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Interview with an Urban Nomad

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urban nomad side hustle

The following article is from Melanie, our staff writer. Melanie is in the beginning phase of her journey to Financial Freedom and she’ll offer a refreshing point of view for us.

I’m very excited to interview one of my best friends, Brittany Hassell! I met her, along with Joe, at our local bloggers meet-up over a year ago.  We instantly bonded over our love of travel, languages, side hustling, frugality, and cats.  She quickly became one of my main inspirations, as she lives her life completely in her own way, often doing things a bit differently.

In the past year, Brittany has moved from being a full-time employee to an urban nomad – and the best part? She is making more money now than she was at her job and has been able to travel to eight countries this year.

More about Brittany:

Hello!  A big thank you to Melanie and Joe for having me here today. I am a professional house-sitter that takes care of people’s pets and housing while they’re away. I gave up my apartment in June and now live wherever in Portland that I need to be. I have several different part-time jobs that pay me well and provide me with the flexibility to have adventures and travel. In Portland I enjoy long walks, hiking in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, camping at the Oregon coast, visiting Portland’s many breweries, cooking delicious food, reading, and much more! Follow the adventure on Twitter or Instagram.

Interview:

How did you go from being a full-time employee to being an urban nomad?

I had plans to go to Antarctica in January of this year, so needed to be doing a lot of extra work to save money for such a long and expensive trip. For three years I worked a full-time job in addition to doing any other money-making tasks. I worked as a seasonal sales associate at Old Navy, did pet-sitting, worked as a booth sitter for friends at the Portland Saturday Market, helped crafty friends before large craft shows, cleaned houses, wrote copy for products, did taste testing and other market research, made soap, and more!

Monday through Friday I would go to my full-time desk job down in Clackamas and sit around and be bored. I would have set tasks that needed to be done, but after I had done them I had a LOT of free time. I would try and help co-workers with products, clean, and do anything I could to try and fill my time, but I was just so completely bored. (I should add, I really liked my co-workers and the job itself wasn’t horrible by any means. I just didn’t have enough to do.)

The day I got laid off from my job I had tweeted that morning that I was making as much or more in my side hustles that I was at my desk job. This was the eye-opening “ah ha!” moment that made me realize that I could probably work for myself and be okay. I went to lunch and when I returned my boss handed me my last paycheck, told me that I was a great employee but that she could see the job wasn’t a good fit for me, and we both cried a little. As I sat in my car I was both excited and nervous about my future. After the initial shock wore off I realized I was very excited about my newfound freedom to take on jobs that I wanted to do and to continue to do the jobs I loved that I was already doing.

In June of this year I gave up my apartment and went full-time nomadic as a professional house-sitter, carrying one large plastic tote with me from house to house that contains some clothes, my toiletries, a few pairs of shoes, my coffee making setup, and a little bit more. I still have a few things in some friends’ basement, namely camping and other outdoorsy gear and some house things that I want to keep for whenever I have a place to live again. I use a combination of a pet-sitting service and my own means to fill my schedule with house-sitting. So far it’s worked out well and I have only had a night or two here and there where I don’t have a place to stay, so I’m thankful to have friends who take care of me during those times!

What was the most difficult part about the transition?

The most difficult part was the “what ifs.” What if I don’t have a place to stay? Where will I go? What if my friends start to think I’m a mooch? What if I somehow am not able to work different jobs? I now see that things are totally working out and I’m thankful for that!

interview urban nomad house sitter pet sitterAside from pet-sitting and house-sitting, what side hustles do you do to afford your nomadic lifestyle?

I am thankful to be working for friends doing part time jobs that end up both paying me well and give me the freedom and flexibility to lead a happy life. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I nanny for my friends’ baby girl, on Tuesdays I work as a production assistant for two different local artists, and on the weekends I am usually working at the Portland Saturday Market. I also recently got hired by a friend for a data retrieval project that is online-only, which is nice because it means I can work on it from anywhere! My schedule will soon be changing a little bit because I will be taking German classes and tree planting season will soon be here and that means my Wednesday mornings will be taken up with playing outside and planting trees for a local organization.

What are the benefits of being a nomad?

I love making money while loving on people’s pets and living in their houses. Why pay rent when someone will pay me to live in their house? My monthly bills are only around $500, which is very easy to cover, so any income after that is used for the fun stuff (which, yes, includes saving for retirement)! I love knowing that I actually wear all the clothes and use most of the things I own. I know I need to do another sweep of what’s in my friends’ basement to get rid of more stuff!

Being a nomad can be a logistical challenge – for example, where do you store your stuff? Do you have a permanent address for mail? How does having a dog affect your living situation?

