Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) and Location Independent Working

My plans were similar to the now popular (within a small but committed group of people) Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement. I was more focused on lifestyle and increasing my financial independence (as apposed to striving for complete financial independence in order to retire very early).

My thoughts were more along the line of being able to avoid a full time job and possibly do some consulting, run my own business (with a lifestyle goal rather than a make millions goal) and have investments that supplement that income. I also wanted to be able to have that possible from wherever I chose to live. Often you are quite limited on where you can live (especially cheaply) if you require a high paying job.

I also understood by living more frugally I gave myself lifestyle options. Living frugally allows you to save money. But it also lets you experience what living on less is like and you know if that is what you want. It is for me. I would much rather have freedom from having to earn a bunch of money to allow me to spend lots of money.

John Hunter with lake and mountains in the background

John Hunter, Bear Hump trail, Glacier Waterton International Peace Park.

I think Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) concepts fit very well with a subset of digital nomads. Those focused on FIRE don’t have to be digital nomads (in fact a very small percentage is) and digital nomads don’t have to be concerned with FIRE (in fact, few are). But they are both, at the core, about putting your life first and not letting your life on the 9 to 5 job hamster wheel drive your major life decisions.

Combining FIRE and location independent work provides some valuable benefits. If you have some investments saved up that can be tapped as you travel that can meet some of your living costs, this aids on of the bigger challenges – how to earn money while you travel. And if you travel frugally you can reduce your costs (below what you speed where you used to live).

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Multi-generational Housing Communities

The digital nomad lifestyle is made possible by the modern world. In some ways it harkens back to nomads but not really very much. Another idea that is gaining favor (not as popular as the digital nomad trend) is multi-generational housing.

Our ancestors all lived in close knit multi-generational communities. Normally with 3 or 4 generations of the same family under the same roof (or within shouting distance in a hut nearby).

I can understand many reasons why many of us moved to our more independent way of living (especially in the USA) as we got rich enough to afford to do so.

There are really interesting (small) efforts to do this in non-related multi-generation households. I think there are very good reasons for it. And for people like me that would rather not live in the same house with these others it can even work in a small group of homes. Often with shared kitchen… Sometimes older people can share some financial burden (young family gets cheaper housing). And younger people can help with yard work, repairs… Cooking can be shared. Childcare from elderly can help free up the kids parents and can give some personal contact to elderly (that can otherwise be socially isolated). Kids can get more contact with people in the small community and may has less time just sitting in front of Netflix (especially small kids).

I learned about the resurgent movement for co-housing while I was living as a nomad. To me it really seems like another form of trying new ways of living that are not the common living arrangement for most people today. It seems to me it has the potential to be as life changing and enriching as many find the nomad lifestyle to be.

Of course there are all the issues you have with people being together. But there are some pretty good things about it too.

Related: Union Corners Cohousing in Madison, WisconsinShould I Sell or Keep My House When I Become a Nomad?Design coalition multifamily housingHousing Savings by Living as a Nomad

Medical Tourism

Medical tourism (traveling overseas to get medical care) is growing and likely to continue to do so. The USA’s extremely high costs of medical care push people to find more reasonable health care solutions. Also in some countries the very rich seek out advanced treatments outside their country.

Seeking more cost effective and more customer focused health care options are likely to lead to booming markets in catering to these customers. Many countries have seen this as a smart market to focus on. And I think they are right.

It is a booming market and the USA’s mess of a health care system doesn’t seem to be getting any better and certainly isn’t getting cheaper. In Europe the demand is largely driven by services that have very long waits if done using their national health system. Those that can pay, can pay to have it done where they live, or they can travel and have it done much cheaper.

The jobs provided in countries serving medical tourism are very good. And it brings in a great flow of foreign currency. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Mexico are putting forth smart governmental efforts to boost this industry in their countries.

photo of Raffles Hospital in Singapore

Raffles Hospital, Singapore by John. See more of my photos from Singapore.

Most of the time health insurance won’t pay for optional (emergency care while you travel depends on your policy) health care internationally. So most medical tourism is paid for by the person being treated. This is a somewhat silly policy as insurers could save a great deal of money even by only paying say 50% or less of what they would pay locally for those who were willing to travel.

