. It’s just become part of me, part of my daily life. I don’t spend money unless I need to or really, really want to (like hello $3 latte you get me every time).
I don’t buy a lot of stuff. We have always rented apartments or houses that come fully furnished. I’ve never bought a couch or a bed or a nightstand or a dresser in my entire life. When I want to buy something like a camera or a computer, I research for months to make sure I’m getting the best price. When I go clothes shopping I buy things that I truly love, but I search the vintage shops first. I don’t upgrade my phone every couple of months to an expensive plan that locks me in for a certain amount of time.
I learned how to cook. I used to be a terrible cook. I wasn’t really interested in it until I finished college and suddenly couldn’t pop into the dining hall whenever I wanted. But learning to cook and learning to cook really tasty (and healthy) food has not only helped my waistline over the years, it has saved me a ton of money. Being able to cook food from scratch is WAY cheaper than filling your grocery cart with premade meals, tins of food, or other processed crap and it’s definitely cheaper than Uber Eats or dining out at restaurants.
I don’t own a car. That’s a big one. I don’t have to pay for gas, insurance, registration, break down service, there are no monthly payments. If I want to get somewhere I figure out a different way. If I absolutely have to, I’ll rent a car.
I Have Bank Accounts That Don’t Charge International Fees. I pay for pretty much everything with my debit card. I use Capital One and Citibank. Both allow you to take money out of any ATM worldwide without charging you.
I’m not obsessive. I don’t cut coupons or spend hours a day scouring for discounts. I just don’t really need anything. I don’t even think about it actually. If I want to have lunch with my friends or with Luke, I do. I don’t obsessively buy the cheapest thing on the menu or ask for tap water (not all the time anyway). I enjoy spending money on experiences and on moments that bring me closer to the people I care about.
I Travel Cheaply.
In my experience, traveling as a pair is much cheaper than traveling as a single. Luke and I share accommodation costs which allow us to have our own room for the same price as two beds in a dorm room. We share food costs so that we can buy from the grocery store or market and cook meals for very little money. We walk together, share waters, share an ipod, share rental car fees and gas money and rent when we’re living in one place.
We cook our own food a lot. When we traveled through Australia and New Zealand, eating out was incredibly expensive. So we bought a cooler and whenever we stopped in a big town, we bought in bulk. We ate a lot of pasta, rice, vegetables, fruits, and tuna. We were fine with eating less meat since it doesn’t really travel well and usually costs a lot more than going vegetarian for a few weeks. But again, if we were somewhere there was a specialty or there was something we wanted to try, we did. Food is one of the main reasons we travel and we don’t skimp if it’s something we really want.
We travel to cheap countries. Besides Australia and New Zealand (and Japan), we often travel in very cheap countries. You can see from my budget posts about Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, that we lived on less than $18 per person per day (Unlike Japan, where it was more than double that!). That includes accommodation, food, transportation, entertainment and of course, beer and coffee. You can do it for even cheaper, but I wasn’t about to give up my twice daily fruit smoothies or my evening beers, so there you go.
I don’t mind roughing it. We stay in cheap hostels and hotels to save money for things we want to do during the day. Sometimes there’s no hot water. Often there’s no air-conditioning. I’ve slept on beds with nothing more than a fitted sheet. I’ve used my travel towel as a blanket, a pillow, and a fly swatter. I don’t mind, because I’m usually so tired from the day’s exploration that I’m asleep before I can notice. These little places are often where we meet the kindest locals and eat some seriously good local foods.
Street food is my best friend. It’s piping hot, cooked to order, it’s utterly delicious, and it’s CHEAP. I don’t know why so many people are afraid of it. If the line is long and the locals are waiting, you better believe I’m getting in there to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve never been disappointed and I’ve never had a single stomach issue because of it (food from restaurants on the other hand… another story for another day).
Airbnb is my best friend. I’ve written a whole post about why I love it here. I love hotels as much as the next gal. The plush towels, the bathtubs, the fancy shampoo. I love the little touches that you get from a hotel, but for me, a hotel is a splurge. If I’m looking to make my money last on a trip, I use Airbnb. Not only is it usually at least half the price of a hotel, it’s also a nice way to live a little bit more like a local. There’s usually a full kitchen where you can self-cater and the person who owns the place is always happy to share tips about what to do in the area. If you’ve never used Airbnb you can sign up with this link to get up to $40 off of your first booking (that’s at least two night’s stay here in Mexico!).
