PAST FAVE: How I spent years as a digital nomad and came home with more money
Sonja Meyer went travelling through Asia and Europe as a digital nomad for more than two years, worked from her laptop while away … and somehow came home with more money. Today she shares how.
I’m not a fan of labels, but if I had to apply one to myself I’m what you’d call a ‘digital nomad’. And in true digital nomad fashion, I found myself setting off on my first big journey in July 2013.
I was travelling with my partner and outside of knowing our first destination was Myanmar, we didn’t have much of a plan. We just wanted to see and do as much as we could and work along the way. Meanwhile I would run my design business remotely, and she would work when we got to the UK.
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What we did before setting off
We saved hard, with total frugality over the 12 months leading up to our departure. We lived in a share house with two skater boys (complete with backyard half-pipe and at least one live-in couch potato at any given time). Suffice to say we didn’t really use the lounge room or have many dinner parties, but it was cheap.
Some of our friends judged us. The general social consensus is that people in their late twenties should be beyond this kind of share-house scenario. But we didn’t care. We were determined. (I could probably write a book on how to save money for travel and still enjoy oneself in the meantime, but I’ll leave out the details on saving for now. )
"I worked for two days on a top bunk in a dorm room in Portugal. I worked at a picnic bench in a campground in Spain. "
In the end we each saved around $16,000 for our trip, (not including the flights we’d booked for the first leg). This sounds like a huge amount but it wasn’t really when you consider we hoped to be away for years.
I then took three months off from running my design business.
This was incredibly scary as I’d spent over two years building relationships and trust with my clients. It was a risk, but one that I needed to take. We were planning to visit some remote places in Asia without any internet/mobile coverage and I didn’t want to be worrying about work.
So I sent out a group email telling clients I was going away indefinitely, and that I’d be unavailable for a period of time at the start. To my complete surprise, almost everyone was fine with it! Only one person decided to move on as she valued a lot more face-to-face time and didn’t want to work with me remotely. For me, this was a great outcome.
Once the three months were up, (complete with a passport and backpack theft debacle and several very stressful moments on remote islands of Indonesia), I got back in touch with everyone to let them know I was finally on my way from Asia to Europe. Once there, I’d be back to work. Business as usual, just from a different time zone.
This is where things got interesting.
The first problem was, we had no solid plans. We’d become fully accustomed to a lifestyle of complete freedom where we’d wake up in the morning on some island in the middle of nowhere and decide what we wanted to do that day. Stay where we were and spend the day exploring the reefs or move on?
How could I set project deadlines and be accountable when I didn’t know where I’d be the next day, or when I’d be online or able to make time for work?
Well the short answer was, I’d have to figure things out fast. I had a lot of work coming in because a few people had been holding off on projects until I was back up and running.
Once in Europe I had to learn very quickly how to run my business amongst complete chaos. There was the stress of a sickness scare for my partner along with trying to create a routine whilst worrying about bookings, flights, currency exchange, navigating new cities and not getting scammed or ripped off.
But I did it! I’ll never forget how thrilling it was sitting in an Airbnb apartment in Barcelona and sending off an invoice after completing a job.
I reveled in the fact that I was living in the moment, earning money doing what I love, all while being in the position to decide “this afternoon I might just go for a walk and check out La SagradaFamilia”.
So how did I make it work being a digital nomad?
Here are some of the things I did to keep the wheels in motion and still have my freedom:
1. Complete transparency
I managed expectations by letting clients know exactly what I was up to and where I was. I also made sure that I never went completely off the grid and was contactable at least on week days.
2. Some compromise
My partner was very patient in allowing me to spend at least a couple of full days per week staying in a hotel room or going to a café to work while she explored our current location. The compromise was that I missed out on a few things. But I quickly learned there’s no better motivator for productivity than knowing that once you get the job done, you can step outside for a rendezvous with your partner to spend the afternoon together at the Louvre.
3. Frequent connection
I made sure to check emails every morning (when possible), even on the weekends, and at least respond to enquiries to keep clients up to date. Even if I didn’t have time to do any actual project work that day, I could at least keep them in the loop with progress. This is an easy task to complete over breakfast.Most accommodation in Europe has wi-fi available. I just made sure to check this on the booking.
4. Made good use of weekends
We kept a fair bit of the long-distance travel and multi-day side trips for weekends, when possible.
5. Decide what matters most and say no
I learned to say no to a few things. It quickly became obvious that there was no way I could maintain a full time workload, so I had to compromise somewhere. It felt conflicting because it’s hard to say no to income, but it made sense because my values had already started to shift. I had enough income to keep moving for now, why should I want more?
6. Some planning (but not too much!)
I managed to delay a couple of larger projects until the times I was in the UK, where I worked from co-working spaces in Glasgow and London. We were in and out of the UK for over two years but only spent a total of 11 months there. Having it as a kind of ‘base’ was what made this all possible.
Outside our time in the UK, we went on many road trips and traveled for months at a time to explore the wonders of Europe.
