The Financial (and Emotional Toll) of the Digital Nomad Life

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Since graduating from college in 2007, I’ve moved a lot. Raised in the Northeast, I left home for Thailand, came back stateside to live in a rural town in Iowa, and then last winter my fiancé and I headed to Canada. In every location, we found a short-term rental, occasionally living out of backpacks (and later on, storage units) with very little to tie us down long-term. Through my 20s, this digital nomad lifestyle was a lot of fun. I enjoyed trying out new cities and different parts of the world, and I was grateful to have the career flexibility to do so.

But now that I’m approaching my mid-thirties, I’ve realized what I want more than flexibility and a freewheeling lifestyle is to have the stability that comes from having a place to truly call home.

When you move often, there’s a sense of constant unsettledness, and that’s part of the thrill. You’re free to go wherever impulse drives you, rootless and at the whim of your desires. But after a few years, the constant sense of “What’s next?” wears on you. There’s always a hum of anxiety reminding you that you’re not really home. You’re only lingering here for a while before you’re on to the next destination.

Frequent moves exact a financial price, too. In our early 20s, living out of backpacks made moving easier, and slightly cheaper, than it was in our late 20s and early 30s when we actually owned (and needed!) furniture and a seemingly endless array of small kitchen appliances. But it’s hard not to consider whether all of that moving—and the associated spending—is setting us back in other areas. It’s tough to plan a wedding in the midst of a move, especially when every venue seems to cost five times your monthly rent and you don’t even know where you’ll be living by the time you get married. It’s also difficult to save for a rainy day, to book the trips you dream of taking together, to imagine how you’ll ever be able to take time off to have children. There’s a point at which you feel you’re reinventing the wheel every year, and you worry that your life is falling behind in some respects because of it.

So, when the idea of “trying” another place for a year came up, I felt a sense of dread and exhaustion. It had only been eight months since our last move, when we packed up our lives in Iowa and moved to Canada, right in time for winter. Living in an isolated cabin in a country famous for snow wasn’t for us at all. I wasn’t opposed to moving, but I didn’t want to do it again on a whim. To call a place home, you have to commit, really become a part of it.

So, we did our research and settled on Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a city rich in history and situated a comfortable distance between the mountains and the ocean, all things that mattered deeply to us. It also offered an affordable cost of living, coming in at 86.6 on the Sperling’s Best Places scale, far lower than the 100 national average. Of all the places we considered, Winston was the one that felt right.

And that affordable cost of living helped offset all the costs of moving. We spent several thousand dollars moving to Canada last year, only to do the same thing again eight months later when we moved to North Carolina, between gas for two cars, hotels, and two weeks in an Airbnb while we searched for a new rental. That’s not including the money we put into furnishing our new place with basic furniture, dishes, and other household staples. By staying in one place, we could have put that money toward so many other uses that could benefit our family’s future.

I’m proud of Heath and myself for trying different places. We were comfortable in Iowa, and we had a good life and good friends there. But we didn’t see ourselves there long-term, so we sought out somewhere new. Things didn’t go as planned in Canada, but at least we were willing to take a chance. So far, we’ve fared better in North Carolina. But even if this move turned out to be a mistake, I’m grateful that we push ourselves and each other when the situation calls for it.

We’ve been fortunate to experience many new places together and that we’ve been able to be so proactive in seeking a community that suits our needs. Everything we’ve done and seen together has contributed to who we are today, as individuals and as a couple.

But we’re both becoming keenly aware that moving takes up a certain amount of mental and financial bandwidth, and there are opportunity costs as well. When you’re only passing through a place, you’re less likely to invest in the people there and they’re less likely to want to know you. You feel the lack of deep friendships and intimacy and familiarity more acutely every year.

You’re also preoccupied with the logistics of getting from one city to the next, so other dreams fall by the wayside. I’ll write more once we’re settled somewhere else. We just need to get through this move, and then we’ll take that course we’ve been talking about. Next year, after we’ve moved, we’ll be able to (fill in the blank). It’s easy to get so caught up in the practicalities and financial stresses of moving that you only have the energy to work (so you can afford the move), pack, and maybe catch a couple of old “Frasier” episodes in between unloading boxes yet again.

I don’t regret having lived in different places or having traveled throughout my 20s and early 30s. Those experiences were priceless, and even the most challenging of them taught me something. But now I’m ready to stay in one place for a while, to let everything I’ve learned during those days take root. Maybe this season of my life is about having adventures that are a little more homegrown.