Digital Nomad Finance #1: Why “Living on $500/month Abroad” Doesn’t Work for Us

Please raise your hand if you ever found yourself enticed by articles on the internet that said something like, “You can live on $500/month abroad!”

Exactly.

When we first approached the idea of becoming perpetual travelers, we actually read more than a dozen articles and posts about surviving as a digital nomad with only $500/month. It was definitely an attractive claim for people like us who are becoming slowly and painfully aware that making middle-class salary doesn’t necessarily mean we’re actually middle-class because we don’t get to keep most of the money that we earn. It felt like we were just a short layover before the money made its way to its final destination: other companies’ bank accounts. 

As we watch the trials and tribulations of our older family members and friends’ parents entering retirement, it really hit us hard that we might end up as broke retirees, too. We’re stuck in the hamster wheel of “living-to-work-to-pay-the-expensive-rent-and-bills,” where we aren’t able to save much for our own future. 

We questioned whether we should leave Los Angeles for a cheaper area. We even considered moving to a different state, but our careers wouldn’t work in less populated areas. Ryan is a senior audio editor at one of the most popular radio stations in LA and I am a Korean/English interpreter and translator. Checking around LinkedIN and other job sites, we realized that Ryan would be getting a significant paycut if we moved to a smaller market, if there was a demand for that position at all there. The biggest hurdle was actually my career. Since I need Korean speakers for my job as an interpreter, I need to be around Korean speakers to make money. It just so happens that Koreatown, Los Angeles has the second highest Korean population outside of Korea. 

So, yeah, we fantasized about what it would be like to bask in this $500/month budget instead of paying $1895/month just on rent. Could WE make this work???

The short answer is… No. The more we researched this life of perpetual travel, the more we realized that that number is risky and unrealistic for people like us.

Unless you’re an extreme backpacker with ZERO life responsibilities and perfect health, who exactly can pull off a traveler lifestyle with just $500/month?????

Assumptions made by the “$500/month Budget”

  • That you will only travel to unpopular third world countries (since prices for popular third world countries continue to rise due to the influx of first world digital nomads and retirees)
  • That you aren’t saving at all for retirement
  • That you have (and will always have) perfect health, and will never encounter unforeseen circumstances (like spraining an ankle while hiking, getting a cavity, or getting into a moped accident)
  • That you have figured out a way to stay in one country legally without having to do any sort of “visa runs” whatsoever

Our realistic $3400/month budget makes the following assumptions:

  • That we will mix and match traveling to both expensive and inexpensive countries.
  • That we will try to maintain living accommodations that are similar to the one we currently have (meaning, we won’t just rough it in hostels)
  • That we will continue saving for retirement (albeit a lot less now)
  • That we may fall ill and/or encounter unforeseen circumstances
  • That unless we have a work visa or legal residency, we will have to do visa runs if we want to remain in one country for a long time. We’ll want to travel once every month or two anyway.

As a reminder, here is the expected budget for our first year abroad:

Details Monthly (Annual)
Health Insurance* $200 ($2,400/yr)
Life insurance + Retirement* $416 ($3,958/yr)
Expat mail service $25 ($300/yr)
Visas $42 ($500/yr)
Airfare (long-haul int’l + intracontinental)* $400 ($4,800/yr)
Lodging* $750 ($10,000/yr)
Sim card/cell phone $30 ($360/yr)
Medical appts /Gym /MISC $150 ($1,800/yr)
Food/Entertainment $800 ($9,600/yr)
Website maintenance $100 ($1,200/yr)
VPN + Netflix $27 ($324/yr)
Annual tax + filing $13 ($160/yr)
Credit card fees $111 ($1,334/yr)
Family-related $355 ($4,260/yr)
Grand Total $3,400 per month ($ 41,000/yr)*
*Reflects total for both of our expenses combined. Some of the figures are researched estimates. We think this is a very safe collection of categories that can be applied to most people since it resembles a typical budget.

We truly believe that building a future upon this slow-traveling lifestyle needs to be tailored with a realistic budget that takes even the unsexiest bills into account.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather have an unexpected surplus of disposable income? How else could we save up enough to try EVERY flavor of macaron in Paris… 😉

What do you think? Have you ever daydreamed about jetting away to Bali to live off $500/month?

With Love,

Army + Ryan