How to be a working nomad?
January 27, 2009 4:20 AM   Subscribe

I am a recent college graduate and I also suffer a good deal of wanderlust. There is the inevitable problem of combining work and play. At my university, the only career advice I received was graduate school or working the traditional 9-5 job. I'm wondering if it's possible to travel and earn money?

I'm not really interested in teaching English abroad, being an au-pair, and I've read this post. I'm more interested in the nebulous world of telecommuting and freelancing. I've seen this guy's page, but it sounds a little vague. I'd like to make money in a country where cost of living is low with a unique culture (Thailand, Guatemala, Kenya) but at the same time has access to steady internet so I can work.
Some specifics:
1) How does one break into the freelancing/telecommuting world? I know some webdesign (PHP/MySQL) and programming but often geared at an academic level for university classes. I don't have the faintest clue how to make money out of this! I have some down time right now where I'm picking up skills and making a portfolio. Any advice?
2) Will the stability of the internet connection be a factor? Will I need to have access to an internet cafe every day?
3) How are taxes worked out? Are there any books/information for people who are US citizens but live/work globally?
4) How does health insurance work out?

Thanks a lot MeFi!
posted by bodywithoutorgans to Work & Money (22 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Others will I am sure chime in with different experiences than mine goes:

1) How does one break into the freelancing/telecommuting world? I know some webdesign (PHP/MySQL) and programming but often geared at an academic level for university classes. I don't have the faintest clue how to make money out of this! I have some down time right now where I'm picking up skills and making a portfolio. Any advice?

Almost ALL the folks I know who are doing telecommuting or who are making significant money at freelancing did so after years of working at a more traditional (9-5) job. This is where they originally gained experience, networked, and convinced others that they had talent. That is, the people I know who make money and travel the world all "put in their time" earlier in their career, so to speak.

2) Will the stability of the internet connection be a factor? Will I need to have access to an internet cafe every day?

That depends on the job and the country.

3) How are taxes worked out? Are there any books/information for people who are US citizens but live/work globally?

That depends on the country. The US has tax treaties with other countries so that generally you can deduct what you pay locally from your US tax burden. You DO, however, have to file with the IRS every year regardless of where you are living.

They also have a maximum salary (85k?) below which you do not have to pay US taxes. Again, you DO still have to file with the IRS every year.

4) How does health insurance work out?

Depends on the country. Countries with nationalized health insurance though generally don't cover tourists. So, unless you actually have some residency status in that country, you'll be out of luck.
posted by vacapinta at 4:54 AM on January 27, 2009

Why not ask for a pony too? You're about as likely to get that as what you're looking for here.

Honestly, I'm not at all convinced that this is a viable option. Sure, in the 1990s and the first half of this decade there were a decent handful of people doing just that. But those were the "boom" years, when salaries were unrealistically high and money was unrealistically loose, especially for services of nebulous value like programming. The economy lost 2.6 million jobs last year, and is looking at shedding another 3 million this year. The heydays of hiring freelancers and telecommuters are probably over. Firms are looking to lay people off, not hire non-traditional employees.

Find yourself whatever job you can and be happy with it. Beggars can't be choosers.
posted by valkyryn at 4:55 AM on January 27, 2009

Look up Location Independent.
posted by divabat at 5:21 AM on January 27, 2009

1) How does one break into the freelancing/telecommuting world?

networking. asking questions. interviewing other freelancers. willingness to accept an unsteady paycheck

2) Will the stability of the internet connection be a factor? Will I need to have access to an internet cafe every day?

I lived and freelanced in Mexico. I paid for cable, it was the same I'm paying for the states. It was fast and reliable. Mexico is considered a third world country and they had internet everywhere. I would only assume more first world countries will have internet services for you.

