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1. Tell us about yourself and sum up your travels for us.
Hi! My name is Tim Wenger and I’m from Denver, Colorado. I’m an Editor at Matador Network and run a digital media company called Wenger Media Services, which specializes in SEO-optimized web copy. The media world is perfect for digital nomads, as long as you’re willing to put in the time it takes to grow a career/business. I’ve been working fully online for two years and mostly online for nearly eight years now. Prior to founding WMS, I worked as an editor and reporter at a local magazine in Denver called Colorado Music Buzz.
In the past five years, I’ve been to 17 countries, primarily in Europe and Southeast Asia but I’ve also spent time in Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
2. How have you funded your travels?
It’s been an interesting ride. My first paid writing gig came in 2010, doing a weekly column for a website in Denver. It paid $50 per story, and now and then they’d assign me additional stories to cover. At that time I was working at a bar/venue and playing in a punk band, so I had my hand pretty heavily in the music scene. I was out covering a show for the website one night, talking with a guy sitting next to me at the bar. He pointed to a guy behind me and said ‘That’s the publisher of Colorado Music Buzz right there.’ I introduced myself and got his business card, then emailed him the next week about contributing. About six months later, they put up a call for an editor and I basically showed up at an event that I knew he would be at that weekend and pleaded my case. A couple weeks later I got the job.
It wasn’t the best paying job, I made about $800/month plus cuts from any advertising leads I sent their way, but it allowed me to cut back on bar shifts and focus more on media work. College and then being in a punk band on the road taught me to live super cheap, so I slowly ramped down bar work as I ramped up income from media work, doing some freelancing for other publications to make extra money.
I started traveling more during these years (2011-2015) because most of my work was online. It was kind of funny because I had never heard the term ‘digital nomad’ until I started writing for Matador in 2015 but I was super drawn to the freedom I had to work from wherever. I worked my butt off at the magazine and anywhere else I could get my work published and started making decent money, about $30-40k per year. Still not a ton of money but enough that I could pay my bills and be able to travel.
I bought a condo for $128k in a suburb west of Denver back in 2014, which saves us at least $1000/per month in rent because the cost of living in Denver has skyrocketed in recent years. By late 2015, I was working fully online and could travel whenever. The first longer trip abroad I took, meaning more than just a week or two, was to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia with my wife on our honeymoon in May 2016.
I haven’t been in a position where I’ve had to save a large lump sum to travel. I didn’t start traveling extensively until I was making a comfortable living online, and I’ve always been pretty minimalist as far as possessions and overhead expenses. If you’re trying to grow a blog, or build a brand around your travels from scratch, saving a large sum and then quitting a day job seems to be a more common route, but in my field the work has been online so it took more of a willingness to just go than it did a large amount of money.
I get the other approach, but for me, the practice of ‘ramping up X while ramping down Y’ has been absolutely pivotal to my ability to get out of dodge and see the world. I tested the waters while I still had one or two bar shifts per week, doing shorter trips and gaining some basic knowledge of international travel, then down the road (2016) I started doing longer trips and being gone for 100+ days per year.
3. Tell us about your budget.
Monthly bills: $1000
Food/Drink: $500. This varies a bit depending on where I’m at, or if I’m at home where my wife and I cook most of our meals. We’ve gotten a lot better about cooking in hotels/hostels/AirBNBs when we can, and we both love street food, which saves a ton of money in places like Asia and Mexico. But a good meal is something we’re willing to shell out for now and then – we went to Pujol in Mexico City and don’t regret it for a minute.
Saving: 20%. Right now, I’m earning a little over $5k/month after I account for outsourcing, which I do a fair amount of with WMS. I transfer a lump sum into my savings accounts/investments at the beginning of each month. These accounts include a personal savings account, an IRA account, and a bit of investing in renewable energy and other causes that I firmly believe in. One of my goals over the next couple years is to learn more about investing and up my game, because I’m certainly not an expert.
Taxes: 25%. The way I handle taxes is similar to the savings. I transfer a lump sum at the beginning of each month into my Business Savings account, and file quarterly estimated taxes with the US government four times per year. There’s a great app for those who struggle with being disciplined on tax savings called Track, which automatically transfers a percentage of your income into a savings account for taxes.
Travel and free spending: This is kind of on an as-needed basis. I don’t really buy much “stuff,” but as I get older (I’m 34) I’m gaining more appreciation for things such as a great carry-on bag, shoes that aren’t going to fall apart after three months, and good outdoor gear. I’m a diehard snowboarder, and my wife and I are both outdoors-type travelers, so we spend a fair amount of our expendable income on gear and the adventures that come with it.
To track the budget, towards the end of a month, I’ll list out my estimated expenses for the following month. This includes what I listed above, as well as stuff like flights/lodging and anything I need to buy or replace. I come up with the total and make sure it’s within what I can handle. Then, as each spend happens, I cross it off the list. Pretty basic, but it works for me.
One thing that I’ve developed, which helps immensely in sticking to a budget as well as working through my task list for work each day, is a severe sense of anxiety when I feel like I’m off-track. I hear people say things like “I could never work remotely, I’d just end up taking a nap or cleaning all day.” I could not be more polar opposite of that. If I have stuff to do, I can’t sleep. If I crack a ceremonial end-of-workday beer and then two minutes later remember I didn’t do something for a client, I’m back on the laptop immediately (beer in hand, of course. Perks!)
The same is true for my budget. I’m not perfect – I go over sometimes, and when it happens, the sorrow I go through in my head has me swearing not to spend a dime for the next two weeks.
