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5 reasons why I can’t be a Digital Nomad

by retirebyforty on October 21, 2013 · 50 comments

in baby, lifestyle

What the heck is a digital nomad? Do you need a yak and a yurt? Well, actually the term is much more prevalent these days and I’m sure most of you know it already. A digital nomad is someone who uses technology to work from anywhere in the world. I guess if you strictly go by that definition, I already am a digital nomad. I’m self employed online and I work from home, coffee shops, and libraries. However, I am mostly doing this from Portland.

When I hear digital nomad, I’m thinking of someone who is blogging/freelancing from Bora Bora or some exotic places like that. For the rest of this article, let’s focus on the nomadic side of the phrase. Digital nomads should be exploring the world so I am not really one, yet.

In my younger days, the nomadic lifestyle would have been very attractive to me. I love exploring new places and cultures. Even when I was working a corporate job, I tried to avoid my cubicle as much as possible and welcomed any chance to get out of that hell hole. I started traveling as soon as I had some money and always used up all my vacation days. Life changes though and the nomadic lifestyle isn’t as attractive now that I’m 40.

1 – Living out of a backpack is a young person’s game

Traveling is a lot of fun, but it is draining to be constantly on the move. In 2003, we went backing packing through Europe for 6 weeks and it was a lot of fun, but very tiring as well. When we got back, I went off to Thailand for 3 more weeks. Mrs. RB40 went back to work after Europe. I was spent by the time I got back home. I don’t know if I can keep moving every few days and live out of a backpack anymore.

Being a digital nomad actually is a bit different than taking a vacation. Digital nomads need good internet connection and stick around in one spot longer.

2 – Life on the road can be lonely

I am terrible at chatting up strangers and I don’t really like going out to bars. Sure, I can shoot the breeze about where I’ve been and where the next destinations are, but conversation generally dries up after that. Some people can form friendship quickly, but that’s not me. I’d rather go on trips with friends and family than travel solo.

3 – Work and vacation don’t mix

I loathe working when I’m on vacation. Many engineers (among other professions) think they are indispensable and like to be in touch at all time. I’m the opposite of that. Please don’t call me when I’m on vacation. The problem can wait a couple of weeks or someone else can work it out. You are all geniuses so why not deal with it. Nobody is going to die when I’m on vacation, I’m not a doctor. Seriously, I knew people who worked when they were on sabbatical. That’s too much dedication. Apparently, they didn’t understand the word ‘sabbatical.’

Anyway, I know being a digital nomad in paradise isn’t the same as vacationing, but I’m pretty sure I won’t get much done if I’m in Bora Bora.

4 – RB40 Jr. needs stability

Mini me has been a pretty good traveler so far. We have been to a few places in California and went camping a couple of times already. He seems to take new things in stride. He probably needs more stability as he get a bit older though. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid and I always felt rootless. It’s hard to make new friends when you’re dropped into a new environment. Education is also a big concern as I wrote last week in  Education options for our kid if we move to Thailand.

I would prefer not move around so much after RB40 Jr. starts school. We can travel during summer breaks and take a couple of weeks off here and there.

5 – Mrs. RB40 is not of nomad stock

This is the main reason why I can’t be a digital nomad. Mrs. RB40 is not a nomad at all. She lived in one town when she was growing up. She is still friends with her kindergarten teacher, for goodness sake! When we travel, she’ll unpack her bags and put all her clothes into the hotel’s drawers. That’s a bit strange to me because I never unpacked my bag when I traveled alone. I just leave everything in the bag and have a dirty pile… Yes, I know, men are slobs.

She likes traveling too but I think she likes the coming home part even more. She is very attached to our home. She has a lot of stuff with sentimental value and likes having a place to store them. Even if we became digital nomads, she would want to keep our place. Here is your chance to hear from Mrs. RB40.

Would you consider living a digital nomad lifestyle?

Mrs. RB40> Not anymore. I like traveling, but I also like having a sense of place where I would stay in the same location for an extended period of time.  After I left the Peace Corps, I traveled on my own for about 3 months throughout Malaysia and Thailand before coming home to the US. I shipped the bulk of my stuff to my grandparents house, so I only had a small bag with me.

