At age 24—the same year I renounced year-round jobs and 12-month leases—I had $3,000 to my name.
I earned little from my work in outdoor education (less than $8,000 the previous year), but I spent even less. I never took significant money from my family, though I did enjoy family health insurance and a one-time gift of a used car and laptop upon graduating from college. Perhaps the greatest privilege I enjoyed was freedom from student loan debt, as my dad paid for my public university education.
From the beginning of my nomadism, I paid for my own rent, food, and travel. I did it without a trust fund, family bailouts, or some incredibly well-paid job. I don’t say this to gloat, but rather to say that the permanent-traveler lifestyle is not reserved for the extremely privileged. While most of those who live nowhere do come from middle- and middle-upper class backgrounds, it’s possible to join the nomad club no matter your starting point.
Income is an under-discussed part of the nomadic lifestyle. Too many blog posts paint an unrealistic vision of glamorous travel without seriously discussing how to make ends meet. In this chapter I offer five models for funding a nomadic life, followed by principles relevant to every nomad.
Five Funding Models for Living Nowhere
Between short-term jobs, 100% location-independent jobs, starting your own business, and more extreme lifestyle options, there’s never been an easier time to fund a life without a fixed home base.
But that doesn’t mean that it is easy. Creating a location-independent livelihood requires an entrepreneurial spirit, comfort with uncertainty, personal budgeting savvy, working long or strange hours, and a willingness to embrace weird, unproven, or alternative lifestyles.
But all that comes after simply understanding: How can I make money without tying myself to one place year-round?
Let’s explore some common models for funding the nomadic lifestyle:
- The Alaskan Fisherman Model
- The Digital Nomad Model
- The Masseuse Model
- The Passive Income Model
- The Earn Nothing, Spend Nothing Model
The Alaskan Fisherman Model
The basic idea: Work short-term, intensive jobs. Save most of what you earn. Enjoy big periods of time off between gigs.
- Commercial fishing boat hand
- English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) teacher abroad
- Traveling nurse or physical therapist
- Wildland firefighter
- Outdoor/experiential educator
- Cruise ship, yacht, or resort employee
- Ski patroller
- International nanny (“au pair”)
- Hostel employee
- Summer camp instructor
- Tour guide or international trip leader
- Holiday retail worker or delivery truck driver
- Seasonal produce picker
- Event worker (e.g. music festival worker, Christmas tree seller)
The Alaskan Fisherman Model is the one that I’ve employed the most in my nomadic life. I spent the first four years after college stringing together seasons as an outdoor educator, summer camp instructor, ski resort employee, and restaurant employee. These gigs were two to five months long and offered gaps of weeks or months in between, which I filled with travel, exploration, and mini-adventures. Then, in 2008, I started my own international trip-leading company, which has allowed me to continue living the Alaskan Fisherman Model to this day—albeit with higher pay and less total work than if I were employed by a similar company.
Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs are often sexy, adventurous, fulfilling, and they provide genuine periods of free time. But most significantly, many offer free room and board. For the young and broke, this is a game changer. In my outdoor educator life, I usually got paid $1000 a month, of which I only spent about $200 (because my room and board was covered, and my main hobbies were hiking and frisbee). Doing that for four months provided $3,200 in savings, which is a respectable chunk of change for any 22-year-old to use to fund travels, invest in a used car, or squirrel away for the future. Even when I was getting paid less than poverty-line wages, I felt richer than many of my peers, because I had the time and savings to do something like take off to South America for three months (which I did).
Seasonal jobs that don’t offer room and board make it more difficult to save money. If you’re working as a ski instructor in a posh mountain town or a holiday delivery truck driver in a big city, getting paid minimum wage, and shelling out market rate for housing, then you might not save any money at all—which defeats the whole point of the Alaskan Fisherman Model. With such jobs you either need to figure a way to spend radically less on housing and food, or the job should be so awesome that it’s worth it to just break even for a little while.
The long-term challenge of many Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs is that they’re so physically intense, mentally intense, low-paid, or all-consuming that having a personal life is rendered impossible. Burnout is common, and most people treat these careers as temporary. Or they move into a year-round, administrative role in the company—sometimes with chagrin over losing their nomadic freedom.
Here are links, articles, and other helpful resources for the Alaskan Fisherman Model (and each of the other models).
The Digital Nomad Model
The basic idea: Work for a company or as a freelancer doing computer-based work that’s 100% location independent.
- Website designer
- Writer, copyeditor, proofreader
- Graphic designer
- Social media consultant
- Photographer, videographer, illustrator
- Life coach
- Professional poker player
- Language tutor
The Digital Nomad Model is hot right now. You get to work from your laptop and set your own hours from anywhere in the world (anywhere, at least, with a decent Wi-Fi connection). My own experience with this model is limited to a little freelance web design during college, plus some private education coaching for teenagers.
