Leaving New York in favor of long-term travel was the most difficult no-brainer decision I’ve ever made for myself. For as long as I can remember, I never wanted to do anything but write — and to travel the world doing it.
Flash forward to December 2017, however, and I felt neither mentally nor financially prepared to take the leap into freelance writing full time. I was working as a staff editor for the last few years, freelancing on the side wondering, how do people possibly make this digital nomad thing work? Not only did the job insecurity and financial instability worry me, but leaving behind the familiarities and comforts of home for a nomadic lifestyle that’s, frankly, defined by uncertainties, also intimidated me.
I loved my job, my friends and family, and my city. I was worried that I’d cracked this freelance nomad thing up to unattainable standards in my head, and that it possibly wouldn’t live up to my wildly vivid dreams or fulfill me in the ways I’d anticipated. I was concerned that I’d spend all my time working to fund my travels that I’d resent my work if I inevitably lacked the time to enjoy those travels. I feared of loneliness traveling solo. And, of course, I contemplated whether I was making a dumb decision, as friends started shopping for houses while I was shopping for flights.
I pulled the trigger nonetheless, accepting that I’d never feel ready and knowing that I’d forever regret not at least trying. I knew I’d sink or swim, and that was equal parts liberating and terrifying. Armed with an unabated aspiration and an open mind, I just went for it. There were a lot of tears involved — both sad and happy tears. When I boarded my first flight, I cried mourning the life I’d left behind and because I was excited for what was in front of me: endless opportunity. I was a muddle of emotions, but mostly proud of myself.
Today, so long as there's a stable Wi-Fi connection, the world is my office. And I've been taking complete advantage of that for well over a year now.
So if you're feeling iffy, confused, nervous, scared, intimidated or something else entirely, and if you're wondering how to even become a digital nomad in the first place, don't sweat it. If it feels elusive or just plain impossible, you're not alone. I was in the same boat, and I figured it out for you. Here's what I can tell you about becoming a digital nomad.
What is a digital nomad?
A digital nomad, in its simplest form, is someone who lives and works remotely from a digital device — typically a laptop, though some digital nomads only need their phones to work. What separates a digital nomad from just any other remote worker is the fact that they're nomadic, as in, they travel and live freely.
Since I became a freelance journalist, for example, I've been living out of my backpack. One month I'll call Costa Rica home, working from my laptop in a surf camp in Santa Teresa, and another month I'll call Portugal home, working from my laptop in cafes across Lisbon. I've traveled more than 50 countries as a digital nomad, sometimes spending just a few days or a few weeks, and other times spending a few months.
The one common denominator: I am always glued to my laptop, which means that, no matter where I go, all I need is a steady and reliable Wi-Fi connection. Of course, time zones do come into play, and working out of countries where the time zone is the same or at least similar to that of my editors is ideal, but so long as I prepare myself to work late nights or early mornings (which I sometimes prefer, anyway!), I am free to be anywhere I want.
How do digital nomads make a living?
Digital nomads make a living through a variety of avenues. Again, a digital nomad works any job that can be done remotely, from a digital device, anywhere in the world. Here are a few examples of jobs that digital nomads can work:
- Writer of another kind (novelist, creative writer, music writer, etc.)
- Graphic designer
- UX/UI designer
- Poker player (Before you think this is a crazy idea, I've met a digital nomad who is a professional poker player!)
- Amazon seller
- Front/Back/Full Stack developers
- Marketing professional
- Social media manager
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professional
- Digital content manager
- Online teacher
- Virtual assistant
- Social media influencer
- Media planner
Regardless of the type of job a digital nomad works, they earn a living by doing it from their laptops, phones and other digital devices that their job may require. For me, for example, I work a regular work week just like everyone else (sometimes even longer hours and more days than my friends and family with 9-5 jobs!). I simply communicate with my editors via email, Slack, Asana and Skype calls.
How much do digital nomads earn?
The amount of money that a digital nomad earns, of course, varies hugely depending on the type of job that they work. It UX/UI designer or web developer may earn significantly more than a virtual assistant or online teacher, for example.
