Peeking behind the curtain.
By Rose Ernst
We can read all we want about leaving your home base, full-time travel, and becoming a digital nomad, but nothing beats seeing how much someone actually spent. And it’s significantly less than I ever spent when I lived in one place.
I’ve never been a big spender, but I’m continually shocked by how much cheaper full-time travel is compared to living in Seattle.
It’s not just that Seattle is a high-cost-of-living place, or that I’m not living in the United States (so health care is cheaper).
It’s that my spending motivations have shifted.
I don’t have to buy things or experiences to feel better, to escape, or just keep up appearances for my job. And living out of a backpack also keeps my urge to accumulate in check.
I share this information as inspiration, not as a guide. Your health status, work, desires, and relationships will differ, and so will your expenses.
Some people will spend more and others will spend less.
Let’s run the numbers, shall we?
Where we spent our 2021
January-June: United Kingdom
Here’s the total I spent in all those places:
Groceries & Household: $2085
Major Transport: $598
Annual Fees: $330
Gifts & Donations: $228
Eating Out: $104
Local Transport: $87
These 2021 totals include everything except business expenses and taxes.
I don’t have children, and I do travel with my partner. This can defray expenses when we stay in a hotel, and a bit when we share household expenses together (here’s a great post on solo versus partner travel costs).
For much of 2021, we were still in lockdown, so spending on eating out and entertainment is artificially low.
However, our accommodation spending and transportation spending were high because of last-minute cancellations and the lack of housesits because of lockdown. If you’re wondering how our accommodation is so low, it’s because of housesitting.
Let’s look at each category.
$295 per month
This category includes:
3. Money spent on hosts: If we took a host to dinner or needed to replace a damaged item during the housesit, these expenses went into this category.
4. Covid cancellations
I can break this down further by country.
United Kingdom Accommodations: $913
The United Kingdom was in lockdown for almost the first third of the year, plus a semi-lockdown until the summer. We rented in January and February and stayed with a friend until the summer.
Normally, we would have spent all that time housesitting and so we wouldn’t have spent much at all — had we not been in lockdown!
Croatia Accommodations: $2214
You’re probably wondering why it’s so high for a relatively inexpensive country like Croatia. Here’s why: (1) rentals are actually quite high in Croatia, and (2) Covid circumstances dictated much of this expense.
Our UK visa Covid extensions expired at the end of June. Much of Europe was still unavailable for UK and US travelers (we were an odd mix of the two — it was often unclear whether we’d be denied entry based on the fact we were traveling from the UK and/or if we had US passports, even though we hadn’t been in the United States since before the pandemic).
Croatia was one of the few countries open to us, and also a country where we could travel to other countries afterwards without extensive testing or quarantining.
However, we were still unsure whether we’d actually be let into the country, although we were vaccinated. This was because EU countries had not yet officially integrated their Covid vaccination software to recognize UK vaccinations. We were concerned that they might not recognize our vaccine, and/or bar us because we were US citizens.
That meant we couldn’t rent an Airbnb without potentially forfeiting the entire month’s rent if they denied us entry into the country.
So we stayed in a budget hotel for two nights while I frantically found a month-long Airbnb. I found a lovely one, but it cost double what we wanted to pay. But at that point, we had spent little that year and it felt like a welcome relief. So I was happy to pay for it.
The next big rental expense came in November and early December. Yet again, we were unsure whether we could reenter Croatia from Italy (where we had a three-month housesit).
This time, however, I arranged with an Airbnb host to pay the first week’s rent as a deposit, just in case they denied us entry. Again, we were concerned because of our strange status as US citizens coming from Italy with UK vaccination certificates. Plus, as we knew from previous experiences, Covid restrictions could change overnight.
Our kind host agreed to this plan, and I promptly paid her the full amount as soon as we entered the country. Again, we would have preferred a housesit at that point, but there weren’t any in Croatia or nearby. So we rented a lovely cabin in the woods near Zagreb.
That took us through early December when we traveled to Zagreb for a Christmas/New Year’s housesit.
Italy Accommodations: $0
We spent three months in Italy for free, courtesy of our lovely housesit in Marche.
Travel days: $233
These were hotels we stayed in. Because we prioritize slow travel, we often stay in a hotel so we can take a ferry the next morning, for example.
Cancellations because of Covid: $8.10
Our expenses were quite low here — there were more in the transportation category. Also, we learned to cut these expenses from bitter 2020 experiences.
Accommodation-related expenses: $186
These were the little expenses related to housesitting or staying with a friend. For example, if we took our host to dinner, we’d put their part of the meal as one of these expenses. Similarly, if we broke an item at a housesit, we’d put the cost of replacement in this category.
$205 per month
If you don’t live in the United States, health insurance doesn’t have to be so expensive. My insurance through SafetyWing was $68 a month, as long as I didn’t spend more than 15 days in the United States.
Because this is basic coverage, I still pay out of pocket for regular medical visits. However, these visits are very inexpensive compared to the United States, and they’re also not a mystery. You can actually find out how much something will cost before agreeing to a visit. What a concept!
So besides insurance, this category includes:
Supplements and medication
Medical supplies (e.g., bandaids)
The totals for these come to $1647. If you’re wondering about “sauna” it’s sauna visits for a medical condition. Some countries consider this medical therapy (I certainly do!), so I counted many sauna visits in Croatia as a medical expense.