As mentioned before, I am thankful to have friends with a large basement let me keep my things there. For mail, I have a mailbox at the post office near my friend’s studio that I work at on Tuesdays, so every week I check my mail after I’m done. I have other friends that let me use their physical address for the things that require it, such as DMV registration, driver’s license, and the like.

So far having a dog has not seemed to affect my living situation. I state quite clearly on my pet-sitting profile that I have a mellow senior pug who is coming with me. If the people still want me to house-sit and they have a dog who is aggressive there are means of still making it work for both of us.

travel urban nomad lifestyleThis year alone you’ve traveled to eight countries! How do you afford it all?

Yes, I’m so thankful for that! This year I have gone to Argentina, Antarctica, Chile, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Canada! I afford all of this travel by not having many bills, being mindful of my money (I have epic budgeting and income spreadsheets), not eating out all the time, not buying things I don’t need, and making travel a priority. Also, through travel hacking (churning credit cards for miles).

Recently, we talked about you raising your rates significantly – and successfully! How did you do it?

I was originally charging a house-sitting rate that was higher than average for my area because I do a great job of taking care of people’s houses and pets while they are gone. It is a priority for me to do a good job because this is how I have housing and am able to lead the life I do, so I want that to keep happening. I had a client contact me and say she would pay me more per night than my stated rate because she wanted to ensure she had the best care available for her dog. After I completed the stay I decided to raise my rates across the board and see if people would still hire me and, guess what, they did! I now have some of the most reviews on the pet-sitting site I use for people in my area and that’s all with charging the higher price. (Link to reviews at the end of the article.) So people can see that they are paying for a higher standard of care and will get what they’re paying for.

What personal finance principles do you abide by to make this lifestyle work?

I’m not always perfect at this, but I do self-correct because I don’t want to be in debt, I don’t like owing people money, and I like to have both long-term and short-term savings. I use my aforementioned spreadsheets to track my income and my monthly budget. As I don’t always have the same income every month I have to make sure I have money in savings to account for the lean months. I usually put 20% of my income into my retirement accounts, although right now I’m paying down a small loan, so I’m throwing all of my extra money at that until it’s gone.

I want to be like you! What tips would you give me (or any reader) to get started on living a frugal, nomadic, side hustler lifestyle?

I think the #1 tip would be mindfulness. Make your money work for you. Think about the purchases you’re making. Are you owning your things or do your things own you? I may spend more money on a nice jacket, but I know it will be better quality and last longer. I buy things that are fixable and I pay to get them fixed. (I have my tailor on speed dial. I’m not joking.) I sometimes say no to myself because I don’t always need to have delicious iced coffees when I’m out running errands and sometimes I think I would rather buy lunch than wait an hour and eat a lunch at home. But you know what? You’ll go crazy if you never let yourself do any of these things, so every so often I enjoy a coffee or a burrito because I know that I’m not choosing to do these things all the time.

Perhaps you have skills that you could use to bring in a little extra income, such as computer work, cleaning, organizing, or dog walking. Choose to take public transit or ride your bike. Choose to eat more real food instead of expensive pre-packaged foods that really aren’t food-like anyway. Have friends over for drinks instead of going out and spending $10 on a cocktail. Meet friends for walks or at a park instead of going out and spending money on food. Borrow books from your local library instead of buying them. All the little things can add up to something big!

Thank you so much Brittany for giving us a glimpse into your life! If you have any questions for Brittany, she is willing to respond to comments. You can read her reviews and hire the best pet-sitter in town through rover.com. 

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Jon October 6, 2014, 6:12 am

    Great story. I know the mix of excitement/worry when getting laid off. When I was laid off in 2013, I had so many emotions running through my head. I did nothing for the first few days, but play a lot of golf. It helped me to clear my head and think about my next step in life. I was blogging at the time and making some income, but not enough to completely replace my desk job income. I still took the (scary) leap into freelancing, and love every minute of it!

  • Jason October 6, 2014, 11:33 am

    This sounds really fun. I’m not sure if I’d be up for visiting 8 countries in a year, but maybe 2 or 3 would be ok.

    Being “houseless” makes me nervous, though. My concern would be if there’s a few months where there’s no house sitting to be done. Would you be staying with friends? It would seem that a hotel or AirBnB would be too expensive to consider for more than about a week.

    • retirebyforty October 6, 2014, 9:31 pm

      I must be getting a bit old. 8 countries sounds like a lot to me too.

