Last summer I quit my job to become a digital nomad, so it’s been over a year since I started this new journey: time to reflect and make up the balance. So in this article, I’m sharing the 12 things I learned during my first year as a digital nomad.
If you prefer watching over reading, you can also watch the video here, or otherwise continue reading below.
Let me first admit that this journey didn’t start the way I once dreamed about it. I’ve worked and saved money for many years, while I developed this dream in which I would quit my job at some point to make a world trip. I thought that if I would go to cheaper countries and lived a backpacker lifestyle, I could make it last as long as possible, without giving up all of my savings. I thought I would meet interesting people and other nomads that would inspire me along the way. Maybe this would result in a brilliant business idea and if I would get tired of traveling, I could then slow down and stay somewhere for longer to start my own business. I would then set myself a deadline to see if it works out or not and if it would, happy days as I could then continue this lifestyle. And if not, I would see myself going back home, applying for another job, and continuing my corporate career.
Especially this last scenario never really appealed to me. If I would spend all my money on traveling and starting a business that never gets off the ground, it wouldn’t bring me any closer to financial freedom. Another hesitation was that I wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable enough to go back to a cheap backpacker lifestyle and travel on a shoestring budget, as I realized I wasn’t 20 anymore.
So I kept postponing the decision while continuing to save and invest more money. In the meantime, I did lots of research as well to find out my own passions and to learn from and get inspired by other already successful nomads. This way I came up with a couple of ideas that I already started working on, but when I was close to making the decision to go for it, covid came so I had to postpone my journey again.
Despite the fact that that covid was still an uncertain factor limiting the freedom of travel, I finally felt confident enough to go for it last year, as I had been looking forward to it for so long and really wanted to do it. It helped that I had also landed a part-time freelance gig that, although not paying anywhere near my previous salary, would cover my cost of living. Besides this job, I would have plenty of other time available to work on my own ideas.
So instead of going on a world trip first, I started my life as a digital nomad straight away. This meant that I had to continue working many hours, so I decided I also wanted to live in a bit of comfort by renting my own apartment in every location. This lifestyle is more expensive that the shoestring budget I had in mind, but I also learned that it wasn’t as expensive as I thought.
1. It’s less expensive than I thought
First of all, the nomadic lifestyle differs from a typical vacation because you travel slower. Accommodations are typically more expensive when you book only one or a few nights, while you usually get a discount when you stay somewhere for a week or a full month.
When you rent an apartment you can also cook your own meals so you don’t have to eat out all the time, which is another big cost saver.
As a nomad you’re also less dependent on specific holidays so it’s easier to avoid those more expensive peak seasons and holidays. For example I avoided the Mediterranean this summer and instead traveled around Romania and Serbia, before getting back to the Albanian coast.
Being flexible on the specific days and times of traveling can also save you money. In some places, hotels are cheaper during weekdays, while in other places it’s cheaper on the weekends for example, and flights are usually cheaper on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. If you don’t have to fly back on Sunday evening to be back in the office on Monday morning, you can save tons of money.
Another cost saver is geographic arbitrage, which means that your income and cost of living can be unrelated. The income from my freelance gig is for example defined by the labor market and cost of living in the Netherlands. But my actual cost of living is unrelated to this since I can do my work from anywhere and hence save money by living in a cheaper location.
The last and probably the biggest cost saver compared to a typical holiday is that I don’t have any other costs apart from the expenses in the location I live in, health insurance, and some small business-related expenses. So I don’t have to continue spending on rent, a mortgage, or any other bills in my home country.
2. More time, flexibility & control
I never had more time, flexibility, and control over my entire life, both professionally and personally. When it comes to working I can focus 100% on my own priorities and I can work when and where I want and feel most productive.
When it comes to personal and professional development I also feel so much more freedom in choosing what I want to develop and spend my time on. When I was still working in corporate jobs, of course, I spent most of my time on the things I was being paid for. When it comes to personal development it is then also easy to think within that same corporate framework: your specific company, department, industry, etc. This really narrows your mindset when it comes down to planning your career development because it’s easy to limit yourself to what career progression you see ahead and which typical paths your company has laid out for you. So when it comes down to the time spent on career development you have to make a compromise between what your company offers and what you actually want.
