Have Laptop, Will Travel
Digital nomads work remotely while traveling freely and sampling life around the world
Could you live as a digital nomad?
Imagine moving from one country to the next, maybe for a few days or a few months. Every so often, you check in with your work team. Then it's off to a museum or a ski slope or a beach.
Brent Hartinger and Michael Jensen have been digital nomads since 2017. They made the decision in response to politics in the U.S.
"I turned to Michael, and I said, 'Why don't we sell our house and leave the country?'" Hartinger said. "And Michael thought about it for about five seconds and said, 'OK.'"
A few months later, Jensen discovered some intriguing details about the lifestyle. "One Sunday morning, I was reading the New York Times, and there was this article on this thing called digital nomads. I started reading it, and it was like, 'Oh, that's what we're talking about doing.'"
Co-Living and Co-Working
The article answered a lot of questions about resources around the world, including co-living and co-working hubs.
The couple committed to a timeline, sold their house in Seattle and never looked back.
"Our home is wherever we happen to be at the time, yet we work remotely," Hartinger explained. "We call ourselves SlowMads, which means we stay in one place anywhere from one to three months. We like the pace of that. It also gives us a chance to get to know people."
"Our home is wherever we happen to be at the time."
Their website, Brent and Michael Are Going Places, is filled with recommendations, funny stories and practical tips about the nomadic lifestyle, including Hartinger's thorough explanation of health insurance and access to health care.
Not all long-term travelers are digital nomads. Those who are retired don't fit the definition. Hartinger and Jensen are still working. Hartinger is a novelist and screenwriter. Jensen is a novelist, too, and has been editor of an online educational curriculum. As travel writers, they have been on CBS Sunday Morning and CNN.
Pamela Parker has considered herself a digital nomad since moving from the U.S. to the Netherlands in 2014. One of her contracts is with an international spiritual organization based in the U.S. and includes digital instructional design and adjunct faculty work.
"I love the creative freedom of working remotely."
"I love the creative freedom of working remotely," she said, although there are some logistical mishaps.
"My remote workmates may speak and send emails as if they were text messages or tweets. This limited form of communication can cause miscommunication, and much time can be spent simply getting on the same page. And many of them mix up or disregard the time zone differences when organizing meeting times."
Expats and Taxes
The nomadic lifestyle is not wholly carefree. There is considerable paperwork involved in obtaining visas, health care and insurance, and there is the issue of income taxes. Do nomads pay taxes in the country where they work or in the U.S. or both? To be sure they meet all requirements, Hartinger and Jensen work with accountants who specialize in nomad taxes.
"Yes, all U.S. citizens are definitely required to file a tax return" with the Internal Revenue Service, Hartinger says in an email from London. "We do file and pay U.S. taxes," he writes. "But most countries only require taxes and returns if you stay more than 180 days, and we always travel on tourist visas (90 days or less), so there's never been a need to file in another country."
"All U.S. citizens are definitely required to file a tax return."
He notes a detail of U.S. tax law that benefits nomads. America has something called the Foreign Earned Income Tax Exclusion (FEIE), which is this: if someone is out of the U.S. for more than 330 days a year, some or all of the income they earn on those days out of the country — even from U.S. sources — becomes "foreign earned" and is NOT subject to U.S. income tax. Expatriate couples can exclude as much as $112,000 from U.S. income taxes in their 2022 return and $120,000 this year.
"We still pay payroll taxes, of course, and we must keep careful track of where we are in the world," he adds. To qualify for this exclusion, you must be in a foreign country for 330 days. not counting any day in which you fly to, from or over the United States.
Hartinger said every nomad he knows benefits from the current tax law, but he suspects Congress may change the law as the nomadic lifestyle becomes more popular. "This loophole will probably be tightened in the years ahead: until very recently, I suspect this law was a true loophole, applying to very few people. But nomading has become a bona fide phenomenon, so the exemption probably can't last."
The Attraction of Smaller Cities
Iringo Szekely, a strategic change advisor and marketing operation manager for an international IT company, has a permanent home in Amsterdam, but she works from Greek islands for three to four months each year.
"I prefer smaller places to make the most of what I need from remote working, which is enjoying life more," she said. So each year she looks for accommodations close to the beach, restaurants and nature. In this way, she added, "I can maximize leisure time without work being affected."
Hartinger and Jensen also prefer what they refer to as "second-tier" cities. "They are much more welcoming," Hartinger said. "The pace of life is slower."
And, he says, there is a financial benefit. "Because we spend much of our year in second-tier cities and in more affordable countries, our cost of living is actually about half what it was in Seattle."
The "digital" component of the digital nomad lifestyle could be a disadvantage because it can forestall personal relationship at work, but Hartinger and Jensen have found help in the co-working community. That is an informal global network of workers for different companies who share office space, equipment and support staff.
"There are hubs all around the world that are known for nomading," Hartinger said. "Not only are you meeting people socially, but professionally. It's an amazing way to make connections. And if either of us has a problem — we're not real tech guys, but we run a website and do various things online — basically you can stand up in a room and say, 'I have a problem with this. Does anyone have any expertise?' There's always somebody, no matter what your question is. You always have access to incredible resources."
Hartinger and Jensen return the favor by sharing their skills as professional writers.
An Option Only for the Rich?
The subject of "privilege" comes up in reference to digital nomads. Hartinger and Jensen have given the topic considerable thought.
"That's one of the big accusations about nomads," Hartinger explained, "that we're a privileged lot, and of course we are. It's generally people who are from America or Canada or western Europe, from a wealthier, more developed nation.
"Confronting the reality of it, and getting to know local people, has made me a more caring person and a more empathetic person," he added. "The more you travel, the more you see that people are people."
Jensen echoed that privilege allows for generosity. "I think it's better for us to be off in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina) spending that money in the local community," he said.
Hartinger added that American privilege doesn't separate him from the people he and Jensen meet in their travels. Instead, it enriches their experience.
"It's more than the standard of living," he said. "We meet all these awesome people who are really content with their lives. You see it up close and personal. You see that everybody looks out for each other. Everybody loves their kids, and everybody wants to be happy."
Hartinger and Jensen do not plan to live in the U.S. again, but their nomadic lifestyle has given them a fresh appreciation of the country they left.
"When you travel around the world, you realize that most countries are much more homogenous than America," Hartinger said. "There is much about America to be admired. Part of our stated values is that we accept people from all over the world, and that's something we celebrate. A lot of countries don't celebrate that.
"I wish more Americans were exposed to the realities of the world."