I spent July in Paris at a writing workshop where I met Olivia (and by extension, her husband, John), a young couple who have left their jobs and are living nomadically for a year.
As they asked me questions, our conversation spawned the idea to write a “Top 10 Nomad Question” blog post: Olivia and John’s questions. My answers. If you are considering a nomadic life, I hope these help you. (Olivia and John, I hope they help you too!)
Olivia is a lovely writer who writes lovely! You can check out their travels here.
I split my replies into 2 posts. Here are the first 5 Q&As.
Enjoy. And bon voyage!
How did your friends and family react when you embarked on this new lifestyle? Have you ever felt like you needed to justify yourself?
When we first moved, our casual friends probably thought going to Slovakia was weird. Our closer friends and family realized we had made some number of alternative life-style choices. Pat was a Mr. Mom, starting in the 80s, well before this was “normal.” One summer, he took our 5-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son, and 10-year-old neighbor on an 8-week road trip. To some degree, I think our good friends thought moving to Slovakia made more sense than that summer road trip! And remember, our first move was an international assignment at the behest of my employer, IBM. It wasn’t exactly our idea. After living in Central Europe for 4 years, when I finally decided to retire, everyone was used to us living in unusual places.
Today, I no longer feel the need to justify our preference for a more minimal life. I don’t miss that life, or the related clutter (mental, physical, metaphorical).
How do you decide where to go? What does your planning process look like, and what are your priorities when choosing a location?
Where to go is less of a process and more of a crap shoot. Our daughter suggested Guatemala, and in that instant, we decided to spend the winter there. I attended a 3-day conference in Marin County, and we stayed a month. We wanted to live near my mother-in-law, and Traverse City, Michigan came into play for 2 months. When our grandson was born, we spent two months near him in Charlottesville, Virginia. We spend six months returning to all our favorite places: Bratislava, Budapest, Courtmacsherry, Ireland (a village that friends found years ago).
That first year of travel (after retirement), once the locations were chosen, I booked a full year the prior November—apartments, travel, everything (although I don’t recommend this for new nomads since it takes away the ability to course correct). I captured everything in a spreadsheet (address, confirmation number, cancellation terms, phone numbers, etc.). It’s hard to get a house for 3 consecutive months in a place like Guatemala in the height of their season, so that took a bit of forethought and planning. I set the sequence of locations to optimize the weather and to simplify the logistics. We spent that first-year chasing “perpetual springtime” which made packing a breeze.
I retired at 57, so yes, cost does matter to us. While Paris might be expensive, a 270-square foot apartment in the 11th is reasonable (our medical insurance savings almost covers our rent). Guatemala was very cheap. In the future, once we leave Paris and return to the road, my goal is to let serendipity guide us and not book so far in advance. If I can’t find an apartment in Seville, Spain for 6 weeks, we’ll go to Porto, Portugal. If Panama doesn’t work, we’ll stay in Colombia. But spontaneity is not in my comfort zone, so that’s a stretch objective!
We talked about this a little bit – what do you always pack with you? What’s your approach to shopping? Any rules? Things you’ve learned along the way about what you need and don’t need?
Over the last year, we have further reduced our footprint of things we carry. We have learned we need very little. And moving to San Marcos, Guatemala (on Lake Atitlan) for 3 months with 2 huge suitcases perched precariously on the bow of a small ferry-boat made us realize we are getting too old to hoist this much stuff around. Now, we each bring a carry-on sized suitcase with a small backpack.
With this restriction, we pack largely clothing. I squeeze in a handful of non-clothes items: my favorite wooden spoon, industrial strength stretch bands that fold into nothing and we use to work out, a tiny wi-fi speaker to play music. When we arrive, we take stock of what we need. I always buy a scale (crazy, maybe. But I’m too old to gain 8 pounds in a month like I did in scale-free Northern California!). I selectively stock up on spices. If we are someplace for a while, I indulge in real books (otherwise, my Kindle must suffice). We assess the bed pillows (3 months is a long time to sleep on a shoddy pillow). I might splurge on a throw blanket. I love to curl up and read and no apartment ever has a throw blanket!
