What it costs to be a digital nomad

The longer I live the location independent lifestyle the more I hear the statement, “Must be so nice, I wish I could do that!” That line gets old really fast so I like to turn it back on people and ask, “Why can’t you?” The most common answer: “I can’t afford it.”

I would argue back that if you’re interested in this type of lifestyle, you can’t afford NOT to do it. Whether you don’t have a whole lot of money and are looking to go the super-budget route, or whether you’re already making good money and are just curious about what kind of lifestyle you can afford abroad, this article is for you.

I get why people are hesitant. Especially my fellow Americans. We’re so mired in how much everything costs and the struggle to make ends meet that we can’t imagine how we could add travel into the mix. But when you make living abroad, the most important thing “in the mix,” many of the expensive trappings of American life fall away.

What are your expenses right now? Rent or mortgage, electricity, gas, water, trash disposal, car payment, gasoline, phone, cable, internet. That doesn’t even take into account all of the insurances: home or renters insurance, car insurance, health insurance, hell, even your Apple care plan! But wait, we haven’t even gotten to things like parking expenses if you work downtown, groceries, car maintenance, or going out with friends for drinks after work. It’s insane right? And now you’re supposed to add in travel?

Here’s the thing, when you’re living abroad you can travel slowly. Every day is an adventure and all the simple things like going to the grocery store, sipping coffee in a corner cafe, or checking out a new market, become exciting because it’s all new. Living in one place for a while also means you’re not shelling out money for airplane tickets and hotels every other week, but instead living on a very predictable budget.

People are amazed when I tell them that they can live an incredible life abroad for $36,000 USD per year. Locals in some other countries, on the other hand, are amazed when I tell them that in many cities in the US, with all the expenses listed above, it is virtually impossible to live on that amount.

I want you to listen loud and clear when I say that you can start living the digital nomad life on as little as $20,000 a year. And if that’s too budget for you (no worries, it is for me too!), I’m going to show you some other options as well. From gorgeous high ceiling sunny lofts in South America to fulfilling that Parisian dream, your salary can likely get you far more abroad than you could dream of stateside.

A quick look at my main expenses as a digital nomad

  • Rent
  • Phone
  • Travel insurance
  • Food & entertainment
  • Transportation

 

But wait you’re asking… where’s all the other stuff? What about internet and cable? What about electricity and everything else?

I choose to live in Airbnbs abroad for the absolute simplicity of it. Yes, I may be paying a higher price, but for convenience, it’s absolutely worth it. I can’t imagine going through the hassle of scouting for an apartment and setting up utilities for just 3 to 6 months. I want to make it clear that you can certainly live even cheaper than the prices I’m showing you if you work through locals to rent places, but for the purpose of this post, I’m only going to be covering Airbnbs.

Airbnbs come fully furnished and with all amenities included. That means you pay one set price for rent and the property owner takes care of all the utilities. It’s beyond easy and you can make a reservation from the ease of your own couch before you ever get on the plane.

In this article, I’m also going to be making some generalizations about expenses. For example, I’m not going to be getting into paying your taxes or traveling between other cities or countries. Instead, I’m just dealing with round numbers discussing the costs of your basic day to day monthly expenses. So with that out of the way, let’s see how far your money can go in other places …

South America

 

Low – $20,000 – Medellin, Colombia

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Medellín Colombia is an excellent option for someone who needs to stretch their money as far as it will go. The apartment above is in a trendy area of town but you can find other options in the $300s that are still in safe areas of town.

This place comes with Netflix, a washing machine in the unit, gorgeous city views, and it’s close to public transport. Medellín has an incredible public transportation system and it’s easy to get all over this sprawling city using the very cheap metro system.

I’m setting the transportation budget very high for this city at $100 but you can get away with far less than that if you’re not running all over the city each day. And you won’t be, because unlike your tourist friends who have to see everything in a week, you can put down roots for a few months and will be spending time during the week working so you’re not out running up as many expenses.

Food is cheap in Colombia and you’ll find plenty of places where you can get meals for under $5, and I’m talking about huge meals. Bandeja Paisa, a popular breakfast in Medellín includes eggs, rice, beans, sausage, and an arepa and cheese — just one of these plates lasts me for two additional breakfasts at home over the next couple of days.

Screen Shot 2019 11 09 at 3.35.47 PMBandeja Paisa, a very popular breakfast in Medellín.

Sample budget:

Rent – $500

Phone – $10

Food & Entertainment – $350

Transportation – $100

Total – $960

If want to spend a little more but you’re able to stick to a limit of even $1200 per month, while earning $20,000 per year, you’re still putting $5600 into retirement or using it to pay down debt.

