The truth about “location independent” digital nomads

The truth about “location independent” digital nomads

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I was living abroad 10 years before “The 4-Hour Workweek” came out. Back then, I was strange and unusual. People asked,

“But why would you live abroad?”

I did my Junior year of high school at an art school in Argentina, in Spanish. Then I moved to Malta to study philosophy (instead of going to a 4 year American college, which saved me at least 100K).

Then I studied classical oil painting in Florence, got a certificate for teaching English in Barcelona, and moved to Taiwan.

People interested in travel often ask,

“But how do you afford to travel all the time?”

Answer: I wasn’t travelling all the time. Travel is expensive. But living abroad is almost always cheaper than living in America. Part of it is because you don’t need as much: no car bills, cable TV, or house payments.

Off the top of my head I’d say that living in at least 75% of the countries in the world will cut your monthly expenses in half. And you’ll be living better: nicer, bigger apartments, better food, and of course, much more exciting experiences.

Living abroad is challenging but rewarding. You grow as person. You make relationships. That is, if you stay in one place. It takes a year to go through the full stages of culture shock and become relatively self-sufficient.

Which is why it worries me a little that traveling the world has become the new life goal of many young people. Sure, I did it too – travel is a great way to learn about yourself and the world. But don’t be a travel slut.

Don’t visit countries and famous landmarks to check them off your bucket list, take selfies and brag about it on Facebook. Don’t live in English-speaking communes and avoid interaction with real people. You’ll probably need to learn the language or get off the tourist route – which you won’t do if you’re eager to head to the next beckoning destination for more selfies. (FYI, I’m a hypocrite and I’m sure you’ll see selfies of my wife and I in famous places on Facebook soon).

Just keep in mind it’s easy to be an obnoxious asshole foreigner taking advantage of troubled economies, and that – yes it’s cool – but it doesn’t make you as special as you think it does. But that’s probably the old man in me talking, and you just want me to tell you how to make money online.

Luckily, it’s not so hard. Have a laptop? You can probably figure out how to provide a service online that people will pay for. Or start a website and sell a book or product.

You only need to make about $1000usd a month to cut it in many countries. And $1000 a month isn’t all that difficult (I’m building a course that will show you how to do it in 21 days).

And while you may call yourself a “Digital Nomad” – a recent discussion on the Dynamite Circle (an elite group of internet entrepreneurs I’m involved with) made me realize that “location independence” is more elusive.

Most digital nomads are actually extremely dependent on the low cost of living of their host country. Saigon and Chiang Mai are hotspots for digital nomads because of the cheap cost of living and the ease of transition; foreigners can get along very well there without learning the local language (unlike Taiwan, where I live).

So what does “location independence” look like?

Location independence means you can easily live in any country in the world – even expensive countries like the USA, and expensive cities. So you could fly into New York or London or Tokyo and not balk at the prices. For that to happen, you need to be making closer to $10,000usd a month.

Luckily, if you can make $1000 a month online, it shouldn’t be hard to scale to $10,000, depending on what you’re doing. You can increase your traffic, raise your prices, or get more sales and clients. You can build more businesses.

How to make $10,000 a month online

But true location independence also demands a business that can run without you. And that’s where I’m stuck right now. We’re flying to Paris in a week. Then we’ll travel to London, Budapest, Vienna and stay in Prague for a month. We’ll end up in Barcelona, fly to Berlin, head back to Taiwan, and then head home to Portland Oregon for the summer. We may spend the fall in Mexico or Argentina, where ever I can get the most writing done.

I love travelling, and luckily I’ve built my online businesses up to the point of true location independence (just over $10K a month), however I’m still extremely chained to day to day operations. I have to check email every 12 hours or someone may freak out at me. I need to be constantly working on dozens of projects for clients. I have to delegate tasks to my team and often step in and take over, or tell them exactly what to do.

It’s stressful, I’m usually behind and overwhelmed, and if anybody gets frustrated with me I need to give refunds.

When we were in Boracay last year, I spent most of the time trying to find a stable internet connection to get some work done, instead of enjoying the amazing beach.


The whole experience was frustrating; to be in paradise and unable to relax and enjoy it (I don’t think I’ve ‘relaxed’ for several years).

On the one hand, yes it’s nice not to have a schedule, to wake up when I want, to travel freely and explore the world. On the other hand, I was much happier when I was living on government education scholarships or teaching English – my time ‘off the clock’ was completely my own.

There was no guilt that I should be working, or stress and fear about checking my email and spending the day dealing with emergencies.

But hey, at least I’m learning what I like and don’t like to do. By the end of this year, I’ll probably have transitioned into fully passive income (I won’t be accepting client work anymore). I won’t make as much money, but can probably still make around $5,000 a month in passive income. But even if I go back to making just $1,000 a month, it will be worth it, because I can spend all my time developing content that will earn more passive income.