3) How are taxes worked out? Are there any books/information for people who are US citizens but live/work globally?

if I'm not mistaken, you can make up to 80,000+ a year tax free when living in another country as an ex-pat. I could be wrong

4) How does health insurance work out?

you can get international health insurance, just call various providers in your area and tell them what you are planning to do. A lot of countries have socialized health care so even if you are hospitalized, it's not much. I had a scare with my heart one night and was rushed to the ER of Mexico. I got top notch treatment and got a clean bill of health. My bill was 81.50. A friend of mine was injured in a terrible wreck in Mexico as well. He was rushed to the hospital, had surgery, was there for 2 weeks while they mended his leg and sewed him back up. His bill? A whopping 9k. 9k wouldn't even pay for a day in a USA Hosptial.

While I think Valkyryn has some valid points, I do not share his (or her?) grim view of freelancing. 2008 was my best year ever on record and I've already made about 3 months worth of living expenses in 2009 and I've yet to even advertise. Most of my fellow freelance friends are swamped with work and can barely handle the workload as is.

It basically boils down to if you're willing to hustle or not. If you just "expect" work to come to you, think again. It doesn't. When I moved to Mexico to freelance (and try to be this hipster jetsetter) I had my worst year on record. I had 6 clients go belly up on me and work just seemed to melt away. It was miserable. So just be prepared and arm yourself with knowledge.
posted by Hands of Manos at 5:29 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

You should consider doing one of the jobs that you don't find that appealing (but in a country that you do find appealing!). Then begin networking and making contacts which should lead you to a job that you do want.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 5:34 AM on January 27, 2009

Firms are looking to lay people off, not hire non-traditional employees. Find yourself whatever job you can and be happy with it. Beggars can't be choosers.

I can't speak to the world of programming specifically, but as a general perspective on freelancing I think this is very mistaken. First, in many industries laying people off creates opportunities for freelancers. Second, living abroad can quite easily be much cheaper, reducing the amount you'd need to earn to survive. Third, a rather vaguer point, but I'm pretty sure the best way to thrive in these times is not to take this attitude of grumpy resignation. I'm not saying "you can do ANYTHING! if you put your mind to it," but you can almost certainly do more than you'd guess from the prevailing atmosphere today in which everyone's engaged in trying to outdo each other in pessimism, whether or not they themselves have taken a serious financial hit.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:00 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The remote freelancing thing can be a lot easier if you are willing to make regular journeys to go and call in on the people who are employing you. For example I know of people who are able to live and work in places like the south of France or the Scottish highlands whilst making journeys to London about once a month to deal with business. It may also help if you are able to build up contacts with an agent or local business based wherever the work is. This might be an organisation who wants specialist skills without paying big-city wages - or it could be a traditional relationship where the agent earns money by finding you work. If this sounds appealing then obviously you will need to consider distances and travel costs to find a happy balance. Many employers are quite happy to take on somebody they are only going to see occasionally - but they do tend want to meet at the inception and end of a project.

If you are trying to sell your technical skills then a few months working to build a great blog which discusses your area and showcases you abilities would probably by a good idea.

Finally you might want to think along the lines of a "portfolio career" where you strive to have multiple sources of income to give you variety and stability. You might want to mix a bit of programming with raising chickens or teaching computing to locals for example.
posted by rongorongo at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Consider working for an advertising company.

I don't know in this economy but... after college I joined up with a crew that did cig promotions. I had been doing promotions before, for Huggies, Dunkin Donuts, etc. The cool thing about these temp jobs for me was the people organizing them. They had done what I was doing for them, impressed someone, and were allowed to travel the country hiring temps to promote whatever the product was. $25 a day stipend plus travel and lodging. You get to promote stupid products, and hire other college kids to do the grunt work. So these guys were living in a truck together for 4 months dispensing dunkin donuts new coffee. Seemed cool to me.

Look into it, there are organizations that specialize in this and are hired by other marketing firms.
posted by teabag at 6:55 AM on January 27, 2009

After college I worked for an audit company, and traveled 25-50% of the time.