I spent a full week in one location in Penang, Malaysia, which is a long time in one place by nomadic standards, before crossing the border into Southern Thailand. I loved using my hostel as a home base and explored much of the island by foot and chatted with the locals (yes, they spoke English). I feel like I really got to know a place and where things were.  I met people who packed up and moved on within a day or two, but they only got a glimpse of a place.  I was in a travel office where I ran into a woman who was debating where to go next.  She had a ‘been there, done that’ attitude (every place she’d seen was boring), but she’d only had a glimpse of local life in each location before moving on, and I told myself that I never wanted to be like that when I travel. After three months, I was ready to come home.

How about part time digital nomad? What if we live in Chiangmai for 6 months and in Portland for 6 months. After Jr. goes off to college of course.

Mrs. RB40> Yes.  I would want to retain our Portland home, which I would be open to renting out for the duration we are gone.  We would either rent a place in Chiangmai or stay at the RB40’s condo (currently rented out).  This would give me an opportunity to really immerse myself in the Thai language, which I never use in the US, and to use Chiangmai as a base when exploring the surrounding area. I like being able to walk around and explore a place on foot (which the locals think is crazy – locals stay inside where there is air-con) so I can remember where things are.  Joe is right — I like to unpack.  If I am in a hostel, there is no place to unpack, so I feel like I have to waste time repacking every time I need to find something.  But when I unpack, I have things in separate drawers and know where everything is.

What do you think about RB40 and Jr. going off to be a digital nomad for a few months? Maybe the boys can go off during summer breaks and be back in time for school.

Mrs. RB40> The summer break is a great time for the boys to indulge their traveling needs.  Three months is a long time to not see Jr.  I guess three months is a long time to not see the husband, too.  I’d want to meet up with them for a week or two here and there.  So if they go somewhere, and end up being in a place for a week, I’ll join them for that week, and then come home.

Nomadic Lifestyle isn’t for everyone

The digital nomad lifestyle certainly sounds very attractive, but I don’t know if it’s for everyone. Some of us like staying put more than moving around all the time. The wandering lifestyle is probably better when you are young as well. When you have a family, things get more complicated. We can probably do it for 3-6 months once Mrs. RB40 retire AND the little guy is out of the house, but for now, we like staying at home. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Mrs. RB40.

photo credit: flickr by canorus

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Daddy Domestic October 21, 2013 at 3:07 am

Great article Joe. I’m glad to see someone else finds long term travel tiring. I have traveled extensively and have found the ideal duration for a trip to be 20 or 21 days. At that point I’m getting tired of the daily little hassles….like looking catching the right train/bus, staying in a strange hotel bed, where to eat my meals. Yep, after 3 weeks I’m ready to be in my own house and my own bed, where I know where everything is.
-Bryan

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 8:55 am

Three weeks is just about right for us too. I can probably do 8 weeks if we’re not moving around all the time, but the missus probably wouldn’t want to.

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Maverick October 21, 2013 at 4:26 am

I also agree with 3 or 4 weeks maximum. Before ER/FI, I would travel to Europe (usually Germany or Norway) for factory inspection tests periodically. After 3 weeks of living out of a suitcase I had enough and looked forward to coming home to my wife and home. And that was after spending time in places like Nice, France, Oslo, Norway, and Munich, Germany and travelling business class. It’s true, there’s no place like home. But it is great to travel on occasion.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 8:56 am

It’s probably better if your wife goes with you. I find it hard to travel by myself. It’s too lonely for me.

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Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle October 21, 2013 at 5:30 am

I don’t sleep well if I am not in my own bed so I would not be very a very productive worker moving from 5 star hotel to 5 star hotel.

Plus, who would let the dog out if I wasn’t here?

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 8:58 am

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention our cats. It’s not cheap to hire a pet sitter when we go on long trips.

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davidmichael October 21, 2013 at 5:47 am

Fun column. Well…I have been on the road for over 12 years now, working for five, attending college once again to get another MA, and RVing in the USA. Our first ten years in retirement (of 20) were working on our genteel homestead which kept us prisoner to the garden and fix-it-up mentality. Finally sold everything to teach overseas.