Medium – $50,000 – Quito, Ecuador

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For the medium budget option in South America, we land in Quito, Ecuador. Here you can go all out and rent a stunning Airbnb with world class amenities for under $1300 USD per month. I lived in this exact apartment for several months during 2019.

Not only does the apartment have a great view but it includes a pool, sauna, gym, squash courts, movie theater, and even a bowling alley! Location is everything as well and with a coffee shop mere steps away, a market for basic groceries a few steps further, shops, bars, and restaurants just outside the door and the Central Park of Quito, Parque Carolina, just a 10 minute walk away, you’re right in the center of everything.

A sim card in Ecuador can be purchased for just a few bucks and 3G of data is only $10. That should easily last you a month as many places have Wi-Fi and ideally you’ll be too busy connecting with locals and exploring the area to be on your phone all the time.

Throw around $1200 into your budget for food and entertainment — a pretty generous $300 a week in spending money — plus $100 for transportation and you’re still spending under $3,000 a month. (I don’t know about you, but I never had $300 a week in leisure spend back in the states!)

Sample budget:

Rent – $1300

Phone – $10

Food – $1200

Transportation – $100

Total – $2610

Let’s say you spend a little more than the proposed budget, and round up to $3000 per month. That puts you at $36,000 in spend for the year while living a lifestyle you’d never be able to afford on that amount in the USA. If you’re earning $50,000 per year, you’re still able to put $14,000 a year in savings and retirement. That’ll put you light years ahead of most digital nomads I meet who have a retirement plan of … *crickets* …

High – $80,000 – Buenos Aires, Argentina

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So you’re making a very solid income, your Spanish is coming along well enough to navigate the tricky Argentinian accent, and you’ve decided to go south and seaside to Buenos Aires. Here, you might find that an expensive apartment budget of $3000 isn’t even warranted. You can find what you need for far less than that because spending in the $3000 range gets you sprawling 3-4 bedroom places that are simply way too big for your lifestyle — unless you’re digital nomading with a family.

This apartment is bright, modern, and airy with 2 bedrooms, a balcony, and (rare for South America) central heating and A/C!

The San Telmo neighborhood featured above is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires. Home to many beautifully preserved colonial buildings and a very bohemian feel, you’ll find lots of hip cafes and tango parlors. The neighborhood also hosts a huge street fair each Sunday, with more than 250 stalls and over 12,000 people visiting each week!

Getting around is easy thanks to a great network of busses and a metro. The fares are low for both, around $0.50 per trip, and for those times when you need to get somewhere direct there are around 40,000 licensed taxis in the city.

Sample budget:

Rent – $2100

Phone – $15

Food & entertainment – $2000

Transportation – $200

Total – $4315

Rounding the above budget to $4500 a month, you’re spending a total of $54,000 a year leaving $26,000 for savings and retirement.

Asia

 

Low $20,000 – Hanoi, Vietnam

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Many digital nomads are interested in Asia for its low cost of living and several cities in Vietnam are known as cheap places to live. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and with its fusion of Chinese, French and Southeast Asia cultures, it has a uniquely interesting vibe.

With rent always being the largest chunk of your budget, you’ll be happy to know that you can afford a beautiful and modern studio apartment for under $300. The above unit is in a nice area of town not far from Hoan Kiem Lake, and comes with 70Mbs Wi-Fi, air conditioning and a free washer available in the building.

Food is very affordable, this Airbnb offers breakfast and coffee for an additional $2. That’s actually expensive for the area but you’re paying for convenience. If you fancy a quick walk down the street you can get banh mi trung, a popular breakfast sandwich — baguette, cucumber, scrambled eggs, and mint and chili sauce — for around $0.65 USD.

Getting set up with a sim card will run you under $3 USD and then you’ll be spending around $3 per month for 3G of 4G/LTE data. If you really want to splurge, you can spend $9 per month to load up on 15G of data. Cell service is unbelievably cheap in Vietnam!

Transportation is also easy and inexpensive with the Grab app (think Uber) which you can use to reserve a taxi or motorbike. Another option is to use the expansive bus system in the city. A one way bus fare will only set you back around $0.35 so it’s a very affordable way of getting around.

Sample budget:

Rent – $300

Phone – $5

Food & entertainment – $350

Transportation – $75

Total – $730

With a little higher spend, $900 per month, you’re still only spending $10,800 per year. This is unfathomable in the US and leaves you with $9,200 toward savings/retirement or just splurging a little more often.

