Home Sweet Hostel: Budgeting as a Digital Nomad
Whether it’s rising rent prices, the availability of remote work, or just good old fashioned wanderlust, a lot of working adults are trading a white picket fence for a passport or state park pass instead. Call them van lifers, digital nomads, perpetual travelers, frolicking freelancers, vagrant vloggers, or just plain location independent—home is wherever you may roam for many. But how does budgeting as a digital nomad work? Jesse Mecham, founder of YNAB and podcast host, sat down with YNAB team members who are living the digital nomad lifestyle to find out how (and why) they do it.
Want to hear the whole episode? You should! Learn more about budgeting as a digital nomad on the YNAB podcast.
Meet the YNAB Nomads
I think beyond money, when you think of time as being finite, when you think, ‘I only have X amount of summers left before my kid is an adult,’ you really start to want to give every moment a job.
As a fully remote company with a habit of hiring unique individuals with an interest in personal finance, YNAB probably has a higher percentage of employees living and budgeting as a digital nomad than most places. Meet our featured five:
Kate, Support Specialist: Kate’s on her way to hitting the road as a digital nomad. “I’m in the demo phase on my school bus, so I am in the process of becoming nomadic. I’m currently in my coveralls!”
Sasha, Support Specialist: Sasha and her husband are full-time RVers. “We’ve been on the road for about eight months. My husband volunteers in Florida state parks, so we move around about every four months.”
Jannelle, Operations Manager: Jannelle lives with her husband, two daughters, two bunnies, and a bunch of plants in a 35-foot Winnebego at an RV park. “If I count the humans and the bunnies, I should count the plants. I haven’t counted how many but there are quite a lot. I have a greenhouse going in the front dashboard.”
Megan, Product Manager: Megan and her boyfriend are currently living in Squamish, British Columbia, but not for long. “My boyfriend and I have been doing the nomadic lifestyle for a little over two years now. For us, that means that we spend two to four months in different locations, primarily long-term AirBnB space or co-living,co-working spaces.”
Sarah, Social Media Manager: You may know Sarah and her set-up from TikTok or Instagram. “I live with my family of four in a 28-foot trailer. Right now we’re stationary in Wisconsin while we renovate the van. Once it becomes too cold to be here, we’re going to start our travels and just travel south.”
What made them choose life on the road?
I remember thinking the whole way back, “This is what I want to do all the time. I just want to travel around with my little family and experience new places. How can I do this and still work?
Most people who choose a less traditional path have some sort of aha! moment that inspired the lifestyle change, and we were curious about theirs. Was it TikTok? The Travel Channel? Let’s find out:
Megan: About five or six years ago now, I was on vacation in Greece for a week climbing. It was late afternoon and I saw a couple in the coffee shop both on their computers working away. I didn’t really think anything of it, but I noticed, and then I noticed it again the next day. Then the next day, I saw them out climbing in the morning. Then I saw them again on their computers later in the day and I thought, “Man, what are they doing?” So I went and chatted with them. They said, “Yeah, we both work remotely for companies in the U.S. so we can climb in the mornings and then we work in the afternoons and evenings, and that works really well for us.” And it just blew my mind. That is what started this journey for me—wanting to do that as well.
Sasha: We were celebrating our wedding anniversary and looking back on the travel we had accomplished in our nine years together and it was not nearly what we had wanted to do. We got married in Jamaica and thought, “We’re going to travel all over together because we love this,” and we just hadn’t made it a priority. I started with YNAB in 2020 and realized that being a remote worker actually made it possible to do something different in life. So, we started researching. It took my husband a long time to come around because he is very much a traditionalist. Once I found a plan that really involved him in the whole process, it made a big difference, and we eventually made our plans, bought our rig, and the rest is history.
Kate: I had been wanting to do something like tiny living for maybe about eight years. Then in 2020, my youngest sister and brother-in-law converted a cargo trailer; they live in a 6×12 trailer that they converted. I was watching their process and they were doing it all themselves and I was like, if my baby sister can do this for real, I can do this. That was when I decided that I was going to do something different because I knew it needed to change, but I wasn’t ready to build something myself and I was denied when I applied for a loan to buy a camper. A friend introduced me to YNAB around that time, which brought even more clarity to wanting to do something different and gave me some ability to save and strategize towards that, rather than just trying to get a loan.
Sarah: Well, I’m happy to talk about what brought us to our tiny living experience because it actually is the same thing that brought me to YNAB. A little over four years ago, my family of four took our first-ever camping trip. It was supposed to be two days because we wanted to test it out with the little kids. It ended up being an entire week because we just couldn’t get enough. I remember thinking the whole way back, “This is what I want to do all the time. I just want to travel around with my little family and experience new places. How can I do this and still work?” I started doing research about remote jobs and found the YNAB role. I got the job at YNAB, started using YNAB at the same time, and started paying off all of our debt. Really, since then, it’s been four years of just working towards this moment, and YNAB just worked right alongside of that. We were able to pay off all of our debts and get this camper.