But…my wife is ready to buy a condo in Eugene, so we are currently working at Amazon as a Workamper in Fernley, NV for the Holidays. Oh yeah…in a few months I’ll be 77 years young.

Of course, the kids are all grown and we now have 11 grandchildren. But…all of the opportunities one had when younger also apply to retirement. I bicycle camped across the USA for three months at age 60, and then New Zealand at age 65 using hostals. Since then we have bicycled Europe, Ireland, Nova Scotia, etc. So…be open to all possibilities.

Now we work camp during the Xmas season to add to our cash bucket, trying to keep $50,000 in it. But, I promised my wife that by age 80, we will settle down, at least for the summer months where we can focus on the beauty of Oregon and spend time with friends and family. Winter? Who knows? The world beckons. (By the way, all of this great lifestyle on $3000 or less a month. About 30% of what we earned during my professional years.)

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:01 am

Wow, 12 years. That’s a long time to be on the road. Oregon summer is just so special. Why leave when it’s so nice here.
Perhaps someday the missus will try this lifestyle. We’ll see. I need to work on it.

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Sandy October 21, 2013 at 5:57 am

I wonder if it’s a female thing…I always unpack when I travel, even when it’s a night. Makes it so much easier to find what you need. I also like the idea of having a home base. As great as traveling is, at some point it’s really nice to go home. As a second side note…I’m an engineer and firmly believe in not connecting to work while on vacation. What else is vacation for? But I am a minority in that regard where I work. Keep up the great articles!

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:03 am

Heh heh, I’m sure it’s a female thing. Guys just don’t want to deal with packing and unpacking.
Engineers need to realize they are just a cog in a big corporation. They are not irreplaceable.
Thanks for commenting.

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Holly@ClubThrifty October 21, 2013 at 6:05 am

I mostly agree that work and vacation don’t mix. I always try to work on vacation and it rarely works out. I would rather take a regular vacation when I need to and get a real break from work.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

I never get anything done when I’m on vacation. It’s no use to even try. My mind isn’t in the right state.

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Financial Samurai October 21, 2013 at 6:33 am

Life goes by so quick. I agree, do it when you’re young. Or when you’re old and can set aside a sabbatical. You guys can still do it for 3-6 months if you want.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:05 am

We’ll probably travel a lot more when the kid finishes high school. It will be much more convenient then.
For now we’ll just travel 2-3 weeks/year.

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Insourcelife October 21, 2013 at 6:54 am

We love travelling but the best part is usually coming back and sleeping in our own bed. The worst part is usually knowing that we have to go back to work. I think once we reach FI and the NEED for work is eliminated we’ll travel a bit more but I doubt we will ever be comfortable living a nomadic lifestyle. I agree that once you have children the call of the road diminishes significantly. We want our son to have a place where he has long term friends and feels truly at home.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:05 am

Oh yeah, going back to work is such a huge drag. :)

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Done by Forty October 21, 2013 at 7:52 am

I appreciate these sorts of posts, Joe, because we’re planning on having a family in the next few years. We have the urge to try to do the digital nomad thing for a little while, so maybe we should plan on sooner rather than later.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 9:06 am

I think a few people are doing it while their kids are young. It would be hard once the kids start school though. They need more stability and routine.

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C. the Romanian October 21, 2013 at 9:16 am

I am one that dreams of becoming a digital nomad (not really always on the go – spend a minimum of three months here, then move) but now that Baby Romanian was born and he’s just three months old, priorities have changed. After he starts going to school, it’s pretty clear that we won’t be able to do it (except for the summer holiday – a nice idea!) and waiting until he goes to college sounds sooo far into the future.

But I do hope that we’ll be able to do this or at least try it by the time he’s 7 and has to go to school. Seems like the best time for me and since it’s a dream I’ve always had, I simply have to follow it!

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:29 pm

3 months in one spot is not bad. I want to go to Thailand with the kid for 6 weeks or so soon. The missus can join us for 2 of those. :)

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The College Investor October 21, 2013 at 9:21 am

Becoming a digital nomad is definitely not for everyone. I would probably say yes, when I was younger, but having a family means leaning more into a different lifestyle, one that has the stability of having a place we can call home, instead of moving from one place to another.

