Digital nomads on their tips and tricks to save money.
Two years of a pandemic combined with remote working finally becoming accepted by the suits in power (spoiler alert: we knew this all along) has led many to pack their bags and decamp to a foreign country to take their Zoom calls. Before you jump on the remote working bandwagon, have a read first of these expert tips from experienced working nomads on the road that’ll clue you in on the cities offering digital nomad visas (i.e., you won’t have to pay local tax), the travel hacks to cross continents for cheaper, what’s a realistic budget to set aside, and a list of the best affordable eats to hunt down in Sao Paulo.
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Molly Maine, 37
WHERE: Guadalajara, Mexico
The abundance of coffee shops, budget-friendly rentals, and the opportunity to learn and practice Spanish (crucial in Mexico if you want to live more affordably) were factors that encouraged Molly Maine to move to Guadalajara, Mexico A seasoned digital nomad who quit her day job six years ago to live in Goa, India, she’s since traveled around the world while running her remote design studio between Portugal and Mexico. While she’s been location-independent, a few commonalities always come into play when deciding where to move next.
“I always consider the weather as I am a bit of a sun-worshipper, cost of living, decent Wi-Fi, number of coworking spaces/cafes to work from, safety for women, and a digital nomad community,” she says. Money-wise, Maine is a stickler for keeping track of her finances, using Trail Wallet to track her daily spending, setting monthly targets for her business, and calculating her net worth monthly.
“Be realistic about your budget and research the cost of living in a location before moving somewhere. If you are just starting out and not making much, you might want to consider Southeast Asia instead of Europe,” advises Maine. “For a starter location, I recommend Thailand—either Chiang Mai, also known as the “first year of college” for digital nomads or Koh Lanta. They are both cheap, beautiful, and have thriving communities of nomads. In Lisbon, Portugal, make use of your local coworking spaces for free before settling on your favorite; you’ll end up with a free week of co-working. In Mexico, learn basic Spanish so you’ll have much more confidence to eat at the cheaper local places and avoid the touristy restaurants.”
Michael Jensen, 58, and Brent Hartinger, 57
WHERE: Sitges, Spain
Into their fifth year of nomading, Michael and Brent are seasoned pros in living and writing on the road (their newsletter is full of great tips). They cherry-pick their destinations according to personal preferences (Thailand and the Swiss Alps), spots that are “interesting but also very affordable” (Bansko, Bulgaria, and Tbilisi, Georgia), and according to their values: “We’re trying to be more green in our travels, so now we tend to pick one part of the world and move about that region by train or bus. For instance, we spent the second half of 2021 moving from Istanbul, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Czechia, and Croatia, though we had to take a couple of short flights.”
As digital nomads, they budget their living costs at about $50,000 a year by “spending at least part of each year in countries where the cost of living is much cheaper than in America.” When it comes to living in more expensive countries like Switzerland, they go against the trends. “We do it in the off and shoulder seasons, not in the middle of the expensive high season rush. But we wouldn’t want to deal with the hordes of tourists anyway.”
Another hack they’ve used is housesitting through TrustedHousesitters.com, and pre-Covid, they would spend two months a year living on cruise ships. “We paid for cheaper “repositioning” cruises ($3200/month, tips included). Incredibly, this cost only slightly more than our mortgage back in Seattle and also allowed us to cross oceans without the large carbon footprint of an airplane ride.”
INSIDER TIPInsurance for digital nomads can be tricky, but they’ve found a combination that works for them. “We have a basic Obamacare bronze plan (partly subsidized) with robust travel insurance through SafetyWing inclusive of medical expatriation insurance.” For a detailed breakdown, read their blog post on the topic.
Andreea Munteanu, 26
Located just off the northern coast of South America, the Dutch Caribbean Island has a @homeincuracao program to attract remote workers to live there for six months and not be subject to local income taxes. While there are conditions to meet (mainly proof of a stable job in a foreign country) it’s attracting individuals like growth engineer and blogger Andreea Munteanu. She came to the idyllic island by accident following a period spent in Dominica.
“It was one of those decisions I took based on logistics,” Munteanu remembers. “I looked for easy connections, and Curacao seemed a great option with tons of connections from Europe.”
As a self-professed slow traveler that’s also working on the go, Andreea starts her days with a swim before settling down to work and enjoys the warm climate, snorkeling, and taking photos during her free time.
“For saving money, I usually look for local spots, restaurants that have a day’s menu, local markets where I can buy cheaper products, taking local ride-sharing options vs. tourist-skewed transportation,” she says. “Also, whenever I travel, I try to meet locals and discover the average prices from them, so I have a benchmark to compare it.”
Corritta Lewis, 32
WHERE: Medellin, Colombia
Thanks to its affordable cost of living, vibrant city culture, and access to quality healthcare, Medellin has become popular with remote workers like Corritta Lewis and her family doing a gap year.