If you google “digital nomad” or “remote work” you’ll find plenty of articles about location-independent livelihoods. Most digital nomads are smart people who work exclusively on the internet, thus there’s much to be found about their lifestyle online.
A warning: The Digital Nomad Model makes no promises of meaningful or fulfilling work. Many of these jobs are essentially corporate cubicle work, minus the cubicle. There’s a lot of money to be made in these fields, and the lifestyle is awfully attractive, which leads some people to take these jobs even if they have no love for the work.
Most digital nomad jobs require a background in computers, programming, design, or other relevant skills. If you don’t have these skills but you’re willing to learn, there are many self-paced courses available online. There’s also a booming market in short-term coding boot camps that often guarantee job placement after graduation (though not necessarily a location-independent job).
The Masseuse Model
The basic idea: Develop a skill that you can easily turn into part-time paid work in each new place you move.
- English language tutor
- Restaurant server
- Yoga instructor
- Academic tutor
- Dance teacher
- Gardener, landscaper, handyman
- Massage therapist
- Tattoo/body artist
- Jewelry maker
The Masseuse Model is attractive because it lets you work while traveling and set your own hours (which are often part-time or flex-time). This model makes me think of my traveling friend Cameron who brings a typewriter wherever he goes, sets it up on a small table, and writes poetry about passersby for donations. He earns himself a pretty penny on nice days at downtown pedestrian malls in cities like Burlington, Asheville, and New Orleans.
Masseuse Model jobs typically don’t earn enough to sustain full-time travel on their own, but they’re great for slowing the depletion of your savings account, making new friends, and connecting you to local communities during your travels.
The Passive Income Model
The basic idea: Create a business or make an investment that earns you a monthly income and requires only minimal ongoing maintenance on your part.
- Rental property owner
- Online or location-independent business owner
- Published author
- Dividend-bearing stock owner
- Software/app publisher
So-called “passive income” is a perennially attractive idea because it promotes the fanciful notion that you can get something for nothing. But the word “passive” applies only to the end of an extremely time-intensive and grueling process of building a business, piece of creative work, or investment that will pay you dividends down the road.
My own experience with the Passive Income Model is through writing. Besides this one, I’ve self-published two books and had one traditionally published. A book is a great example of this model: it requires an incredible amount of up-front and unpaid time and energy for an unpredictable outcome. In the case of my first book, which was traditionally published, I received a $5000 advance (standard for a first-time author) and then the book never sold enough copies to earn me a cent of royalties. So I got paid $5000 for what I conservatively estimate was 500 hours of work, so essentially, minimum wage.
But my second and third books, which I crowdfunded and self-published, have paid me $400-$800 each month through Amazon sales since mid-2012—roughly $25,000 total at this point—and they show no sign of stopping. (The crowdfunding campaigns also netted surpluses of a few thousand dollars each, which I considered my self-published “advances.”)
To be clear: I’m not sitting on my laurels today and just counting my book sales. I write regular email newsletters, maintain an active Facebook presence, and stay connected to my audience through speaking gigs, summer camp work, and my teen trips. If I stopped doing this stuff, I’m positive that sales would slow to a trickle, in the same way that a poorly managed business or investment portfolio would eventually stop paying out. There is no such thing as truly “passive” income—just “less work now than in the beginning.”
I enjoy writing because it makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world, but there are certainly simpler ways to generate passive income. If you have access to a big pool of cash, investing in a rental property or dividend-bearing stocks can provide an immediate, location-independent income. (Yes, some of those who live nowhere are also homeowners with mortgages!) You can follow in the footsteps of Tim Ferriss’ popular book, The 4-Hour Work Week, which advises readers to create a product, and sell it through a highly automated and outsourced business model. Or you can dive into the wild world of online application, software, or e-course creation (blurring lines with the Digital Nomad Model, except that you’re working for yourself). Each of these paths requires some incredible up-front investment in the form of time, money, and commitment.
If you can make passive income work, it can be amazing. You get all the benefits of self-employment (most notably control of your time) without the requirement of being physically present at your business.
The Earn Nothing / Spend Nothing Model
The basic idea: Radically reduce your cost of living through volunteering, work-trading, dirtbagging, and voluntary poverty.
- Farm volunteer
- Climbing bum
- Wandering hippie
- Long-distance hiker/biker
- Crusties and gutter punks
Finally, we arrive at the most countercultural strategy for living nowhere: making a radical lifestyle shift toward spending nothing, which obviates the need to earn anything.
Most who consider this lifestyle won’t actually aim to spend nothing (as Daniel Suelo does in The Man Who Quit Money), but rather to spend virtually nothing, on the order of $100-$500 per month, which can be easily funded through one of the other models. I’ve lived this way for various brief periods of my life, usually while wilderness backpacking. In my early twenties, such periods were often a financial necessity.
