“I really want to be a digital nomad, but my wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t convinced. What do I do?” This is one of the questions I’ve seen most often in nomad forums, and I’m answering it from the perspective of the partner who needed some persuading.
David was raised in a military family, and the mobile lifestyle comes naturally to him. Since kindergarten he’s never spent more than four years in one place. Since he turned 20, never more than two. Transitioning to the digital nomad lifestyle was a no brainer for David.
I, on the other hand, lived in my hometown until I was 18. I was lucky enough to see both sets of grandparents and all of our extended family several times a year, and I loved it. I still do. Even now, my heart breaks a little when I see pictures of family gatherings (my family, my husband’s family, the fake families in stock photos, etc). I miss the loving support networks that are built up over years and years of visits, and it takes deliberate planning to maintain these in a nomad lifestyle.
When David broached the idea of going nomadic, I was more than a little nervous. Here we are, a year later, and *mostly* happily nomadic. If you and your partner are thinking about it, here are a few questions to answer together that may help to smooth your path forward.
Can We Do a Trial Run?
The easiest way to evaluate whether you and your partner could swing a nomadic lifestyle is to try it. You don’t have to take six weeks off to simulate the “long term” feeling, (and who can take a six week vacation?). Just spend a couple of weeks on a trip together, living like nomads:
- Hostels, apartments, or cheap hotels instead of fancy five-star hotels
- A non-negotiable budget that includes meals at home to defray the costs of eating out
- A schedule for work and play every day
- A location like Vietnam over Paris, unless you have zero money worries and plan to be equally worry free on the road.
If you can’t fly anywhere, take a road trip to a place neither of you have been before. Make your destination far enough away that you’ll have to spend at least six hours shut up in a car together. Since you’ll have the advantage of speaking your country’s language, simulate the unpredictability of nomad life by planning nothing in advance other than your destination. Close your eyes and point to a random place on the map. Don’t look up the weather, or places to stay, or directions until you’re actually in the car. Give yourselves one backpack each, and pack as if you have no idea what you’ll need. See what it’s like to be bored, and uncertain, and stressed out together.
You won’t know exactly what it’s like to be a nomad after your mini-trip, but the similarities will give you a more realistic basis for future discussions about long term travel. You’ll both remember the excitement, the fear, the thrill and inconvenience, and can approach your discussion from the same starting point.
When I was fretting about the upheaval of nomadic life, I remembered everything I loved about our short trip to Thailand, and our discussions were less about David convincing me, and more about my own weighing of drawbacks and benefits. Which brings me to the second question:
What’s the Score?
Which of your absolutely non-negotiable life priorities (career, family, experience) will long term travel affect? In other words, what gaps does it fill for each of you, and what goals does it threaten? Instead of giving you a long-winded explanation, I’ll show you ours, and walk you through how they affected our decision:
-Not living in the States
-Experiencing many cultures
-Time with Sarah and Spencer
-What’s important to Sarah
-Time with David and Spencer
-Time with extended family
-What’s important to David
You’ll notice that some of our priorities seem to put us at odds. David absolutely does not want to live in the States, but I need to see a lot of my family. David also loves experiencing different cultures, while I find that visiting four countries in one year destroys my mental stability. (Depending on whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you may be affected differently by travel).
My other non-negotiable values, working as a writer and spending a lot of time with my son, are harder to reconcile with a stationary life in the U.S.
If we had gone back to Seattle instead of going nomadic, David would have stayed with Amazon. I would have had to choose between applying at Amazon as well, or staying home with Spencer. We couldn’t afford daycare (even part-time) on one person’s salary, even if the salary was a good one. Not if we wanted to grow our savings, live comfortably, and have emergency funds for unplanned catastrophes like a car break-down. (Read about the lead-up to our decision to go nomadic here)
This means that for me, either writing or time with Spencer would have had to go. Some people manage to write at night after their day jobs. Unfortunately, their writing careers take longer to foment, and having kids and a demanding job makes it even harder. To keep pace at Amazon, you have to start working again as soon as you put your kids to bed if not before, so writing at night wouldn’t have been an option. Also, David would have had to give up entrepreneurship.
Although these considerations are very specific to David and I, the discussion about whether to travel long term should focus on what you both want out of your work and your family, and less about whether you can manage to live from a suitcase, or handle the scary things about travel. If you’re even considering a nomadic lifestyle, I promise that you can do these things. Your trial run trip will help to convince you of this, which is why it’s important to take that trip before you get into the meat of the discussion with your partner about which of your life goals long term travel addresses.
Let’s say your S.O. works in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, and loves it. Your discussion will be more difficult, because working remotely is less plausible in these career paths. Less so in Technology, where software engineers, program managers, and even tech start-up CEOs have incredible flexibility. If your partner is a doctor, you might nix the nomad lifestyle, but keep expat careers on the table. If your partner is a lawyer, there are plenty of nomadic options. Check out this page on the Legal Nomad blog.
When you talk about what you’ll do to make money on the road, decide first whether you have enough savings (or would sell a big item) to give yourselves some runway. If you don’t have any runway, at least one of you should probably be a successful remote worker before you start. If that’s going to be you, the gung ho nomad, help your partner think seriously about what a meaningful nomadic career would look like for him or her.
Let’s say your S.O. works at a mid-level office job, and feels so-so about his or her career but isn’t sure how to transition to a remote career. His or her skills almost certainly have a remote corollary, and while the list of those jobs and how to transition into them is a story for another time, I guarantee that they exist. If you don’t believe me, email me your resume and a description of your current office job, and I will create a tailored list of remote jobs you could look at. That’s a promise.