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Brittany October 21, 2013 at 9:23 am

Can I be the lady that says she doesn’t unpack everything from her bag when she travels? ;) Because then you’re just going to have to repack everything and that’s a waste of time! I like to grab and go.

To me, it’s easy to be away from home for long periods of time. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s harder for me to be house-sitting somewhere else in Portland and know that I *could* go home, but I’m going to have to take the time to get there, will likely putter around a bit, and then have to get back to where I’m staying.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Heh heh, nice one. I hate repacking too. It’s such a pain.

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moneystepper October 21, 2013 at 10:11 am

I think having children is probably the biggest obstacle to living nomadically. Its not a complete no-no, but stability is very important for young children and so moving around may not be the best option.

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Mom @ Three is Plenty October 21, 2013 at 10:12 am

I love traveling, but I also love coming home after a trip. I enjoy taking time to see local things (culture, eating, etc), but most of my work trips are quite whirlwind-like, so I have to settle for the highlights.

I couldn’t be a nomad for long though – I like knowing that I have a house and “normal” life to come back to at the end of a trip.

Also, I’m another woman who never unpacks in a hotel/hostel – it’s easier to just live out of my suitcase.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Work trips are no fun at all. I never had anytime to see the sights.

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Kurt @ Money Counselor October 21, 2013 at 10:15 am

I’d like to try the digital nomad routine for a year or so. None of your challenges apply to me, except perhaps #5 for Ms. Money Counselor. I think the biggest hurdle for me is that I really like where we live, so I don’t have a strong urge to visit other places for extended periods!

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Maybe you can sell 3 months to the missus. :)

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Martin October 21, 2013 at 11:12 am

I’m 25 and am not too keen on long-term travel. I sort of like my friends and my home. I enjoy going on trips here and there when I can.

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Pretired Nick October 21, 2013 at 11:15 am

I’d do it in a second if I was single. But you’re so right, with a family things are complicated. Nowadays I think we’re more likely to move for an extended period to another place vs. just exploring non-stop on the road. Sometimes I do fantasize about selling everything and just living on the road, even with the family. But somehow it doesn’t seem all that realistic anymore.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Heh heh, I think many guys have that fantasy. It’s becoming less realistic as we get older. :)

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Michelle October 21, 2013 at 11:15 am

This is something that we are really debating. I really like having our house, and while long-term travel sounds appealing, I do want to keep a home base. We also have dogs and I would never get rid of them to travel, so we would need to find GOOD people to take care of them and not put them on the backburner.

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retirebyforty October 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Oh man, dogs are a huge issue. Good luck.

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Squirrelers October 21, 2013 at 11:51 am

The digital nomad lifestyle isn’t congruent with family life, I agree. If no kids are in the picture, that’s a different story. It could be pretty cool then.

But it’s in no way a sustainable life model, and I think many that believe it could be just don’t consider the realities of life if they decided to start a family.

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krantcents October 21, 2013 at 5:25 pm

As an older person, I like my luxuries! I do not need the best hotels , but I like 4 & 5 star hotels at a discount. If I cannot get reasonable value, I also B & B’s. It is more personal and reasonable. I like the comforts and why travel if you have to go too cheap. I think you miss out on the experience of traveling.

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:12 am

I think even 4&5 stars hotels can get old after a few weeks. I don’t mind hostels at all. It’s great to meet backpackers and other travelers. The missus lean toward your view though.

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Mark October 21, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I used to dream of traveling extensively and walking the Appalachian trail in one spring/summer once I was out of school. But as often happens, I never felt I had the money- mostly due to saving for a house down-payment. Now I have 2 kids and I have already started looking forward to traveling with them when they get a little older…there are few things in life that are more precious than seeing your child experience something for the first time you know. And just maybe…maybe I’ll get one of them to walk the trail with me some day…

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:12 am

Good luck convincing your kid to take the trip with you. I’ll try to take some trip with the kid too when he gets older.

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SuburbanFinance October 21, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I would LOVE to be a digital nomad. I think I could do it. But then again, I don’t even like travelling all that much – a couple of weeks away from home and I’m craving my own bed, my routine, and normalcy.

