One of the most exciting and equally most daunting aspects of the digital nomad lifestyle is choosing where you’ll call home for the next few months. The world’s a big place, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to decide where to go. A little research goes a long way in narrowing down options that work for you, but where should you start? There are a few major factors to take into consideration when looking for a city to make your home base. And with a little ingenuity, you can reduce your costs, meaning more savings and more time on the road. What should we look at?
Cost of Living
If you’re just starting out in the digital nomad scene, cost of living will likely be the biggest determining factor in where you wish to settle. If you’re not earning that much right now, setting up shop in places like Australia/New Zealand, Western Europe, or Japan would be foolhardy. Note: one great thing about being a digital nomad is that when you can earn money in a stronger currency (like the US dollar), your money will go a lot further locally in some countries. Regardless, ask yourself how much you can afford to set aside for the main expenses: accommodation, food, and personal expenses.
This is usually any traveler’s biggest expense. The fancier you want your living quarters to be, the more of your budget that will be eaten up by rent. On the flip side, you don’t want to settle for a super cheap, run-down place. Keep in mind you’ll also be spending a fair amount of time in your place working. Finally, you would ideally want to find a location fairly close to stores, supermarkets, restaurants, local services, and entertainment options.
Ideas for lower housing expenses:
A studio outside the city center will always be cheaper than a 2-bedroom right in the heart of downtown. Keep that in mind.
Split the cost with a roommate (or roommates).
Rent out part of your space on Airbnb. (Ask your landlord first – I’m not responsible if you get evicted!)
Alternatively, choose to work at a hostel where you can work in exchange for free room and board.
House sitting – spending your vacation watching someone else’s house while they go on theirs – is also an option. I’ve never done it before, and many folks say it’s a tricky market to get into, but if you can find an “in”, this is the way to go.
The second thing that’s essential to life, food is an unavoidable expense for everybody, digital nomad or not. This one’s a no-brainer, so there’s not much to suggest except maybe some of my wisdom: don’t skip meals to save money – you’ll pay the physical and mental toll for it later down the road.
Ideas for lower food costs:
Go grocery shopping and cook more often. Stock up on some staple ingredients to make a few different basic meals. It goes without saying, but preparing your meals is almost always cheaper than going out to eat. (I say almost because there are places like Thailand where cooking your own food is really only more work. Street food there is like a dime a dozen.)
When you do eat out, eat during lunch when prices are usually cheaper and there might be specials. For your drink, opt for water – it’s cheaper and healthier.
Many supermarkets aren’t able to keep their fresh produce the next day and will dispose of any unsold items. Before closing time, ask around – you might be able to pick up some healthy fruits & veggies for free or at a discount.
This one runs the gamut from clothes shopping, to your gym membership, to travel insurance, vehicle rentals, and anything else that doesn’t fall under the first two categories. After setting aside amounts for food and accommodation, you should have a reasonable amount dedicated to monthly personal expenses as well as an additional cushion for unexpected incidental expenses.
Ideas for saving money on personal expenses:
Take advantage of free or inexpensive entertainment options in the area. It costs nothing at all to sightsee, explore the city, or take a nature walk. Try joining a Meetup group if you’re not sure what to do in your city yet.
Try to cut back on your shopping habits and only buy what you really need. If
shopping, invest in a few high-quality, versatile pieces that can be worn often.
A night of going out on the town and bar-hopping can break the bank. If you still want your adult drink fix, buy your liquor at the store and invite some friends over to your place.
Are you a beach or a mountain person? Do you prefer a warmer or colder climate? Do you want somewhere exotic that still isn’t too far from home? These are all questions that you should ask yourself when you’re deciding geographically where exactly you want to go.
It comes as no surprise that the majority of digital nomad hotspots are located in Southeast Asia. With warm weather, beautiful landscapes, a low cost of living (you can live the high life in many of these places for under $1000 a month), good food, and friendly locals, it’s no wonder that you’ll find hordes of Westerners who have settled here. However, certain places like Chiang Mai and Bali have become oversaturated. If you feel like not following the crowd, do your own research! There are many wonderful undiscovered cities in South America, Eastern Europe, and other regions of Asia that haven’t been overrun by tourists. Just make sure you have an idea of climate, natural disaster risks, infrastructure, and other location-specific information so the area won’t be totally unknown to you.
It’s the general vibe of a place, and a large part of it is the people who live there. The local language(s), culture, and customs all fall under this umbrella. What is the country’s political situation like? What’s the city’s crime rate? How well can the local people understand English, or if you’re staying longer, how quickly/easily can you learn the language? These are all important questions that would do you well to answer. If we revisit Asia as an example again, you’ll probably have a bigger culture shock and more difficulty adjusting to local life in Taiwan than, say, a country in Europe (assuming you’re from somewhere like Canada or the USA). A place may look good on paper, but check message boards or expatriate websites as well to see what other people who have settled there and experienced local life firsthand have to say.
Your turn: best resources
Living in the information age means that the vast majority of places on Earth have already been visited or lived in and described in detail on the Internet. You’ll most likely never be venturing into completely uncharted territory. As I mentioned at the outset, a little research will go a long way. Search on Google for general travel advice, and you can find several location-specific travel blogs out there geared towards digital nomad lifestyles that give you detailed information about a place.
One useful website I found recently is a gem called TheEarthAwaits.com. It’s an amazing online resource that aggregates cost of living data for thousands of cities worldwide. You set your monthly budget, choose which specific region(s) of the world you’re looking at, and you can apply filters like temperature range, crime rate, desired lifestyle (from “very lean” to “opulent”), and all the way down to more specific things like attitudes about homosexuality. Once you’ve noted some places that might fit your budget, check out a site like Numbeo for more specific numbers to get a better idea of expenses and you’re golden.
What have you found helpful when you’re deciding on a place to settle? Let me know in the comments below!