On the contrary, right now I can do whatever I want so today I can spend time improving my writing skills, and tomorrow I can work on my video editing skills if I want to. And when I want to read up on the financial markets I can combine my personal interest with developing the knowledge that I can use on this blog. The important learning is that I can fully focus on the things that I see a future in for myself, while in my corporate life I’ve spent so much time on learning about tools, processes, products, and industries, while I might never use that knowledge ever again.
Outside of work I also have more control over my time, simply because the friends and family that normally claim my time are not around. Off course when traveling solo, loneliness can kick in at times as well, and not having your longtime friends and family around you when you want is definitely a downside of this lifestyle.
But I’ve also experienced the positive side of this. It’s so easy to get caught up and be overwhelmed by everything happening in your life. Maybe you have a challenging and busy job that includes overtime, or maybe your employer or team invites you for team-building drinks or dinners outside of work every now and then. Maybe you’re part of a sports team or other community which requires your time and attendance and maybe you have a large family or an additional in-law family with lots of events like birthdays, newborn babies and other celebrations or entire family weekends where you feel like you have to go. And of course you want to hang out with your friends.
Some people have their schedules always filled up for weeks ahead and if you really like this and it gives you energy, that’s good for you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many people also feel like they have to attend certain events even when they don’t feel like it and end up rarely having time for themselves.
Getting out of your normal environment is like a blank piece of paper that you can then fill up exactly the way you want. And this also includes meeting new people and opening yourself to new cultures, but also new ideas and people that can actually help you move forward in life. And that’s simply not going to happen with that friend that keeps complaining about his job but is not willing to take any action. As a nomad, it’s easier to decide when and with who you want to hang out.
3. I’m more productive than ever
Since I started on my own I really had to learn to appreciate my own work and efforts, because at many times I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t fully productive or had to spend time learning something new. But when I then looked back and started counting the tasks I had completed during that day or week, I realized that I was being too hard on myself because I actually had done more than I would have in my previous office life.
Back in the days, when I was working in corporate jobs I had to commute to work, I was always being disturbed by colleagues, chats or phone calls. My weeks were always filled with useless meetings and activities that were not part of the core of my job, like mandatory administration and reporting, one-on-ones, team meetings, regional and all-hands meetings and calls, and I got tons of corporate email updates and newsletters and mandatory trainings that didn’t provide me any value. I’ve always worked for big American companies and every now and then they would always come up with the mandatory trainings about code-of-conduct, information security, anti-bribery, sexual harassment, or irrelevant projects and product updates.
And this makes me realize how inefficient my office life actually was and I really appreciate that I can now fully focus on my own priorities which makes me so much more productive.
4. Traveling ≠ Working
Traveling is unequal to working and you can’t combine the two. Ok this is a bold one and not entirely true. I’ve working form airport lounges, hotels, trains, busses, cafes and had I even had some of the most productive days while in transit. But let’s be honest: that’s exceptional and not sustainable on the long term.
In general, working slows down the traveling and limits the other things you can do on a day and traveling at a faster pace slows down productivity.
I’ve really brought this to the test this summer as I spent a full month traveling around Romania, so check out those videos on my Youtube channel if you are interested in the details. My conclusion was that I was most productive in the places where I stayed the longest, which was a week. I could have easily seen those cities in 2 or 3 days, but I simply spread this out over a week so I had time to do some work as well.
5. I learned the value of staying longer
I really learned and embraced the value of staying somewhere for longer, for a deeper connection with the location, the people and their culture which is a different experience because you’re not a local nor a regular tourist.
This makes it easier to make friends at a deeper level including with locals. You also get to see more than just the touristic highlights and get to wander around the same areas and streets more often and still see something new every time again. You can also benefit from different weather conditions, like working when it rains and get out with the sun whenever you want. Or simply get back to a beautiful place again for a sunset view.
When on holiday you typically want to see as much as possible before you leave because you might never come back, but I’ve really learned to let go of that fear of missing out. This is because I know that I’m not on holiday full time and if I work hard enough I can sustain this lifestyle so there will always be someplace next to visit and I don’t have to go back to the office like the vacationers do.
