Leaving on a Jet Plane

In this post I expand on my comment on Reddit, to this comment:

> If I had one piece of advice for anyone really (really wanting, not
> just dreaming about) wanting to be a DN, it would be: buy a plane ticket!

This is advice for if you want to a digital nomad next week.

If your preference is to increase your odds of having a successful digital nomad experience then I suggest taking longer. Do 3 things:

1) Get experience earning money in a location independent way (you can do that where you live more easily than anywhere else).

2) Save up some money. This item most people will skip but it is helpful. It can be hard for many people to do. And if you don’t want to you can do well without saving much. But you do increase the risks of running into money problems that you could have smoothed over with savings.

3) Travel to where you would like to be a nomad for a trial run. If you want to do it in SE Asia take some time visiting and seeing what it is like. Travel in the way you plan to as a digital nomad. Don’t stay in nice hotels if your digital nomad plan is to live cheaply.

As with all this advice you can ignore the particular advice and learn from even just doing part of it (visiting but staying in much nicer places and being just a tourist will tell you more than never going at all), but doing more will prepare you better (and let you learn if it is what you really want to do).

Some might require extra steps, maybe to earn location independent money you will need to learn a new skill, and maybe need to gain experience etc..

view from my porch (with laptop in forground, plants and another cabin in the photo), Luang Prabang

View from my porch in Luang Prabang, Laos. This was a great place to work (not my average location to work, one of my favorites). I tethered my laptop to my cell phone connection which was fine (you could stream video), it did fail for about 20 hours over 2 days but otherwise was good.

Just leaving on a jet plane tomorrow does work for some people. But I think there are many more people it doesn’t work for than it would work for.

And truthfully many people don’t want to take the time to do a thorough job of the 3 steps I mention. You don’t have to do a thorough job if you don’t want, but it will give you a better chance to succeed and enjoy your experience.

There are also many other sensible things to do first: learn about visa rules, pack well, deal with things like health insurance, deal with mail (family, friend or service) – you often need a physical address at home for some things, find good sources or information on living as a digital nomad, figure out how you will handle banking (it can be a real pain to find an international business bank as a digital nomad), and on and on. You can read about these things on my post here and in some posts on my Curious Cat Travel Destinations blog and many other good blogs.

Related: Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) and Location Independent WorkingLocation Independent Living Can Be In Your Comfort Zone and a Good ExperienceTransfer Money Between Currencies Using New Providers Not Banks And SaveMy Early Experience as a Digital Nomad: Part Two

Health Insurance Considerations for Digital Nomads

Health insurance is something that many young healthy people don’t think about. And many digital nomads are young healthy people, though not all of them are. And if you are from most rich countries you may not think about health insurance as your country makes it pretty easy to just be treated if you have health care needs, without a need to have bought health insurance.

But when you are traveling outside your country health insurance is important. I am not very familiar with the details of how health coverage works for all the different countries so you will have to figure it out for your own country. It wouldn’t amaze me if European countries set up some kind of reciprocal care agreements but I have no idea if they do (they should if they don’t).

In the USA we know what a nightmare health insurance is. The ludicrously expensive USA health care plans generally don’t provide any coverage when you are outside the USA (even inside the USA, but not in your own state there are severe limitations). There are many wonderful things about the USA but the health care system is a nightmare and has been for decades.

If you are going to fly off and become a digital nomad one of the critical items to consider (though many don’t give it the attention it needs) is health insurance. It is true that in many countries you can pay out of your own pocket for health care that would bankrupt you if you used the USA health care system and tried to pay out of your own pocket (tens of thousands of people go bankrupt in the USA due to health costs).

If you use good personal financial planning practices you should have at least 6 months of expenses in an emergency fund (and I would strongly suggest at least a year for any digital nomads). That emergency fund should be able to pay for routine medical visits in many countries (Malaysia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore… – I would imagine this is true in most countries, but certainly not the USA.) without a need for health insurance.

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Peer to Peer Car Rental

Turo provides peer to peer car rental in the USA. I have rented cars through them before and have found it useful. A big part of the reason I do so is I find the big rental companies pricing so opaque. And if you want something like an SUV the pricing is often very high through car rental companies.