“We ended up in Colombia because we heard the cost of living was comparable to Mexico, and there was a lot of culture, so we took the plunge,” says Lewis. “The [air] tickets were inexpensive, and while we didn’t know much about the country, we figured why not? It turned out to be an amazing experience because we learned so much about the culture and met many Afro-Colombians.”
While accommodation in Medellin can be more expensive than in other ex-pat cities, she points out quality apartments going for $600-800 a month.
“Laurel is our absolute favorite area because it is more of a local community, but it is still safe. There are lots of small shops to support in the area, so this is by far the best for digital nomads that want to be in the community.”
As for getting around, Lewis avoids Uber and instead chooses to use DiDi and local taxis, which are cheaper but usually cash-based.
“Take the time to learn the currency because it is vastly different in Colombia, and it can be hard to wrap your head around. Also, be sure to check your money when you get change; you’ll notice many locals check the money for authenticity. Run your fingers across the money to make sure it feels right. Fakes aren’t made with quality materials so that you will feel the difference.”
INSIDER TIP“Activities in Medellin are very affordable,” says Lewis. “You can enjoy a walking tour of Comuna 13 for a $10 donation, the botanical garden is free, and we spend a lot of time at Parque Explora, which is a huge interactive museum for $30 (for four people).”
Liz Miller, 37
WHERE: Sao Paulo, Brazil
The allure of Brazil needs little introduction. With spectacular beaches, awe-inspiring natural wonders like the Iguazu waterfalls and Amazon rainforest, and exciting cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, it’s surprising not more digital nomads have set up base there. For Liz Miller, she quit her teaching job during the pandemic and got involved working remotely for GetSetUp, eventually moving her home base to Brazil.
“Sao Paulo is home to the most amazing mix of people from all over the world,” she says. “Since my partner and I both work remotely, we can take a week or three to go to the beach, last-minute, or our favorite chalets in the countryside. Many places assume as a foreigner, you will want the best (AKA the most expensive of everything). The best way to know a place is to tour with the locals. I joined the local CouchSurfing weekly meet-up in Sao Paulo, the Polyglot Meet Up group, or the Expat meet-up group here to meet people and attend group events that interested me. In Sao Paulo, there are amazing Michelin star restaurants (like Mani (top female chef in the world), and Evvai and DOM) but you can also eat yummy food for a couple of dollars, you just have to know where to go. Some great local spots are Consulado da Bahia or Boteco do Gois, Taqueria La Sabrosa, Galleria 540, Empanaderia do seu Ze and Braz Elettrica.”
INSIDER TIPIn 2022, Brazil launched a Digital Nomad Visa allowing foreign nationals employed outside Brazil, or who provide services outside Brazil, the option to reside in and work remotely from Brazil without local employer sponsorship. A minimum monthly income of $1,500 or a bank balance of $18,000 is part of the requirements.
Wade Badby, 34, and Dani Lunardi, 33
WHERE: New South Wales, Australia
Working for 12 months to have 30 days off was not the life that Wade, an ex-operations manager turned SEO/blogging specialist and Dani, a financial accountant, imagined for themselves. At the end of 2020, after saving and investing for years, they bought a work van, converted it, packed their cats, and took off to explore the beautiful coastline of New South Wales. While Australia may be one of the most beautiful spots to live in a van full time, it’s not the cheapest.
“We worked out we’ll need AUD$2,600 ($1,935) a month. We wanted to travel for roughly a year in our van, so we knew we needed a minimum of AUD$31,200 ($23,228). To feel more financially comfortable, and in case of any emergencies, we doubled this amount to AUD$60,000 ($44,670),” shared Wade.
With Dani working in finance, the couple naturally stays on top of their expenses.
“We update our Excel spreadsheet weekly with our expenses and income. We find weekly easier to handle, so it doesn’t get too far out of control. Knowing where you spend your money is our number one tip. We sometimes find that eating out and buying coffee can be a bit of a surprise; these costs add up very quickly for two people. For example, 2 x coffees can cost AUD$8 ($5.96) per day which is around $250 ($186) a month and is almost $3,000 ($2,233) in a year!”
Kathryn Boudreau, 34
WHERE: Bogotá, Colombia
Colombia is a dream destination for many, a country rich in natural diversity with the Andes Mountains, the Amazon, deserts, and straddling both the Pacific coast and Caribbean north coast. As a remote working base, it’s also become very attractive for American citizens who are allowed to have two 90-day tourist visas per year that are granted upon arrival into the country, more than enough time to decide if life in Colombia is bueno.
