Having spent the last 16+ years as a digital nomad, and with a former career as a financial planner, NerdWallet spokesperson and founder of The Professional Hobo, Nora Dunn has amassed a vault of information on living the best possible life as a digital nomad. This includes ways to spend money creatively to get the best bang for your buck, tips to reduce unnecessary (even sneaky) expenses and fees, and strategies to keep yourself and your finances safe and secure. Who better to give us personal financial tips for digital nomads?
With all this expertise and lived experience, it was a no-brainer for us to ask Nora for advice for solo travelers who are or want to become digital nomads. Here are Nora's top tips to help you manage your money on your digital nomad journey.
Financial Tips for Digital Nomads: The Big Picture
Financial planning is best approached from the top down, which means starting with the big picture (mainly income and expenses) and planning from there. Here's how this applies to digital nomads.
I am constantly asked for digital nomad budget templates, and I always refuse to provide them. Why? Because the digital nomad lifestyle varies dramatically. No two digital nomads will have the same budget!
Your own budget will depend on factors like pace of travel, choice of destination, comfort preferences, the sorts of travel activities you like to do, and more. Scuba diving in the Seychelles will inherently be more expensive than volunteering in Bolivia.
You'll also find your budget will evolve as your digital nomad lifestyle does. While I was initially pleasantly surprised to discover my own cost to travel full time was less than I ever spent to live in one place, there were years when my spending was much higher. Everything is a choice.
The first step to creating any budget – and the only way to deal with the ever-evolving digital nomad cash flow – is to track every dollar (or peso, lira, euro, etc) you spend. There are apps to help you track expenses in multiple currencies, such as Trail Wallet and Travel Spend.
Tracking expenses will help you understand your spending and make bigger-picture planning decisions. It will also help you ensure you stay on budget over the course of each month; if you notice your spending is uncomfortably high one month, you can adjust accordingly.
With a flexible budget and fluctuating expenses, it's good to have some cash on hand to cover splurges or unexpected expenses. I like to keep a rainy-day slush fund in a high-interest savings account just in case. This is separate from my emergency fund, which is only for emergencies and has enough money to get me home from anywhere in the world in a pinch.
While cash is still king in some countries, plastic is increasingly the preferred way to pay for stuff. Here are some top tips.
I always suggest having at least two credit cards and one debit card. That way, if one credit card is lost or frozen (as can happen from time to time when charging expenses in foreign countries), you'll have another card handy. I also keep the cards separate, so if my wallet goes missing, I'll still have the spare card to get me by.
When choosing which credit cards to travel with, make sure at least one of your cards is a Visa or Mastercard, which are more widely accepted than American Express and others. Here are handy charts to help you compare the best Canadian credit cards for travel and the top US travel credit cards.
When you charge expenses to your credit card and pay it off in full when your statement arrives, you don't pay any interest. This is because credit cards feature an interest-free grace period on expenses. However, if you use your credit card to pull money out of an ATM, it's not only considered a cash advance that will cost you $5 on the spot, but the interest-free grace period is nullified, and daily interest starts compounding on your entire balance as of your ATM withdrawal date. It's an expensive mistake.
One of the Biggest Financial Tips for Digital Nomads: Avoid Currency Conversion Traps
Currency conversion fees are unavoidable when you travel the world, and they're the silent killers of travel budgets if you're not careful. I didn't see them coming, but once I learned about them, I was horrified how badly I was getting fleeced. Here's what I learned.
When you charge something in a foreign currency to most credit cards, they add an additional 3% to the base currency conversion rate and pocket the difference. Sneaky, right? The way to avoid this is to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees (also expressed as no F/X fees). With these cards they'll convert the expense at base rates, effectively saving you the 3% surcharge on everything you spend abroad.
Always Pay in Local Currency
You might think you're getting a great deal when the cashier offers to charge a foreign expense in your home currency, but it's even worse than what the credit card company does! The (again, invisible) foreign transaction fees can be as high as 10%. Always decline and pay the expense in the local currency of the destination you are visiting at that time.
As a digital nomad, especially if you're self-employed as a freelancer or online business owner, you're likely getting paid in multiple currencies, transferring that money into your home currency, and paying for expenses in other currencies. Every time you convert money you're going to pay for that privilege; the question simply is how much you're going to pay.
While PayPal is the industry standard for making and receiving payments, their fee structure is ambiguous and exorbitant. When I realized I could save $2,000/year in (mostly invisible) fees by using an online global bank like Wise or Revolut instead, I made the move, and I haven’t looked back.
Nora Dunn is a former Certified Financial Planner who has lived the digital nomad lifestyle since 2006. She is a personal finance and travel expert at NerdWallet.ca and shares her digital nomad lifestyle adventures and resources at TheProfessionalHobo.com.
Nora was also a guest in the Solo Traveler Insiders Speaker Series. To view a recording of our interview with her, where she shares many more tips, join the Solo Traveler Insiders here.