You have heard about these kinds of people. The ones who’ve found a way to live life differently, far from the blueprint of what society tells them is the right way. These are the people who always seem to be exploring the world, the ones you ask how they do it, where they make their money, when the travel will end and real life kick in.
But for those people, this is their real-life. They are “Digital Nomads” and they’ve figured out how to leverage the online world to create opportunities where their income travels with them.
Sounds nice right? But who can actually become a digital nomad? Well. We did.
In 2016 we took the plunge, and are now amongst the digital nomad crowd with no fixed address, very few possessions, and a whole lot of freedom with where and how we live. Oh, and we do this with 2 toddlers. No, we are’t independently wealthy. No, this is not easy, 100% romantic, or always fun. It’s hard work, scary and outright insane at times. But it’s possible. And it’s incredible.
But what about you? Do you find yourself dreaming of what it would be like to live with more freedom, flexibility, adventure, and travel? Have you thought about how this might work for you and your family but need to guidance on how to get started? Read on to learn about what we did to become a digital nomad family and how you could make this work for you.
This article is divided into 3 sections that focus on the main phases to become a digital nomad:
- THE DREAM: the part where you wonder, imagine, and hone the vision.
- THE PLAN: the part where you figure out how the heck to make this work
- THE JUMP: the part where you let go and take the leap!
And with each stage, I’ll walk you through what you can expect, the challenges that might get in your way, and ideas to work through these challenges.
Alright, here we go! Oh, and have fun reading, dreaming, and trying on ideas about how this could work!
BECOME A DIGITAL NOMAD: 1) THE DREAM
We all know what it’s like to get lost in thought, imagining a different life, different world, different outcome, conversation, decision, reaction. So you know exactly what I am talking about when I say I am a dreamer, because it’s part of what makes us human. And what I know is that you and I probably dream about a lot of the same things. Adventure, new experiences, travel, challenge. We dream about meaningful relationships, deeper connections, feeling joy and love. And we wonder! We are curious and we feel pulled to do things differently than we have been.
My husband and I would stay up for hours with a bottle of wine, dreaming about our next adventures. We’d reminisce about our past backpacking trips, the endless stories that are usually hilarious, dangerous, or unbelievably serendipitous…sometimes all three. People used to tell me to make sure I traveled in my 20’s to “get it out of my system” as if this is something than can be released and put away for good. So I traveled. And traveled and traveled. But guess what? Looks like the “travel bug” might be more of a “travel gene” that doesn’t ever leave you. Maybe it will someday, but for now it’s still going strong.
A dream leads to a change. Don’t underestimate the power of dreaming! It’s the dream and the act of dreaming that actually gives you the energy and motivation to make a change. So treat this step as an important one, and have fun! Think of the dream as a garden that needs to be nourished in order for it to grow. Spend time thinking, talking, and reading about your dream life and let your energy and excitement feed it.
And while dreaming can feel free and creative, becoming discouraged and disenchanted is bound to happen at some point. Here are 3 common challenges that make it tough to stay focused on your dream of becoming a digital nomad:
1. Society’s Blueprint.
Oh the blueprint. This is the little booklet that you’re given at birth that tells you how to live your life the “right” way. In the adult chapters, you’ll read about getting married in a white dress, buying a house (a big one that you can’t really afford), having 2 kids, doing yard work on the weekends, buying several cars and maybe a boat. Then get a dog. Both parents have to work full-time, traditional school, save for college. I don’t really need to continue… you’ve read the book.
It’s important for me to say that I don’t dislike these things, and honestly, we were right in there a few years ago. I got married in a white dress, we owned a house, had 2 vehicles, 2 professional careers. I see friends and family members who have chosen to work hard for these things and they love their lives, and to these people I give a big hug and high five! The part that bugs me is that it’s hard to step out of this box for fear of “doing it wrong.”
When my husband and I started talking to others about our dreams of long term slow-travel, we were met with a lot of resistance. We were being irresponsible, impulsive, and giving up a life that so many people would want. This might be true for some, but it wasn’t the life that we wanted at that time. And that is the kicker. What do YOU want? What feels satisfying (or dissatisfying) for YOU?
Tip: Try to raise your awareness about society’s blueprint so that you understand where others’ concerns are coming from. You might also notice self-judgement based on these ideals that aren’t necessarily true for you. In most people’s view, you are doing it wrong, and they might actually think you are nuts for considering leaving your job for a nomadic life. And that’s okay. They can be concerned. They can wonder. They can have a different opinion. Do not let others’ concerns deflate your dream. Take a minute to think about them though – you might learn something.
Another tip: Get connected to other likeminded people through social media! Once we started our Instagram account (@flippingmoons FOLLOW ALONG!) we realized we are far from alone with our passion to explore the world, toddlers and all! In fact, you’re bound to come across families who are in an even less likely situation that you are, and my god this is so awesome! I now feel pretty normal, supported, and I’ve even made some new friends. Give it a shot, especially if you’re feeling a bit isolated with you nomad dreams.