I Keep a Cushion.
Not like a couch cushion. It’s perhaps even more desirable. I keep a money cushion chillin’ in my bank account that I vow not to touch. If I have to touch it, it’s time to get back to work.
When we moved from New Zealand to Australia, we almost ran out of money. We had just moved into an apartment and I didn’t have a job yet. Luke managed to get himself a few part-time jobs, but none were due to pay him for a few weeks. We had $50 between us until he got his first paycheck. We had to ask our landlord if it was okay that we pay a little bit late. We starting talking about what our options were if we ran out of money. Luckily, I got a job that same week and the money started coming in much more regularly, but the scare of almost having to give up was all too real.
Since then, we have never allowed ourselves to get that low again. The cushion has even grown over the years. At the end of trips, when we go back to work or settle in somewhere to save again, we top it up with what’s left and we begin again. The cushion is our safety net, a promise to ourselves that we’ll never have to give up this life, and a reminder of when it’s time to slow down and work our butts off.
I Stopped Worrying About What People Thought of My Life.
I put this in here because I think this is what holds so many people back. Sure it’s about money, it’s about knowing you have enough to keep going, but it’s also about letting go. You have to let go of what other people will think of your life choices. I don’t have a “career” in the traditional sense of the word. I have had so many different jobs since graduating college, my resume looks like a list of post-graduate job opportunities, not some sort of cohesive display of growth over time.
And you know what? I don’t give a damn! Because I’m living my life the way that I want to, not the way some future employer may want me to. I have let go of the fear that I need to grow my CV or prove that I’m worth something because of my work experience.
I know that I’m worth something. My job title doesn’t dictate that.
I’m not afraid of security, because in the last six years I’ve proven to myself over and over again, that I’m fully capable of returning to the workforce after significant time off and still getting a job that pays me enough to live and even allows me to save. Does that job impress people at dinner parties? WHO CARES! Does it allow me to live the life I want to live? That is the question I ask myself.
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Monday 13th of January 2020
Thanks Laura, this is so amazing! Im at a point in my life where all the work experience and proving my worth to employers just depletes my soul, im ready to do the work and live the digital nomad lifestyle!!
Monday 13th of January 2020
That's so awesome! Good for you! Feel free to email me if you have any questions along the way!
Wednesday 28th of August 2019
Laura, your blog is so refreshing. I'm 68, have not traveled fulltime for over 35 years, and miss the lifestyle your now enjoying. Hope to get back in the travel groove before too long..God bless and safe travels to yall.
Bob Thomae, San Antonio, Texas
Wednesday 28th of August 2019
Thank you so much, Bob! I hope you get your travel groove back soon, too :)
Thursday 27th of December 2018
The absolute BEST blog post I've read in a while. Thanks for being honest and giving a realistic view of what it takes to live this lifestyle. You don't need a bunch of get rich quick schemes and there's no big hidden secret. It's hard work and planning! Nice job -- I love it!
Thursday 20th of September 2018
Inspired! You are the ultimate inspiration for me right now. Thank you for posting your experiences for others to enjoy. I would love to live like this. I've never done well being in one place for too long so this kind of lifestyle seems fitting. Money would worry me but you make it work and I love that. Do you have a regular blog or facebook? Thanks again. You're an amazing person. Best if wishes to you and Luke.
Friday 21st of September 2018
Thank you so much for your kind message! Money definitely worried me a lot at first, but you can definitely find ways to keep going if you plan a little bit ahead!
Sunday 22nd of January 2017
The journey you're taking is so inspirational and admirable. From the leap of faith you've taken -- to how you've handled every experience, challenge and opportunity afterwards. I'm a fresh 21 and am definitely on the precipice of some big decisions. Your words, though not necessarily intended to be, feel like welcomed advice/perspective spoken directly to me. What you wrote in the last portion of this post was exactly what I needed to hear, so thank you! I so appreciate your candidness in all of your posts and though I've anonymously been a reader -- it's convinced me to become an active "Eternal Expat" follower. I look forward to reading more & hopefully finding continuous, incidental guidance from a kindred spirit :)
Monday 23rd of January 2017
Thank you so much, Cierra. What a lovely thing for you to say! I'm so glad you found this helpful and definitely feel free to email me if you have any questions!