What I wish I had known before living as a digital nomad (Part 2)
This note is a continuation of the previous note — ‘What I wish I had known before living as a digital nomad (Part 1)’.
05. Lessons learned from the digital nomad life
1. Embrace uncertainties and be open-minded with the serendipitous moments
I am a heavy believer in planning, but the digital nomad lifestyle, by nature, comes with loads of unknowns. I still keep my daily morning and night routines in my digital nomad life. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned by living as a digital nomad is that when I let go of my rigid plan and let the time and space do their magic, it often leads me into serendipitous moments that I have never anticipated.
One day in NYC, I noticed the weather cleared up after a deluge of rain. I ventured out of the city wandering around the streets and places I’ve never walked on, and that’s how I stumbled upon Washington Square Park where it’s full of vigor and youthful energy with street musicians and a gaggle of young New Yorkers. It was one of those perfect Spring days in New York City with the background noise of street music and loud chatters, lush young sprouts on tree branches, cool breeze, and fully bloomed cherry blossom trees.
When moving from one city to another, finding your next home also comes with a lot of uncertainties. We would sometimes wait until the very last days of our stay to get the best deal for our next place of residence. This is because the price of fully-furnished apartments in various platforms (i.e. Blueground, Zeus, Sonder, etc.) tends to go down the longer the unit has stayed vacant. I understand not knowing where you will be after a few days would be nerve-wracking for some people. In an extreme case, we made a reservation for our SoHo apartment in NYC just shy of three days before our move-out date; and we were able to get a great deal on our NYC apartment by doing so. Understanding how comfortable you are in embracing uncertainty is important — some may choose peace of mind at the cost of a few extra hundred bucks.
You are also not likely to have the luxury of visiting the house in advance, so the condition of the house and its environs are based on luck to a certain extent. We’ve found ourselves out of nowhere in San Diego where there were no coffee shops and restaurants in walking distance (this is important for me as I find great happiness roaming around the city in search of a delicious latte) though I’ve visited San Diego two times before. In our New York City apartment, we were traumatized after finding roaches in the toilet sink, our dishwashers broke way too many times, and loud noise from a boiler in the bedroom cost us a few days of sleepless nights.
Living as a digital nomad has its perks of fulfilling the wanderlust, but it surely comes with loads of unknowns — both pleasurable and unpleasurable. You have to be ready (both emotionally and financially) to embrace these uncertainties and be okay with them.
2. Ruthless minimization
As we’ve been moving from one place to another every few months, ruthlessly delineating our belongings to must-have vs. nice-to-have was critical. Being a digital nomad means you have to live out of your suitcase and my husband has been so good with ruthless minimization. He has strictly limited his clothing to be precisely worn once every day before our weekly laundry day. As we have packed the underwear, socks, and t-shirts to only last for one week, we’d often find ourselves having to do the laundry because we were out of things to wear.
Though this kind of minimal living is inconvenient at times as I do not have the exact item cut out for every occasion, I’ve learned that I can get away with the next best alternative most of the time. For example, in the absence of my favorite air fryer/oven toaster that I used a few times every day at my pre-digital nomad home, I’ve learned to use the built-in conventional oven instead. In the absence of instant pot which we used to make our favorite Korean Sauna eggs as part of our weekly meal preparation, we’ve shifted to making jammy soft-boiled eggs that were almost as good. We learned to find the next best options in the absence of the optimal solutions, and I was surprised to learn that it worked out just fine in most of the cases.
From the experience, I’ve learned that there are surprisingly few things we absolutely need to sustain our way of living. We have a 5x8 inch full of storage back in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I cannot even remember what I have in the storage. We’ve been perfectly fine living without them for more than half a year; this translates that the items stored are most likely not the must-have items we need in our lives. One of the golden rules for decluttering is to get rid of items one has not used in a year, and I am stunned to realize all our items in the storage unit almost meet this criterion!
And it actually feels really good to live out of suitcases as you are not tethered into one place and can freely move from one place to another. Moving has become hassle-free as we only have two suitcases and one carry-on bag for the two of us. I remember how much drain in time, money, and energy it was to move from one apartment to another after a one-year lease — the packing, moving, and unpacking was so dreadful in the pre-digital nomad life.
3. You need to be financially prepared.
Living as a digital nomad can be very expensive and you need to be financially prepared for unexpected costs like being sick, needing to make a reservation for flights, rent cars, etc.). The good rule of thumb is to always have at least 2–3 months’ worth of living expenses in your bank account at all times to account for these unforeseen costs.
We have fixed monthly expenses for our storage units back home which adds up to be a few hundred bucks per month. The fully furnished apartment units can easily cost up to a few thousand bucks per month. As you also need to explore the new city by dining out and visiting museums or art galleries, these costs could easily add up to exceed your monthly budget.
For us, living in the center of Manhattan has turned out to be a lot more expensive than we have anticipated! The cost of dining out and the entrance fee to museums/art galleries added up to be a huge portion at the end despite our efforts to save up financially with weekly meal preparation and using public transportation, walking, or biking whenever possible. As both of us continued to receive the monthly paychecks from our companies, financial concern was less at stake for us, fortunately. However, everyone’s situation is different; so before embarking on the digital nomad lifestyle, ensure you have the adequate amount of savings to account for these hidden costs for your optimal digital nomad experience — at least 2 or 3 months’ worth of living expenses is a rule of thumb.
4. Ideally, you have a trusted partner you can travel with.
This might not be applicable for everyone, but ideally, I recommend that you have a trusted partner you can travel with who shares a similar passion for a digital nomad life.
I am traveling with my husband and I’m fortunate to have my husband on this journey together as it could be lonely to be living as a digital nomad by myself.
As a person with wanderlust, I once traveled Europe for a bit more than a month by myself. I absolutely loved exploring different countries in Europe in the beginning, but as the trip ensued, I felt desolate that I cannot share such beautiful moments with anyone whenever I was eating a delectable meal at a restaurant, watching a beautiful sunset at Firenze, or looking at a world-known masterpiece at Louvre Museum in Paris.
I’ve also been in a situation where I traveled with a friend and we ended up not talking to each other after the trip as the trip made us realize the unbridgeable difference between the two of us.
I understand traveling with a friend really is a double-edged sword. I am so fortunate to be traveling with my husband who shares the mutual enthusiasm toward a digital nomad lifestyle, but I reckon this might not be the case for everyone.
Living a digital nomad lifestyle — working, living, and exploring different cities — is indeed an opportunity of a lifetime. Though my journey is still ongoing (I’m currently in week 4 in Chicago, IL), I sometimes think about how I will reminisce about this time when I eventually settle in one place (though I am not so sure where it may be).
Living a digital nomad may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it does come with a lot of operational overhead; but for us, the pros always surpassed the cons by a large margin and kept us going for almost one year! Once we settle in one place, I will think back upon this time and will feel extremely fortunate that I had a chance to live a free, untethered life, exploring different cities and countries!