Nora Dunn is a former certified financial planner who is the editor of The Professional Hobo. She is also a freelance writer, and a regular contributor to Wise Bread, Transitions Abroad, and many organizations’ websites, newsletters, and blogs. She’s the author of How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World and runs a free course on traveling full-time in a financially sustainable way. See more on Nora here.
You’re known as an expert on making a living pursuing the location independent lifestyle and write a lot of articles about the intersection of travel, writing, and finance. How did you get to where you are now?
I sold everything I owned (including a busy financial planning practice) in 2006 in Toronto Canada, to embrace my dreams of full-time immersive travel. On a quest to “live” around the world, I usually camp out for at least a few months in most locations. Initially, between a desire to experience local life for longer periods of time (rather than passing through as a tourist), and a desire to keep my expenses low (whilst building my freelance writing career), I discovered how to get free accommodation around the world. I use a variety of modalities such as volunteering, couch surfing, house-sitting, and living on boats. (I wrote a book on it here.)
Now, seven years and a few dozen countries later, I’m still on the road, and I’m an international freelance writer on the topics of travel, personal finance, and lifestyle design. With this location independent income – along with travel hacking strategies like free accommodation and cheap transportation (with frequent flyer miles and mystery shopping) – I continue to travel full-time in a financially sustainable way.
I admire you for so diligently keeping track of your income and expenses. How have both been going the past few years?
Each year I do a rundown of both. Here’s my expenses and my income for 2012, for example, and you can find past years’ in related posts.
My expenses and income for 2013 were also sustainable, but both were much higher, due to a few costly tragedies, as well as having to support my partner. I haven’t published those figures yet, but I will do so shortly. Meanwhile, here’s what I did: 12 countries and 29,000 miles.
I focus a lot on cheap places to travel and live in the world, but you’ve managed to pack in a lot of places that are not perceived as a bargain. How do you make it work and still keep expenses low?
I’ve traveled and lived in some of the more expensive places in the world. Instead of looking for budget destinations, I’ve chosen to travel to places where there has been a free accommodation opportunity for me – which in turn, saved me over $63,000 in my first five years of traveling.
I’ve lived 6 months in Hawaii, 1.5 years in Australia, 1 year in New Zealand, I’ve traveled and lived around Europe, and I spent a few years on the Caribbean island of Grenada. None of these places are particularly cheap if you’re renting a place in a conventional way. But because I’ve largely had free digs – and the ability to shop and cook locally instead of being in the tourist/expat centers, my cost of full-time travel (as I’ve posted in detail) has been way less than than to live in one place.
However, I’ve also paid rent a few times, including in Grenada – where I spent $350-500/month for a furnished apartment. You can spend much more there, but it boils down to knowing some locals who can connect you, as eventually happened to me. The same thing happened in Australia; after volunteering for 7 months, I found a full house in the countryside to rent for less than $400/month. It was far from plush – but it did the trick.
I’m currently in Peru, where the cost of living is very very low. I’m staying at a retreat center, which is an expensive option, and paying less than $700/month. In buying local food and cooking in my kitchen, I would be hard-pressed to spend more than $1,000/month on living expenses here – and that includes a few indulgences too.
What advice you would give to bloggers, freelancers, or any other people who want to live a better life for less, on getting beyond the fear and anxiety that holds people back from cutting loose?
By traveling the world, and breaking free from the North American standards of living (and “requirements” of living), your expenses can go down. As an example, Panama and Costa Rica have become hotspots for expats and retiring Americans, which have in turn pushed the cost of living and real estate up almost disproportionately to the rest of Central America. However with less “stuff” to worry about (like expensive healthcare, and over-priced insurance policies, and of course the ever-present “Joneses” to keep up with), most Americans I spoke to in an expat community near Panama City where I was house-sitting said they still had a way lower cost of living than they ever could have managed living in the States. And if you want to stray just a wee bit further from the norm, you’ll find cheaper yet alternatives and places to live, along with a cheaper cost of living.
I co-authored a book called 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget; a creation from a site I contribute regularly to called WiseBread.com. It’s an entire site dedicated to living better for less money. There’s a large movement of people on this bandwagon, and with a dose of creativity and flexibility, anything is possible.
In 2006, I had no idea that full-time travel could actually cost less than $20,000/year, nor that I could find a way to sustain it with little more than my laptop and an internet connection. But once I made the commitment to a better life abroad, it was amazing the opportunities that came to me – opportunities that I finally had the flexibility and ability to jump on and try out.
After wandering for many years, you’re semi-settled right now in Peru. What are you working on?
After over seven years of transient wandering, I’m ready for a place that I can call mine (even if it’s rented), that I can use as a base for other travels, and also as a retreat to simply do my own thing. And Peru (specifically Pisac) resonates with me very much as a place I feel comfortable enough to call home, and yet exotic enough that I feel like I’m still traveling every time I leave the house!
I’ve got another e-book that just came out on my train journeys around the world, and I’m writing a book about working on the road to be published as part of Chris Guillebeau’s Unconventional Guide series.
Nora Dunn has been traveling in a financially sustainable way since 2007 and works as a blogger and freelance writer. See TheProfessionalHobo for regular updates and her free course. Follow her on Twitter here: @HoboNora.
Interview conducted in August 2014 by Tim Leffel, author of Travel Writing 2.0 and A Better Life for Half the Price.