Like novels. The only project I’m really passionate about anymore is publishing dozens of novels a year and watching my income skyrocket. That’s what I plan to be doing for the next 5 years, and I want to sell 1 million copies before I’m 40.

Audacious? Sure. Worth the attempt? Absolutely.

For me, being “location independent” shouldn’t require being stressed out and working too hard. On the other hand I know that my hustle has built a platform I can now use to make smarter choices.

For me, location independence is being able to find a nice, beautiful picture, like this one taken in the Carpathian Mountains, and saying, “I think I’ll move there for awhile.”

location independence

Then I can look up something on AirBnB, and find a place to rent in the same area.

Do you want to live abroad and travel full time?

Still figuring out how to make money online?

You should probably follow me or join my list (I’ll email you when my new course is out, and I’ll be practically giving it away at first to my followers).

Is the digital nomad lifestyle worth it?

UPDATE – because this post is dumb and super old, here are some quick notes from the much older and more experienced me. I’ve been a “digital nomad” for 10 years, but I’ve been travelling much longer, having real experiences before the internet and social media.

But I didn’t really start making money online until I started my PhD program, and I was on a government scholarship which made it easier to focus on my business until it was profitable. In other words, I was lucky to have been able to not worry about income for months or years at a time, and I’m grateful for those opportunities.

I’ve had really good months, an $18,000 course launch while in Plovdiv Bulgaria, and some bad months, when I was stuck in Colombia with maxed out credit cards and no cash. But over the past 5 years or so (after switching from active online services to passive digital products), I’m pretty chill, don’t work hard or too much, and maybe have gotten a bit lazy.

I put everything off, so I can only work under deadlines and I HATE deadlines. To do any real creative work – all the things and the only things I actually want to do – I can’t do anything else at all. I need a blank, clear mind, free from worry and distractions. So I only check email a couple times a week, I’m difficult to get ahold of and avoid phone calls of any sort, and I quietly and slowly work on my projects.

Unfortunately, I’m not really scaling or growing, and if you’re not actively growing, you’re dying. I’ve had the same big plans and ideas for pretty much a decade and I haven’t really finished anything – but I have made a living and don’t really have to “work” – at least until I run out of money and feel pressured to do something.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. I love travelling and adventure. I love to have the freedom not to have to wake up or schedule anything, to be drawn into the universe by the scent of possibility. Digital nomads tend to eager, driven and motivated. They have goals and plans, and the option to actually pursue them. They don’t all make it, and for many people, eventually they’ll go home and settle down.

But being able to explore all the beautiful places in the world, in this one magical life… irreplaceable.

The Dark Side of Digital Nomads

Some cities are fed up with digital nomads, who come in and take over and drive prices up. Hotspots become cesspools until the locals chase us out with pitchforks. Geographical arbitrage is really just modern colonialism. And yet… artists and creatives have always gone to cheap and exciting locations so that they could live simply and focus on their work.

This isn’t new. But it is a privilege, and the rare opportunity sometimes turns into a packaged experience, where you’re not really exploring your experience, or discovering yourself; you’ve changed the view but brought yourself with you. Be open to being changed, which often means accidental, unfortunate adventures or real effort connecting with locals – if you planned it on purpose, you’re probably treating the culture like a commodity, something to check off your list after you post a selfie.

In my experience, though there are some weirdos, digital nomads tend to be good people; intelligent, driven and possibly successful enough at least to survive by convincing people to send them money through the internet. Digital nomads aren’t tourists, and only some of them are influencers or instagram models. We tend to be quiet and take less pictures, observe with half our brain thinking up new creative business ideas to make more money. I’ve been to a bunch of events, and people are people – but I’ve met fewer assholes at DN conferences than one might expect given the stereotypes, and some truly deep connections with people as we rendezvous every few months on some other continent.

Travel precautions

Stay safe out there, be cautious, and wander off the beaten path as much as you can, without putting yourself at risk. Do a lot of research, some countries are safer and kinder than others (often due to the over-abundance of encroaching digital nomad culture and lifestyle).

You might want to figure out your business first, if you’re not making any money online, you may not be able to just show up and get the ball rolling, though that’s also a pretty standard first step because it gives you a hard deadline: Save up $5K, enough to last at least 3 months somewhere, and see if you can start making money in 90days. If you still have money, throw a dart in the map and move to the next place.

1 Comment

  • Julie Gohman Posted

    BRAVO! Love your article, thank you for sharing your life with your readers so honestly. Although I have to say I’m a bit worried. I was counting on being able to go to you for ALL my future book covers. I’m freaking out now – but happy for you! Blessings of happiness and prosperity, Julie

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