Today, I’m interviewing Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo. Nora was a financial planner in her previous life, but she said goodbye to her six-figure income to embrace a life of travel. She has traveled full-time for 6 years and has only recently decided to make Grenada her home base.
Nora managed to create this lifestyle by saving up before traveling and slowly building a freelance writing career over the years. She also uses a variety of tools so she can travel full time for less. Her accommodation and transport expenses are ridiculously low! She has just finished writing her e-book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World; it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to try free accommodation options.
Read on to discover her secrets!
You sold everything in 2006 and took off to travel full time. How much money did you have when you first left Canada?
My situation was different in that I had an income from the sale of my financial planning practice that kicked out about $1,800/month for the first two years of my full-time travels. This largely negated the need for me to have a specific amount in travel savings – but I had some anyway – to the tune of about $15,000. That money was saved relatively easily, as I was making good money as a financial planner and I’ve always been a choosy spender.
My partner (at the time), on the other hand, was the exact opposite. He had mountains of debt, no money, and an unstable career. We spent over a year preparing his finances for full-time travel by aggressively paying off his debts, reducing expenses, and saving what he could.
Having no idea what our travels would cost or what his ability to earn money along the way would be, we arbitrarily chose $10,000 as a savings target for him. (We left before he hit that mark, and it didn’t bode well for us in the long run).
(For ideas on saving money, check out this page: How to Save Money to Travel the World.)
How long did it take for you to start earning income as a writer as you travel? Has it become easier for you to earn writing income as you build your online creds?
With two years’ of income from the sale of my business, I set myself that exact timeline to build a writing portfolio and income that could replace the other income when it ran out. And it took pretty much the full two years of (almost) full-time hours and very little pay to build up a steady income from freelance writing.
But all that hard work has indeed paid off in spades. Now, I work less and earn more. I have a few regular columns that I write, and I don’t need to pitch editors all the time – in fact, editors tend to come to me now! So my online portfolio and reputation seems to precede me.
Between 2011 and 2012, my income almost doubled — for little to no extra work. I’m on track to match it in 2013.
In case you’re interested:
What other things have you done to earn an income?
My income has almost entirely been location independent and related to my writing; any additional money I’ve earned “on the ground” has been considered a bonus.
After surviving the Victorian Bushfires in Australia in 2009, the Canadian Consulate and the Australian High Commission granted my partner (at the time) and I working visas as a thank you for our relief efforts and a gesture to help us get back on our feet (after being evacuated for almost a month).
My partner used the opportunity to throw himself into a job and replenish his savings (which had been spent by then). I did a little part-time work for fun, as an outdoor education instructor, taking groups of Aussie kids on wilderness trips and adventures.
The only other time I made some extra cash was when I was helping out a captain on a sailboat in the Caribbean, playing hostess to some charter guests.
You earn less income now than you did as a financial planner in Canada. How big of a difference are we talking about here and what makes your travels worth it?
Okay, numbers. By the time I sold my business I was making well over $100,000/year (which took six years to develop from the ground up). For my first five years of full-time travel, I made around $20,000/year. It wasn’t until my sixth year (2012) that my income shot up again – to almost $40,000.
What makes it worth it? Funny thing. By the time I hit that 6-figure income benchmark, I realized that the more money you make, the more money you need to keep making it. My overhead shot up and my expenses seemed commensurate. I wasn’t proportionately getting ahead the way I thought I would.
So when my income dropped to $20,000/year, life was actually much easier. I didn’t have a home base to maintain in Canada any more, which is a massive savings. And my cost of full-time travel has consistently been much cheaper than living in one place ever was; I consistently spent less than I earned without feeling hard done by.
Here’s a more eloquent way to explain why making more money isn’t always such a great thing:
Accommodation is often the biggest expense in a trip. Is this where you save the most money, by staying at unconventional lodgings?
Absolutely! In my first six years of full-time travel, I saved over $63,000 in accommodation. In 2011, I paid $173 in accommodation – for the entire year. The entire rest of the year I took advantage of free accommodation options around the world.
Here’s how I do it:
What abt transport — the other big travel expense? How do you tweak that to travel full time for less?
Next to accommodation, transportation is the biggest travel budget sucker. The more you’re on the move, and the faster you travel, the more money you’ll spend. So my first transportation recommendation is to travel slowly; which usually offers the added benefit of a more enriching cultural experience.
