Table of Contents
- Moving to cheaper destinations and the cost of overheads
- The Western Dream has packed up and moved to Asia
- The Past Was Yours But The Future’s Mine!
- How much money can I save by living abroad?
- The digital expat life: Not all sunshine and rainbows
- Geopolitics can change things overnight
- Being a digital expat isn’t easy, but it’s worth the trouble
Moving to cheaper destinations and the cost of overheads
Let’s face it, the developed “Western” world has simply become too expensive for everyday people. In many western cities today, even well-paid professionals struggle with daily expenses.
For example, it costs an average of $50 per day to park a car in Manhattan and that’s before you’ve even thought about petrol, tax, and insurance. Then there is the cost of a place to sleep, the average one bedroom apartment in New York starts at $1,600 per month in the Bronx. As for London (the overpriced heart of rip-off Britain), I have several friends working as Teachers & Lawyers down there who can only just afford a house share and routinely end up counting down til payday.
How did it ever come to this?
Meanwhile, in vibrant developing world cities like Bangkok, everyday expenses are a mere fraction of these amounts. In most Thai cities $700 per month will get you a modern, air-conditioned apartment far nicer than that battered rickety brownstone you currently call home. Pre-K and nurseries (Thai equivalent of daycare) start at $1,500 per year and parking at Lad Prao, a park-and-ride for Bangkok’s transit system, costs less than $50 per month. And of course, a meal for 2 will cost you under $10 and beers are less than even $1.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is true…
You see, if you have a digitizable skill set, setting up shop abroad and becoming a Digital Nomad can offer huge cost savings and a far better quality of life. In this post, we’ll examine the pros and cons of such a move.
The Western Dream has packed up and moved to Asia
Did somebody order some stats? Here they are!
Remember when we could count on robust economic growth? Not that long ago, America posted GDP growth figures between 5-10% and Europe was the epicenter of culture. However, sadly we haven’t seen activity on this scale since the 1990s – the US is dwindling in the doldrums and much of Europe has been plunged into brutal austerity.
If you fancy some more stats to chow down on, here we go. From the 2000s to today, 4% growth is about as good as it’s gotten. On average, 2-3% YoY GDP growth has become the new normal. So what happened? Well effectively, outsourcing and streamlining have sucked the marrow out of many developed world economies as jobs that were once done in offices in Chicago or Manchester are now done for a fraction of the cost in Mumbai or Xian. The Wests loss is the Easts gain. Slow economic growth has led to wage stagnation and all while the cost of everything, from education to real estate to funeral services, has utterly skyrocketed.
Frankly, it’s depressing. But there is an alternative…
The Past Was Yours But The Future’s Mine!
Unsurprisingly, the current generation of young bright things is looking for a way out and many have found themselves in South East Asia. By relocating to places like Bali and Chiang Mai, they have found the life they always dreamed of – albeit, half a world away!
When you look at growth numbers abroad, it’s not surprising why ambitious people are flocking there. According to the OECD, Indonesia’s GDP should grow by 5.2% in 2019. Economists expect this rate to hold, with 5.3% YoY growth expected through 2023.
A similar story is playing out across ASEAN. The Philippines will grow by 6.6%, and Vietnam by 6.5% every year over the next five. If Thailand’s political situation stabilizes, it’s five-year growth forecast of 3.7% YoY may turn out to be a conservative estimate.
As lucrative as the economy is over there, most westerners are not economic geeks like me and instead are relocating for two other reasons: the low cost of living and the lifestyle it enables.
So just how cheap is Southeast Asia? Well, we’ll dive deeper into this subject in the next section.
How much money can I save by living abroad?
Despite anecdotal stories of overseas markets being cheaper, your average person on the street remains highly skeptical. They’ll resolutely spout platitudes about these kids having wealthy parents, or that they aren’t telling the whole story.
When you look at the numbers, though, you’ll quickly learn it isn’t just hype. Not only is Southeast Asia cheaper than the West, but the comparison often isn’t even close.
Let’s start by making the business case for relocation. Back in NYC, office space costs $6.16 per square foot, on average. If you were to rent a 2,000 square foot office in Hudson Square, you’d pay over $12,000 per month – yikes!
Meanwhile, in Canggu, Bali, entrepreneurs pay a fraction of that. At Dojo Bali Coworking, an Unlimited Membership grants access to an air-conditioned boardroom, 16 hours in the Skype Booth, and a beautiful swimming pool. The cost? 2.9 million IDR – or $200/month. That’s $2,000 month for a ten-person team or 83% less than that office in Lower Manhattan. Yes, you read that right, 83%.
Not only can you do business overseas for less, but it is also easy to collaborate with peers to grow companies. Broke Backpacker founder Will Hatton built the website whilst living in Chiang Mai before relocating to Bali in order to scale up his next projects (which you can read about here).
In fact, I could give you loads of examples of young upstarts who headed out to SEA to build their business and design their dreams.
