Cheap Internet Data Options for Travelers and Nomads in the USA

The video from the excellent CheapRVliving YouTube channel provides excellent information on getting internet coverage while you travel the USA. USA internet coverage is often very expensive, but this provides some good sources for those looking to have coverage but avoid paying the highest prices.

Some of the suggestions from the video:

  • Verizon unlimited 3g mobile hotspot – (sure it is a slower but he streams Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime etc. without problems even using a Amazon Fire stick for his TV). Link is to device on ebay using his recommended seller glselectronics). Cost for the Flashed Novatel MIFI 4510L is $60 and the data is $5/month.
  • T-mobile via 4gantennashop. In the video he says he pays $18 a month (I don’t see that offer on the website but…). He says it is 5Gb plan but with BingeOn and Music Freedom (so Netflix, YouTube, etc. are not counted against your data use). He mentions that the network is congested sometimes.
  • Sprint via 4gcommunity. I have read plenty of great reviews on this and also hassles about getting signed up. You must buy a device from them (so it costs a total of $250 for the first year) and then pay annually for membership ($168 a year).
  • Another Sprint Network option using the same bandwidth (it is part of a deal struck with the government when Sprint bought Clearwire) is Calyx ($500 which gets you a hotspot also, and $400 in future years). Both Sprint options provide 4G coverage where available (in general Sprint’s network is good in very populated areas but not good elsewhere). Both are effectively unlimited as they have no cap and no speed reduction (though pushing it too far may result in issues from Sprint and if too many did so may result in issues for the entire program – essentially Sprint using abuses to get the government to rescind the agreement that provides us this affordable option).
  • AT&T via FreedomPop (he suggests buying via slickdeals). This can be as cheap as $1 for a sim card and then you can take various measures to get 1Gb free every month for each sim card. So you can buy multiple sim cards to have more coverage. This is the cheapest option but there are plenty of people that complain about having to deal with Freedom Pop. It can be a decent free option but realize you may have to spend time dealing with hassles of using this service. However using it as a backup to have a AT&T signal could be useful (I don’t think I would bother with multiple sim cards – you have to track your usage switch sims…). You can’t use your phone as a hotspot for free (you can pay to add that option).

He pays about $35 for his combination of plans using the networks of T-mobile, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint.

Related: Making Money as a Nomad in the USAVanlife in the USAWiring a Thermometer to Your Van to Turn on AC as Needed as You Sleep

Personal Finance Considerations for Going into Debt for Education

I think taking on debt for education is a sensible financial decision. But the level of the debt that is sensible must be considered.

When I went to college (too long ago) it was expensive, but not nearly as expensive as it is now (in the USA at least – I am not as familiar with the costs outside the USA other than knowing in many places that university education costs are very reasonable).

I don’t have any hard cutoff where I think taking on debt no longer makes sense. But I do think I would include cost as a major factor when deciding what college to attend if I were facing that decision today. From a personal finance perspective I would only consider my debt or the spending of my savings.

If my parents or the school or someone else want to pay for a large portion of the the costs that is wonderful. I do believe the expensive and highly rated schools provide a great education and great benefit. If I were a parent that was well off I would have no problem paying the very high costs if I could afford it (which would mean I was far ahead on reaching financial independence).

photo of building at Davidson College

Davidson College

The costs of college in the USA are so huge now that it may well be wiser to find a less expensive school in order to create the best personal financial base as a young adult.

The huge costs also mean I think it is much more important to take into account the likely financial picture after one graduates. It is much different to go into debt for a engineering or math degree than one with much lower expected salaries (Engineering Graduates Earned a Return on Their Investment In Education of 21%).

As I wrote on my other blog: In the USA More Education is Highly Correlated with More Wealth.

As I have said before the reason to chose a career is because that is the work you love, but in choosing between several possible careers it may be sensible to consider the likely economic results. And in choosing how much to spend on your education considering your future earnings is wise.

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A Tiny Housing Take on Multi-Generational Housing

Housing is a critical aspect of any financial plan. Many alternatives have become more popular in the last 10 years: nomad (digital nomads etc.), tiny houses, mobile living (RVs, vans…), etc.. I think such housing alternatives are important and should be given more consideration by more people.

As these options become more popular they begin to be used in specialized ways. As I have written previously I think multi-generation housing is an interesting concept that deserves more attention. It is not a new idea but in many countries (such as the USA) it has gone out of favor but it may well come back into favor, I believe.

One recent trend combines multi-generational living and tiny housing into tiny houses in a backyard for grandparents.

The 12×24-foot prefabricated house starts at $85,000 — less than the cost of traditional long-term elder care — and includes innovative safety features like webcams and cushioned floors that allow the family member privacy and the caregiver freedom.

‘Granny Pods’ Help Keep Portland Affordable

Seattle, Austin, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco also recently made it easier to add a second unit or granny flat.

These Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) require zoning flexibility in most places (in the USA at least, I am not sure about zoning issues globally). Hopefully more localities will create options to allow more flexibility.

ADU for Medical Caregiving

MEDCottages will be fully assembled at a manufacturing facility and trucked to a site to be plugged in, like a recreational vehicle, to the electrical and mechanical systems of an existing home by a local contractor.

Related: Tiny Homes are a Great AlternativeHousing Savings by Living as a NomadFinancial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) and Location Independent Working

Tiny Homes – A Great Alternative

Homes don’t have to be huge as they are now. The ever expanding USA single family home: average square footage of single-family homes in the USA: 1950 – 983; 1970 – 1,500; 1990 – 2,080; 2004 – 2,349.

Tiny houses are looking at going back even earlier than 1950, and that is a good idea. I would also like to see experiments with small houses along the lines of 1950s (or even a bit smaller). By reducing the high cost of housing we can drastically change personal finances for the non-rich in the USA (and elsewhere).

The innovative thinking by Cass Community Social Services discussed in the video in is the type of thinking we need to see more of. The Detroit non-profit is building tiny houses and making them available for rent to low income residents. The effort includes monthly personal finance and home care classes to make those tenants ready to transition to home owners (which they can do, buying the houses they start out renting).

The plan is to use the rent-to-own model. Rent is capped at 1/3 of income (and should be something around $250/month I think). The houses cost about $40,000 build and funding from the Ford Foundation has jump started this effort. The initial effort plans to build 25 tiny houses.

I think housing innovation is one of the areas with great potential to make people’s lives better by reducing the burden on people’s finances. Tiny houses are one method. Multi-generational housing communities is another. Dorm-like housing is another (I would have found this appealing after college). These apartment buildings seek to increase the social space in the building and encourage social interaction and also often have smaller units (bringing down the cost while providing benefits people desire – social options).

Related: Making the Most of 450 Square FeetAmazingly Flexible 344 Square Foot Room Can Transform Into 24 Different Rooms

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Use FI/RE to Create a Better Life Not To Build a Nest Egg as Quickly as Possible

To me FI/RE is about creating conditions that allow you to focus on what you value. Some people do focus too much on saving money quickly as though the goal is to save as much as quickly as possible. But that isn’t what FI/RE means. FI/RE doesn’t mean make yourself a slave to saving quickly in order to remove yourself from being a slave to a job until you are 65.

Any concept can be misapplied. Two posts on related ideas:

The aim should be the best life, not work v. life balance

I achieved my goal by not my aim. That happens a lot, we honestly translate aims to goals. And then we do stupid things in the name of the goal get it the way of the aim. We forget the aim sometimes and put the goal in its place.” Mike Tveite

FI/RE should be about figuring out what you value and examining the tradeoffs between working, spending and what you really want to get out of life. For some people getting a large investment portfolio quickly is more important than time off, taking expensive vacations, having a job they really like… For some they are happy to have a job they really like even though it pays less and it will take 8 more years to reach FI and be able to retire. FIRE is a process to examine what you value and really think about savings versus spending (largely important because of all the emphasis in our culture to spend and worry about the consequences of debt you took out to spend later).

If you turn FI/RE into an accelerated treadmill of working and not living that isn’t of much value in my opinion (it does have a little bit of value in that you are likely to reach a point where you are free but this is not a good path). You should think about tradeoffs of what you value (healthy living, family, learning, fun…) and what short term versus long term tradeoffs you make. You don’t have to go to the extremes some people do in order to adopt FI/RE principles and create a better life for yourself.

For some people the tradeoffs for achieving financial independence and the ability to retire at 40 are worth great sacrifices up until 40. That is fine if that is what they want. Others would rather make choices from 25 to 40 (lower paying jobs, splurging occasionally…) that mean they won’t reach financial independence until 48. That is also fine.

To me what is most important about FI/RE is examining the choices you make and taking control of the decisions instead of just floating along as so many people do without considering the choices they make. Frankly, doing that and deciding to not even retire early is fine with me (though I do agree it is a bit at odds with the name). Essentially what I mean is even in that case you can apply FI/RE principles, you just do it is a way that make it FI/RR. Where you Retire Realistically instead of as the majority of people do today don’t even come close to adequately considering and planning for their retirement (even at 65 or 70).

Related:

Making Money as a Nomad in the USA

There are many posts about how to make money online as a nomad. Some ideas work pretty well for some people (freelance work – especially as a digital nomad, writer, bookkeeper, etc.). The biggest problem isn’t learning about these options (they are repeated all the time in many different places online) but actually making them work for you. It can be done and is actually easy for some people, for others it is a very hard (the biggest challenges are having the right skills, marketing and establishing a base of clients).

