Personal Finance

These digital nomads have ditched the 9-to-5 life

Key Points
  • "It almost feels like I don't have a job," says Debra Ball, who went from acting in television commercials to sending voice-overs to clients on the internet.
  • Pamela Capalad, owner of the financial planning company Brunch and Budget, says the first step to becoming a digital nomad is recognizing the service you can provide.
Debra Ball in England.
Source: Debra Ball

Debra Ball used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to act in television commercials.

She'd pull on her clothes and then drive for almost two hours under the still-dark sky. Then she'd stand in front of a camera for 10 hours with her back pulsing in pain.

"You feel like a puppet," Ball said.

Her life is different now than when she was living in Florida. Recently, she stayed in a cottage in Ipswich, England, where she'd spend her mornings walking around the lake with her dog, and then drinking espresso in the flower garden. She put in three hours recording voice-overs and sending them to clients. The rest of her days were spent sightseeing.

"It almost feels like I don't have a job," she said.

Ball, 46, is among the growing number of "digital nomads," who no longer have a boss, thanks to the internet. Instead, they provide clients with their services directly. They write, edit, build websites or provide social media support to companies, which are increasingly outsourcing assignments, from anywhere in the world.

It almost feels like I don't have a job. 
Debra Ball 
Voice-over artist

Fiverr, an online market that links people looking for services and the sellers of those services, has roughly 6,000 new services added to the platform daily, said Brent Messenger, the company's global head of community. These nomads work from some 200 countries.

"Millennials witnessed their parents go through the financial crisis of 2008, and they saw the way their parents were kicked in the teeth: They lost their jobs, their health insurance, sometimes their pensions," Messenger said. "[Digital work] allows you to set the terms and not be reliant on one company."

A survey of 600 digital nomads shows that these workers tend to be on the younger side.

Many of these digital nomads are making more money by working for themselves.

Mike Zimma, 30, used to live in Chicago and worked for a marketing company. After he quit his job and began offering clients his social media services, he realized he could live anywhere. He moved to Palma de Mallorca in Spain, and has a 15-minute walk from the beach.

Mike Zimma works from a beach off Spain.
Source: Mike Zimma

He said he used to make $54,000 a year and now earns $180,000. He can't imagine working for someone else again. "I don't know if I have it in me to go backwards," Zimma said.

Many digital nomads will travel to other countries frequently, rather than relocate entirely. Tourist visas allow a person to stay in a country for a few months, although every country has its own restrictions. But if you plan to move to another country permanently, you'll have to apply for a working/resident visa.

Paul Maplesden, 46, worked at an insurance company outside of London. He said he took home around $60,000 a year, but was fired in the 2008 financial crisis and his wife wanted to return to America. The couple decided to move to Asheville, North Carolina, where Maplesden began selling business writing to clients over the internet. He said he now earns more than $100,000 a year.

"I love the freedom. I'm successful on my own terms," Maplesden said.

Paul Maplesden
Source: Paul Maplesden

"There's a vision that if you're a successful freelancer, you'll be sitting on a glorious beach somewhere, drinking margaritas, making millions of dollars," Maplesden said. "But you can't escape work."

It took him a few years to start making six figures. Many of his first efforts, such as selling poetry online, failed. "You need to be terrifyingly objective. There's a tremendous amount of competition out there. Pick one thing and be really, really good at it," he said.

He said that having a portfolio of his work has helped him stand out from the competition, although he said some people have to work for free at first to create a portfolio. That means that you should have savings set aside before you walk away from your 9-to-5 job.

Pamela Capalad, owner of the financial planning company Brunch and Budget, said the first step to becoming a digital nomad is recognizing the service you can provide.

"What do you enjoy doing?" Capalad asked. "Are there people who don't enjoy it who would be willing to pay you for it?"

Some of the unconventional online services she said her clients provide include consulting, tutoring, teaching, proofreading and event planning.

You should also have at least six months of living expenses saved before you quit your job, Capalad said.

"Figure out what is the least amount of money that you could live on. The people who transition most successfully are the ones who take their time to experiment and see what works," she said.

She said some people will have to keep a part-time job until they're earning enough on their own. People should also resist investing in elaborate websites, business cards or office space until they understand their business and have proven they can make money, Capalad said.

People tend to build a lifestyle around their job. They call it the golden handcuffs for a reason. 
Pamela Capalad
owner of the financial planning company Brunch and Budget

It's also important to be more self-disciplined with saving when you work on your own, since you won't have a traditional 401(k) plan, she said. People should consider opening a SEP IRA, or a solo 401(k), which allows business owners to contribute to their retirement savings. "It can be a really big tax savings," Capalad said.

She said many people are scared to work for themselves. "There are a lot of nice, stable things about a job. People tend to build a lifestyle around their job. They call it the golden handcuffs for a reason," she said.

But becoming a digital nomad can actually be the more stable path.

"It's such a great way to mitigate your financial risks," Capalad said, "because you're not counting on one company for your paycheck."

(Updated: This story has been updated to reflect the number of new services added to Fiverr.)