Why the Cheapest Locales Aren’t the Best Places to Live as a Digital Nomad
I’m asked quite often why I live in Europe and not Southeast Asia. After all, isn’t SEA the holy grail of the best places to live as a digital nomad?
Why would I choose to live in an “expensive” European capital versus spending my dough on an apartment in Chiang Mai that goes for $200-$250 a month? Or why I haven’t ventured back to Colombia, where you can find a decent place (in a relatively safe area) for $400-$500 a month?
To some, it just doesn’t compute.
As a digital nomad, choosing to spend thousands instead of hundreds is just unheard of. It makes me chuckle, because there are plenty of reasons—but it’s the underlying theme of hustle (or lack of, in most cases) that has led me to the choices I’ve made.
Remember last year, when I hung out in Odessa, Ukraine? I didn’t do anything for 6 weeks. I could have a beautiful, 3-course meal out at the nicest place in town for all of $12. Everybody just lived in a slow, calm pace of life. It wasn’t for me, for many reasons.
(Side note: my beard is wicked in that video.)
The Best Places to Live as a Digital Nomad Does NOT Equal “Cheapest”
Again, let’s bring up the Chiang Mai example, because it’s the place I hear repeatedly as the latest and greatest of the digital nomad headquarters. Nice, luxurious apartments with balconies and pool access for $250 (max!) a month. Cheap meals on the street for $1, and nice meals out for $3. Plus…Thai girls.
Supposedly, you can live there, all expenses paid, for $500 a month. If you’re smart about it, of course. No wonder it’s one of the best places to live as a digital nomad. But how would that look on my normal life? How would that impact how hard I work? What kind of creativity could I churn out, when all it takes is a bit of work to live the high life.
Let’s use a real life example.
How motivated do you think I’d be to keep hustling, if I’d just paid 3 months (a quarter of a year!) of rent in the span of a couple of minutes? Not very.
Granted, my rent is only $800 (all utilities), but my point stands.
Take someone who received a $200 payment from freelancing. Even if he traded that time for money, it’s still going to take the winds out of the sails once you know it’s made. It’s a bit laziness, and also a bit of pure comfort and relief. As human beings, we naturally seek out comfort. It’s what makes us, well—human.
It’s that feeling of relief.
That once you’ve climbed the mountain, it’s time to rest.
Kill The Comfort—It’s Mediocrity In Disguise
The problem is, there’s a time and place for rest—but that minimum required threshold is so ridiculously low when you live in the “best places to live as a digital nomad” (i.e. the cheapest).
Let’s take that freelancer for example. When you’re first starting out, $200 might seem like a lot to come up with. But once you have a sharp-looking website, a few decent clients and some income coming in—well, even if you’re making $20 an hour, that’s only 10 hours of work to make rent.
Per month. That’s hardly anything. If you can only stomach working 10 hours a month, well—guess what—you need to work harder if you want the nicer things in life.
My pal Jake recently wrote a great post about the pitfalls of freelancing.
And I have to give him credit for having the courage and the balls to 1.) Come out and actually say it, and 2.) To head home and figure out his income before he falls back into the trap. From the article:
I started freelancing as a means to an end. I wanted to travel. I was ready to hit the road. I just needed a way to finance the whole ordeal. Freelancing was the quickest way to cash.
If you’re just starting out online, freelancing is where you should start. Sure, work on niche sites or build a blog. Hell, do both. Just know the cash that’ll cover your bills will come from freelancing for a while.
That’s perfectly fine. I’ve been freelancing for over three years now. And that’s the issue. That’s not perfectly fine. What does that mean?
I fell into the “freelancing trap.” I enjoyed the fruits of my labor without actually putting in too much labor. I realized making $1,500 a month was easily doable and I settled. I hit the road and enjoyed more adventures than any freelancer not making $5,000 a month or more should.
It’s taken awhile, but I realized the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve put fun before the grind for way too long. I hate that I’m saying this, but it’s time to make a drastic change.[…]
I just wasn’t feeling the same on the road. I was spending all my days behind a computer screen. I was building sites and doing freelance work for 6-10 hours every day.
I’m all for hard work, but I didn’t start traveling to make $2,400 a month while working 60 hours a week in a third-world country – all from my studio apartment. I was a living definition of falling into the “freelancers’ trap.”
So I’m headed home. Changes will be made. I won’t leave until my passive income more than sustains me each and every month. That could take a few months. It could take nearly a year.
The only plan is to grind. I’ll put in the 4-12 months it takes to build sustainable websites that will fuel the lifestyle of adventure I desire.
A Tiny Laptop + A Tiny Apartment = Hell
I remember being in Lithuania last year.
I had a tiny, one-room (not even one bedroom) studio apartment. And studio was generous. The kitchen was the size of a small closet. You could fit the entire apartment inside of my current apartment’s (which is about 750 square feet) master bedroom.
My desk was hardly a desk, even though the AirBNB owner had advertised it as so. It was more of a “tea table”. I actually had to bend over while sitting in my chair to reach my laptop. It was agony just trying to type for an hour. I got almost nothing done that entire week, other than pissing off some Lithuanian news channel.
It was horrible, and I can distinctly remember that being the moment of, “Damn, this whole digital nomad thing, working in a small apartment on a small laptop…kinda sucks. Surely there has to be a somewhat better way to leverage US dollars, travel, and general freedom into something of a better situation…”
Closing Thoughts on the Best Places to Live as a Digital Nomad
Look, I didn’t even do the whole “travel everywhere, live in different places for 1 month” for that long. I’ll be the first to tell you that I got out of that game quickly. But I did it for a reason.
I wanted to truly be comfortable with money. I’ve always loved money, nor have I ever had any shame in admitting it. I like fast cars, expensive bottles of booze, and to stay in 5-star hotels.
The ironic thing is that the typical digital nomad and freelancer salary isn’t even enough to stay in nice hotels in the best places to live as a digital nomad. That’s right—stopping through Bangkok on your way to Saigon—guess what—your $1,000/month isn’t enough to go stay in a nice hotel. To the hostel you go.
Maybe there will be a time in the coming years where I do go that route again. Maybe there won’t be. But I do know this—freelancing is only a small step above office work as far as enjoyment in life. To be truly free, you need screw you money, and ideally a business where you can choose who you will or won’t work with. I turn down work all the time; work that I know isn’t worth my time.
More of the nomadic, entrepreneur types would be happier with a few dollars in the bank.
You just need to admit it.
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