As some workers begin returning to the office this year, others have been offered the opportunity to work from home indefinitely. Twitter, Dropbox, NerdWallet and many other tech companies will let employees go fully or nearly fully remote, freeing them from commutes and packed elevators.
Yet what are the travel options and realities if you’re now working remotely? Should you become a digital nomad? Move to a new city or stay put? Is it really feasible to work in a hammock on the beach, or does that get uncomfortable?
Many new remote workers are excited and overwhelmed by the options. Here we lay out five important considerations to keep in mind as you take the next step toward working remotely while traveling (or not).
1. Should you stay or should you go?
If your job is remote, are you automatically a digital nomad? Not necessarily. In general, digital nomads have no specific home and bounce from one location to the next in search of cheap lodging and fast Wi-Fi. As a digital nomad myself, I can tell you most of us spend an un-Instagrammable amount of time in our parents’ house.
One of the first things you should consider after your job becomes remote is where you want to live, and how often you want to travel. On one end of the spectrum is full digital nomadism. On the other is staying exactly where you are. And in between lie myriad hybrid options, including:
- Slow-madism: Rather than moving constantly, some remote workers take it slower, spending long periods of time in each location. This can be a great way to start, as it lets you explore and get to know the pace of life in each destination.
- Home base: Even those remote workers who style themselves “digital nomads” often have a home base to return to between trips. This affords some comfort, but also plenty of potential expense.
- Snowbirding: Although usually attributed to well-tanned retirees, the term “snowbird” refers to anyone who migrates to warmer climates for the winter. Whether driving down in an RV or hopping on a flight to Mexico, this is an attractive option for vitamin-D-seeking remote workers.
The big challenge with each option is balancing quality of life with costs. For example, keeping a home base means you can keep your stuff, but it can also carry a big price tag. And renting furnished accommodations as a nomad can be pricier than you might expect.
Each situation is unique. If you already own your home, maybe you can use it as a home base and rent it out while traveling. If you're renting, you might need to stay put or move out entirely. Break out the spreadsheets, get creative and make a budget that works for you.
2. What about taxes?
They’re not the most exciting aspect of remote work, but taxes are an important and often overlooked consideration when deciding where and how to live. Local and state taxes differ so significantly that they can affect the cost of living in a particular area just as much as transportation or housing costs.
For example, the cost of living in Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, are roughly equal, according to NerdWallet's calculator. Yet this does not factor in state income tax, which runs 6.8% in Minnesota for an individual making $100,000 per year and 0% in Texas. That’s a difference of $6,800 per year, or $566 per month — enough to meaningfully impact your budget.
What’s more, the tax rules for nomads who bounce between locales are extremely complex, varying from state to state. Make sure to consult a tax professional if you plan to work from many states within a single year.
3. Can you live overseas?
Living on the beach in Thailand has been the digital nomad dream for decades, but can you swing it? And do you want to?
The biggest advantage to living in another country is the reduced cost of living. After you’ve enjoyed a banh mi in Saigon for $1, it’s hard to go back to U.S. prices. And for those who can earn a U.S. salary, living elsewhere can be a financial dream come true.
Yet working remotely while traveling abroad comes with plenty of complexities and important considerations. From tax rules (which vary by country) to visa considerations, it’s not as simple as packing a bag and moving out of the country.
Plus, your job might not allow it. Make sure to check with your HR team before expatriating, as many companies require their employees to remain in certain countries for administrative reasons. Plus, it can be hard to work collaboratively when you’re 12 hours ahead of your coworkers.
4. Should you move somewhere cheaper?
Zillow surfing is the time waster du jour. For workers who have been stuck in expensive cities because of their job, it can be tantalizing to see how much you could afford in other cities.
“If we move to Akron, we can buy a mansion!”
But don’t let housing cost drive your entire decision. Generally, cheaper locales are that way for a reason, and buying a dream home in a random city isn’t necessarily a recipe for happiness. Consider spending time as a “slo-mad” in a cheap city before moving there.
5. What do you value?
This is the final consideration on our list, but really it’s the most important. Remote work affords options, and which option you choose will depend on what you value. Do you want to be close to family? Or to friends? Do you want to live cheaply and retire early? Or do you want to make the most of the money you’re earning now and live in a vibrant, dynamic city?
Many people never have to confront these questions. They simply live near their work and make the best of it. Switching to a remote mindset can — and should — prompt some difficult questions about what you care about and how you will build your life in order to maximize these values.
Remember: Very few decisions are permanent, and you can always test out something new and reverse course. Try experimenting with one variable at a time (e.g., whether to keep a permanent home) and see what works and what doesn’t.
The bottom line
The pandemic has changed many aspects of everyday life, ranging from the banal to the monumental. And if your job has offered you the chance to work from home permanently, you have an opportunity to change the very structure of your life — or not.
Romantic notions of working remotely while traveling aside, there are several important financial considerations to keep in mind when planning the next step. If you want to travel more, make sure you’re not double-paying on rent or a mortgage back home. Make sure you understand the tax implications, whether you stay in the U.S. or move abroad. Don’t let the cost of living dictate your entire decision, and make sure you maximize for your personal values.