Medium $50,000 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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Kuala Lumpur has a ton to offer for digital nomads who are seeking a chill pace of life and upscale modern living with wonderful amenities. The majority of locals speak English which is a huge plus in terms of getting acclimated right away and there are several beautiful coworking spaces around town. Throw in Wi-Fi speeds of up to 100Mbs, trendy bars and speakeasies popping up all the time, and it’s a great place to put down roots for a little while.

Interestingly, many people only use Kuala Lumpur as a stopover place for a few days during a visa run from other surrounding countries that are more popular with digital nomads. But if you spend a little time in the city, you’ll find there are lots of beautiful “off the beaten path” spots, especially if you connect with some locals and make it known that you intend to stay for a while.

The city is also a hub for AirAsia airline which means you’ve got an easy opportunity to get cheap direct flights to many other countries in Asia.

Food is cheap; a basic meal out at a simple restaurant will cost around $4 while a nicer restaurant may be more in the realm of $10.

Just like in Vietnam the Grab app is popular for getting around and there’s also a bus and metro system which covers 6 major areas of the city. A one-way trip is typically less than $0.50 but if you’re a “power user” and know you’ll be traveling around the city a lot you can grab a monthly pass for $25.

Sample budget:

Rent – $1150

Phone – $10

Food & entertainment – $500

Transportation – $100

Total – $1760

Even rounding up to $2000 per month, that’s still a smidge less than half of what you’re earning each year. This provides a great quality of life, lots of money saved — even more than the South American medium option — with $26,000 left over for … whatever you want!

High $80,000 – Tokyo, Japan

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OK, so Tokyo is not cheap. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I included it because it seems that everyone I meet wants to go to Tokyo! So instead of putting it off as some far fetched impossible dream, let’s break down how it can actually be done.

Rent, always the most expensive chunk of the budget, is going to be a lot and not necessarily going to get you much space. However, if you’re living in Tokyo, you’re paying for the experience! This little studio gets you great views of the city, and a quiet “Old Tokyo” neighborhood feel while still just about a 35-minute metro ride from the famous Shibuya crossing.

Food will be another big cost here although this depends wildly, (just like in so many other places) on where you’re eating and how often. It’s possible to find meals for around $5 but it’s more likely that you’ll be in the $15-25 range more often.

Tokyo is a sprawling city but a huge metro system does an amazing job of connecting the various neighborhoods. You’ll be best off buying a prepaid card (Suica or Pasmo) which you can load up with various amounts as you choose. A one-way metro fare can range between $1.50-2.85 per trip so your budget will depend on how much you’re getting out and around. While there are plenty of taxis around, they start at a flat rate regardless of how far you’re going so they aren’t always the best option.

Your phone is going to be a bit more expensive (and complicated) here also. There are numerous plans and pricing structures but you’ll likely be looking at $15-30 a month depending on how much data you need.

Sample budget:

Rent – $2500

Phone – $20

Food & entertainment – $2000

Transportation – $300

Total – $4820

Rounding up to $5000 a month you’re still left with $20,000 of your salary. Let’s be clear, there are many cheaper places to live, in Asia and around the world, but if you’re set on living the Tokyo dream, it’s certainly doable.

Europe

 

Low $20,000 – Budapest, Hungary

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Moving on to Europe, we find ourselves in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and a diverse and exciting option for budget travelers or those who just want to throw a ton of money at their savings!

The unit pictured above is located in a very central area and is a great starting point to put down roots in the “Paris of the East,” as Budapest is sometimes known. With numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, medieval monuments and museums, stunning architecture, and the beautiful Danube river, there is a ton to see in this city!

Buses, trams, and the metro are great ways to get around and a monthly pass to use all transportation systems will only set you back around $32 USD. Budapest is also very walkable and there is a city bike system you can use as needed.

You’ll find breakfasts for under $4, dinners for under $7 (outside of the touristy areas) and very reasonable prices for food in the supermarket. Alcohol is also cheap with beers under $2, and (quite drinkable) wine for under $5.

Sample budget:

Rent – $500

Phone – $15

Food & entertainment – $400

Transportation – $100

Total – $1015

Spending a total of $12,810 a year gives you plenty of wiggle room in your $20,000 budget. And if you’re earning more than that, just imagine the kind of splurges you can indulge in while living in a city this affordable!

Medium $50,000 – Lisbon, Portugal

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Imagine waking up in this bright and stylish apartment in Portugal, sipping coffee out on your sunny terrace, then strolling down to the Mirador de Graça to admire stunning panoramic views of the city. I don’t know about you but that sounds like my kind of Saturday morning!

