About Author: Hi, I’m Jessica Suess, an Aussie who moved to the UK for studies and ended up on a global journey as a freelancing digital nomad. I’m recently settled in Brazil, navigating finances and sharing what I have learned. See My Full Bio.
I became a digital nomad in 2018. I traveled for a little over three years before settling down as an expat in 2022. When I set out, I imagined the experience a bit like an extended holiday, but I would work freelance while traveling to pay for it.
With this mindset, I wasn’t worried about finances. I was already living in a foreign country, where I had been a student and then worked, and I wasn’t planning on returning. I thought I would travel for a while and then head back to my home country. I would sort my finances out when I got home.
This lack of preparation meant that I was not fully prepared for the financial challenges of the digital nomad lifestyle. I thought I had done my due diligence. I acquired travel health insurance, secured multiple income streams, and put money aside so I could support myself for a few weeks and buy a ticket home if I needed to.
Actually living the life turned out to be a big learning curve. Below are four things I wish I knew about money before becoming a digital nomad.
1. Track Your Spending
At the start of my digital nomad journey, I was heading to countries with a much lower cost of living. I was paying half as much as my previous rent for accommodation, using a combination of hostels, Airbnb, and shared houses. I could eat out and eat well for just a few dollars a day, and I could afford luxuries that would have been a stretch before.
But when everything is so affordable, and you have an extended holiday mindset, it becomes easy to spend without thinking. Sure, you can afford a round of drinks. Why not jump in a taxi rather than take public transport? A weekend trip to a local island is a justifiable indulgence.
But continuously spending in this way broke my budget and was forced into hermit mode. I was eating at home, spending my nights working instead of out with friends, and missing opportunities to see some of the amazing things around me.
Moreover, because I wasn’t tracking my spending, I didn’t clearly understand where the problems were. My instinct was to blame the weekend trips, even though these were why I was traveling. But a bigger problem was the back-to-back coffees and snacks I was consuming while working in cafes and co-working spaces. These were an overlooked and unnecessary indulgence.
All of this could have been avoided if I had established a budget that prioritized funds for the things that I really wanted to do and tracked my day-to-day spending to avoid overindulgence.
I now budget pretty far ahead to make sure I have enough money put aside for my next flights and visas and for the things that I really want to do in the area. I also monitor my day-to-day spending, currently with the Mint App, so I can track and categorize my spending on the go.
2. Organize Local Banking
When I started out as a digital nomad, I had money in my bank account, but spending it was not always easy.
In many places I found that shops and restaurants didn’t accept cards at all, let alone my international ones. Finding ATMs that accepted my foreign cards was also challenging. And when I did find them, the fees were scary.
I got a big shock when I was in Argentina in 2018. At that time, the Argentinian Peso was volatile and losing value daily. This meant that every time I used an ATM, I noticed the international transaction fee increasing. This was made worse by the fact that cash machines had a low daily withdrawal limit, ostensibly to reduce thefts and muggings.
This became a big problem when I wanted to get a visa for my next destination, which I had to pay for in cash because I didn’t have a local bank account. I had to go to the bank on five consecutive days to get all the cash I needed, plus I was charged some shocking fees.
I was in Argentina for three months and considered opening a local bank account. I decided against it because I assumed that it would be expensive to transfer my money into the account and that the money would start losing value as soon as I converted it to pesos.
But two years later, when I was in Brazil, opening a local bank account was one of the first things I did. Banking improved a lot in South America within those two years. I opened an online bank account with Nu Bank within a couple of minutes, and my card arrived within a couple of days. Putting money into the account was quick and easy with Wise. (Check out our Wise review)
These days, I don’t go to the trouble of opening a local bank account, since I can generate a virtual local card. This lets me pay as if I am using a local bank account using Apple or Google Pay. I use Wise, and they are great, but there are plenty more services out there.
Again, I never get a physical SIM card anymore, and instead get virtual SIMs. This also means that I can keep my main number for my “master SIM” (which also means my WhatsApp number).
Many local operators offer this service, and it is as easy as downloading an app. You can even do it before you arrive so that you have coverage upon landing. No need to rely on airport Wi-Fi!
3. Establish a Permanent Address
When I started my digital nomad journey, I was already not living in my home country. I had gone to the UK to study and work for a few years. By the time I was ready to leave, my main bank account was there, I had a pension fund, and things like my PayPal account were registered there. But I didn’t have any family in the UK.
This meant that when I left, the easiest thing for me to do was maintain my principal financial identity in the UK. But without any family there, I didn’t have the necessary local UK address. After a few months, I found it difficult to do many of the things that I needed. I still have no idea what happened to several important pieces of mail, including bank cards.
This ended up being quite a juggle. While I could change many things to my parents’ address back in my home country, other things were more complex. For example, with PayPal, your registered bank account must belong to your country of residence. So, while I wanted to change my address to my home country, it would mean disconnecting my UK bank account, which was still my primary account.
I learned the hard way that a digital nomad should establish a permanent address, usually in their home country, before setting off. If you are working remotely and still contributing to social security schemes, this is essential. If you work for yourself and issue invoices, your business needs an address.
For most people, this is not a huge problem, as you can rely on family members with a permanent address. But for me, and many others, this wasn’t realistic.
For several months while I was getting myself sorted out, I used a remote address service called Any Time Mailbox. I chose them because they function both in my home country, the UK, and many other countries. They also give you a proper street address, rather than just a PO Box, which is important because PO Boxes aren’t always accepted when filling in forms. They can scan your mail so you can check it online, and forward anything important to wherever you are in the world.
4. Get Financial Help
I went freelance at the same time I became a digital nomad. But despite the change in my income level and source, I wasn’t worried. I assumed that I would not stay in any one country for more than 183 days, so would never become liable for local taxes. I thought I would sort out my taxes and pension when I got home.
As fate would have it, I never made it home, except to visit. Instead, I found myself settling down as an expat in a new country and becoming a tax resident, with multiple pension funds in three different countries.
Before I settled down as an expat, I admit that I wasn’t paying taxes anywhere. This could have been a major headache for me when re-establishing my official tax status. I have heard horror stories from fellow digital nomads about big bills for back taxes.
Despite making it through this challenge unscathed, I wish I had sorted this out at the beginning, as both a question of conscience and convenience. It also means that I missed more than three years of pension contributions. I might not be feeling that now, but I probably will in the future.
A lot of digital nomads will tell you a similar story. Part of the reason for this is that it can be so challenging to manage your income tax and other finances while traveling. It is often unclear where you should be paying, how much you should be paying, and the actual process of declaring your income and making payments.
In my opinion, one of the best things you can do is enlist the help of a financial advisor. It is a worthwhile investment to protect against financial headaches.
You Will Never Be Fully Prepared
While I hope that sharing my experience can help prepare you for the financial challenges of the digital nomad lifestyle, I also think that you can never be 100% prepared. There is always something unexpected around the corner. The reality is that you need to be constantly monitoring and updating your finances in response to your current economic situation.
I will leave you with a final anecdote. When I set off in 2018, I put money aside for a ticket home in case I ever needed it. I never touched that money. However, when I decided to book a ticket home to visit in 2023, the cost of flights to my home country had almost doubled. A combination of the pandemic and rising oil prices.
So, while I thought I had myself covered in case of emergencies if that moment had come, I would not have had enough money to get home. For those who have been wondering throughout this whole article, yes my home country is Australia, so those flights were very expensive!