And it isn’t just the pricing that is opaque through the big rental companies, even the rules are crazy. Some seem to block you from renting if you are local (for example, if you didn’t fly into the city) or if you don’t have car insurance (which I don’t because I don’t own a car). It is all just a lousy customer experience to deal with them.

Toyota Rav 4, Skyline Drive, Virginia

My Toyota Rav 4 on a visit to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

You can also chose to rent out your car through Turo. It isn’t really ideal for doing while you travel overseas, as someone needs to deal with the car (get people the keys, check it out, clean it up…). But if you had a friend that wanted to pick up some spending money maybe you could leave it with them while you travel.

When I went on my oversea travel adventure I sold my car before I left. And actually I still would as I planned to be gone for years. But, if you were doing something like going to South East Asia for 6 months, you could possible have your car earning money while you were gone.

Eventually there might even be model where you can leave your car with a location that deals with arranging pickups etc.. I think that would be a nice addition to this business. I think it is also a pretty good business for Turo also. One big advantage is they can sell insurance at a huge markup (so make lots of money) and they also get a portion of the rental payment (I think 20% of it).

Related: Should I Sell or Keep My House When I Become a Nomad?Transfer Money Between Currencies Using New Providers Not Banks And SaveTaxis in Johor BahruMy Early Experience as a Digital Nomad: Part 2

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

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)

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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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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Finding an International Business Bank as a Digital Nomad

Dealing with banking issues is one of the most difficult aspects of a small digital nomad business. Finding a bank for a small business isn’t easy. Add to that dealing with international banking and things get very challenging.

Finding a bank that will accept deposits via wire, provide a credit card for your business, has good online tools and you trust isn’t easy. I ran across a very useful post recently:

The Best Offshore Banks of 2014 which includes a good deal of information on the 30 best banks according to them, for example:

Butterfield Bank

Established: 1858.
Jurisdictions: Bermuda, Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Guernsey, UK.
Minimum deposit/balance: 5,000 BMD/USD/GBP for business banking, 250 – 500,000 BMD/USD/GBP for private banking.
Personal banking: Residents preferred.
Commercial banking: Yes, international.
Private banking: Quite strong.
Remote account opening: In most cases.
Mobile app: iOS, Android.
Cards: Full coverage, available in USD and GBP.
Website: http://www.butterfieldgroup.com/

All things considered, the finest bank in the Caribbean and Bermuda. 2009 to 2010 were rough years for the bank, but they bounced back to profits by the following year. Although the share price took a massive dip, but the Butterfield signature quality was never compromised.

Card services are some of the best in the region, with two airline partnerships being available (AAirways and British Airways).

Internet banking is strong but the mobile banking app, although light-years ahead of other banks in Bermuda and the Caribbean, leaves a lot to be desired.

It provides enough information for you to screen through and find some good options for you. And then you can do more research and pick one to try out. I would definitely do more research, you shouldn’t trust 1 internet post to find a bank.

Singapore Merlion with the financial district in the backgound

Singapore Merlion with the financial district in the backgound

Finding a bank that accepts EFT deposits from the USA makes a big difference but this can be a challenge. Many internet companies still are stuck a decade or two ago as far as banking is concerned. Many only pay via EFT or check. Some will also pay via paypal. The options are limited for people in many countries (with poor mail system and paypal is also not available to people in many countries).

Of all my efforts in creating a digital nomad existence banking has been by far the biggest negative surprise. It has just been a huge hassle. I may well look to using one of these banks if I can find a better option for me.

Some that look interesting to me for digital nomad businesses are: Butterfield Bank (Bermuda, Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Guernsey, UK), Crèdit Andorrà (Andorra, Panama), DBS Bank (Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia/Labuan, Taiwan), FirstCaribbean International Bank (Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands), Standard Bank (Isle of Man, Jersey, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Angola, Singapore, South Africa, UAE)

It has been awhile since I created this blog and haven’t posted to it, but my plan is to be more active posting here in the future.

Related: International Migrants: Economics and BankingPrivate Foreign Banking Deposits by CountryThe Importance of Long Term Disability InsuranceGoing Nomad in SE Asia