I have been paying much more attention lately to nomads in the USA which opens up income possibilities in addition to online income. More than I ever saw in digital nomads there are some people making a decent amount from YouTube (documenting the vanlife/RV-life and their travels) – still this is likely a crowded market and being successful will be hard (but aiming at providing a small bit of additional income may be an option for a larger group of people).

In this video Kev provides a good recap of some of the nomadic and location dependant options: getting day jobs through craigslist and temp agencies. Another popular idea is workcamping. These are essentially temp jobs specifically targeted at nomads (campgrounds, farming help often at harvest time) and some that get lots of interest from workcapers Amazon… seasonal hiring, etc. These often don’t pay a large amount of money but for people that have very low fixed expenses (no “sticks and bricks” to pay for as they travel and live in the RV/van) it can work.

Another potential source of income for earning money providing services to other nomads (work on vehicles, install solar/electrical, haircuts, etc.).

Another idea that can work is an etsy store such as the one Driving and Vibing have earned most of their income from.

Kev also mentions a digital nomad income source in his video: human intelligence tasks (mechanical turk). Find some of the better options; though these usually don’t pay very little.

Related: Vanlife in the USAHousing Savings When Living as a NomadGolden Rules for Making MoneyNomadic Businesses in the Age of the Internet

Becoming A Self-Sustaining Freelancer

Despite the advantages of freelancing, few people understand why it’s one of the best decisions you could make in your career.

Working for other people brings many challenges. Sadly, often that can take the form of being micromanaged. In organization heavily weighted toward bureaucratic decision-making, you have to conform to corporate policies to keep your job even when the rules are outdated or don’t make sense.

Freelancing allows you time-freedom, allows you to make up your own rules on how to use the day, and allows you to focus on what you do well to the point of mastery. In addition, there is no cap on your income, no office politics, and nobody to ask permission from to go to the bathroom because you’re leaving your desk unattended.

Design Your Lifestyle

As a freelancer, you also get to make lifestyle decisions that thrill you. You can pick and chose what works for you, you can chose to call Directv, HBO and/or Netflix. If you’re a gourmet cook, you can spend time in the kitchen making your favorite meals. And if you’re a health enthusiast, you can stick to your special diet to build muscle and burn fat and then go to the gym when it’s less crowded to sculpt that perfect body.

As a freelancer, you get to choose your own lifestyle. You don’t have to be tied to a cubicle in a corporate maze to earn your living. You also don’t have to hope for a shred of cheese to be tossed your way now and then by your overlords, because you can pitch your work far and wide and get as much cheese as you like.

How to Flourish as a Freelancer

While there is much more that can be said about the pleasure of doing work you love all day long and the freedom to create your ideal lifestyle, let’s take a look at 3 ways to flourish as a freelancer.

Choose your weapons

In a duel, the combatants get to choose their favorite weapon because this gives them the greatest chance of winning and saving their own lives. Similarly, in freelancing you get to work at something you do naturally well to win at the game of money-getting.

If you love to write, create graphics, take photographs, design websites, write code, and so on, there is someone willing to pay you to do it for them. They either don’t know how to do it for themselves or they know how to do it, but don’t like doing it. What you find easy, they find difficult. In fact, what you love to do is probably more like play than work.

Master your craft

Whatever you’ve chosen to do as a freelancer, you probably have long aspired to do it better. Consider your work as a trained apprenticeship.

Let’s suppose you love to write blog posts.

When you set up your own blog, you probably won’t get paid for it until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time establishing your reputation as a blogger. However, other people don’t have the time (or inclination) to write for their own blogs and will gladly hire you to keep their content schedule on track so that they can build their brand.

While you can certainly get plenty of practice writing blog posts, which will make you a better writer, you can take it one step further. Reinvest some of the money you earn as a blogger to take a master class or two from top bloggers to learn how to create viral posts.
Meanwhile, there is nothing to prevent you from building your own blog while you work.
Similarly, you can upgrade your work as an author by ghostwriting books or as a photographer by doing photo shoots for clients and using photos to spice up your blog posts (like this one I took).

view of large lake, mountains and clouds

View from my room at Prince of Whales Lodge, Waterton International Peace Park, Canada

In other words, whatever your talents, you can use freelancing as a way to get really good at it.

Working at a job you hate is a recipe for unhappiness.

Think like a business person.

Even if you do get to do what you love all day, get generously compensated for it, and can get the experience and the educational opportunities to master your craft, freelancing is still a business. Besides mastering the golden rules of making money, you should also get good at building your platforms, growing your portfolio, collecting proof, and consistently pitching.

Let’s take a closer look at these four components to freelancing success:

  • Platforms. You build your brand through your website by creating a blog and by establishing a social media network.
  • Portfolio. As you work for clients you will be adding to your portfolio of work to show new clients
  • Proof. How do prospective clients know that you can deliver what you’ve said you can on your platforms? You have to show proof based on past work. Collect testimonials from clients whose business you’ve helped improve through your contribution.
  • Pitching. While people will come to you because of you brand name and referrals, you also have to get good at pitching. This means actively soliciting work.

