15 Feb Update on digital nomad life, earnings, challenges and future plans
It’s been over a year since we set ourselves up in Thailand to become digital nomads. Since then we’ve moved around Asia, Europe and South America and have somehow managed to stay solvent along the way. So, how did we make digital nomad life work for us, despite the challenges? Is it possible to earn a decent income remotely, and what are our future plans?
How we’ve been making money remotely
Since we moved to Chiang Mai in September 2016, we’ve been supporting ourselves through a range of income streams:
- Freelance writing
- Online teaching
- Teacher recruitment
Developing four different income streams has been vital for us because when one isn’t doing so well, the others pick up the slack. During the summer, for instance, both our online teaching and freelance writing work dipped significantly, but Andrew’s recruitment payout in October covered the shortfall. With that in mind, if you’re starting out as a remote worker/digital nomad, I’d definitely recommend diversifying your income streams.
How much money do we make from those income streams?
Freelance writing – when I started freelancing, I made £124 during my first month and gradually grew my income by taking on new clients and upping my rates. The most I’ve made in a month is £1,806 and at the moment, whilst travelling in South America, I’m averaging between £1,000 and £1,500 per month. When we’re intensively travelling, such as in Nepal last May, my income takes a hit.
Consistency is a key issue with freelancing and I frequently have weeks when I’m ridiculously busy followed by others when I have very little to do. I’ve found that working for content agencies really helps with this because they typically offer large volumes of work. Making my own freelance portfolio website and optimising my LinkedIn profile have also helped me land clients.
Online teaching – Andrew’s online teaching produced a consistent income while we were living in Chiang Mai, where he worked on average 15 hours a week, earning about £500 per month. He had some flexibility to rearrange lessons when we travelled for short periods but would have to cancel classes for longer trips when it was impossible to stick to a rigid schedule or guarantee a solid internet connection.
Teaching recruitment – Andrew still works with our former language centre in Hanoi, recruiting and interviewing teachers for them during June, July and August. He gets a commission for each teacher he recruits and has brought in lump sum payments of £2,430 and £2,100 in 2016 and 2017. This gives our savings a good boost and the work isn’t too time intensive, it involves posting job ads, interviewing candidates via Skype and liaising with the language centre.
Blogging – we still haven’t made any significant effort to monetise this blog and after some serious tech troubles over the autumn, I was even considering throwing in the towel completely. Now that things are fixed I’m continuing to blog for the love of it, and any money we make from the site is an unintentional bonus. We typically make a few hundred pounds a month through advertising and affiliate schemes, the most we made in one month was £700 but by contrast, for the last two years we’ve earnt zilch in July.
Digital nomad life: monthly earnings over the year
Our overall monthly earnings have varied throughout the year but typically average between £1,500 – 2,500 per month. During the months when Andrew’s recruitment payments come in we’ve made nearly £4,000, but in August when all our income streams dipped, we made our lowest amount of just over £700. This really illustrates the ups and downs of digital nomad life and how useful it is to have various income streams. When we do have big months, we put money straight into our savings, knowing that there will be less lucrative periods in the future.
What we’ve learned from being digital nomads
Digital nomad life is possible. We started this experiment over a year ago now and after previously travelling on our savings and earnings from teaching English in Vietnam and Spain, we were really unsure about whether we could make a decent online income. We’ve now proven to ourselves that it is possible. Yes, it’s incredibly hard work and certainly more stressful (in my opinion) than having a 9-5 job with a guaranteed monthly salary. However, as a couple with no children or mortgage and a minimalist mind-set, we have been able to cover our living costs and even save money while working as digital nomads.
Living abroad gets you more for your money. We earn significantly less than we did when we lived and worked in London five years ago, yet our lives are infinitely more satisfying now. Simply by living in cheaper parts of the world such as Chiang Mai, Portugal and Prague, we’ve enjoyed a good quality of life and travelled a great deal. It’s staggering to think that last year we took a month off to trek in Nepal, embarked on a three-month European road trip and lived a luxury lifestyle in Chiang Mai. Yet, had we been living in the UK and earning the same amount, we would have barely made ends meet.
It can all change in a moment. One week you can have a full roster of client work, the next you have nothing. When you freelance, your fortunes can change in an instant. This means that you have to be resilient and constantly put yourself out there. Build a website, tout your services around and most importantly, do great work for clients and they’ll keep hiring you. I’m hoping to get to the point where I have a handful of regular clients and can pick and choose the projects I want to take on.
Being a digital nomad isn’t always conducive to travel. Working remotely is supposed to give you the ultimate freedom to live where you like and travel continuously, right? That’s the theory, but we haven’t found it works that way in practice. Yes, in the past year we’ve lived in Chiang Mai, Portugal and Prague, travelled for six weeks straight in Nepal and Sri Lanka and road-tripped through Europe. However, our bouts of travel have been sandwiched between intense periods of work and we’re frequently battling to find bases with good wifi and comfortable work spaces. The reality is that we do have to plan our travels and life around work, we just have a lot more flexibility than we used to.
We’re lucky to have support. It’s important to note that we do go back to the UK each year for at least two months and during these periods, our families generously put us up. Without that support and our London housesits, we wouldn’t be able to afford these extended trips in the UK.
Our plans for the future
So, are we planning to continue our digital nomad life? The answer is yes and no. Writing is what I love to do and although I hate the rate-setting, chasing payments, administration and promotional side of things, the actual work feels natural to me. I intend to freelance long-term and keep building to the point where I have a range of clients and can choose the projects that interest me and cut out some of the duller bread-and-butter stuff. I have absolutely no desire to sell my soul again and return to the kind of 40-hour-a-week content management/journalism office job I used to have in London.
When it comes to this blog, we’ve pretty much accepted that it’s never going to be a massive money-maker for us. I know people who are absolutely killing it in the travel blogging world and making decent livings, but I don’t think we’ll ever get there. Firstly, because we’ve put most of our energy into freelancing and secondly, because I prefer to write journal-style posts rather than super-informative SEO guides and hate all the social media, sharing, link-swapping and promotional side of the blogging industry. At best, we find it frustrating and tedious and at worst, it can get damn ugly.
Saying that, we recently did a complete audit of all the articles on this site (over 400!) and are slowly looking at monetising the content we already have, trying to improve our existing SEO and eventually update the theme and make the site easier to navigate. This will always be my online journal first and foremost, a record of our travels where I can write whatever the hell I like, but I’m going to try creating more useful cost and guide posts in the future too. I also have plans to take everything I’ve learned from this site and the blogging industry to start a niche website later this year that will hopefully be more useful and profitable.
For Andrew, things are different. Although he’s continuing the recruitment work, due to time zone clashes between Europe and South America, he’s now given up online teaching. It’s no great loss because Andrew isn’t keen on sitting behind a computer screen anyway, that’s why he’s planning to head back to the classroom later this year. We’re hoping he’ll land a teaching job in Portugal, which will allow us to establish a more permanent European base, continue travelling in the holidays and be closer to loved ones in the UK.
Although we’re having a great time in South America and have many adventures in store over the next six months, these days we constantly crave having a base. I dream of having my own room with a comfy writing desk, Andrew would love his own kitchen to cook in and a bike and we both long for a sunny base where we can enjoy year-round blue skies and be outdoors more. We’re hoping that Portugal will fit the bill. Temporarily settling there will allow us to save properly with the aim of one day affording our own home somewhere in the world.
What will that make us? Expats, semi-nomadic, part-time travellers? Who knows, but hopefully it will make us happy.
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Are you a digital nomad, would you like to be? If you have any questions about digital nomad life, let us know in the comments below.