If you get into sales and use tax, you don't really need an accounting background. In fact, I think they loved that I didn't, because they could negotiate down my starting salary. Most of the states have satellite office in large cities (Houston has tons thanks to oil and gas industries), and will ship you out to cities that don't have satellite offices. I worked for smaller local jurisdictions, so they were unwilling to send us overseas. But I've heard of auditors going to Mexico and Canada.

The nice thing about the gig is that it's somewhat recession proof. As people are getting laid off, states are having budget shortfalls and auditors are being sent out to be more aggressive to make up the budget gap.
posted by politikitty at 7:04 AM on January 27, 2009

I had some success freelancing as an English editor in China/Taiwan for quite a few years. Of course I did some ESL when times were tight (or when the salary offered was high), but editing is great if you've got the knack. I gave my first contacts a discount if they promised to post my name/email in their dorm or online or to recommend my services to their classmates. Before long I was turning down work because I was so busy. Just an idea.
posted by mateuslee at 7:33 AM on January 27, 2009

Somewhat related: Exotic Locales with High Speed Internet
posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:48 AM on January 27, 2009

A lot of young people make money while travelling by working as bartenders and hostel staff. Many countries have visa programs for people on "working holidays". You could easily travel for a year or two in this manner.

I had a friend who I think had the sort of job you want; he spent months at a time in places like Trinidad, Paris, and Botswana. He was hired by a networking/communications company to be their on-site customer deployment specialist; all of these countries were home to clients.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:15 AM on January 27, 2009

Check out Expat Software's blog Code on the Road.
posted by symbollocks at 8:34 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The people who are telling you the tech industry doesn't hire freelancers and/or you can't start as a freelancer have never worked in the tech industry and are 100% incorrect.

That is how I started, and hows tons of people start. Some go their whole career without holding a "real" job. I know consultants who work all over the world, get paid something like $200/hr, and take half the year off between jobs. But these guys are very skilled in very specialized areas.

How I started: I was working at a temp agency, doing regular temp jobs, and they eventually switched me over to their "technical" wing because I told them I knew HTML. The world has a million agencies and recruiters that place internationally and around the U.S.

The trick for you will be finding those willing to take the chance on "importing" someone of your limited experience. You might want to do some consulting/temping at home first. Also, consider building up your skillset. LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) is good to know, but if you want to be a programmer, you might want to back that up with knowledge of a "serious" OO language like Java or C#.

(you also used the term "web design" but were apparently referring to development or programming; it's important to get the terms straight, "web design" means doing graphic design for the web. At some point people were using the terms somewhat interchangably but these days a "designer" is one thing and a "developer" is something completely different).
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:49 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I recommend Getting Out for some nuts & bolts on insurance, etc. and lots of interviews with people who are doing what you want to do.

I have my own business and can work from almost anywhere (time zones are still a consideration for conference calls and quick email replies). I agree with previous commenters that the massive shedding of jobs can be an opportunity, not necessarily a threat. Someone still needs to do the work, but companies don't want a full-time employee, so the work goes to independents. 2008 was my best year yet. The jury is currently out on 2009.

If you want to be an online independent, you really have to like to hustle and take on risk, like to set and meet deadlines, and feel passionate enough about your niche to at the very least establish a blog and build a presence.

I'd recommend you get work now, so you build your portfolio and learn how to please clients. It might be most educational to work as a temp, because you'll see the insides of many more companies. You'll also need business management skills, so while you're temping at various companies, look at how they market themselves, plan for the future, etc. Also see how you feel about the insecurity and the changing demands of temping, because that's what freelancing is like.

I agree that it's best to get your income from a mix of sources, such as maybe web design services, WordPress templates or other stuff people can buy, maybe some affiliate marketing, and maybe something in the local scene. I'm trying to shift my emphasis to products because I'm tired of always feeling on-call as a service provider.

