For the last week I’ve been avoiding my work: the pressures and responsibilities and deadlines have been building up, and like a turtle I react by disappearing, into junk food and catching up on popular TV series. But today I’m catching up – starting with a fancy breakfast of icecream strawberry waffles at a nearby café. The background music is melancholy, as it drifts between scents of cinnamon, french toast and hot coffee. I have that half-nostalgic half-optimistic feeling, and I think I’ve just figured out where it’s coming from:
I’m 32 years old, and I have NOTHING.
Some of my friends have houses, families, cars and savings. These are normal things that normal people have – even poor people. To me they seem astronomically expensive and out of my reach. Even though I make a decent living for where I am, and even though they’ve really just taken out loans and mortgages and are paying monthly fees that I could probably afford, the “have” lifestyle seems absolutely unattainable. I’m a “have not.”
The onset of grass-is-greeneritis probably comes from Mad Men episodes I’ve been watching, where everyone has a beautiful, spacious home or apartment filled with nice things: just like my grandparents, or my parents, or many of my friends have. A home to raise children in and invite guests for dinner. Instead I feel like I’m still living the lifestyle of a 20 year old college student, with ratty old 2nd hand furniture (even though some of it is awesome; right now I’m lying on my antique Chinese half-sofa.)
These emotions also come from the fact that we’re leaving Taiwan soon – where I’ve been living for almost a decade, storing up drawers and closets and corners full of stuff that we are getting rid of. Most of our clothes, our all furniture – the couch, TV, refrigerator, washing machine… when you move to a new country, it’s not a question of boxing up your possessions and shipping them with you. We’re making a clean break. We’re getting rid of nearly everything but the clothes on our back. It makes relocating so much easier.
And that’s also where the optimism is coming from.
Since I was little, I have loved crossing the point of no return – saying goodbyes and starting over. Shopping for a new apartment, new furniture, new friends in a new city. Discovering new restaurants and bars. These “moving in” periods have always been the most exciting times of my life. I’ve done it in about a dozen different city, from Argentina to Malta, Spain, Italy, Taiwan…
And I know I’m lucky I’m able to do it. How many 30 year olds dream of adventure and starting over, who feel trapped in their routines, their jobs, their debts, their mortgage? How many have already hit the apex of their lives, have already achieved their goals, and have nothing else to look forward to?
I know that my career as a non-fiction research writer is just beginning, and will take another 5 years or so (until I finish my next 2 books and PHD) before people will began to notice me. I know that building a blog that helps people and has tons of user-friendly content takes time, and that I’m just getting started.
Being creatively independent – making your own money by connecting with the people who appreciate your work – is a rollercoaster of labor, progress, big successes and big failures. When we fail, we fail big – our business ideas fail. We give up, pick up the pieces, learn from our mistakes, and try again.
Success is usually what you learn how to do after dozens of embarrassing failures. I don’t know about you, but when I tell my friends or family excitedly about my newest brilliant plan, they are cool with their enthusiasm, not sure how long this latest obsession will last – whether I’ll soon put it on a back burner or give it up completely. They are supportive, but aren’t convinced I’ll see it through.
The optimism comes from knowing that, deep down, I’m not really starting with nothing: I’ve learned how to set up an online business that makes money from the get-go. I’m working less and less while increasing what I earn, meaning I make more than I ever have, while keeping some free time for my real passions.
I have a great deal of experience in publishing, in art marketing and exhibitions, in business creation, hiring, even curriculum development. I can make websites, design book covers, edit and proofread, write research grant proposals, and tons of other things that other people are willing to pay for.
Perhaps most importantly (although I haven’t really used it effectively yet) I understand how to build up online authority and trust, to make myself a desired and credible expert. I also know that many of my skills, which are valuable in themselves but can’t be made profitable for me until I develop more products, would bring quick and lucrative results to thousands of other people who already have books or paintings or businesses they are trying to promote.