I spent the first New Years Eve at Hogmanay, one of the biggest street parties in the world in Edinburgh, and the following year slipping on snow in a tiny mountain town in Slovakia; watching the locals sing in Slovak along with a street band while sipping vodka to fend off the cold.
I climbed mountains in Albania. I drove through windy old-town streets in the countries of the Mediterranean and watched the sunset bathe the bleached white houses with gorgeous warmth in Santorini, Greece.
I saw countless ruins. I woke in the early morning to the haunting chant of Mosques. I rode a hot air balloon at sunrise over ancient fairy chimneys in Cappadoccia, Turkey, where I also spent four nights on a yacht in the Aegean Sea.
I sipped whisky on a peaty island in Scotland and drove a van around Ireland, consuming folk music and Guinness in faraway pubs of gumboot-clad men.
I sat on a cliff at the edge of the earth while seagulls fed their young in the sea breeze.
I hiked along a mountain edge in Spain to find myself at a local music festival where I danced the night away, making friends with a toothless Nona who I couldn’t communicate with in words.
I snuck into eerie abandoned buildings in Berlin to take photos. I saw the sea frozen over in Helsinki.
As these life-changing adventures unfolded, I ran my business.
I worked for two days on a top bunk in a dorm room in Portugal. I worked at a picnic bench in a campground in Spain. I worked from dirty budget hotel kitchens in the UK. I worked from cafés in Italy, spending less than a euro on an espresso as the locals shouted ‘Bonjourno’.
Every day I pinched myself.
So how did I come home with more money that I left with?
Somehow, despite really only working part-time (on average) over the entire trip, I came back with more cash. Over 2.5 years, my $16,000 went down to about $7,000 and then back up again several times. When I arrived back in Melbourne, I had $18,000 in my bank account. I can only guess that these things played a part:
We managed to become very skilled at travel research.Even last minute plans were well thought-out. We always asked a lot of questions and looked at as much information as possible online to find the cheapest option that would suit our needs. Booking in advance isn’t always better. It depends on what you’re doing.
We didn’t try to do absolutely everything, and chose our activities based on overall experiential value.
We said no to unnecessary comforts and buying and carting around extra ‘stuff’. We knew from the beginning that we’d have to make sacrifices, but the long-term gains far outweighed the short-lived comforts. Minimalism is now my best friend. We spent money on proper quality gear that would have multiple purposes in different temperatures and last much longer.
We always looked for the cheap-eats and cooked as much as we were able. This made it much more fun when we had the more-than-occasional treat.
5. Flights and transport
Europe and Asia both have a range of budget airlines that make it as cheap as $30 to get between countries.
The same goes for trains and buses. We took plenty of cheap buses when we had the time, which saved us a lot of money. Bus trips slow you down and give you time to stare out the window and reflect on all that you’ve experienced.
Without having to pay rent or a mortgage, day-to-day accommodation can work out pretty cheap.
We often stayed in hostel dorms, which I know isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I found the experience to be incredibly social and welcoming. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely in a big city that you don’t know how to navigate. Hostels are for all ages and families as well! You just have to do your research if you want to avoid the young party hostels. Most also have private rooms, and there’s almost always a place to work (bring headphones). The best part is, you can usually cook for yourself so your daily spend will be much cheaper.
We spent plenty of time camping during the summer, whenever we were on road trips and could carry more gear.
At times we booked private rooms through booking.com. We were always on the lookout for specials and made sure to book in advance for the best deal.
AirBnb was great for longer stays, but it’s not as good for short stints and is becoming increasingly expensive.
7. Car hire
Again, we spent a lot of time researching when it came to hire cars, and we never went with all the bells and whistles. Why bother? We always had valid travel insurance, which meant that if anything happened to us while driving we would be covered, so the additional car insurance was often not necessary (do your research!). We opted for the most budget option, almost every time.
8. Travel agents
On occasion we used a tour operator for day trips and tours, but I can’t actually remember one time that I used a travel agent. It’s simply not needed! Planning everything yourself is far more rewarding and ends up much more cost-effective.
Travel can be much cheaper than it’s generally assumed to be. I had to convert my Australian dollar earnings into British pounds and euros, but I still spent far less than I do at home, even while constantly on the move.
Admittedly, sometimes budget travel became wearying. Other times it made for a fantastic adventure. For me, it built resilience and fostered endless amounts of patience.
When it all got too much, we would sometimes treat ourselves for a couple of days, but over time I realized that there is less magic in ‘splurging’ when you are content and doing what you love every day anyway.
My belief it that humans need far fewer comforts than we are accustomed to. If you’ve ever spent a long trip on a packed local bus in Southeast Asia, complete with bags of rice at your feet and chickens clucking in your ears you’ll understand what I mean. When you look around and see beautiful smiles and innocent curiosity in the eyes of the locals, who are equally uncomfortable but have no desire to complain, you realise that comfort does not equal happiness.
What does equal happiness? Who really knows. But I know one thing for sure, sitting on a cliff at the edge of the earth, I certainly felt it.