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Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Here, one woman who traded her Los Angeles life for nomadic travel shares her monthly spending.
In January 2017, I bought a one-way ticket to Iceland for $150 and became a digital nomad. I dreamed of bouncing from country to country and freelance writing wherever I landed.
By far, the No. 1 question I get from friends, family and strangers emailing me through my travel blog is “how do you afford it?” To be honest, “affording it” is one of the simpler parts about being a digital nomad. After all, your budget is in your control and can dictate where you go or what you do next. It’s actually cheaper for me to live abroad without a permanent address, compared to my previous life in Los Angeles. Plus, as a freelancer, budgeting is something I had to learn early on.
Yes, money emergencies come up. But once you learn to stick to the basics and account for the unexpected, each month gets easier. I tracked one month of my spending to give you an idea of what a digital nomad’s budget can look like.
Monthly goal: I try not to spend more than $20 per night on centrally-located housing — $25 tops. I look for an Airbnb or my own apartment, instead of a hostel or shared living space, with Wi-Fi and utilities included.
Reality: For the month of February, I’d gone from Bulgaria (my “home” for January) to Poland (for a three-day family event) to Croatia and kept my average nightly spend under $21. Back in L.A., my last apartment was around $1,000 per month with roommates and without Wi-Fi, utilities and parking.
Though I started out in hostels, I learned it’s better for me — work-wise and sleep-wise — to room alone. Depending on the country, hostels can end up being the same price as an Airbnb, sometimes even more! Plus, a traumatic and pricey incident with bed bugs at a hostel last summer scared me off pretty quickly.
Hot tip: Always negotiate housing. Most people will give you a discounted week-to-week or monthly rate for an extended stay.
Monthly goal: Under $50
Reality: I’m a big walker — you really see a city that way — so I rarely take buses, trams, trains, Ubers or taxis. I made a few exceptions this month, like going to and from the hospital (more on that later). Even though I went over my monthly goal slightly, it was still far cheaper than the few hundred dollars I dropped each month on a car back in L.A., including gas, parking, insurance and registration fees.
As for travel costs between countries this month, I already had my plane tickets, but flying within Europe is often quite economical, with one-way flights as little as $25 to $75.
Hot tip: Walking and taking public transportation is not only cheap or free, it’s also educational. Skyscanner, an airfare-comparison site, is my BFF — and it should be yours, too.
Health Care: $371.55
Monthly goal: $117.06 for coverage via World Nomads, a company that provides travel insurance. Monthly rates vary depending on the country, the type of plan, and if you buy one or several months at a time.
Reality: I thought I hit my out-of-pocket maximum in January — I landed in the hospital in Bulgaria three times for the flu and ear infections. However, my medical costs continued into February with follow-up appointments and an ER visit. Still, what I spent on health care this month wasn’t too far off from what I used to pay for insurance back in L.A. ($300 per month, plus copays and prescriptions).
Hot tip: Stay healthy with a good diet and exercise to minimize health emergencies. Also, ask locals for the best hospital or doctor to see. Paying in cash could reduce the cost of your visit.
Groceries and Toiletries: $315.63
Monthly goal: $200
Reality: In Eastern Europe, where you can find huge loaves of fresh-baked bread for $1 or less on every corner, it’s easy to eat well on a budget. Grab the bread, along with fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese at a local farmers’ market, and you’re set. However, judging by my February receipts, my grocery budget went up mid-month when I decided to go on an all-plant diet. My daily bakery runs for a Croatian burek (filo dough filled with cheese) were replaced with an experiment to see if almond, coconut or rice milk tastes best. (Coconut won.)
Hot tip: Buy groceries from farmers’ markets and try your hand at local recipes.
Eating Out: $77.28
Monthly goal: $200
Reality: I like to do my writing in cafés. However, in Zagreb, Croatia, people smoke indoors at most cafés (and elsewhere), so I found myself working from home more than usual. This helped me save money. Croatia doesn’t have Starbucks, so there’s literally no temptation to spend there. Although you can get a coffee to go ($1.50 for an Americano), it's uncommon, so I mostly brewed my own at home.
Also, when I met up with friends, finding non-smoking cafés proved to be a challenge. Instead, we opted for walks or hikes.
Hot tip: Local cuisine is a huge way to experience the culture, but that doesn’t have to mean dining out for every meal. Plus, once you befriend some locals, you may be invited over for dinner.
Monthly goal: As little as possible. Since I literally have to carry all my possessions while traveling, I have a simple rule when it comes to buying clothes: one in, one out. If I want to buy a T-shirt, for example, I have to get rid of one I already have.
Reality: Croatia in February turned out to be colder than expected, so I had to buy some wool socks and more insulated shoes that didn’t slip and slide on the ice.
Hot tip: Thrifting is the best. Not only do you find cheap clothes, but you also find items unique to the country you’re in. I’ve also done clothing swaps with friends I’ve made along the way — what’s old to you is new to someone else!
Monthly goal: $100
Reality: My entertainment costs included things like visiting the Museum of Broken Relationships ($6.62), seeing Milky Chance perform ($26.86), attending a coffee fair ($4.15), tipping a free tour guide ($20) and buying some e-books ($10.98).
Hot tip: Always look for free events first, many of which you’ll hear about through locals.
Monthly goal: Up to $100
Reality: This category includes everything from my set monthly costs (Spotify: $9.99; Skype international calling plan: $6.99; Netflix: $12) to variable ones (Croatian SIM card: $16.96).
Hot tip: Always shop around. For instance, a monthly SIM card is usually much cheaper than one you have to replace every few days. Also, just because you’re traveling abroad doesn’t mean you can’t budget for some creature comforts like video or music streaming.
Grand Total: $1,674.30
Of course, all of the above spending goals and realities vary month-to-month depending on the country. But if I overspend in one place, I try to make up the difference in another. This month, I went over budget on health care costs but I made up for it with inexpensive housing.
All in all, being a digital nomad can be more cost-effective than you think. My earning power has remained about the same through my travels, and I tend to visit areas where my dollar can go farther. I’d estimate living nomadically has reduced my monthly living expenses to at least half of what they were when I was living in L.A. — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.