And some insurers are letting people travel for health care (and even giving them incentives to do so). The governments seem willing to pay inflated local prices and so use things like the fear of untrustworthy foreign health care as unsuitable. And then they work with local health industry interests to restrict covered health care options. There is some sense in worrying about abuse but there is also hundred of billions of dollars that countries like the USA could save by letting people seek out health care solutions much more cheaply overseas. Europe could also save a great deal.

Some countries are doing smart things. At the same time Singapore is building up medical tourism for complex medical solutions (drawing people from SE Asia and further away) they are also working to boost the use of Malaysia to provide less complex medical solutions to Singaporeans. As is often the case, Singapore’s government is acting wisely.

Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are going after the large market for reasonably priced basic health care. Which is smart for all 3. They are also looking to move up-market (especially Malaysia and Thailand) which is also fine, but there is likely to be great competition and a much smaller market so I would suggest they do so, but do so with caution.

India has potential but has the general problems with infrastructure and a difficult business climate. The potential is huge though. Other countries targeting this market include Brazil, Hungary and Costa Rica.

Related: The Growing Market for International Travel for Medical Care (2013)Traveling for Health Care (2007)Finding an International Business Bank as a Digital Nomad

Start-Up Chile – An Innovative Program for Global Entrepreneurs

I am very impressed with Start-Up Chile. It is a Chilean Government run program that attracts early stage, high-potential entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups in Chile, using it as a platform to go global. The goal of the program is to position Chile as the leading innovation and entrepreneurial hub of Latin America.

Silicon Valley provides huge benefits to the USA economy. Many countries are envious of this advantage and wish they could gain such economic benefits. But there is a big gulf between wishing and accomplishing. That path requires doing many things right.

Start-Up Chile alone is but a small step in the right direction. But it is a very interesting one. And they have kept it up for several years now. It is amazing how many efforts to create inviting climates for entrepreneurs start with a great flourish as diminish to nothing within 5 years.

Panoramic view of northeastern Santiago

Panoramic view of northeastern Santiago, as seen from the hills of Parque Metropolitano in Providencia. Visible in the background are Apoquindo and Sierra de Ramón. via wikimedia

For the current application (open during the month of September) Startup Chile is looking especially for startups in robotics; healthcare and biotech; clean energy; and education.

In my opinion the benefit for entrepreneurs is worthwhile (and especially strong for those in Latin America) but I am even more impressed with the sense the Chilean government is showing for talking concrete steps to boost the entrepreneurship climate in Chile. There are quite a few very good efforts to incubate startups. Few government though are doing much beyond talk. Singapore is another country that is taking fairly smart actions (which isn’t so surprising given Singapore’s long term evidence of smart government).

Many countries understand the benefits of creating a strong climate for entrepreneurs. And given the especially easy location independence of internet based businesses there is a public relations battle for attracting these entrepreneurs (even if most countries don’t seem to have caught onto this reality).

Chile has been getting great publicity from Startup Chile and if they can successfully build on that success they will gain a very nice advantage at very little cost. Like so many startups the Startup Chile program itself has to make sure it builds from the base it has built instead of just fading away.

Related: Finding an International Business Bank as a Digital NomadTransfer Money Between Currencies Using New Providers, Not Banks, and SaveLeading Economic Freedom: Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland (Chile was ranked 10th in the world)International Migrants: Economics and Banking

Should I Sell or Keep My House When I Become a Nomad?

My friend Andrew published a post: So You Want to Travel The World But You Own a House (Or Apartment) which prompted me to add a comment and I figured I would share and expand on that comment here.

Owning rental property can be a wonderful way to help support your nomad, location independent lifestyle. Rental property can provide a source of regular income to supplement your earnings. Of course, getting a rental property into that state is usually something that takes time, or a huge downpayment.

I have found dealing with property management folks to be extremely annoying. First they charge ludicrous amounts (in my opinion), especially for places that have high rents (they normally charge a % of rent + huge amount to rent the place out). These costs greatly reduce the investment appeal of renting out your property. On top of paying them a huge amount they are not very customer focused (to me paying them, or to those seeking to find a place to live).

