This week marks an anniversary for me. One month living abroad as a digital nomad. I’ve been planning this new lifestyle for ages (if following the #digitalnomad hashtag on Twitter and blog-stalking counts as planning…) and now I’m finally living in Ukraine, having left the 9-5 London lifestyle behind at least for now. So I thought I’d write this post on my experiences so far, and my thoughts for anyone who might be interested in the digital nomad lifestyle.
First and foremost, what’s a digital nomad!? Travelling and working abroad aren’t particularly new ideas. There has always been the option to look for a job in a new country, or take temp jobs here and there as you travel. However, the advent of laptops, smartphones, wifi and so on has opened up a whole new world for us travellers: that of working remotely from wherever you are, so long as you have an Internet connection. So a digital nomad can be anyone who travels, working from wherever they are, not tied to any one place or job. Of course there are quite a few working options available to nomads. If your job is one that you can continue to some extent via your computer from wherever you are, you have the possibility to consider moving your life from one place to another. If your current job isn’t so mobile, there are quite a few options for making money from afar, from writing to data entry to graphics design to programming. In my case, my translation work can carry on from anywhere, so I haven’t had to make too many changes to how I work.
If you’re thinking about the digital nomad life, one of the first main considerations is: will I be able to make enough money to fund my lifestyle? Of course this depends on a lot of different factors. How well paid is your chosen profession? How expensive is the city or country you plan to spend time in? What standard of living do you expect and are you prepared to make sacrifices? In my case, it seems that so far I am at least able to make enough money as a freelancer to keep travelling across Europe and/or living in Ukraine, where I’m currently based. In all honesty, I left a decent-ish salary in London for a much lower income as a freelancer. However, several factors make up for the shortfall. Firstly, my money goes much, much further in Lviv than it did in London. In London, my monthly rent was £600 for just a room. Here it’s £125 for a one bedroom flat. Even whilst I was on the road across Europe, hostels or campsites were averaging about £10 per night, which is still less than the per-night cost of living in London. In London, a dinner for 2 with drinks at a normal place costs you about £20 per person. Here, it costs you about £4. Secondly, per hour of work that I put in, I earn more money as a translator than I did in my full-time job. So although I earn less, I’m working only about 10% of the time I was working in London, and achieving the same lifestyle. Thirdly, I’m quite frugal, and if I’m living somewhere where life is cheap, I can get by on quite a small amount of money.
My life now is completely different than it was a month or two ago. I used to spend around an hour a day commuting and 8 hours in the office. I only had 20 days holiday a year, and so I spent most of my time either working or doing chores, and trying to cram all the ‘fun’ stuff into a few hours a day or at the weekend. Now, my week works pretty much in the opposite way. I get up whenever I want, go to the market to buy groceries and then decide what to do with my day. I probably spend some time blogging, working or organising work-related stuff (invoices, emails and keeping up-to-date), and then I’ll spend the rest of the day meeting people, going out, exploring… Of course I do spend a certain amount of time working. If I have a translation I generally have to knuckle down and work on it for a day or two straight. However, this still only takes up about 30% of my time, compared to the 80%+ of my time that work used to consume.
You might think it’s ridiculous that I have so much free time and that I’m not worried about how much money I’m making. Well, sometimes I think it’s ridiculous too. I’m a hard worker and put a lot of pride in my work. I don’t like the idea of slacking off or living off someone else. However, I also like to manage my own time and have the chance to actually enjoy the fruits of what I do. In my personal opinion, being stuck in the 9-5 hamster wheel isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. In my case, I was working all day every day in the office, and cramming in translation work at the weekends. I was stressed and bored, and what for? I still only had enough money to pay my rent and the extortionate costs of TFL (London transport system). Now of course I don’t have any more money than I did before. However the difference is I have back the time that I was spending sitting at my desk during office hours, to spend either working in my own way, or doing other things. And I am certainly earning enough to have a great life here. The fact is, if you’re earning GBP, USD or euro, your money is worth many, many times more in a country like Ukraine than it is in an overpriced (and overrated) city like London. Obviously the amount of work I’m currently doing would not be enough to sustain myself in a place like London. However of course I don’t rule out the idea of doing a full-time job again in future – but for now I am enjoying being both (comparatively) cash and time rich with less effort than I was making before.
Of course there are some downsides to living like this. I made the crazy decision to go and live in a country where I don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone. So at the moment I’m making a big investment of my time in studying, exploring and meeting people. And all the usual disadvantages of freelancing apply. Not all clients pay well or on time – some of my time is spend chasing invoices. And work isn’t always consistent. Some days I work all day or even during the night. Other days I have nothing to do at all. Which can be appealing, but of course you have to keep earning at least a minimum amount to sustain your lifestyle. Of course with freelancing there is no concrete guarantee of when you’ll get work, how much work you’ll have to do and how much money comes in each month. There’s also no safety net in case of illness or other problems. So it’s a precarious life where you have to keep chasing work, keep on top of everything and balance your books like a circus performer to keep going. I’m certainly in the phase of building up my ‘business’ as a blogger, writer and translator. I’m very happy with how it’s going, but there’s certainly room to learn and improve a lot. But living in such a cheap place gives me ‘wiggle room’ to maneuver until I achieve a steady and reliable workflow.
All in all, this lifestyle is not for everyone. Moving around can be stressful, tiring and uncertain, whilst building up a life in a new place is a huge challenge. Working remotely is the portable and flexible option, but it’s not necessarily an easy option. A freelance job is still a job like any other, and you have to be reliable and professional for the work to keep coming back. Being a digital nomad is by no means a long-term holiday. However, for me at least, it is a way to fulfill my travel dreams, manage my own time and take advantage of life in a much cheaper country without losing my connections to my career.