2. Fear of Unknown.
Anxiety. We all know what it feels like. If you break it right down, anxiety is all about fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of what we cannot control. When you start dreaming about a different way of life, about more adventure, travel, and freedom, beware of fear creeping in there and causing you to doubt yourself.
So you are nervous even thinking about quitting your job, saying goodbye to a consistent salary, stepping into the unknown… of course you are! I would be concerned if you weren’t feeling it! Most of us spend a lot of time in life working toward a sense of stability and safety through education, employment, savings plans. So the idea of stepping away from the plan is unsettling, maybe even terrifying.
Tip: Acknowledge and accept the fact that even considering a new way doing life is scary and challenges entrenched ideas of what it means to be a successful person. Think about it. If your identity is tied into being a high income earner, for example, it will be incredibly threatening to even consider letting your job go. So just let it be scary, and keep dreaming anyway.
This is a dream killer, if I do say so myself. Some of us are incredibly gifted at reality-checking and uncovering the million-and-one reasons that the dream just cannot come true. Have you ever been so excited about an idea, and then someone comes along with a big dose of “well that won’t work” and it completely takes the wind out of your sail? I hate that.
In all honesty, there are some things that are just unrealistic. We are not going to go to Mars (my husband’s dream) as a family any time soon. But don’t be so quick to give up on your dream because you bump up against some logistical challenge. My husband and I often say “that’s future Luke and Kate’s problem” as in, “I don’t give a shit right now, I want to stay excited and keep dreaming!” Many obstacles can be overcome. Yes, even challenges about making it work financially (more on that later).
Tip: Stay optimistic and hopeful. Don’t always burst the dream bubble as soon as you come up against a challenge, but instead, think of these as just another hurdle that you’ll find a way to get around. Or under. Or through. Get creative!
BECOME A DIGITAL NOMAD: 2) THE PLAN
You’ve dreamt and dreamt and dreamt. And in your mind you’ve decided that you’ll leave your traditional job and become a digital nomad. But how the heck do you even begin to make a plan? In the digital world, with more information that you could ever consume, it can be daunting to sort through your options and draw out a plan. While there’ll be many details to arrange (like location and style of travel) the biggest challenge is setting up your finances so that you can maintain a nomadic life.
Here are 3 important pieces that you will need to establish in order to become a digital nomad. These steps influence one another, so work through them all and understand that as one changes, the others change too.
1. Know your expenses
So many people think they know what they spend on coffee, wine, gas, or shopping each month, but I know that this is just not true. At least not to the degree that you need to know if you plan on giving up your job and floating with temporary financial insecurity. This is something that is non-negotiable: you MUST have a clear sense of where your money goes. And once you do, you’ll have a better idea of what (and where) you can afford, as well as how much you need to earn with your online work.
Tip: There are several really great free budgeting apps that help you track exactly where your precious dollars go. We used Mint for a few years and now have great visibility about our expenses (and we were shocked at our “discretionary” costs!). But you don’t need years to do this, a few months will do. While it can be a bit depressing to acknowledge how much you spend on shit you don’t need or even care about, I try to think of it more positively: with visibility of your spending, you can see exactly where to tighten up and how much money you could allocate differently (like toward your next flight!).
2. Make a budget.
Once you know where your money is going, you’ll likely see places that require your attention. So I have to admit that I hate anything to do with the word budgeting (other than the financial gain of course), probably because I am horrible at it and tend to dislike things I’m bad at. Just saying. So thank god my husband loves spreadsheets, graphs, and numbers. I used to adpopt to more of a “if my card is accepted, it’s all good” spending philosophy but apparently this doesn’t work if you want to stick to any sort of financial plan.
Tip: You don’t have to be a numbers guru to make a budget. Just google a simple free spreadsheet to get your started and go from there. You’ll also need to figure out your travel expenses, and there are some sites that can point you in the right direction (google is a wonderful things, isn’t it?). Many travel bloggers (often digital nomads) publish free cost guides so you can generate a pretty accurate financial picture before you take the leap. Just search for your destination and “costs” or “budget.”
Tip: Don’t get too hung up on the exact costs of your travels. This sounds contradictory to what I just said, I know. But really, you won’t know exactly what you’ll spend because you don’t yet know what you will earn. While expenses aren’t necessarily related to earning, most people tend to spend more when they earn more. The same will happen when you’re a digital nomad.
3.Create Online Income Streams
If quitting your traditional job is part of your plan to become a digital nomad, you’ll need to figure out where income will come from. Unless you’re independently wealthy, that is. But for those of us who aren’t, read on. This is the part of the plan that is the hardest, and the most creatively stimulating in my opinion.
We are so fortunate to live in a time where it’s possible to earn money online. How cool is that? Wonder what people do to actually earn money this way? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking of what’s possible for you:
- Offer your existing skill online. You may already have skills that are adaptable to the online world. This is actually where I started. I am a registered mental health counsellor and took specific online counselling training so that I can connect with clients remotely via phone, video, live chat, or email. Is there an online market for your skills?