Lisbon has long been considered one of the most affordable cities in Western Europe even though they use the Euro. Coffee in Lisbon rarely costs more than $2 USD and you can find filling menu del dia lunches for $8-10 USD.

Getting around is very simple thanks to a large metro system consisting of 4 lines which run from 6:30 AM to 1:00 AM. A one-way fare is about $1.60 and you can purchase a rechargeable metro card to simplify use — and keep track of how much you’re spending getting around each month.

Phone data will set you back a little more here than other places, but it is Europe after all. You’ll be looking at $25 – $35 USD depending on your data, text and voice needs.

Sample budget:

Rent – $1200

Phone – $35

Food & entertainment – $1200

Transportation – $250

Total – $2685

Rounding this up to $3000 per month gives you an extra $300 for various expenditures and still keeps you at $36,000 a year for total spend, just like in the South America medium option. As for the other $14K, what you do with it is up to you!

High $80,000 – Paris, France

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And finally we come to Paris, the City of Lights. Just like Tokyo, you’re not living here to stretch your dollar. You’re really not going to find that much room to stretch out, period. But living here isn’t just about the physical space you’re living in, it’s about living the Parisian dream.

Check out this incredible studio — yes those are views of the Eiffel Tower from the window! That’s what you’re paying for! That and the opportunity to step outside and stroll through the Paris streets, stopping to sit in cute cafes, eating way too much cheese, drinking way too much wine, and of course, imagining yourself pulling off a beret, but then thinking better of it.

Transportation to the many Paris landmarks is pretty affordable thanks to an unlimited Navigo pass. Covering the metro, bus, tram, and regional train, at just around $80 USD per month, this allows you plenty of access to the entire city plus an easy way to keep your transportation budget relatively fixed each month. Even budgeting an additional $120 USD for times when you’ve got to quickly hop in a cab, or just don’t want to deal with public transport, you’re still at a very affordable $200 a month for transportation costs.

Food prices are similar to the US but a bit more expensive with the strength of the Euro to the dollar. A meal in an average restaurant will cost around $16-20 USD while a reasonable bottle of wine at a supermarket will set you back $7 USD.

While food will be larger part of your budget than in many of the other areas we’ve discussed in this post, you’ll be happy to find that Paris has tons of free museums, events, and attractions which will help to stretch your dollar against the Euro.

A French sim card will only cost about $5 USD and you’ll then be able to top up your usage as needed. To be on the safe side, set yourself a budget of around $30 USD per month for mobile phone usage.

Sample budget:

Rent – $2200

Phone – $30

Food & entertainment – $2000

Transportation – $200

Total – $4430

If we round expenses up to $5000 a month, because hey, it’s Paris, you’re left with $20K in “extra” left over at the end of the year.

What do you think? Are you surprised to see what you can get for your money in other parts of the world? As mentioned in the beginning, this is a very rough outline of what you can expect to spend on main expenses in three very different regions of the world. (If you’re traveling with a friend or interested in sharing a place with a host, you can drastically reduce costs on your largest monthly expense, rent.)

Hopefully, this post gives you not just wanderlust, but a concrete idea of what your current income can get you, or, how much you need to earn to get started on your living abroad dream. Check out the word for word script below (I used it to earn my first $200K) and you’ll be on your way in no time.


2 thoughts on “What it costs to be a digital nomad

  1. It’s kind of odd that your budget for Quito is MUCH higher than for Budapest… I know that it all depends on how fancy of an apartment you are choosing, there are much more expensive options in Budapest and Quito can be a HELL of a lot cheaper (my friend pays a few hundred in Ecudaor), but it is still kind of odd since Budapest/Hungary is MUCH more expensive than Quiot/Ecudor. (One I grew up in & one I know people who live local-like life there.)

    1. For sure Kat, you hit the nail on the head… it depends on how fancy a life you’re choosing. The apartment I went over in Ecuador is one I lived in and it included a bowling alley, pool, and lots more amenities. In every location discussed in the article, it’s possible to SPEND more or SAVE more. You can live very cheaply here in Ecuador, or spend a lot. Cumbaya for example is nicknamed Cumbayork for the big spenders that live there. Budapest is an example of a place its possible to live cheaply in Europe (in comparison to some other expensive cities in Europe) but it’s just an example. You can of course find yourself spending a lot there too. You’ll also notice I divided places up into sections — South America, Europe, etc. Budapest is cheap for Europe, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it compares with South America if that makes sense. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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