A time-honored way to live this model (without experiencing total squalor) is through volunteering and work-trading at farms, private homes, and hostels, where room and board are provided in exchange for four to six hours of work a day. New Zealand, for example, is a hot spot for people who bounce between opportunities like this, which can be found through popular networks like HelpX, Workaway, and WWOOF.
Those who don’t have room and board provided for them tend to reduce their cost of living by cooking all their own meals (camping-style) and sleeping in their cars (as a prototypical rock climbing bum does) or in tents (in the case of a long-distance hiker or biker).
Living simply in developing countries where costs are incredibly low—Bali and India are classic examples—can cost you almost nothing after you foot the expense of getting there (provided that you remain strong enough to ignore the temptations of the local tourist café as you cook your hundredth straight meal of rice, beans, and yucca.) With creativity, you can even lead a similarly low-cost lifestyle in a developing country. My friend Nathen lived on almost nothing for a year on Maui by alternating between sleeping on the beach, work-trading for a tent space in a horse pasture, and splitting rent on a house with three friends.
Crusties, gutter punks, and other bare-bones wanderers are masters of getting by on almost nothing. You can find them most reliably at Rainbow Gatherings, Food Not Bombs, hitchhiking, and dumpster diving. You may not share their same vision of “living nowhere,” but it’s folly to ignore or stereotype them. You and they are living two versions of the same dream.
The Earn Nothing / Spend Nothing Model is primarily the domain of the young, broke, and highly adventurous or eccentric. Its main issue is financial insecurity. If you’re living hand-to-mouth, you limit your ability to deal with emergencies, migrate to new places, and live a life in which you have actual choices. Having fallback savings makes this lifestyle a safer bet and better experience; most often it serves as a temporary adventure between more reliable funding models.
Principles for Every Nomad
Having seriously experimented with these models for more than a decade, it’s clear to me that each is appropriate for different sets of skills, personalities, desired income levels, and life priorities.
That being said, every nomad can benefit from following these final principles:
Always begin by reducing unnecessary costs. This might sound like trite financial advice, but it’s real. Don’t pay rent for a place where you’re not really living. Don’t buy pricey clothing, food, and experiences just because your peer group expects you to. Separate needs from wants. Bad spending habits ruin any lifestyle, not just nomadic ones.
Have a budget and fallback savings. When you forsake the dependability of a year-round paycheck, having a budget to forecast your finances for the year ahead becomes a non-negotiable. I use a simple spreadsheet to track my income and expenses. Fallback savings are also a non-negotiable part of the nomad lifestyle—inconsistent incomes lead to unexpected lean times, and those without emergency savings won’t remain nomads for very long.
Be comfortable with long periods of unemployment and negative cash-flow. While some people can handle the financial reality of a nomadic lifestyle, they struggle with the psychological reality. There is a cultural validation that comes with a full-time job (even if this job makes you unhappy, and even if you’re in fact knee-deep in debt). Because this is the proverbial water we’ve been swimming in since birth, even the most die-hard nomad can feel deep anxiety when flouting conventional work habits and norms. It’s simply difficult to explain your periodic unemployment and lack of year-round income to those who have never lived this way. But with personal budgeting, a savings cushion, and the ongoing support of those who understand your lifestyle, such anxiety subsides.
Beware the “I’ll save money and then quit my job” Scheme
Finally, let’s tackle the most common way that potential nomads sabotage themselves: by telling themselves that if they simply work a lot (in their current undesirable job), save a lot of money, and then quit—at which point they’ll begin their new nomadic life.
It’s an attractive plan. Let’s imagine you work “just” 12 more months, save $1000 every month, and then quit and begin your nomadic life with a $12,000 buffer to help you figure out your next steps. That seems reasonable, right? But doesn’t it also seem reasonable that during those 12 months you will:
- begin to look at the big pile of cash you’re accumulating and create excuses for spending it?
- succumb to the fear that quitting your job will irrevocably damage your life and career?
- begin to believe the doubting voices of your co-workers, friends, and family members who don’t understand your dreams?
- get involved in a relationship of convenience?
- get involved in a high-quality relationship (perhaps a good reason to stay put, but still something that prevents you from following your nomadic dreams)?
- accumulate more personal possessions that become a hassle to deal with?
- become attached to the creature comforts of a fixed-location life?
- forget why you wanted to live nowhere in the first place?
The save-and-quit scheme ignores the most important part of sustainable nomadism: having a viable model for financially supporting yourself. Without this, as soon as you run out of savings (and probably much sooner) you’ll revert to the path you know best: finding another fixed-location job.
Yes, savings are useful. But instead of focusing primarily on saving a boatload of money, concentrate first on creating a location-independent livelihood. Experiment with the five funding models. Create an income stream that doesn’t bind you to one place for very long. Then you can sustain life on the road for as long as you see fit.