15 years ago I started renting out my first house and obviously created a web page for it. Nearly none of the expensive professionals did that back then. Only years later they finally were dragged into catching up. And still today, they post not nearly enough useful information.

Still it can be that even with these costs and frustration it makes sense as an investment (especially in the last few years when investment climate is so challenging).

Often the decision to rent out your home (versus selling it when you leave) is impacted by your long range plans. If you want to move back into your house in a year or two or five that limits your options. You may have to accept a bad investment to keep that option open. Especially if you are just going to go give the nomad idea a try for a year, selling may not be wise (unless you don’t want to return to your house even if the nomad idea doesn’t appeal to you once you try it).

photo of a house

Another consideration, even if you don’t care about moving back into the same house, but plan on moving back to the same city, is that if you sell and real estate values climb you could find yourself priced out of the market.

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Transfer Money Between Currencies Using New Providers Not Banks And Save

One of the annoyances of travel and even more so with business (for digital nomads or expats) is converting money between currencies. It actually is fairly easy now for a traveler but can be costly. When you have a business and need to convert between currencies it can be very costly.

Using ATMs to get cash in the local currency normally give better rates than you can get in most other ways. And you are unlikely to be outright swindled any more than large banks do (which if you follow the news is a great deal, scandal after scandal of illegally taking from customers in violation of the law). The transaction costs of ATMs can be ludicrously high. In Thailand all banks seemed to have agreed to charge foreign cards $6 for a transaction. That is crazy. But you don’t have much leverage.

Schwab, and a few other, financial institution will reimburse you for ATMs fees. Many digital nomad and international travelers make sure to get such an ATM card which is wise.

And you can occasionally find banks that are must more customer friendly. The MayBank in Siem Reap, Cambodia didn’t have ATM charges for me. And I found a bank in Hoi An, Vietnam that didn’t charge either (I can’t remember the name). It may well be that they just didn’t charge do to deals between the banks so I don’t know who else it would work for.

Even though the currency exchange rates are normally not too bad on ATMs or using a credit card they are still weighted in the banks favor. And I don’t know of any banks that disclose how wide a profit margin they take for simple currency transactions (and I am sure it fluctuates depending on the situation).

When you need to transfer money (for example if you are paid in US$ but have a bank account elsewhere or if you are making a big purchase in another location) and convert currencies you can find the financial institutions taking advantage of you. There are several currency exchange services that have stepped into this business opportunity created by the large margins financial institutions have been taking from their customers.

One such service is Transfer Wise. As Transfer Wise says “Banks charge 5% in hidden fees. People on TransferWise pay 0.5%.” While banks might want to argue they don’t disclose the hidden fees and bad exchange rates they use so they don’t have much in the way of an evidence based argument to make.

TransferWise saves you money by matching your money at the mid-market rate. There’s just a small service fee and it’s all shown upfront. You can read more about our pricing here.

To demonstrate the possible savings you’ll get by using TransferWise, an average bank fee and exchange rate is shown. It’s based on independent research from Charterhouse Ltd, obtained on November 2014. The research looked into the costs of sending 1000GBP from a UK bank account, to another bank account in Germany. From this data, other currency route savings, fees and average exchange rates are worked out as well.

They still serve largely the USA and Europe but hopefully will expand further (they are also in India).

CurrencyFair is another good option and they posted a blog post looking at the costs of using old banks and even TransferWise – Money Transfer Companies Compared. The costs (including hidden costs of the banks are huge). The costs between these two are close (Currency Fair said at the time for express service they were significantly cheaper). CurrencyFair is actually a peer to peer service to match people needing to make transfers that balance each other out.

photo of currency: China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, USA

SE Asia, and beyond, currency: China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, USA. USA currency is used in Cambodia for most things and USA currency is used most airports to pay visa fees to the governments. Photo by John Hunter, see more photos of my travels.

If you are moving large amounts of money it definitely makes sense to seek out protection from old fashion banks ripping you off. These are the same banks agreeing to likely over $500 million in fines for currency manipulation (because even these huge profits on the backs of customers couldn’t satisfy bankers demands for multi-million dollar bonus for hundreds of employees at these banks every year).

