The digital nomad lifestyle is the dream for a lot of people that I meet. And rightfully so – there’s so much to gain pursuing a life filled with new cultures, freedom and travel.

But of course it can’t stop there, with just laptops on the beach and drinking out of coconuts. For digital nomads, the lifestyle comes with it’s whole own set of difficulties and challenges.

This week I did a poll on my Instagram stories asking people if they would be digital nomads if they could. The response was an overwhelming 97 percent YES.

I’ve lived the ups and downs of the digital nomad lifestyle, so I want to let you in on some insight that I wish someone has shared with me.

My “why” for leaving the 9-5 world 

I vividly remember a conversation that I had right after I graduated from university. I was flabbergasted that all of that work pursuing my degree and a good job out of the gates was for this: Sitting behind a computer all day until it’s time to go home and then do it all again tomorrow. 

At first, it felt devastating. Almost all of my time was spent in the rat race, chasing the cheese. I desperately told my mentor:

“There is no cheese – money won’t buy my life back that’s spent fading away in my cubicle

I tried to squish myself into the mold, a phase which I now have affectionately nicknamed “corporate Kayla.” I chopped my hair off, curated a business casual wardrobe and told myself that wanting to have fun (fun – so frivolous!) was not what I had worked for in college. 

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Corporate Kayla, with the signature bored look in the eyes. Circa Chicago, 2016

Thus, I spent a few years behind a desk. And even working at some jobs that I really enjoyed! But no amount of enjoyment for the tasks at hand could outweigh the numbness that I felt towards the way I spent the bulk of my time. 

This quote by Annie Dillard haunted me daily: 

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
– Annie Dillard

Now, this isn’t putting down anyone who has a desk job. The light bulb moment that I want to share is that you have the option to choose another recipe if this one isn’t for you.

And to be honest, I’ve had desk jobs that I’ve loved and thrived in. It’s possible I’ll end up back there again someday, but on my terms. This time off the beaten path has changed everything about how I approach life, and continues to change me every day. 

Things No One Tells You About The Digital Nomad Lifestyle

1. It’s an emotional roller coaster 

A structured job provides you certainties that are always there. There’s always someone who will tell you what to do if you’re not sure. You never have to worry about everything. Someone will pay the electricity bill. If the whole company were to go under, you’d have a group of people to go cheers unemployment with at the bar across the street.  

With the structure of typical employment removed, you can do anything. You can start every morning with hours of meditation or long hikes. Read an entire book cover-to-cover every day. 

Become a nudist. Adopt a nocturnal sleep schedule and do all of your activity at night, naked. 

The magnitude of choice is both exhilarating and completely overwhelming. 

It took me months, maybe even longer, to find a balance. It’s been more than 2 years since I left my desk job in Chicago, and I still experience ups and downs. 

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With my freedom, the first thing I did was book a one-way ticket to Mexico. I had no plans, and drifted south through Latin America for about 6 months. Cancún Airport, 2017

2. You’ll experience soooo much growth

If I had to pick one word to summarize this phase of life (leaving convention behind and trying something alternative), it would be: growth. 

Before becoming a digital nomad, I lived in Chicago. Now, I live in the Netherlands and use my free time to explore Europe. Some days, I still have trouble believing my life is so full of travel and new experiences. Sintra, Portugal 2019

Just the fact that you’re thinking about pursuing the nomadic lifestyle shows growth.

Pursuing and executing that lifestyle will change every cell in your body (at least, it’ll feel that way).

It takes courage to seek a free-form life, where you figure out making money, your schedule and your location in the world.

3. It takes work to still socialize 

The nomadic lifestyle means you can work from anywhere. But where do digital nomads work? Most digital nomads fall into one of these 3 categories:

  1. Working online, from wherever home is
  2. Working online while traveling
  3. Utilizing coworking spaces either at home or abroad

One and two are the most common. Digital nomads who work online and are location independent in the long-run usually experience a mix of all three.

digital nomad lifestyle_Writing From Nowhere_Kayla Ihrig
I never dreamed I’d see so much of Europe and the Americas by this point in my life. Monschau, Germany 2019

This point is for the dreamers who fit into category #1: it will take work to socialize.