Jannelle: My husband and I had talked about living tiny or in a trailer or nomadically or what have you since we were dating—we’re just little hippies at heart, so it’s always been in the back of our minds. We lived in Ireland for the first seven years of our marriage, and we moved houses every year, just because we’re like, “Let’s try here, let’s try here,” so we got a little taste of it then. When we came back to the states, we moved to the Bay Area and rented a house there. What triggered all of this was when a job change for my husband coincided with an offer that our landlord received on our house. So we were like, “Let’s do it. Let’s do what we talked about doing for so long.” Our daughters are still young enough to be down for whatever adventure we have. It was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of that. What started as a stopgap has now morphed into a situation where we’re saving a lot of money. It’s been great and now it feels really good to opt out of the craziness that ís going on in the housing world.
What surprised them about budgeting as a digital nomad?
My husband is currently not working, so we went from two incomes and lots of bills to one income and a lot more free time, and a lot more money to put towards our actual goals.
Jannelle: The smaller the space you’re in or, in Megan’s case, needing to limit the things that she carries with her everywhere, you have to say no to a lot of things. That ends up being an easy way to save money and lower your cost of living. It’s a good discipline to establish as a person but, for your budget, it goes a long way! We’re taking what we saved in rent and putting two-thirds of that to general savings, maybe to buy a house one day—certainly not any time soon. Then the other third of it goes towards travel expenses!
Megan: I definitely want to echo Jannelle’s sentiment about just saying no to more stuff, because you literally can’t say yes to everything. Since we’re in places where I can’t take on more things, I don’t buy anything I don’t absolutely need in that moment—being really intentional about that has been great. The other big thing is the money I’m saving on gas, actually. When I was based in one location, I drove a lot on the weekends to get to other places and flew to different countries more, but now that I’m changing locations every few months, I’m already in places that I want to spend time in.
Sasha: Our budget has completely blown my mind as we’ve gone along, only because we landed in a unique situation. We thought we were only going to volunteer in the state parks for the winter season, but my husband loved it so much and we loved Florida so much that we decided to keep it up. He works 20 hours in exchange for our full hook-up site and all of our utilities and everything. Imagine, if you will, that all of the utilities/rent/ living expenses in your monthly budget just go away. We were spending a lot of money on monthly expenses before! Obviously, that was necessary and in line with our priorities then, but being able to reallocate that has been such an amazing perk. We’ve been putting it towards debt, so only student loans are left now. Also, we’re catching up on our retirement savings. My husband is currently not working, so we went from two incomes and lots of bills to one income and a lot more free time, and a lot more money to put towards our actual goals.
Kate: I feel like I’m spending so much money as I finish remodeling the bus, but when I look at it in the long term, I’m going to own my own home for less than what other people pay for a down payment on a house. That shifts the perspective! I’ll either be spending this much money on rent for the next few years or I’m going to own something at the end of it. I really do feel privileged that I have the time and space to do this. Working remotely helps, but also just having a budget helps me strategize better. I can see how it ís going to pan out over the next couple of years since I’m planning for it.
Sarah: It has helped us be way more intentional, even more than we were, with every dollar that we have. From having a tiny fridge and needing to be intentional about what we’re buying in groceries to receiving a windfall of money, like a bonus or whatever—instead of dividing that up, we are investing in our adventure. I also feel like it has made us more intentional about having an emergency fund in the savings account because there is something about being on the road that makes you feel like emergencies are going to be ten times more expensive.
I think beyond money, when you think of time as being finite, when you think, “I only have X amount of summers left before my kid is an adult,” you really start to want to give every moment a job. When Covid first hit, my husband spent a month home with us and that time we had together was so precious. All we wanted was more of that, just the four of us all together. So this is really beyond valuable to us. No amount of money could buy this time that we’re going to have together as a family.
What’s their advice for others considering the nomad journey?
I think with anything in life, go at your own pace. Don’t compare your journey, your style, your rig to anybody else’s. Whatever works for you—just like with budgeting—that is what will be the best for you.
Sasha: I would say research, research, research and be okay with being wrong when your research goes down a rabbit hole. We thought we needed a solar set up, but we just don’t because of the way we travel. Really consider how you’re going to be traveling and don’t pay for things you don’t need.
Kate: Being in the demo phase and the building phase, rolling with the punches has been a very important principle here. Things are not going to unfold the way you expect and that’s okay. It’s not the end of the world if you have to pivot your plans.
Jannelle: I would say that you are more adaptable than you think you are. If it’s your priority to try something new, then yeah, try something new and you might be surprised about how easily you and/or your family can adapt.
Megan: There are really cool options, whether you’re solo or partnered or with a family. Whatever category you fall into, there are really cool options for being nomadic and if you value community or having friends, there are co-living and co-working spaces. If you just want to come to a new place and have friends already in place, there are options and apps for that, or if you are more introverted, there are options for that as well.
Sarah: I think with anything in life, go at your own pace. Don’t compare your journey, your style, your rig to anybody else’s. Whatever works for you—just like with budgeting—that is what will be the best for you.
So, there you have it; home is wherever your heart and hotspot are. With a little bit of courage and a whole lot of planning, you can explore the world as part of your daily routine.
If you’re interested in making your own digital nomad budget, try YNAB for free for 34 days and see where life takes you!