4. What have you learned about money since hitting the road?
Even before I traveled a lot, I was an ‘experiences over possessions’ person. I’ve never owned much stuff. But traveling has opened the door to so many new experiences and things I never would have thought that I’d enjoy so much. It’s crazy – it’s actually not more expensive to travel than to stay at home once you get good at it. You form a routine just like at home, which involves working, eating, sleeping, socializing – and realize that there is a huge difference between ‘traveling’ and ‘vacationing.’ When you slow travel, the money you’re spending isn’t necessarily in addition to your home expenses, it’s instead of them, or in a way that works in tandem with them.
Travel taught me how to say ‘no,’ or at the very least how to be more selective about what I say ‘yes’ to, when it comes to spending money. I don’t need to buy a ticket to see a band that I’ve seen play 10 times before.
Spending a good amount of time in Bali last summer taught me that I actually enjoy spending money on my health and stuff that makes me feel good. I don’t have to reserve every last dollar of expendable money for happy hours and dinners, and it’s ok to buy a massage or guided hike to summit a mountain. I used to quaff at stuff like that, thinking they were completely unnecessary. These days I actually feel better about myself when I spend money on that stuff and upset when I spent $50 going out drinking.
This is one of the biggest differences between traveling and being at home for me and part of why I prefer to be on the road as much as possible – at home, my social life pretty much revolves around doing the same stuff my friends and I have been doing since high school or college. On the road, that money instead goes to new experiences with new people, and with each passing year I appreciate that more and more.
5. What's your top tip for someone trying to figure out how to make long-term travel financially possible?
I’ll re-emphasize the ‘ramp up-ramp down’ technique that I talked about earlier. I wouldn’t be where I am without it. Additionally, these are the two biggest things that have allowed me to build a growing and profitable online career:
- Network. Network. Network. Talk to people. Go to functions. Watch webinars. Never be afraid to ask for a business card or send a friend request. I’ve built my entire career on networking. Everything – absolutely everything – comes down to who you know. Be willing to put in a multi-year time commitment to grow your business, your career, or whatever it is that is going to finance your travel-based lifestyle. You’ll be so glad that you did.
- On that note – do what you say you’re going to do. The internet is full of people that are completely full of it, and it’s actually not that hard to stand out and be a shining light. It’s incredible how far a simple dose of follow-thru will get you.
6. If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, are there any online resources you’d recommend?
My parents gave me a great book as a graduation present when I finished college: The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. Some of what he talks about is outdated now, with the need for SEO optimization, the invention of platforms like Upwork, and the rise of the digital nomad – but the principles are still in place. He talks about getting started with a writing career and how to go about doing outreach.
Outreach. I have done extensive outreach to find clients. I have a folder on Google Drive of outreach templates for a number of different situations. On Excel spreadsheets, I (or a VA that I hire) will research a bunch of outlets in my target market and then send the outreach template email that I’ve written up. You can be the best writer on the internet but if you can’t outreach, you’ll make no money.
For SEO: There are a bunch of webinars and websites that cover the basics of SEO. The blog at Moz.com is incredible for staying on top of trends. You can learn all about SEO best practices by reading online sources, but for those doing copywriting I recommend taking a basic writing course, even if you consider yourself a solid writer. A modern course will refresh you on active tense and the undying power of short, punchy sentences. Udemy has a number of options.
For saving money: Qapital app. This app has triggers you can program to transfer money into your savings account. It’s incredible how fast it piles up!
For finding clients in a bind: Upwork. This comes with a caveat of sorts, as many freelancers hate Upwork. But it’s been a good source of leads in dire situations for me. Here is my profile – build one like mine and start pitching! They take a 20% fee up to $500 earned on each client, 10% after that up to $10,000 earned. This much to high, but keep this in mind – they are saving you many hours of cold outreach time. Most of the people who complain about Upwork are more upset about their own lack of success than the actual fee itself. I don’t recommend putting all your efforts there, or basing your entire freelance business there, but it’s not a bad place to have a name.
Evernote. I have entire trips planned out in Evernote, in addition to notes, photos, and other goodies that I think up on the road. When I get an idea, I’ll put it in Evernote real quick so I don’t forget.
Coworking spaces. If you’re in a space long enough, or even just want to hit up a good networking event when in a city for a few days, coworking spaces are incredibly valuable. People talk, become friends, and hire each other for projects at a rate that is almost unbelievable. Outpost Coworking in Bali is my all-time fave.
What to avoid: Writing groups and other ongoing meetups where nothing of value actually takes place. Writing groups, in my experience, typically consist of a leader – who may or may not be a successful writer – and a bunch of people sitting around talking about stuff that is never going to happen. Making a living as a writer happens by doing, not by dreaming and planning and making 500 revisions on your query pitch. I find business-centric meetups to be much more productive.
7. What's some of your favorite travel gear that enables you to do what you do?
A moleskin notebook – as a journalist and writer, I’m constantly taking notes and writing outlines. Nomatic offers the best I’ve found, as it stores your pen so it’s not constantly lost.
Noise cancelling headphones - Since my band days, my #1 rule of travel has been this: ABH. Always Bring Headphones. I’m a light sleeper, and a good pair of headphones has saved my nights’ sleep more times than I can count.
Portable battery for charging my phone - This is ideal for long commutes, hostels, backpacking in the wilderness, anywhere where your charger isn’t at the same outlet every night.
8. Where can people follow your travels?
TimWenger.net is my personal website.
Here is my Facebook profile. Feel free to friend or follow.