And by “socialize,” I mean seeing another living human ~in the flesh.~

When you work from home, meeting new people takes work. Heck, even seeing people, any people, can be an accomplishment some days.

For many digital nomads this is even more labor intensive. Every time you move to a new country, you don’t know anyone and you have to consciously put yourself out there.

I hit digital nomad rock bottom when I had just moved to the Netherlands in 2018. It was the dead of winter. I was in the middle of a big freelance deadline. And I hadn’t spoken out loud to someone other than my husband in d a y s . 

On the upside, many cities have coworking spaces filled with people keen on connecting with other remote workers. The thing is that you still have to go.

digital nomad lifestyle_Writing From Nowhere_Kayla Ihrig
See those rain clouds sitting on the mountains? That’s why it was the low season. Why I hadn’t seen another backpacker in awhile. Panama 2017

Truth be told, this might also happen to you while traveling (category #2) too. Depending on where you’re at in the world, there may not be any other backpackers around.

I traveled through South America in the low season, and there were many occasions where hostels were completely empty and no other backpackers or digital nomads to be found.

4. Most people won’t get what you’re doing 

There have been many occasions where I’ve shied away from the conversation about having a nontraditional working life. I pick my battles when it comes to explaining my lifestyle. 

So you don’t like working? 
Wouldn’t you be happier if you had more money? 
I just can’t imagine not having a career. 

And it’s not their fault – we’re a part of a society that rightfully places a lot of value on work ethic and career. The idea that you can be both non-traditional and still be working hard can take some adjustment for some people. 

If they don’t understand what you’re doing, show them some pictures of your travels to take their breath away. Machu Picchu, Peru 2018

A short conversation about what digital nomads are and do will usually help people understand. I was lucky to have exceptional support when I transitioned into the nomadic lifestyle.

However, I think it’s important to brace yourself for some negative reactions from people in your life.

5. You have to learn to live without certain things 

Many people taper their transition into the digital nomad lifestyle. I think for most people, this transition includes a dip in income and some very low-budget living to get by.

Something you’re never too broke to enjoy? The sunrise. Caught from the roof of my apartment building in Groningen, Netherlands 2019

My digital nomad lifestyle transition went like this:

  • Save up some money
  • Quit job, move out of apartment
  • Stay with my parents and couch surf in the US for a month while building up my online work
  • Fly to Mexico with a one-way ticket and work online from hostels as a I travel

    In the long run, it’s completely realistic to have lower expenses and more wealth with the digital nomad lifestyle. But you shouldn’t expect a sacrifice-free transition. Some staples in my life that I had to sacrifice at first to make this lifestyle happen: 

  • my La Croix addiction 
  • going to the bar 
  • eating salmon 
  • buying clothes 

And to be honest? After living the location independent lifestyle, I just never went back to buying those things. Once I learned to live without them for so long, I never needed them again.

6. It’s completely possible to make it happen if you make changes to your lifestyle 

Maybe quitting your job and joing the growing community of digital nomads, starting your own business or simply diverting those 40 hours a week somewhere else sounds like a pipe dream now. But it may not be that far out of reach. 

After all, if other digital nomads are doing it all over the world at this exact moment, why not you?

There are two typical paths people take for finding location independence: 

  1. Having a typical full-time job in your field, just online. This could even be the job you have now, but doing it remotely. You’d have a normal salary and normal working hours. 
  2. Working online, but taking a step back from full-time work. This could be working freelance, teaching English remotely, blogging, etc. 

Most digital nomads I’ve met fit into category #2.

Where to begin with the digital nomad lifestyle?

Minimize expenses, save money, teach yourself to budget and learn to live without things. 

In a nutshell, that’s what matters most about getting started living without your normal income. And you can start doing those things today to start making your dream of becoming a digital nomad a reality.

The basic principle of getting started living without your 9-5 job: if you can drastically reduce the money going out every month, than you can live off of much less. 

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I think you owe it to yourself to see how far you can take your dreams. If that dream is to be a digital nomad, then you should get started saving money right now and start making it happen. San Pedro Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2017

Is leaving the 9-5 world for you? 

What made you read this article? Are you considering leaving your desk job, trying to work for yourself, or becoming a digital nomad? 

I’d love to hear! Shoot me an email at [email protected] to let me know 🙂