I'd also suggest that you establish something intangible about your service that goes beyond coding or whatever skill you offer. You need a reason to charge a decent amount. Otherwise, clients will just hire the cheapest coder in the cheapest country, and you'll lose the advantage of earning US/UK/Canadian rates.
posted by PatoPata at 9:59 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you're in the mood for a career change, there's always travel nursing, or working in another of the allied health professions. There are traveling pharmacists, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, respiratory therapists. They typically work 13-week long contracts in areas that have difficulty finding adequate staffing. They are typically well compensated.
posted by jennyjenny at 10:14 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The notion that an economic downturn is bad for non-traditional work is almost exactly wrong. An economic downturn is terrible for traditional work. Companies desperately cut away at headcount (ie, traditional work) to cut expenses, but in doing so, they often find that in the process, they've lost needed skills or capacity and they make it up by hiring contractors and freelancers (or getting them from staffing firms).

A downturn as big as the one we are in now is often accompanied by huge structural changes (whether they are a cause, or an effect of the downturn). In the face of these changes, traditional job titles, skill sets, and work patterns may not be as important as they once were, and there are opportunities for people flexible enough to fill the gaps. The tech boom of the 90s didn't start out as a boom, it started out as a recession that left a lot of smart young people underemployed in the traditional workforce. Many of them found new jobs in the tech industry because the web and software were creating entirely new job categories. (I'm not yet sure where these opportunities will come as we start pulling out of this current downturn.)

That said, your existing skill set should be an entre into some "traditional" freelance niches. Definitely focus on polishing your basic web design and scripting skills. I disagree that you'll need to learn a "serious" OO language like Java or C#. That's fine if that's what interests you, but there is plenty of room to work closer to the end user, doing HTML, javascript, and PHP/mySQL. If you wanted to beef up your server side skills, you could invest more effort in PHP/mySQL, they have the advantage of being nearly ubiquitous, but a rich framework like Django, which is programmed in Python, or Rails, which is programmed in Ruby, might be more productive.

As others have noted, you'll need to build a network somehow, and it may be easiest to do it before you travel too much. Some combination of the following can help. Go to a US city and sign up with as many web-oriented staffing agencies as you can and try do 4-5 ~3 month assignments over the next 18 months. That would put you in touch with a lot of potential sources of work, both among the clients, and any coworkers. Start going to and participating in various user and professional groups for web development & design, etc. Start trawling craigslist for little gigs. You could start with whatever city you are in now, but you can also branch out and look more widely for work you could do remotely. I think though that you want to start out working on joint projects, rather than working solo. Your skills will advance more quickly if you've got colleagues or mentors to learn from.

As for working remotely, I think that a solid internet connection will be crucial. Remote work looses a lot of the informal communication opportunities that come from working side-by-side with people, but that can be mitigated by IM, Skype, etc. Even if you are pretty self-contained doing whole projects on your own, you'll want to be able to check in with the client often. Also, having ready access to the Google, and to IRC/chat & discussion boards can be essential for making steady progress if you run into a sticking point.

Oh, a final thought, think about using time-zones to your advantage. Some firms will organize work so that teams can work on projects nearly around the clock. Project management and design might be in one part of the world they work all morning on lining up work for the development team who is working on another continent. As project management is wrapping up their day, they hand off another days work to the dev team, who is just starting their work, and the dev team in turn hands off to a testing team another few time-zones away. You might be able to position yourself in a similar way on a smaller scale by teaming up with better established and more experienced freelancers in other parts of the world. You could be gaining experience by doing grunt work while they sleep and then spend some time at the beginning of their day and the end of yours going over the work you did, and figuring out what you'll do the next day.
posted by Good Brain at 10:19 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to be a party pooper, but I don't think this will work out quite the way you hope it will.

1) How does one break into the freelancing/telecommuting world?
I firmly believe you need to work a real 9 to 5 job for a while, both to make connections with the people who will hire you as a freelancer later on, and (much more importantly) to educate yourself on how businesses work -- which bears zero relation to what you learned in school -- so you'll know what they need and how you can supply it.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to become a successful freelancer without some solid experience on the other side of the desk.