Groceries & Household: $2085
$174 per month
United Kingdom: $937 for 6 months ($156 per month)
Croatia: $512 for 3 months ($170 per month)
Italy: $636 for 3 months ($212 per month)
These totals include non-food items like cleaning products, paper towels, and toilet paper. As a full-time traveler, these expenses will be relatively high because you cannot buy them in bulk — and you often leave them behind when you move on.
In the grocery department, the United Kingdom was the cheapest country for food.
That’s because grocery costs are often determined by proximity to an inexpensive grocery store, rather than the country. If I shop at a Lidl in Brighton, but at a high-end grocery store in Zagreb (because that’s what’s available), then the totals will reflect that.
Because we stayed in a village in Croatia for over a month, we had to buy from the local shop — and were thrilled to do so. But that meant that prices were higher.
$75 per month
Relative to other categories, this one was quite high. This was because I had only decided to become a full-time nomad in 2020. Unlike others who make this decision before they start traveling, I made this decision after I’d started traveling — mostly because of the pandemic.
That meant that my clothes needed to be replaced because (a) they wear out quickly when you have so few items in rotation, and (b) because I wanted to replace each item with a higher quality item, preferably merino wool. Merino wool is a miracle because it dramatically cuts down on your laundry.
For footwear, I go through sneakers very quickly, so I had to replace those. I also bought a pair of expensive flats that will last years, along with a merino wool zip-up sweater I wear almost every day.
So this category should be lower for you if you’ve already bought your wardrobe before becoming a full-time nomad. You can also buy second-hand clothing, though this was obviously difficult during lockdown.
Major transport: $598
$50 per month
Major transport includes any method of transporting us between places to live, whereas the local transport category later shows we took a bus to the grocery store, for example.
Here’s what’s included:
Flight: London-Tallinn (one-way, cancelled)
Taxi: Zagreb airport-Zagreb
Train: Zagreb-Split (round-trip)
Overnight ferry with cabin: Ancona-Split (round-trip)
Train: Ancona-Porto San Giorgio (round-trip)
Taxi: Zagreb-Tuhelj (round-trip)
I’m happy with this number, especially since Finnair refused to refund our ticket to Tallinn after they shut down the border because of Covid. Fortunately, we had a voucher from British Airways after a 2020 Covid-related cancellation, so we used that for the flight to Zagreb for almost the same amount as the Finnair flight. So it ended up being a bit of a wash — at least for the 2021 expenses.
If you’re a slow traveler, don’t forget overnight ferries! They can be inexpensive, especially since booking a private cabin is like a hotel room. The only downside is that some routes may be canceled more frequently due to rough seas. This happened to us when we tried to travel this year from France to Ireland. Always have a Plan B for overnight ferries.
Annual Fees: $330
$28 per month
We belong to four housesitting sites: HouseCarers, MindMyHouse, Nomodor, and TrustedHousesitters. This total was for these annual membership fees. It’s not a big deal since even one housesit can pay for the cost of the membership fee.
$19 per month
This includes all gifts given and donations to various causes.
$11 per month
This category is probably low because some toiletries are arguably in the “household” or “health” totals. We also don’t spend that much because we’d have to carry those fun impulse buys at a drugstore.
In case you’re wondering about haircuts, I gave those up when I left Seattle. My hair is longer now and I wear it up most days. My partner trims it for me.
Eating Out: $104
$12 per month
Remember, this was 2021, so eating out was difficult! We also approach eating out differently than we did when we lived in one spot with a regular job. Eating out used to be an escape or a reward. Now we do it because we want to experience a particular place or cuisine. That means we can go for lunch (and maybe split something) and spend less. Or, if we’re going for the experience, we can order something small and inexpensive and cook something at home.
Of course, everyone has different approaches to this, and I imagine it will vary depending on location, budget, and length of travel.
Local Transport: $87
$7 per month
We’re major walkers, so we avoided spending much on local transportation. It was also lockdown, so this often just wasn’t an option.
$7 per month
We both wanted to keep our phone numbers, but it was silly to pay $14 a month just to keep our phone numbers in the United States. Besides, we rely on WhatsApp, Signal, and Zoom to communicate.
So we moved my partner’s phone to Google Voice and now split the $14 a month bill to keep my number so that we could still verify online accounts (why is phone text message often the only option?!).
$4 per month
$0.60 per month
I know, I know.
Isn’t this the saddest number of all?
Besides the obvious dampening effect lockdown had on this number, most of what we do now for entertainment is free. We see the sights, but often avoid expensive experiences like high-priced museums. I haven’t felt like I’ve missed anything.
If you’re wondering about streaming services, we either watch what’s available at our housesit or use free TV streaming services wherever we are. Or we just read or use the outside hot tub (3 months in Italy with this).
$0.25 per month
Most of what’s in this category can be called a self-employed business expense, so that’s why it looks low. Even from the business expense side, it was still quite low.
We’re halfway through 2022, and my expenses will probably be higher this year. Inflation, the lifting of lockdown, and some intentional vacation-like spending will all increase the total.
Still, the beauty of expense tracking — regardless of how much you travel — is that you can adjust spending as you go along.
I hope these numbers sparked tiny ideas about adjusting your spending, whether that’s in a home or on the road.
After all, it’s all about supporting the life you want to live.