“I moved to Bogotá with my partner in 2017,” says Boudreau. “I love how diverse Bogotá is and how there is always something to do, whether a concert, museum, or hike. There are affordable flights that you can find to other destinations in the Americas and even to Europe. You can live a nice life in Colombia for $1,500 per month. You’ll be able to rent a nice one or two-bedroom apartment, go out regularly to dinner or clubs, take art, salsa, or Spanish classes, and travel within Colombia to places like Medellin, Santa Marta, or Cartagena. As the minimum wage in Colombia is roughly $300, one way to maximize your budget is to live like locals. “Corrientazos” are traditional lunch restaurants located all over Colombia and serve breakfasts for about $1.50 to $2. Lunches will cost you about $2.50 to $4. Rent in a middle-class neighborhood is typically $400 to $600, and utilities (internet/gas/water/electricity) are about $70 per month.”
Katelynn Marfousi, 32
WHERE: Kénitra, Morocco
Looking for a digital nomad hotspot that’s somewhat under the radar? That might be Morocco, where it’s possible to work remotely and live for under $1,000 a month (Katelynn breaks it down here). With direct transport links to Europe, improving Wi-Fi speed (the first country in Africa to adopt 6GHz frequencies for faster data transfer), and a 90-day visa-free policy for 67 nationalities, cities like Marrakesh, Fez, and Tangier are getting popular with digital nomads. For Katelynn and her Morrocan husband Anas, they’ve chosen to locate themselves in Kénitra, Morocco, while they both work remotely as he finishes his master’s degree.
“It’s very different from anywhere I’ve lived before, but it’s also close to many interesting places. I can hop on a flight to Barcelona for $20 for a weekend or take the train to cute little towns,” shares Katelynn, who quit her job as a social worker and moved to Morocco from Alaska in 2021. “We’ve gone to Casablanca, Tangier, Fes just to get away for a little bit. We’ve even gone in the morning and come back in the evening, just for the experience of being on the train and having a little adventure.”
While speaking French or Arabic can help save money by getting local prices, Katelynn has learned to know the cost of things and get comfortable haggling.
“Take a local friend or family member shopping with you who can advocate on your behalf,” she advises. “I also prefer shopping in stores like Bim and Carrefour and Marjane because even though the prices might be a little higher than the corner store, I know I’m not getting charged double or triple just because I look like a tourist.”
INSIDER TIPFor an inexpensive meal, Katelynn recommends chicken lemon tajine, couscous, and pastilla. “All three dishes are inexpensive, served all over the country, and unbelievably delicious.”
Dania Demirci, 44
WHERE: Antalya, Turkey
If you could work from anywhere in the world, heading to a destination that sees 300 days of sunshine a year with access to affordable and good healthcare, just a few hours flying from London and Paris makes Turkey a compelling option. For Dania and her family, her company’s remote work policy motivated them to pack up and move to Turkey.
“My husband, Enes, is originally from Turkey. Our two kids have never been there, and we wanted them to better understand the culture, language, and heritage,” says Demirci. While the favorable exchange rate for dollars to the lira is advantageous, they still work off a monthly budget and capitalize on Turkey’s warm weather by going to the beach and heading off on hikes for the bulk of their outings.
“With so much history, I consider Turkey the largest museum in the world,” she says. “One of the best things we did was purchased a MuzeKart+ (different from a MuzeKart). It’s a yearly pass that costs 50 TL ($3.40) and gives us access to all museums and historical sites in Turkey. We can stop on a whim, show our cards, and explore!”
INSIDER TIPTackling time zones will play a big part in any full-time remote work setup. For Dania, she overcomes the time difference by working from 5 pm to 12 am daily to coincide with the Central Time zone, while Enes handles “the kids, dinner, and bedtime.”
Janelle Cooper, 24
WHERE: Mérida, México
There are worse places than Mexico to get started as a digital nomad. The weather is warm, the cost of living is affordable, and beaches and cenotes (natural deepwater wells) are usually a short bus ride away. Janelle Cooper decided in 2021 to become location independent and started learning new skills to get remote jobs when she wasn’t teaching. Word of mouth from other travelers, digital nomads, and creators eventually saw her packing her bags for Merida, Mexico, the capital of Yucatán known for its rich Mayan and colonial heritage.
“My favorite thing about Mérida is the people,” says Cooper. “Everyone here is overwhelmingly friendly and excited to share their culture. I’ve had strangers on the street go out of their way to give me directions, and Airbnb hosts give me all the details on hidden gems in the city. The cost of living in Mérida (and in México) in general is low compared to the US. I’m not rich by any means, but I live extremely comfortably here, living like a local. I eat local cuisine, take public transportation, and avoid tourist traps as much as possible. Living in another country is not a 24/7 vacation, and learning how to immerse into another culture fully will allow you to save a lot of money as an ex-pat. México is a big tourist location, but there are ways to do everything without falling into a tourist trap. I always do my research, read blogs, reach out to destinations, and even look at advice from people on Instagram and TikTok before doing anything. For example, instead of taking a $10-15 Didi or Uber (each way) to the beach, I take the direct bus for $2 roundtrip. Fully immersing yourself, talking to locals, and doing your research is the best way to save money, not just in México, but all around the world.”