Like an increasing number of millennials, I recently quit my job, swapped my flat for a van and left the UK to travel around Europe, eventually becoming a so-called digital nomad. My partner and I thought we would only be able to afford this for a year at most. But two years down the line, we are still on the road.
Having spent seven years working in London as a financial journalist, I was lucky to be able to take my job freelance and work from anywhere. But the more we travel, the more I learn about the many ways people from all over the world are living happy, successful and mobile financial lives less ordinary.
I moved to London in 2011 to take my first job as a financial reporter. I enjoyed it way more than I expected, but in the back of my mind I was going to leave after a couple of years to go travelling. A couple of years turned into five or six, but I kept saving for the big dream.
By the time I met my partner in 2016, I was ready to leave the city. We met through our shared passion: rock climbing, and we both wanted to go on a long road-trip around various climbing destinations. So we started saving up to go away.
Our original hope was to save enough to be able to travel for a year. The plan was to spend three months in South East Asia and nine months in the van in Europe. We estimated the total cost of buying a van and living on the road for a year would be at least £20,000. I already had around £6,000 in a Stocks and Shares ISA, so that was a start.
Thanks to the bank of Mum and Dad, I am also in the extremely lucky position to own a flat in London, and that was a major help. When we started saving, it was logical for my partner to move in with me. The £650 he spent every month on his room now went straight into savings, and my mortgage was lower than rent would have been. We also put away at least £200 a month each in addition to this, and I added any freelance money that I earned on top of my full-time job to the pot.
By the time we were ready to leave, we exceeded our goal. We had bought the van and almost finished the conversion and we still had just under £20,000 left in the ISA. The ISA was invested in equity funds which were also bringing in good returns. When we set off, I left the money we didn’t need immediately invested to maximise the benefits. But I kept a good buffer of cash in case we needed a lot of money fast for an emergency.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for a cash flow-challenge to crop up. Early on in the trip, our van broke down and we ended up having to replace the clutch and gearbox. The overall cost of this was close to £3,400. By that stage, this was more than a third of our savings.
It was disheartening, but luckily I had my first digital nomad freelance gig writing weekly articles for a financial firm. This brought in around £600 a month before tax, and we also had around £200 a month of income from renting out my flat. This turned out to be almost enough to cover a month of living on the cheap in a van in Europe.
Quit London, save money
On the road, the average expenditure for both of us has been around £800 to £900 per month. This is a tiny fraction of our expenses in London, where £900 wouldn’t even cover rent, bills and food for one person. Around half (£400) of our budget goes on food, while the rest covers diesel and other expenses. We eat a vegetarian diet to keep the costs low (and also for environmental reasons) which really helps with the food bill.
I bank with Monzo, which is very helpful in showing me how much I spend on different aspects of life. I can also use my card anywhere in Europe with a good rate, and withdrawals up to £200 a month are free. In addition, I have a euro-based bank account with a German digital bank called N26.
Moving around is expensive, so if we want to keep things cheap, we stay in one place. This also means we minimise our carbon emissions, of course. We are fully aware that living in a diesel vehicle has its downsides.
We have to go back to the UK once a year for an MOT, which is always pricey, especially if there is something to fix. The trip usually runs us around £2,000, so I try to save as much as possible for that. Once a year we also have to pay van insurance, which costs £1,200. Not to mention the nagging fear that something expensive will break down in the van unexpectedly.
My little income wasn’t quite enough to cover these additional or unforeseen costs. But as the first year of our travels went on, I started getting more ‘digital nomad’ freelance writing work. By November 2018, a year after we left, I was earning around £2,000 a month (before taxes), and only working around three full days a week!
With such low overheads, my income comfortably gets us through an average month with money to spare. In addition, my partner is starting up a business as a climbing guide, which will allow us to afford a few luxuries in our less ordinary, digital nomad lives. For example, we want a bigger and more comfortable van, and we also want to do a long trip around South America.
Two years ago, I would have never thought it was possible to live like this long term. But now that we have seen what life is like on the other side, and how easy it is to work on the go as a digital nomad, we see no reason to go back to the grind!
Digital nomad life on the road: a monthly breakdown
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