Here are a few resources to help you start thinking about whether or not you can make money from the road.
Vanquish Fears Until You’re Talking about Goals
This is not touchy-feely optimism. I’ve included this consideration because talking about what you want from life is more realistic than focusing on what you fear. It’s tempting to theorize about that nebulous universe of “things that could go wrong,” but it’s not very useful. To nomad wannabes hoping to discuss long term travel with their hesitant S.O.s, your job is to observe your partner’s fears, and find ways to simulate them. Only then will your partner have a realistic idea of whether these fears are still deal-breakers.
The trial run trip is the biggest example. It exposes you to unpredictability, unfamiliarity, and all the other facets of The Great Unknown. Here are a few other things you can do with your partner to answer the question Could I really do this?
- Everyone can use some de-cluttering. Give yourselves a month to sell 50 things you own. This means taking pictures, posting sales ads, and completing transactions, until you’ve sold or disposed of 50 things. For example: 10 items of clothing each, 10 home decor items, 10 things from your garage or attic, and 10 things from your kitchen. It will be interesting to get a taste of “the purge,” but the real exercise is in saying goodbye to stuff. Of the 50 items, each of you should include five things you’re not sure you can part with. Give yourself a week to get used to the idea, and follow through. Three weeks after the sale, ask yourself if you’ve missed the items, and if you regret selling them.
- Depending on your jobs, ask your boss for permission to work from home for a week. Being productive at home is something that requires a long adjustment period for some (including myself), but trying it out will at least give you a taste. You may discover that you love not having to commute, but that showering and getting dressed helps you stay professional. If working from home isn’t possible in your job, take a day off and spend it researching remote job opportunities. Ask yourselves: do you distract one another? Do you start feeling nappish, and prefer working from a coffee shop? Do you get easily distracted by Facebook?
- Turn off the TV. Even if your nomad apartments have televisions (many of them don’t), the channels won’t be the ones you’re used to watching at home. Challenge yourselves to a week without television. How do you end up spending your time in the evenings? Do you read a book, work on that project in the garage, sit on the porch and talk? Lack of distraction has been one of the most unexpected and rewarding parts of nomadic life for David and me. Give yourselves a taste of what that feels like.
- Switch household chores or child minding for a week. Nomad partners have to flex to their circumstances, which sometimes involve taking on work that the other partner normally does. When we lived in South Africa, I cooked dinner for us every night. Now that we’re on the road and I don’t have my kitchen full of tools, I’ve reverted to my college self, who just eats whatever is in the cupboard. When we cook, David is usually the one doing it. David also spends much more time with Spencer than he did when he had an inflexible full-time job. He discovered that he and Spencer have a special dynamic when I’m not around, and that there are several daddy-son activities they love doing together on their own.
Everything up until now has been designed to clear the non-essential issues out of the way. Once you have a taste of what it’s like to be a nomad and a pretty good idea of how you’ll make money, what’s left? This might be the hardest part of the conversation, and should be approached carefully, from positions of mutual respect and caring. For David and I, this is when we talk about my concern that I’ll miss my family, and that I don’t deal well with rapid change. For someone else, it might be caring for an aging relative, or earning a promotion that’s expected soon.
This is when I let David know that his happiness and fulfillment is as important to me as my own. This is when we both acknowledge, with love, our areas of difference. This part of the conversation is about compromise.
How David and I have agreed to travel:
-I enjoy travel but even if I hated it, I believe I would have agreed to a trial run of at least six months. David has wanted this life so much that I would have given it a shot no matter what. Because I do enjoy travel, I ended up saying “What the hell, let’s do it.” We have agreed to re-evaluate in future, which is the most important part of this decision. When it’s time for Spencer to go to school, we plan to discuss what worked and didn’t work about our mobile lifestyle, and decide what’s best going forward, for Spencer and for both of us.
-Because my introversion means that fast travel makes me go insane, we agreed to spend as much time in a single place as we can. This is usually as long as our visas allow, or two to three months.
-We visit home at least once a year, and re-evaluate when I’m feeling homesick. I recently found a ticket deal for a trip back to the States, so I’ll be home at least twice this year. I’m going by myself on this trip and taking Spencer because we can’t afford to spend too much, but David acknowledges that the trip is important to me. He acknowledged this before we started to travel, which was key. Our discussions before we traveled included caveats that would allow us to change our minds in the future. You don’t have to commit to live nomadically until you die, but it’s not hard to say you’ll give it a shot.
-Because we did our scorecards in advance, later discussions about what is or isn’t working are easier. We know each other’s major sticking points, and are less inclined to argue and more inclined to compromise when we find that something about our lifestyle needs tweaking. It also helps us keep each other’s needs in mind. Because I know that David doesn’t want to live in the States, I don’t try to persuade him that he’ll eventually change his mind.
-Now that I’ve agreed to travel, I take as much responsibility for our life as David does. This means that whenever I’m not liking our life, I try to refrain from complaining or making David feel like he’s responsible for my happiness. It turns out that I’m a bitch for the first week in any new location, and that I adjust quickly after that. If I’m still unhappy after a few weeks, David and I talk about what we can tweak, but now that we’ve made our decision, it’s both of our responsibility to make it work.
If you’ve had a serious, multi-part discussion about going nomadic and decide not to, or decide to wait, I hope the exercise at least helped you reach a better understanding of one another’s deepest goals and needs. Even if you decide not to travel, talking realistically about what a nomad life would look like can help you tailor a lifestyle that better suits you both.