Our first day, we buy all our toiletries (I can’t justify the size or weight of carrying these things, and we’ve gotten quite good at predicting how much we need). In France, I might buy a pair of indulgent red wine glasses. If we spend 100 dollars on a handful of things that make us happy, it’s money well spent. Over time, everyone will decide what their unique list is. But I do run a mental business case on everything (either the financial return or the happiness return). The longer we live this way, the more we both realize that purchases rarely make us happy, so we buy less and less.
For our clothing, we tend to wear almost a uniform (lots of black). And when I need to replace things, I buy those items online shortly before we return to the US. If our old clothes still have life, we leave them behind in places where the needy will find them (e.g. in a park where the homeless sleep). I generally buy the exact same brand and color so it’s mindless and simple swap–and I know it will fit in my suitcase! Since I’m not a clothes person, this suits me extremely well.
How expensive is this lifestyle, really?What ways have you found to economize and make it more sustainable?What might surprise people about the perceived vs. actual cost?
What might surprise some people is that we aren’t rich. I often hear, “Oh, you guys must be wealthy to travel so much.” This life is as expensive or cheap as you need to make it.
We have one monthly expense: our cell phone bill. Outside of that, we stay in apartments (so, of course, we have rent which includes wi-fi and utilities). We eat at home a lot, and food is generally no more expensive (and often cheaper) than in the United States, especially if you eat locally sourced products. We rarely rent cars, instead making a game of taking public transportation which often causes us to divert someplace we might not have seen or stay overnight in a city along the way. Not having any car is a huge savings, and a great adventure! (I’m posting this from Limerick which was a stop on our way to Shannon airport. Limerick was a simple bus ride from Cork.) Now, I will spend more for an apartment in a walkable location and with an adequate kitchen. We learned the first year that the cheapest apartment was not always the cheapest total cost if it requires us to rent a car and/or eat out.
In many countries/cities, you can get a nice apartment for 1000 dollars a month. You could live very well in Guatemala on 1200 dollars a month for everything. And of course, there are even cheaper locations in the world (Southeast Asia is one we talk about exploring).
Our other big expense is the physical act of travel. I link our destinations to minimize travel in terms of both cost, time, and time zone adjustment. And when I see good value, I buy it. This spring, tickets between Paris and the US were exceptionally cheap (~500 dollars, even less, so I booked all our flights home for the year). I use Skyscanner alerts to find sales on flights I want to take. I buy one way flights off a service like Kayak. And I always have an alert on the sales of the French train system, which has allowed us to take some great and inexpensive vacations across France. For vacations in Europe, we use the discounted airlines.
Bottom line, for us, we’ve created a life that is cheaper than it would be to live in the US (and especially to live in the United States and travel extensively). What’s particularly expensive about the US, for someone not yet eligible for Medicare, is the cost of healthcare. Which leads us to….
What do you do about health insurance? And storage of old things?
For health insurance, we bought a global policy that met the Schengen requirements (we had to submit a Schengen compliant insurance company letter to get French residence). For both of us, our health insurance is a total of $3000 per year (this provides 2 million dollars of coverage and a zero-dollar deductible. Zero deductible is also a Schengen requirement). Our global policy covers illness everywhere in the world except our home country (the US). We pay for wellness exams out-of-pocket.
Our insurance also includes emergency evacuation and evacuation of remains (Both of these are Schengen requirements). And our policy has some other basic traveller insurance perks (cancelled flights, etc). In exchange, we don’t carry US health insurance, but I buy a short-term US policy every time we go home.
For us, this is a big savings over keeping my current IBM retiree health insurance (which is much more expensive and includes a hefty deductible). This life forces us to manage our health much more actively (hence the scale and the stretch bands!) We work hard to lessen the odds of being sick away from home. And the road requires a level of stamina.
As for storage, we sold our home when we were living in Slovakia on assignment and moved a bunch of things into storage (enough for a 2 BR condo when we returned). When I retired, we gave up our storage unit and got rid of most of the things in it. Now, we have some number of boxes in our son’s basement, but every time we go through them, we cut everything in half yet again. What remains is a modest collection of photos, pictures, and Christmas ornaments. A few antiques. This NY Times article summarizes our kids’ reaction to taking our things. I’ve come to accept that forcing my stuff onto them (and yes, I did this) is selfish. So I’ve stopped. Almost.
Categories: How To