So, readers, I promised you part 2 of my up-close-and-personal insight into the 24-7 travelling and working lifestyle as a digital nomad, and here it is. I wrote part 1 2 months into my experience as a travelling freelancer, now, four months in, it’s time to see if my earlier insights were correct and if I’ve managed to keep the lifestyle going!
Well, the answer is, yes and no.
Let’s start by chatting a bit about the typical modern lifestyle. Back in London, for a while, I was getting up at 6am each day and leaving by 7. I was working the usual 9-5.30 job (in a job I loved, luckily for me), then getting home at 8pm to eat, sleep and start again. This is pretty normal. People are obsessed with this 9-5 lifestyle, which in reality is more like an 8-8 lifestyle for many, and even more for people who work in high-pressure industries. I was lucky to work in a pretty cool, chilled out and flexible office where people valued a work-life balance. But with commuting, working, grabbing lunch ‘al desko’ and often working out of hours too, the 9-5 takes over people’s lives. Now, that’s all very well if you enjoy it, and ironically for someone who is writing about location-independent freelancing, actually I do like it. But it’s become so ingrained in society’s notion of what life is, that people are utterly terrified to step away and do anything else.
The irony of a ‘proper’ job is that it takes over everything and often gives surprisingly little back. Let me explain: when I was working full time in London, of course I earned much more than I do now tapping away at my computer in wherever I happen to be. But actually I didn’t have any more money. As many of you might recognise, if you’re on a low-medium income in an expensive city, about 80% of your net income goes on just existing; just on maintaining the status-quo of job and commuting. Let’s say I was earning 20k just for illustration (it was around that figure): per annum, around 7.5k went on just renting my tiny room in a shared flat. 1-3k (depending on my location) went on transport to and from work. That’s half the salary gone already just on existing. Add to that bills, food, grabbing lunches at work and keeping up with things like work drinks and guess what? It’s all gone. All of it. As I am super dilligent about saving, everything that wasn’t spent on merely continuing to be in London and go to my job went into my meagre savings pot. And guess what? It’s still there.
I’m going to be totally honest here. I don’t earn very much in my dream freelance life. I’ll be lucky if I hit the tax limit for this tax year. But the surprise is – I still have the same amount of disposable income as before. Does that surprise you? It even surprises me, since I really am not earning a UK standard salary and I’ve spent a full four months living the dream. I’ve made a road trip all across Europe visiting Brussels, Frankfurt, Prague, Brno and Krakow, each for several days as the whim took me, eating out, drinking and visiting tourist sights. Then I spent 2 months living in L’viv, Ukraine, where I did quite literally whatever I wanted. I ate out almost every day; I grabbed tasty croissants from a gorgeous cafe several mornings a week; I took intensive Ukrainan classes; I drank more beer than water; I rented an incredible flat in the city centre; I went out several evenings a week; I took trips whenever I felt like it… I even went to TWO music festivals, one of which was in Romania. And still, my money pot never went down. The secret it, that Ukraine is incredibly, ludicrously cheap. But then we left the comforting cheapness of Ukraine for a second road trip, taking in Kosice, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Bregenz and the Swiss Alps. Again, eating out, going out, and paying all the expenses of being on the road. And now I’m in week four of living in Italy, hitting the beach most days and generally enjoying life.
So in fact, despite the fact I don’t earn so much, I simply don’t spend as much. It might surprise you, but travelling really can be cheaper than being stable in a 9-5. The secret is mainly just to keep earning some money in a strong currency whilst spending most of your time in countries where the cost of life is lower. If you travel cheaply, via hostels, campsites, AirBnb, Couchsurfing and visiting friends, as I do, then you really can keep doing it without worrying about money. As long as you bring something in, you can generally make things work.
The downside is, there’s no longevity in this lifestyle. Well, of course it can be done indefinitely – so long as you earn enough to keep living and moving, you can keep on living that way. But the downside is that on a low income, you stop being able to save, to progress in your career, to get promoted and to build up a successful long-term life plan. It depends on if that kind of thing is important to you. That’s not to say it’s impossible to earn decent money or to make progress as a freelancer, it’s just harder than in a full-time job.
And of course living on the road isn’t always a dream come true. There are always bad experiences in with the good ones when you travel a lot. Long delays, traffic and other practical problems with moving around. Always lugging everything you own along with you and worrying about things being lost or stolen. Bugs that you pick up from bad water, bad food etc – I’ve had horrendous stomach bugs from festival food in Romania and a crappy restaurant in Budapest as well as an infection I picked up from a dirty Ukrainian lake. Being in expensive cities or countries like Switzerland where even a salad costs you 16 euro. Arguments with your significant other or travel buddy about 101 things (for sure it can put a strain on your relationships). Missing your friends or family and home comforts…
Making a new life in a new place can also be hard. For me it is and it isn’t. To be honest I’m a kind of loner who isn’t enormously attached to a place or a group of people. It’s not to say I don’t love my friends and family to pieces, but they’re already quite geographically dispersed anyway, and I know they’ll still be there. In fact, travelling is giving me the chance to catch up with some of them who live dotted around Europe. Being a loner and a person who has little attachment to material things, home comforts or stability, I simply love to move and always feel at home wherever I am. I adapt extremely quickly to new places and I thrive on the excitement of new things. I’m also an obsessive linguist who lives to learn as much about other languages and cultures as possible, so I can really never move too much. But on the other hand, you do make friends that then you have to move away from. Or worse, you don’t make any at all. For me it can be lonely at times, but mostly it isn’t because I’m perhaps excessively independent.
There is a myth going around that travelling is either an irresponsible choice (the eternal teenager kicking about on a series of gap yahs without committing to anything or taking responsibility for their life) or simply out of reach for most people. People think you need to be rich to travel, but it’s so incredibly untrue. So long as you have a few emergency dollars in your savings and some way to make a little bit on the road, you can get going RIGHT NOW. The only question is whether or not you want to. In fact, being a digital nomad is a lot like normal life, just in a lot of different places. I still work, I still write, I still phone friends and family, I still clean the house and do the shopping. I’m just doing it in Italy right now.
Feel free to ask me anything about my freelancing and travelling lifestyle!