- Convince your boss to allow remote work. Would your current employer consider letting you work remotely? Push yourself to think outside the box here, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. After my husband left his job, he was offered some contract work from that company that he could accomplish remotely (not part of the plan, but a welcomed surprise). What skills do you already have that you could offer online?
- Start an online business. While it takes a lot of time, knowledge, and online skill to succeed as a digital entrepreneur, this might be an angle you could take, depending on your starting point. There are many digital nomads who succeed with their own businesses, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Some make money with things like writing e-resources, blogging, affiliate marketing and influencer advertising although it takes a long time to build a big enough community where this is a viable option. It’s possible, but not the fastest path to financial freedom.
- Finding work abroad. This option is dependent on the destination and the specific work arrangements with your home country. It’s worth looking into, however. There could be working visa options that allow temporary work that could be just enough to tie your plans together.
- Find online work. Many jobs can be done remotely, so focus your local job search on these opportunities. Jobs like data-analysis, tele-marketing, language translation, and software support can all be done online.
- Save up and take time off work. I have met many families through Instagram who are simply traveling the world for a year or two. They sold their possessions, rented or sold their homes, and are taking a (really) extended holiday. Maybe this is something you could consider? Think about it: it costs a hell-of-a-lot less to live in Mexico than it doesn’t to live in Seattle, Vancouver, New York, Toronto (to give you an idea, our apartment was only $400USD/month in Guanajuato Mexico). So, it might cost you less than you think.
Tip: Based on our experiences and through conversations with other digital nomads, it seems like many people piece together their incomes with several sources. Rarely have I met travelers with only 1 or 2 income streams. So keep this in mind as you sort through your options and crunch the numbers. Adding a little bit of income from here and there may add up to support your dream. And remember, your money goes a lot further in Bali than London, so think carefully about your destinations especially as you get started.
BECOME A DIGITAL NOMAD: 3) THE JUMP
This is it! You’ve been dreaming, you’ve thought through the plan. This is all about taking action, undoubtedly the hardest part. To be frank, I’m not sure if there is anything to make this step easier. It’s scary! What did we do? Well, we drank some wine, dreamt a little more, then opened up Expedia and booked our 3 months trip to Mexico (we’ve booked a few trips this way, now that I think of it!). When we’re excited, spontaneous, and courageous, it’s actually easy to make big decisions like this. And since the flights were booked, it was on! Decision made. We quit our jobs within a few weeks and never looked back.
Tip: Everyone seems to as us the same 2 questions: How we made the decision to go and how we make money while traveling. The short-story is that we didn’t have a consistent online income stream before we took the plunge. If we waited to establish this, we would never have left. How could we? With two toddlers, we had no time to focus on building other businesses or deveoping remote incomes streams. This was the goal, but we just couldn’t seem to gain traction. So How did we feel confident to jump?
The Questions That Made All the Difference
I remember a distinct conversation with my husband after months of discussion, back and forth, agonizing about which path to take. We asked each other:
- What is worst-case scenario if we quit our jobs and leave the country?
- Can we tolerate worst-case scenario?
We figured (aside from natural disasters or other unlikely tragedies) that worst case scenario was running out of money (and credit) and coming home to get jobs. Hmm. Interesting. This is where we already were. No money, and 2 jobs. The answer was yes. A loud and excited YES we can tolerate that. And that was it.
So ask yourself: What is worst case scenario if we take the plunge? And then, Can I tolerate this if it happens? And just see how this nudges you closer toward the life you’ve dreamed about.
So You’ve Become A Digital Nomad. Now What?
It’s funny how we often become something (an adult, a wife, a graduate … ) without really feeling much of a change. We often expect a monumental shift when a life-change takes place, but this is just not always the case. Do you relate?
I think a similar thing happens when you become a digital nomad. Of course there are the obvious shifts, like hanging out on the beach with family all day rather than rushing to drop off at daycare and going to work. That part couldn’t be more different!
But what stands out to me is how life is still life. There will still be ups and down, regardless of where or how you live. You still have to be a parent and change diapers and cook and clean, rinse and repeat. You still have to navigate relationships and be a mature adult in those relationships. And you still have to figure out how to get by financially with income streams that are far less reliable than you had before. The punch line is that you get to do all of these things in destinations that you love! (And learn a thing or two about the world!).
I couldn’t begin to promise you how your life will change when you become a digital nomad because we are all so different. Thankfully! But I can tell you about my family: For now we get to live each day knowing that we’ve followed our dreams and carved a path that is more aligned with who we are rather than with society’s ideals. We feel far more at ease with ourselves, more in line with our goals and values, and more joyful with our kids.
And it feels pretty damn good.
Author: Kate Butler
Kate Butler is a writer, a wanderer, a digital nomad. A mother of two, lover to one, and dedicated to living an inspired, colourful life. She co-authors Flipping Moons and has an online therapy practice, LiveLight Counselling.