    Think of freelancing as a combination of farming and hunting to sustain yourself. For long term food supply, you can plant crops. This is what taking classes in your craft, building your platform, adding to your portfolio, and collecting testimonials will do for you. Meanwhile, you don’t want to starve while your crops are growing, so you also need to do some hunting. This is where pitching helps out.

Some people are happy working for others and that is fine. But for those that are constantly frustrated and unhappy there are alternatives to explore. It isn’t easy but it may be that it fits your personality and desires more to design your own job. If you are willing to meet the challenges it is a path that many have found to be very rewarding.

Vanlife in the USA

I have been reading about the possibilities of living in a van (customized to be a small RV) for several months. I am getting more interested in this idea. The cost of living in the USA is so high, especially if you want to travel – which I do.

The combination of where I want to travel (National Parks, National Forest and nature largely) and the cost effectiveness for van living works out very well. You can often park for free in US National Forest and BLM land. Also the cost of campgrounds is much less than any form of lodges, motels or hotels; so even in the instances you pay for lodging the costs are greatly reduced.

Another option for free parking are many Wal-Marts across the country actually don’t mind RVs and vans parking overnight. Many other businesses are hostile to just using their parking lot overnight when it isn’t being used. I must say this is something that greatly increases my opinion of Wal-Mart. I am not a huge fan in general but this is a very real positive action they are taking. It definitely encourages me to shop there.

Stealth parking on city streets or parking lots is another option with van living. Often cities seek to stop such living which is why the stealth part is important. Some cities and residents are more apposed to the practice than others. Obviously if there are negative externalities from you parking your van for a long time that will encourage people to seek to stop that. But if you don’t make anyone’s life worse there is much less likely to be an issue.

Even if you don’t it can make residents, police or security guards nervous (which I understand is possible in some instances) and that is something that again makes it more likely you will be bothered and maybe not allowed to park. I am still in the early phase of learning about all this but it does seem a tactic of driving to a sleeping spot at night and leaving early in the morning is a good idea. And moving around so you don’t park in the same spot (that people will notice anyway) for long periods of time.

[removed embedding video that no longer exists]

One of the words I learned recently is boondocking, which is free camping and at least when I have read about it means also off the grid (no electrical connections, water…) for your RV (or a van that is able to plug in to services). I knew that this was somewhat available on USA Federal Government lands (BLM and forests) but I think it is much more available than I thought (I am still learning so…).

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Reporting on the Noise Level of Lodging Options

I would love a service that reports on the noise level of hotel rooms, apartments for rent etc.. I am far more sensitive to noise than others. And in my nomadic existence the most annoying thing for me was noisy places. Even in renting out apartments on a regular lease I had serious problems with extreme noise issues.

Reading reviews will provide some level of noise warnings when past travelers complain about noisy conditions. But this is time consuming (reading through lots of reviews to try and see) and not very accurate. Technology could provide a better alternative, even if it still isn’t perfect.

No solution is going to be perfect but it would be nice if there was a device that you could put in rooms and it would measure the decibel level and record loud noises. I would image smart engineers could design it to automatically categorize many noises. The device could then provide a report of how noisy it is and what kind of noises were recorded.

The idea is the device could be placed in empty rooms/apartments and create a record. That record could then be shared with prospective renters. I realize there are issues with making this work. But I think the market is significant.

One big market to consider (likely the biggest by far) for selling such a device and service to would be large hotel chains. They could gather data on noise issues in their rooms. They could make improvement and measure the improvements. They could gather data on what measures work and which don’t. They could use data to guide reservations for those expressing a desire for a very quite room to the rooms that best fit their needs. I also think for apartments there could be a bit market.

I realize the number of people that noise is as big an issue as it is for me is small. But there are a reasonable number of people that are bothered by noise that such a service would be worthwhile I think.

I sure hope someone fills this need. And if someone is already offering such a product and service I hope the market adopts it quickly.

Noisy fans are good for providing white noise to cover distracting noise. That is very helpful in many cases. It isn’t so great at covering up loud hallway noise (though with the right room setup and fan placement it can be ok in some rooms). The integrated units in the walls can be decent but for example are usually not good for dealing with hallway noise. And also some are designed so you can’t run the fan all the time (it only goes on if cooling or heating is needed): if you are creating a hotel (or the heating and AC system) make sure the fan can be set to run at all times.

Related: Gadgets to Mask Noise and Help You Sleep or ConcentrateTurn Windows Into Sound Canceling FiltersDealing with Noise Pollution in Your CondoFinding Places to Stay to Stay with Decent wifi

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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