CurrencyFair offers a peer to peer marketplace that lets you set a offer price and if someone agrees you can even been market exchange rates. Of course, if your currency happens to be a bit under-demand at the time you may get a bit less than market price. TransferWise sets the price based on the forex markets and then it is just up to supply on the demand on their marketplace to determine if you can find someone to take the other side of the trade.

Related: Negative Interest Rates and the US DollarFinding an International Business Bank as a Digital NomadCredit Card Currency Conversion CostsMicroFinance Currency RiskWhy the Dollar is Falling (2009)

Motivation and Delivering Solutions When You Work for Yourself

When you work for a company you have clear expectations for performance. If you become your own boss, for example as a digital nomad, you operate in an system that doesn’t have the same structures to enforce you focus and deliver. In many ways this is exactly what people seeking the digital nomad life want, but it also can bring challenges.

If you find yourself having difficulty getting yourself to work without a boss what can you do?

Doing what you are passionate about is important. As an entrepreneur working for yourself, if you feel work is a chore that you want to avoid, you can easily to avoid it.

But it is likely it isn’t that you want to avoid work, you just don’t have the urgency to “deliver” working solutions quickly without some extrinsic pressure (boss or…).

To do lists work for some people. You focus yourself with specific targets. If that doesn’t work, a virtual assistant to track progress and serve as a personal re-enforcement mechanism can work, for some people. Publicly making a commitment can work for others (on your blog, or on fb or to your customer or to your spouse or parent…).

The virtual assistant is partially a combination of a to do list and a public commitment along with someone to enforce evaluating progress on the to do list.

Habits are a powerful influence on behavior. For some people all that is needed is creating the habit of working in the morning for 4 hours and then enjoying the rest of the day. They can then focus every day for a specific period of time and don’t waste time procrastinating or being distracted with other matters.

For some people setting up rewards for themselves can work. Once I achieve x then I can (get a new game, take a weekend trip to the beach…).

What is important is finding a solution that works for your psychology. Some digital nomads don’t need any of these tactics, but for some these tactics can be useful.

It is possible that the reason you have trouble focusing on work is that you just don’t care about what you are working on now, so you should look at the bigger picture and find something your are passionate about. But I think, in most cases, this type of issue with motivation or difficulty with procrastination is more likely to be a smaller matter of just creating a bit of urgency to deliver.

So the question is how do you do create an urgency to deliver in a way that works for you and leaves you with a situation you enjoy. Certain tactics would drive some people crazy. But what matters if not some perfect solution for everyone, but finding one that works for you.

Related: Finding an International Business Bank as a Digital NomadSupporting Virtual WorkersStatistics on EntrepreneurshipDelivering working software (Deming’s ideas on management)

Housing Savings by Living as a Nomad

When I started by overseas adventure I lived in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Among the reasons I chose to move to Malaysia was to save money (from the costs of living in the USA) and to travel in SE Asia.

In some ways it worked well. Living was as cheap as I expected, which actually surprised me. I figured I would find costs were not as low as I was able to estimate from online sources. I didn’t travel as much as I planned though.

The lack of travel could be overcome by just being more diligent about making it a priority. But I tried and it just didn’t happen. Partially I think I subconsciously delayed things due to cost. I starting looking into a nomadic lifestyle and decided to give that a try.

I don’t think I am particularly well suited to a nomadic life. I like the stability of a home. I do like to travel, but I also do find I put it off or just don’t get around to it as much as I would like (while I had a real job it was even worse, which is part of the reason for moving to SE Asia in the first place). But while I am not particularly well suited to the lifestyle I also figured I can possibly try it (while for many it just won’t work at all).

View from the porch of my cabin in Luang Prabang, Laos.

View from the porch of my cabin in Luang Prabang, Laos. I had a 20 Gb data cell plan that was excellent for under $25.

One of the big advantages of a nomadic lifestyle if you want to travel is you eliminate your primary housing expense. So when you are traveling your housing expenses are just the place you are staying while you travel not that plus your main housing.

One of the big attractions to a nomadic life in low cost areas, for those from high cost areas, is the financial savings. People can go very cheap for housing or middle of the road or enjoy luxury housing they couldn’t afford in a high cost area. I go more for the middle of the road choice, which to the budget people seems extravagant luxury and the those getting very nice places for much less than they could at “home” see as unnecessary hardship.