2) Will the stability of the internet connection be a factor? Will I need to have access to an internet cafe every day?
Well, if you're planning on doing work that requires an internet connection, then yes, you will need a reliable internet connection whenever you plan to work. Clients will generally need you to be available to answer email during normal business hours -- I very much doubt that dropping into an internet cafe occasionally will be sufficient.

(This may vary, but in my experience freelance work tends to be more-than-fulltime for a stretch, with periods of idleness in between. It's very rare to find a job that wants you to work a few hours a day: usually they need what they need asap. You may be able to get away with settling into a location during the busy periods, and hitting the road whenever there's a break, but scheduling this ahead of time would be impossible.)

3) How are taxes worked out? Are there any books/information for people who are US citizens but live/work globally?
As a US citizen who has clients in several different US states, I have to file taxes in each of those states separately. I only ever had one international client, which was a PITA for timezone reasons so I don't plan on doing it again, but I honestly don't remember what the deal was with the taxes on that one (at this point I just sign whatever the accountant puts in front of me.)

4) How does health insurance work out?
You have to buy it as an individual. It will be shockingly expensive.

You may be better off trying something like geekcorps, or finding a regular job in a location that will satisfy your travel-lust, or else taking jobs at home, saving up for a while, then quitting and hitting the road for a while.
posted by ook at 12:02 PM on January 27, 2009

Another option:
Work at a 100% travel job for a couple years. I did this for two years, working in Data Warehousing consulting. You fly to a place for a week, you fly back home on the weekend. But 'home' doesn't always need to mean home. "Home" can mean, really anywhere. In 18 months of this consulting, I visited San Francisco three times, Vegas twice, Boston, Savannah,Charleston, Miami (twice), New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Louisville. You can leave your stuff at your parents house and crash at friend's places on weekends. These jobs pay a lot since not alot of people like 100% travel. You don't have to pay for food (and, wink, drinks) during the week. Often you work 4 day weeks (another 'wink' on Friday working).

Travel does get to you physically and the food kills your health, and clients like to beat you up and work you long hours. But the travel

I earned over 300,000 airline miles and as many hotel points. These miles are letting me travel to South America for basically nothing this summer.

A couple other people quit and traveled around the world for a year.
posted by sandmanwv at 12:19 PM on January 27, 2009

I disagree that you must work a 9-to-5 job before becoming independent. I think you'll learn more working several temp jobs. I've been working since 1982 and in all that time I've had one full-time job, at which I stayed full time for about a year. Every other on-site "job" I had was part-time at best, and I learned a lot by juggling different jobs and clients.

I'm also confused by ook paying taxes in several states. I pay income tax for the state I live in. My client's state is irrelevant, unless I sell something for which I need to charge sales tax, which I don't.

Also, I have international clients. I pay US income tax on the income I get from my work with them, and that's it, because my current address is the US. If I become a full-time resident of another country, then it gets more complicated and my host country will likely want a cut. But my clients' countries have no claim on my income, just as my clients' states have no claim. My accountant confirms this, and the IRS and I get along fine.
posted by PatoPata at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2009

I think you'll learn more working several temp jobs.

That's a fair point. My emphasis was more that it's important to have some real-world experience as an employee before trying to go solo; whether that experience happens as a result of a single job or a variety of temp jobs doesn't really make much difference (except that a very short-term temp job isn't going to give you much in the way of contacts.)

I'm also confused by ook paying taxes in several states.

Interesting. I'm certainly no tax expert; I'm just following my accountant's advice: he has me filing separately for my income based on where each client is located. I've been doing it that way for a dozen years now, and like you the IRS doesn't seem too fussed about it...
posted by ook at 6:17 PM on January 27, 2009

Aw, jeez, how embarrassing. I just mentioned this to my wife, who pays much more attention to these things than I do, and it turns out I'm completely wrong about the tax thing -- there was one period when due to a combination of complicated job and residence changes I had to file in a bunch of different states, and I somehow never noticed that that wasn't happening anymore. Apologies.
posted by ook at 7:20 PM on January 27, 2009

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