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:13 am

Hahaha, you should try it for a few weeks and see if you can do it.

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Justin @ RootofGood October 22, 2013 at 11:01 am

We are in the same boat with our 3 miniRootofGood’s. I don’t think I could handle homeschooling the older ones, and a 1.5 year old running around a foreign country would be “interesting”. And a lot of work!

We may give expat living a shot for a few months at some point in the next couple years. Mrs. RootofGood is due for her sabbatical any time, and the kids are out of school for the summer. It would be a perfect time to find somewhere interesting to visit for a month or two.

But life here in our city is pretty good right now, so we aren’t in a rush to leave. We would miss the social contacts we have here, and the ease of life. Quick, convenient access to things like libraries, grocery stores, safe roads, etc. that we take for granted.

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:14 am

Our kid just doesn’t follow direction. I’m afraid to go to another country with him. I think in a couple of years, he’ll be ready to go.
I like our infrastructure too. It’s very comfortable for us.
Have fun on your sabbatical. It should be a great experience.

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Bryce @ Save and Conquer October 22, 2013 at 11:35 am

For all the reasons you cite, I could never live a nomadic life. At least not in this day and age. Health problems kind of keep me from traveling too much anymore, as well.

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:16 am

Health problem is a huge one as we age. I have some health issue, but it’s under control. Hopefully, I can maintain my health for a long time.

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Dividend Mantra October 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Joe,

Great post. Very interesting topic.

This is something (nomadic lifestyle vs. staying put) I think about often myself. A few years ago I would have loved to be on the road, writing from my laptop in Thailand. The freedom is alluring.

However, as I grow a bit older (31 and counting) the wanderlust beckons a bit less. I don’t have a family, but moving around seems jarring and I wonder if it might get old quick. I don’t particularly like the idea of visa runs, sitting in airports, long flights, paperwork, bureaucracy, currency issues, etc. Certainly I love the idea of culture and getting out of my comfort zone, but I don’t need to move across the world for that.

I continue to think about this. Great stuff!

Best wishes.

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retirebyforty October 23, 2013 at 6:20 am

3 months per year would be great. I think that would avoid a lot of the problems you mentioned.
That’s why we think it would be better to live in one spot for several years. Then take short trips around that region.
Many countries have retirement visa now.
Thanks for dropping by!

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TommyVee October 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Just want to chime in with the opposing viewpoint.
I am an independent software developer, somewhere on the financial independence/early retirement continuum (I work but less than full time). We travel every year, we share ownership of a house in Costa Rica and go there, and we travel in the US and Europe too. Our kids are grown, but they have traveled lots with us over the years. So I guess I am a part-time digital nomad, and I like it.
We keep our house in Colorado, sometimes renting out a bedroom or two while we travel, and I don’t mind mixing travel and work. There is lots of dead time on planes, buses, and trains so why not do some work and earn some money. Mostly our trips are less than 6 weeks, and after that we are glad to get home, but having flexible work means we can travel for months out of the year instead of weeks, and we like it that way. Pretty much never change locations every night, usually find a place we like and stay for a while, works for us, I think people dissing the “digital nomad” lifestyle have mostly not actually tried it to see how they like it, reacting from preconception instead of experience.

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retirebyforty October 24, 2013 at 11:38 pm

It’s great to hear you are making it work. I think it’s an attractive lifestyle too, but the missus really dislike it.
I think being a part time digital nomad would work much better for most people. Full time just seems like too much.

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Andrea Travillian October 25, 2013 at 6:49 am

Love this article! It is so important to remember we all want different things out of life and that our wants change over time. We lived overseas in Australia before our son was born and did tons of traveling. While we travel all the time with our son (his first flight was at the age of 8 and he has multiple frequent flyer accounts), it is much harder to do. Plus once he hit school we now work around the school schedule. We are not interested in home schooling, so we live with traveling when we can and we enjoy our new approach. We too would be open to having 2 places once the little one is out of the house! Just remember you have to do what you want, not what others want!

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retirebyforty October 25, 2013 at 8:46 am

Thanks for sharing your view. We don’t travel much now, but we’ll do more when our son is a bit older. Maybe around 4-5. Having a home would be great for swapping too if you’re in a touristy location.

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