Although I don’t have the house and the car, these are skills that enable me to set up shop anywhere in the world, as long as I have high-speed internet, and prosper. Because of this, recently I’ve begun looking at house-sitting opportunities: free rent by living in someone else’s home while they’re on vacation and taking care of their pets.
There are fun places to live in Mexico, Belize, Columbia… France, Spain, Portugal… even Canary Islands, Greece, Romania… We could house-sit indefinitely and save thousands each year. Or, when we want, we can leverage the lower cost of living in many countries to live in a dream apartment we could never afford in the West.
This is the kind of “digital nomad” lifestyle that few people could even dream of a decade ago, but is now becoming increasingly popular, thanks to the explosion of creative online opportunities for designers, writers, coders or small businesses owners.
Of course, there are drawbacks.
What about children, don’t they need stability? What about saving for retirement? What if I get to be 62 and I still have nothing – no savings, no possessions? For 32 it’s a little depressing. For 62 it’s just sad and tragic; an old man with nothing to show for his life. Right? These are questions that keep me up at night. And yet…
Unlike most other people, the income I’m building is passive and recurring, not salary based.
I’m writing books, setting up websites and products, building my name and reputation. A small but increasing portion of my salary comes from work I’m not doing anymore. Eventually, this portion will build until it’s enough to live off of, without doing any future work. As long as the internet is still around (and I’m not sure that it will be) I’ll still get my monthly earnings from Amazon, from Apple, from Google and the other companies who are selling my books and products.
If the world does end and the financial system crashes entirely, I’m no worse off than someone who had a million saved in the bank, which they can’t access.
Moreover, most people work, then stop working at around 60 and need to live, for the rest of their lives, on the money they saved during their working years. Saving for retirement is necessary so they can finally stop working and do what they want. Then they travel, take up painting, ponder the meaning of life or read great books – filling in the rest of their time with leisure before they die.
Honestly that sounds much like my life already. I’m already retired. I have no boss, I wake up when I want, and organize my own schedule. Sure I spend a few hours working each day and am dependent on my clients. But luckily, I enjoy it. Why would I stop working – when I’m already traveling, writing, living the life I want?
If I ever grow senile and need to be looked after (something I never want to experience) I hope to be able to afford proper care. But as long as I’m physically capable, I should be able to continue editing at least, which is a pretty simple (but highly skilled) task; or I can continue to teach University classes – many professors work into old age.
(I’ll admit having an advanced degree and academic background should be counted as something valuable I get to take with me – I’ll bet there are tons of 32 year old PhD candidates with nothing but a huge student loan debt, which I’ve thankfully avoided by studying abroad).
And that’s all assuming I have no savings, when in fact, due to my increasing income, degrees and professional experience, and my choice to live in much more affordable countries, I should be able to save a great deal in the next 30 years (I’m shooting for at least $100,000USD – not a fortune, but significant enough).
What about health insurance?
Although a crippling concern for Americans, the truth is that most foreign countries have cheap and professional health care, with or without insurance. As an expat you can probably afford private hospitals with infinitely better care and service than you would experience in the states. If I ever need a retirement home, I’ll probably choose a resort in the Philippines, for a fraction of the price of an assisted living home in say, San Francisco.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I think my lifestyle choice is in any way BETTER than average; but I do hope to counter the notion that it is worse, irresponsible, selfish or unsustainable.
I also believe that many people are hesitant to quit their jobs specifically due to retirement fears, worrying about not having enough savings, or because they are dependent on health insurance.
It isn’t easy to start, but it is liberating. It isn’t easy to succeed, but the challenges involved are rewarding.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you have saved. You can do it even if you have chronic health problems and need specialized care. For those of you who mute your wanderlust and discontent with TV or video games, or drinking, do the research and see if it might work for you.
Leave everything behind (except your loved ones/family, if you want to take them with you) and start over.
It’s worth it.
PS – I wrote this post six years ago! A lot has happened since then, so I wrote an update here: “Starting over with (almost) nothing at 38.”
I’ve made some exciting progress.