Whilst working for the man out in South East Asia does often mean lower wages than back home, you can still come out way ahead. Even if you’re making $2,000 per month, in SEA it’s enough to live like a King rather than being barely enough to keep going like it is in Paris, Sydney or Toronto.
Let’s use Chiang Mai as an example. If you’re bringing in $2,000 per month, you can:
- Eat Thai food every night. You know that restaurant back home that charges $17 for Khao Soi? Well, you can get 10 times better from a street stall for $1.50 USD in Chiang Mai. Western food, while pricier than that, is often cheaper than back home, too. At The Duke’s, an American restaurant, fish, and chips costs around $8 compared to $12-14 at the British Seaside! Of course, I doubt you’ll actually want to eat much Western food with so much cheap and delicious local fare on offer.
- Rent a kick-ass crib. Remember that rickety $1,60 per month apartment back in the Bronx or Hackney? In Chiang Mai, you can find smartly furnished condo units that start at $300 per month. If that’s too much, then you can find basic but clean studios with wi-fi, cable TV, A/C, and a workstation for $200 or less or if you set something even bigger, a whole house can be bagged for $400. Boom!!
- Party Hard! Fancy a trip to the movies? In Chiang Mai, your entire night will cost no more than $10. In New York City, on the other hand, it costs $16 just for the ticket and woe betide you if you buy popcorn. And what about nightlife? Hit up happy hour in NYC, and you’re still shelling out $6-7 USD for a crappy Budweiser. In Thailand? Beers start at less than a buck.
That’s just a small taste of what’s possible. Digital marketers, freelancers, programmers, and other digital professionals can make much more than $2,000 by being masters of their own earnings and by billing clients still based back in the over-priced west.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average web developer makes $62,000 per year or over $5,000 per month which is an absolute fortune out in SEA. With that kind of wedge in your back pocket, you’d be able to rent the dram pad, eat out and enjoy the odd happy ending all while saving up!
You can even get some traveling done cos on this salary, you could even go on regular trips around SE Asia. Let’s say you’ve decided Bohol is beautiful and you want to see it – well on Air Asia, a round trip fare from Chiang Mai costs no more than 350 USD. And yet, despite all this “wanton spending,” at the end of the month, you’ll still bank more than you did back home.
If you don’t understand how or why digital nomadism has become so damned popular, you now know.
The digital expat life: Not all sunshine and rainbows
However, the digital expat lifestyle does have its cons and chief among them are taxes. The USA is only one of two countries that taxes your worldwide income (the other is the corrupt, repressive dictator state of Eritrea).
However, there is a loophole that allows you to avoid all/most taxation while abroad: The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. In 2019, those who make money overseas don’t have to pay taxes on the first $105,900 they make and most people earn well less than that.
However, it comes with a pretty big caveat – you must remain outside America for all but 30 days each year. This fact can be tough on familial relationships and friendships back home.
In other countries like Australia, you may also have to close bank accounts to claim non-tax resident status. To do this, you’ll have to transfer funds to an account in your new base of operations. However, performing this task through your old bank could cost you hundreds more than is necessary.
Let’s say you’re moving $20,000 AUD from Commonwealth Bank to your new account in Bali. They give you a rate of 9344.5658, giving you 186.9 million IDR on the other end. But over on xe.com, the interbank rate is 9784.8700. If you could use this rate, you’d have 195.7 million IDR. That’s a 9 million IDR, or a $919 AUD difference!
Orbit Remit solves this difficulty partially. This money transfer firm operates online – as a result, its overhead costs are much lower. They pass on these savings to customers with exchange rates much closer to interbank. With a rate of 9751.769, you’d receive 195 million IDR, representing a savings of $827 AUD compared to Commonwealth Bank.
Geopolitics can change things overnight
Global politics can also wreak havoc with the lives of digital expats. In Bangkok, political protests have suddenly erupted into violence. Then, of course, the Brexit vote result in 2016 tanked the GBP, creating financial stress for British nomads everywhere. I was in Nepal when the result was announced and I was suddenly getting 10 NPS less per pound – it added up to a beer less per day!
Keeping the Brexit theme going (cos its all I’ve lived and breathed for 2 years), if a no-deal Brexit happens in October, the legal status of UK citizens may change overnight. Right now, they have the right to reside and work in EU countries and enjoy all the benefits EU citizens get around the world. However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we may have to leave the EU to apply for a work permit. Travel would also fall under Schengen rules, forcing UK citizens to leave the area every 90 days.
As you can see, changing international legality can affect digital expats in many disruptive ways which are absolutely impossible to predict.
Being a digital expat isn’t easy, but it’s worth the trouble
The logistics of making a living online and becoming a digital nomad can be headache-inducing. However, the pain of dealing with these issues is well worth it when you consider the payoff and is fair less a headache than working in a crap job in a cold winter just to have enough money to pay your rent.
Massive increases in disposable income, tropical locales, a world of fantastic food and a sense of freedom, adventure & triumph!!! Yep, that’s a dream well worth fighting for.