I had a somewhat nice condo in Johor Bahru on the 16th floor with a view of Singapore and a pool and basketball court. I could walk to places downtown or take short taxi rides for a couple US$. That cost about US$850.

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Negative Interest Rates and the US Dollar

US $ are accepted in many countries. Often visa fees in SE Asia are quoted in US Dollars (USD) – they may or may not accept other currencies. In some countries the USD is the regular currency or the main currency anyway.

For example, in Cambodia the USD is used for almost everything but for change under US$1 local Riels are used. For the US this can actually be a nice benefit. US currency serves as a loan to the US government. When the USA prints dollars and distributes they avoid issuing bonds or treasury bills for their spending.

When interest rates were 10% on long term bonds if the USA had an extra $800 billion in currency floating around outside the USA they saved $80 billion every year in interest payments (when interest rates were 5% they would have saved $40 billion a year). In addition if those bills are destroyed or lost that open the way for the USA to put new USD into circulation and avoid that much borrowing.

image of the front of the current USA dollar

It really doesn’t amount to a huge amount of help given how much the USA government spends but still it is a benefit. But with negative interest rates the reverse would be true. Currency offers what is normally seen as only 0% but in the crazy new world created by the central bankers bailing out the too-big-too-fail banks all over the world (creating massive amounts of liquidity [cash]) they started a path that has now led to the crazy situation of negative interest rates.

A negative interest rate means that say the German government borrows $10 billion today and pays back less money in 5 years. So if they got $10.5 billion today they would only have to pay back $10 billion in 5 years. This seems crazy mainly because it is.

Now the USA rates are not negative yet for long term rates (I think maybe in some really short term bills – under 60 days – it may have been). But negative interest rates have spring up in Euro denominated bonds from Germany (and a few other countries).

I find it funny that in such a case the USA would actually be giving those using their currency around the world a higher yield than those holding their long term bonds.

According the US Federal Reserve there is about $1.2 trillion dollars of USA currency in circulation (July 2013). The Federal Reserve estimates that the majority of the cash in circulation today is outside the United States.

The increased demand for the USD abroad also helps keep the USD value from declining in the face of huge trade deficits. To some extent we ship dollar bills to countries and they ship us food, cars, smart phones, etc..

Countries that use the USD as an official currency (though they may also have a local currency at least for small amounts – often under US$1): Panama, Ecuador, El Salvador, Zimbabwe and East Timor.

In some places it may seem on the ground that the USD is the official currency but it is really just the currency used without an official declaration: Cambodia, Peru and Uruguay

Related: Finding an International Business Bank as a Digital NomadCredit Card Currency Conversion CostsWhich Currency is the Least Bad? The USD (2012 post)

Reverse Budgeting: Money that Must be Spent

I realize that being reluctant to spend money isn’t the normal problem people have. This is especially true where I grew up: the USA. But I do have trouble spending money, my default desire it to save money.

The main reason I have the ability to have a digital nomad, long travel lifestyle now is not some incredible business bringing in lots of cash. It isn’t have made a huge fortune that I can now live on. It is mainly because I don’t need to spend a huge amount now. And I have saved up money by not spending a huge amount before. Investing that money well also helped.

But I do also have trouble due to my desire to not spend money even when I might like the result (when the cost just seems too high for what is offered). I have taken to a “reverse budget” where I have set money that I expect to spend. And I add to that balance each month and if it grows I have an increasing pile of money I am suppose to spend.

So when I think about getting a guide for a trip in China and I am put off by how much it costs, I can look at my balance and say if I have to spend that money there really isn’t anything I want to spend it on more than hiring a guide. So then I can spend money in the way that benefits me and I can escape the trap of saving more than really makes the most sense when you look at the overall picture.

sunset from boat

Sunset from boat tour in Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia. I may well not have taken this evening boat tour if I didn’t have money I “had” to spend.

Some people will put some amount into a checking account each month to limit their spending to say $2,000. I do something similar but for the opposite purpose to segregate money to spend. I move the decision from whether I am better off saving or spending that money to this is the money that has already been allocated for spending, so now go spend it on whatever is the best use for it.

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