6. Steep learning curve
I learned so many things that I probably can’t even recall everything. First of all I learned and I’m still learning lots of practical things and hacks related to traveling and the nomadic lifestyle. I also learned a lot about the countries I stayed in and their cultures and history.
But I also learned lots of new skills and gained so much more knowledge since I started working for myself, like how to build a website, how Search Engine Optimization (SEO) works, how the Youtube and other social media algorithms work. I also learned to work with new tools like photo and video editing software and for example Canva, to make the slides and thumbnails for Youtube. And this is all great because these are all things I’m passionate about.
7. Accept a paycut
I had to get used to not having my normal paychecks and deal with a much lower income and no job security, so I had to learn to stop spending accordingly or like I’m on holiday.
This means trying to avoid taxis if there are good public transport alternatives, being reasonable with eating and drinking out, and not always opt for that expensive excursion or tour or rental car.
I mean, this all depends on your income and budget, but as a nomad you can’t pamper yourself like you’re on holiday all year long.
And remember I’m determined to become financially independent so anything reasonable I can save on, will get me there faster.
8. Hard to find cheap accommodation
I found it particularly hard and time consuming to find cheap accommodations and so far I ended up booking through the regular booking flatforms most of the time.
Every location has it’s own standards, price levels, Facebook Expats or Nomad groups and real estate agents, so this searching, contacting and communicating can be very time consuming and doesn’t always lead to better deals or the accommodation you’re looking for.
Many other nomads simply book for a few days and when they arrive just walk around to find and negotiate the best deal for a longer rental, but the shorter you’re planning to stay the less sense this makes and this is also a lot harder in a big city as you can’t just walk around the entire city trying to find and compare apartments.
But I’m sure I’ll get better at this over time and here in Albania I’ve already managed to get a better apartment deal every time I’ve come back simply because I’ve gotten to know people and made many friends here.
9. Practical challenges
Apart from the accommodation search there are always many small challenges to overcome wherever you are. First of all you have to find your way in a new place, find out the transportation options, the currency, get used to the exchange rate and find the best supermarkets for your daily groceries.
Here is also a challenge when traveling faster as you need to constantly decide what is worth buying or not, for the time you’re going to be there, or do you still have room to take any of it with you to the next place? Thinks like detergent, soap, tin foil, spices, cleaning solutions for example.
Then there can also be the challenges of getting appliances to work, like this washing machine with only Greek signs on it. Or reading the ingredients or cooking instructions on a food container can be also be a challenge. And the language can be a barrier too when talking to the local people, but learning only a few words of a local language can already break the ice and the smiles you get in return are priceless.
The local culture and habits can also be hard to understand at first. Like here in Albania people have not been programmed to live by the clock like I am so opening hours are usually not very strict, or a business can say that they’re always open, which is off course hard to believe. But it makes more sense when you understand that many small businesses are family run and want to welcome every customer, so a bar might stay open as long as there are clients, or close early when there is no-one.
I can continue the list of challenges, but my point is that it’s simply part of the entire experience and it has it’s charm, and in the end you will always overcome these small inconveniences.
10. Harder to live healthy
It’s much harder to live a healthy lifestyle when you’re moving around. Traveling simply breaks your routines and it’s harder to get back into your routines in an unfamiliar place with losts of distractions.
It’s simply harder to find healthy food, the right ingredients, or a workout space in a place you’re not familiar with yet. So it’s easy and tempting to skip on all this, eat out or buy junk food, especially when you associate traveling with a normal holiday in which you’re used to cheat on your health habits.
I have to admit that this simply hasn’t been a priority for me as I already had so many other thing on my head, but it’s definitely something I want to change going forward.
11. It wasn’t a big step
Even with all the changes and challenges mentioned so far I haven’t experienced becoming a digital nomad as a big step, but rather as a smooth continuous process. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I had already lived abroad for years, already had a lot of travel experience and was well prepared. But I also believe that many people look at it in fear of the unknown, while in reality it’s not as big of a step as it might seem and you’ll always figure it out if you simply have the right mindset and determination.
12. I’ve never been happier
The last thing I learned is by far the most important and that’s that I’ve never been happier. It doesn’t feel like working when I’m doing the things I like, I’m able to travel more than ever and I’m enjoying the freedom and control over my own life.