And when you must be on the move, best to do it in style! Most of my long-haul flights are in business class, and for less than the price of economy tickets. This is through judicious use and accumulation of frequent flyer miles. I’ve always been a passive collector with credit cards, but in 2010 I discovered a US Airways online retail promotion that netted me enough miles to book $8,000 in long-haul business class flights around the world, for an outlay of about $1,200 all-in. Since that successful campaign, I use various tools and techniques to maximize my frequent flyer miles and fly in style.
As a former financial planner, I have the impression that you’re on top of things when it comes to finances. Have you ever had serious money problems on the road?
The biggest financial blow I’ve had to take was just recently, when a house-guest in Grenada stole my passport and thousands of dollars (the proceeds from selling a car) – just four days before I was to travel to Panama. I had to make an emergency detour to Canada to expedite a new passport application, and all in all, over $10,000 passed through my hands in a few short days.
The loss of the money – although substantial – didn’t seem real. The loss of my passport was much more terrifying. (But then again, the loss of the money didn’t leave me destitute and helpless).
Beyond that, the worst money crises have been related to the relationships I’ve had. Problems with inequality of income and finances, problems with conflicting spending habits…..problems that, regardless of whether you travel, many couples face.
How do you plan for the future? Did you save for retirement when you were still working as a financial planner in Canada? Considering your low expenses, do you continue to save for retirement as you travel?
I invested in my RRSPs (Canadian tax-sheltered retirement savings) in the first few years after leaving Canada (yes, even with such a small income!), but most of my retirement savings were accumulated prior to selling my practice, and are invested for long-term growth to yield an eventual retirement income when I’m unwilling or unable to work. I had the edge of having invested in retirement savings from the age of 18; time is valuable where compound growth is involved. I don’t really need the tax break for contributing further at this time, so any extra money now gets stashed away in a high-interest savings account as a buffer.
Traveling full time means having to scale down on the possessions you can keep with you and also giving up some luxuries. What did you give up as a full-time traveler? Are you taking them up again now that you have a home base in Grenada?
The biggest sacrifice along the way has been that of personal space and “my stuff”. The free accommodation I’ve received has generally been exquisite – with lots of privacy, fully fitted kitchens, technology, and all the accoutrements of “home”. But it has always been somebody else’s home, with their own set of house rules and routines to adapt to. So there is a degree of independence that gets sacrificed on the road – but it has been minimal and an entirely worthy sacrifice.
Now in establishing a home base in Grenada, I’m realizing most of the “stuff” I initially missed really isn’t necessary. I have accumulated a few nice things that I wouldn’t travel with, such as a good pillow, a few trinkets or appliances, and a nice coffee pot. But all in all, I still see having “stuff” as being a (financial and emotional) anchor that’s largely unnecessary. I may wish to shift home bases from Grenada, and I’d like to do it with the same ease that I’ve had in traveling full time for the last seven years.
Having said that, there’s also potential to build a house in Grenada. And when you have a house, a new sort of vested interest (and accumulation of stuff!) happens. House or no house, though, I always expect to travel much of every year; travel has been a life-long compulsion for me – it’s only how I do it that evolves.
(End of Interview)
If you enjoyed this interview, please say hi to Nora at The Professional Hobo!
Do you want to be a “professional hobo” too?
Steal Nora’s tricks and save thousands of dollars on accommodation.
Nora has recently launched her e-book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World. In this e-book, Nora goes through all the different types of free accommodation, including volunteering, house-sitting, Couchsurfing, working on boats and home exchange. Over the years, she has done all of them, except for home exchange.
In the book, Nora shares tips to give you an advantage over other people who will be competing against you for free accommodation. She also comments on how suitable each type of accommodation is for people who work online.
Personally, what I like about the e-book is her list of resources for finding free accommodation. Some of the best and most reputable organizations unfortunately aren’t run by the most technologically savvy people, so they may have bad websites that would turn me off — unless an experienced traveler like Nora tells me they’re legit.
(Disclaimer: I have received a free copy of this e-book to review. If you purchase the e-book, at no additional cost to you, I will also receive a commission. Regardless, I honestly found this e-book to be a great resource.)
All images: Nora Dunn of The Professional Hobo.