    • Brittany October 12, 2014, 9:12 am

      Hi, Jason! I apologize that I’m just getting to replying to your comment now. Life has been a little crazy with school, work, and buying a car. So far I have not had a time in the past couple of years when I *couldn’t* house-sit. I found that in the past year I had spent a collective total of about three weeks at home between October and May-ish and that was a night or two here and there. Once I realized that I COULD do this I went ahead and did it. I am thankful to have friends that I am able to stay with when I’m not house-sitting. October has been kind of a slow month; however, I’m already completely booked through November and will be spending December and January at the same house. I’m thankful that I have so many repeat clients and clients who are good at spreading info about me through word of mouth. I also volunteer with an organization here in town that leads me to working with lots of people and we chitchat while we’re out planting trees and then I’ve often given business cards to them as well. You never know who will be around to help you, but if you’re open to it then the world helps you out!

  • steve October 6, 2014, 3:19 pm

    Hi Brittany,

    As someone who shares a somewhat similar lifestyle I’ve got a question for you:

    How and where do you manage to find relationship partners who are OK dealing with your unsettled lifestyle? While the ideal of a life of travel and adventure is appealing to a lot of people, the realities involved seem to scare them all off pretty quickly.

    • Brittany October 12, 2014, 9:21 am

      Hi, Steve! I’ve been on OK Cupid since February and I come right out and mention on there this detail. I think it’s important for any potential partners to know how I live in this respect. So far I have had nothing but positive response when it’s mentioned and mostly people are curious about how it works for me. I’ve dated several men through there and the reasons for it not working out with us were always about different issues such as communication, different needs/wants in life, kids vs. no kids, etc, not the fact that I don’t actually live anywhere. I would go as far to say that the guys that I actually did date for some time periods thought that it was pretty neat that sometimes every time they saw me I was living in a different neighbourhood, because I knew good spots in those places for food, drinks, or neat facts or places to explore or that they’d come over for a meal and I would be in a different house with different pets to meet.

      I think while the idea of travel and adventure is alluring to people, sometimes people need to get over the hump of thinking, “Well, I could never do that” about a dream when, really, things are more tangible than one may think. When I first came out and told people in 2011 that I was going to go to Antarctica in 2014 people thought I was nuts! Only a couple people ever knew anyone that went there and it was usually to work, not be a tourist. After I was out of the country for a month and returned with pictures and stories, so many people realized that it IS a feasible option and trips can range between $4000 and up (and even cheaper than $4,000, as there was a girl on our trip who got a last minute deal and went on a three week Antarctica trip for something like $2,000 – ridiculous!), depending on where in the continent you want to go, length of the trip, etc. It’s just something people don’t realize is an option, but I now know two different people who are saving for their big trips!

  • Ravyn October 6, 2014, 3:55 pm

    Love this! As someone who is very stationary (a house, a growing family, and lots of stuff in storage), I have always seen your kind of life as very freeing! I do love sleeping in my own bed, but there are so many elements that you’ve opened my eyes to. As our family grows, I do constantly wonder what it would be like to buy a big van, have a job that can move with us, and just live. My spirit animal is a nomad. Also, our baby girl is the one mentioned in the article. I absolutely love that she’s our daughter’s nanny … I am hoping the mindfulness and adventure rub off on her!

    • Brittany October 12, 2014, 9:23 am

      Awww, yay! Hi, Ravyn! You know I love your family and I love that you and Jimmy have been such supportive friends. I am so thankful that I met y’all and that we have such a great relationship! I know that someday you will get to do your big trips. :o)

  • Mr. Frugalwoods October 7, 2014, 4:10 am

    Wow, that’s quite the lifestyle! There were certainly times in my life where I would have loved living that life! And so cool how you take what some would consider a roadblock (owning a dog) and brush it off and work around it. Lots of people would use that as an excuse for why they couldn’t live the nomadic life.

    And I really like the comment about mindfulness. So applicable whether one is nomadic or not, though it must be more “front of mind” when you have so few actual possessions!

    • Brittany October 12, 2014, 9:26 am

      Aw, thank you for your kind words! I think mindfulness is one of those words that gets tossed around like it’s something bigger than it is, like people think, “I’m trying to do all these things in my life and I don’t have free time and I AM BUSY” and I totally understand that. Lord knows I am in the midst of a two and a half month bender of that myself and it’s really hard right now to be mindful, but I’m doing my best and not beating myself up because I know things will settle down and things will be fine. But I have crazy days where being mindful is so not on my mind. :o)

  • Louise October 7, 2014, 6:42 am

    Wow Brittany, what an inspirational story, it’s interesting to hear how it’s all coming together for you with your various income streams and ideal nomadic lifestyle.

    I especially like the mindful spending, and ensuring you negotiate a fair rate for your services – some strong advice there.

  • Anton Ivanov October 7, 2014, 11:37 am

    Very interesting change in lifestyle! Definitely not something you hear or read about in the financial media most of the time.

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