That said, you also need to take into account what kind of work they're doing — is it freelance or full time? A remote, full-time position may pay better than a freelance gig, it may just be a longer-lasting job that will earn them more money over time, or it may just offer benefits that a freelancer doesn't get, which would equal more money when you consider everything. On the contrary, a freelancer may still earn more money than a full-time professional because they have the ability to set their own rates and only take on projects that make financial sense for them.
And, even despite how much you can earn as a digital nomad, it's also important to think about how much you can save. I, for example, am earning dollars for American clients, living in countries with a much lower cost of living than the United States (and where my dollars are a lot more valuable). While I do earn more than I did while I was a full-time staff editor in New York City, I am also saving a lot more than I ever did spending my income on New York rent, for example.
So, in short, a digital nomad's income will vary, but they can make a lucrative career for themselves and save a lot of money by choosing this lifestyle.
How do you become a digital nomad?
Becoming a digital nomad is becoming ever more easy in this world. That's because more and more companies are going remote, understanding the personal and business benefits of a solid work-life balance. And it's also because more and more companies can go remote, thanks to virtual communication resources like Slack, Google Hangouts, Asana and more.
But if becoming a digital nomad was that easy, way more people would be doing it. Sure, in a recent MBO Partners State of Independence Research Brief, 4.8 million Americans described themselves as digital nomads. But that number can still be a lot higher. Among traditional U.S. workers, 27 percent said they "might" become digital nomads in the next two to three years, and 11 percent said they planned to.
So how exactly do you do it? Here are four simple steps.
1. Convince your company to let you go remote (or find a new remote job).
The first order of business is to convince your company to let you go remote, or find yourself a new job (perhaps a freelance career) that will allow you to be remote. You can do this by asking your company to give you a shot at going remote with a three-month trial period if they don't go for the idea right away, for example. You'll need to prove to them that you can perform just as well and be just as productive (if not more!) even when you're not at the office.
If you can't do that, and you're committed to becoming a digital nomad, find yourself a new job. If you're in the journalism world like me, for example, you can consider pursuing a freelance career by networking with editors and building a solid client base. If you'd prefer a full-time, regular job, there are tons of sites out there like FlexJobs where you can find remote work.
2. Gather all the necessary resources to actually go remote.
Get together everything you'll need in order to actually do this remote job. If you're a journalist, like me, you'll need a laptop, a phone with a reliable international plan, a Skype account to make professional video calls (and sometimes phone calls, too!), a Mi-Fi device in case you lose internet (I love Skyroam!) and a recording service for interviews (I use Google Voice). If you're an Amazon seller, you might need more than one laptop to manage inventory. If you're a professional poker player, like my friend, you might need several monitors.
Whatever it is that you plan to do, make sure that you have everything you need to do it.
3. Figure out where you want to go, and get yourself set up on the road.
Once you have a job and everything you need to do that job, the choice is yours: Where do you want to go? I recommend starting somewhere with at least something easy — the timezone, the cost of living in case you don't earn as much at first, the language so you can more comfortably assimilate, etc. I started in Southeast Asia where the cost of living meant I could save a lot of money right off the bat, but the timezone meant that I was working opposite hours as my editos in New York or pulling all-nighters to be on the same schedule.
Wherever you choose to go, spend some time getting yourself set up there. Don't start hopping around the world so fast just because you finally have the freedom to do so. You don't want your travels to start taking a toll on your productivity. You'll learn to establish a balance, and that'll take some time. Slow and steady wins the race.
4. Maintain a sense of normalcy in order to sustain this lifestyle.
Once you've settled into this new lifestyle, you'll want to maintain a sense of normalcy. This means regular calls or video chats with your colleagues and managers back at home because, yes, face time is important. You may even want to establish working hours for yourself, even if you don't technically have any, just to have a routine. I, for example, keep the same work schedule that I've always had, it's just that this time I'm the only one holding me accountable to them. I also tend to rent an office space or desk in the cities that I stay in longer to add to that feeling of routine — I'm not required to go every day and can work from cafes or parks or the house or wherever else I choose, but having the option of a professional setting where I know I'll churn out work is nice.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.