I Travel the US Full-Time by Following Smart Money Rules

  • About nine months ago, I decided to take my work on the road and become a full-time digital nomad.
  • I “pay myself first” from my business revenue to make sure I stay within my monthly budget.
  • And I use my travel rewards card for everything to protect myself and rack up points.
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In late 2020, I left my salaried role as a writer to start a podcast and build my coaching business. I had it all planned out — until my romantic partner and I split unexpectedly and I suddenly had to find a new place to live. Rather than run back to my previous job, I decided I’d find a new hometown by becoming a digital nomad. 

For the last nine months, I’ve been working from the road. With variable expenses every month, it hasn’t been easy to set a consistent budget, but I’m making it work thanks to a few strategic moves. I haven’t replaced my salary yet, but thanks to some contract work, I’m on track to bring in roughly $90,000 this year before taxes. Here’s how I’ve been managing my money while living out of Airbnbs. 

Pre-travel step 1: I aggressively paid down debt

In August of 2019, I opened up a balance-transfer credit card with 0% interest for 18 months, and then moved over the amounts I owed on my highest-balance cards. I put every spare cent toward that balance-transfer card, and then, when that card was paid off, I’d transfer over more high-interest balances.

Each transfer had a 3-5% fee, but it was pennies compared to the interest rate I’d been paying before. With this strategy, I paid off $25,000 of debt in 16 months. Lockdown helped, since I didn’t spend much aside from rent, food, and

. I used that savings to accelerate my payoff plan.

Pre-travel step 2: I crunched the numbers

To make my nomadic life work, I needed to figure out how much I could expect to spend each month. Full disclosure: I chose Airbnbs even though there are cheaper places to stay. As a solo traveler, the ratings and host background info make me feel safer. Plus, the total fees include electricity, WiFi, furniture, laundry, and cooking implements — everything I need.

Over the last nine months, that Airbnb “rent” averages out to about $500 more per month than the last apartment I had (including utilities). I’m visiting cities versus small towns, so the places I’m booking come in right around $2,000 per month. That’s between a third and a half of my monthly personal income. The rest goes to savings, cell phone, student loans, food, and fun money. 

On the road: I pay myself first

As a contractor, not all the money I bring in is mine to keep. Between 35-40% of what I earn belongs to the business. The rest is what I pay myself. In both my business and personal finances, the first 5% goes into savings. Period. I have slush funds for business operations and personal expenses, and those accounts have saved me more than once. 

If you’re a freelancer or business owner, I highly recommend you read “Profit First” by Mike Michalowicz. Most businesses operate by the formula “revenue minus expenses equals profit” and are shocked there’s rarely profit. The “profit first” system changes the dynamic so that the formula is “revenue minus profit equals expenses.” You take the profit off the top, which keeps your expenses from ballooning as your business grows. 

Once a month, I plug my revenue into a spreadsheet, which calculates how much I put into each account. Then I pay myself, and pay my credit cards in full. This way I only need one or two hours a month to handle my finances. 

On the road: I put all expenses on my travel credit card

With zero credit card debt, I have access to five figures in credit if I need it. I don’t plan on tapping into that unless I’m out of options, though, so I pay off my balance every month (saving me a ton on interest). I put everything on my travel rewards card, including my Airbnb reservations. 

When it comes to protections, credit cards can’t be beat. Someone stole my card details at a restaurant in Memphis. Within five minutes, the company called to verify the transaction was fraudulent, deactivate the card, and overnight a new one. With a debit card, there’s no guarantee I’d have gotten my money back. 

As an added benefit, paying Airbnb “rent” on my card every month means I’ve been racking up miles. My dad’s getting married, and I had enough miles to book a flight, rental car, and hotel. All in, I’m probably paying $100 in taxes and fees to fly home for the wedding, which is awesome. 

I thought life on the road would be hard, and in some ways it is. But it has also forced me to simplify my finances and get hyper-focused on business growth so I can continue to travel and explore.