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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Mellor

Before You Become a Digital Nomad

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

I made a mountain of mistakes; please, don't make them as well

 

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Years and years and years ago (only four of them), my partner and I decided to become digital nomads. Freelance our way around the world.


A vintage VS van along a coastline.
Read article BEFORE buying van.

Before committing full-time to be digital nomads and freelancers, we would work in the States for a few months before leaving and going back to Europe to explore. After our Schengen visas were up, we’d either go back to the States (usually to make more money) or to another country in Europe outside the Schengen Zone (Eastern Europe or the UK, mainly). As one could imagine, there are three things we didn’t have during that time period: savings accounts, a safety net, and careers.


We planned out our trip to a degree I had never planned anything in my life due mostly to a lack of expectations from the world, or vision for my future, depending on what you prefer to call it.


Before becoming full-time digital nomads, we did a mountain of research in order to not immediately fail. This isn’t to say there haven’t been speed bumps, but four years on, nothing has seriously derailed us (sorry for mixing metaphors; I do realize that speed bumps aren’t typical on a train track).


There are also some things we learned while actually on the road that, arguably, could have been avoided. These are three of the most important things we learned.


Find your passion (ideally before you leave)


You see, I knew that writing would make me all the money. I didn’t bother having a backup plan (although I seriously flirted with coding for a few weeks). I was coming out with a novella that was sure to blow up; some of my short stories had been published, so the moon was firmly within my grasp.


Except, as I’m sure you know, writing isn’t exactly the most profitable business. It’s even less profitable if you know nothing about anything, so you can’t even write articles and sell them.

My partner, who started painting when she was twelve and had already sold decently sized (and priced) works by the time she was nineteen, decided to forgo painting and give photography a shot.


This didn’t work out so well. We spent two years just using credit cards, absolutely blowing through money, intent on staying on the road.


This came down to two things.


One: We were nervous that once a year had passed, it would be difficult to go back to our “normal” jobs. However, with a work history that was so sporadic, we felt that we had missed our chances at careers that were somewhat respectable.


Two: God, I really hate working for someone else. Not as a freelancer; that’s actually fun, but as a job. It’s probably something a therapist could help me with, but until then, I avoid jobs.

Back in 2020, I stumbled on a job that has, so far, really suited me: beta reading. I read people’s unfinished or unpublished books and offer feedback. From there, I started offering editing services. Now, it’s not quite at the point where we’re totally self-sufficient off that money, but had I started a few years earlier, I have no doubt we would be.


My partner went back to painting once she realized that’s when she was the happiest. Of course, it’s hard to be a nomadic oil painter, but she makes it work!


The one thing that both editors and painters need are clients, which brings me to my next point.


Have clients before leaving


Truth be told, I ignored this piece of advice when I first heard it. I was going to be a writer, remember?


However, I have a friend who worked as a graphic designer in Los Angeles before moving to Bali. He kept his same core group of clients and didn’t have to hit the ground running, spending hours every day on Upwork or Fiverr.


So, once you’ve found the job you would like to do, try to get some repeat clients first. People who like your work and would be willing to continue working with you in the future.

As a beta reader, this is a little bit hard. After all, how many people are writing more than one book at a time?


As it turns out, many writers.


When they read my feedback on one of their novels, about half of my clients came back, wanting me to read their sequel, their to-be-published-under-a-pseudonym erotica novel, or a project that hit a wall some years back and they need a fresh set of eyes on in.


In about 5% of cases, this turns into an editing job.


Which has led me to learn: have clients first.


Know where you’re going and go for a while


This could be said by any long-term traveler. But it bears repeating.


We knew we had three months per location (where one is in the Schengen Zone and another would be anywhere else), but more than this, we knew we wanted to be in Europe.


Although it isn’t as cheap as Southeast Asia, and it doesn’t have the same ex-pat or digital nomad population, we liked the way of life, the food, and the pastries.


While Southeast Asia is a popular destination for digital nomads (and a destination that is quickly becoming tired of the income disparity trouble brought by ex-pats), there are other options.


South America remains a popular choice for ex-pats due to relative costs, temperate climates (where the ex-pats end up staying), and friendly countries.


In recent years, Eastern Europe has cemented itself as a digital nomad safe haven, with countries like Estonia and Croatia offering digital nomad visas, ridiculously fast internet, and relatively cheap utilities and rent (even in large cities).


The truth is, anywhere can be a potential destination for you to put down roots, as long as there’s [steady] internet.


More importantly, where is “how long?”


As you might imagine, things are cheaper when bought with a long stay in mind.

For instance, in Italy, where we have chosen to live, rent is much cheaper on a yearly lease than on a monthly one, but if we were to choose to find an apartment with a common 4x4 contract (4-year lease with an option to renew for another 4 years), rent for us would be almost nothing (in comparison to the States).


Likewise, many citizens have contracts with utility companies that allow them to pay a cheaper rate that doesn’t fluctuate based on usage, as long as they pay the same amount every month.


(As far as I’m aware, some parts of the States have plans like this. When I went looking for a deal like this in my native Savannah, Ga, I found the electric company would offer a flat monthly rate (making budgeting easier) but if you went over your usage, you would be charged at the end of the year. Most plans in Italy offer one flat rate, even if it ends up costing the electric companies money.)


This means that instead of paying $0.22 per kilowatt-hour, you may pay $0.17 per kilowatt-hour even if you use very little electricity. But in the months when you have to heat your house with an electric heater, you’re getting a great deal.


Food can also be cheaper if you’re planning on staying for a while. Not only do you start finding the best grocery stores with the best deals, but if you’re lucky, you can find local farmers that can supply beans, flour, meat, eggs, oil, etc. at a cheaper price than any grocery store.


More than any of that, you can start making connections with people. If you’re bouncing around from place to place, you’re not really meeting people and getting to know them.

My partner and I have been on the road for about 4 years (only very, very recently settling in one town in Italy) and while we have loose connections all over Europe, we have no real friends.


This doesn't mean you can't be a nomadic digital nomad, but we do recommend having a long-term "home base" once you find a country/city/region you like.


So, before you decided to pack up and head for greener pastures (and bluer beaches), consider the mistakes we’ve made and try not to repeat them!

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