“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been traveling?”
“Where did you just come from?”
Those are probably the top three questions I hear travelers asking each other when they first meet, when I’m hanging out in the common area of a guest house or hostel.
If they’re asking me, once I say I’m from the USA, there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll then get stuck into a discussion about American politics. But if we get past that and talk a little longer, I might mention that I’m traveling indefinitely, have been in Asia six months and plan to be here a lot longer, and that I’m earning my way as I travel.
I don’t think the next question has ever not been a keen version of: How are you doing that!?!
So in case you’re wondering the same thing, I’ll tell you.
I’m going to be very candid about my costs and income here so that you see how this works in my life in southeast Asia. It also might give my readers back home a bit of perspective on the economics of living in the United States, as this experience has for me.
I’m working for five different organizations online. Mostly I’m writing, editing, and transcribing audio. I earn anywhere from $2 per hour up to $18 per hour, and I work about 20 hours a week on average.
Two of the organizations I work for are local publications in Arizona that I had connections with before I started traveling. Two are companies that I found and signed on with after I came over here. For one, I summarize business articles (they assign an article to me, I summarize it, and I email the summary back to them and get paid via Paypal). The other is the audio transcribing work, which pays slave wages but, on the other hand, almost always has work available and lets me dip in and out depending on how much I want to do. The fifth source of income is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. It’s an absolute last resort but has saved my bacon on a couple of occasions.
I’m not making a lot. Enough to survive on and nothing more. I made an agreement with myself, when I decided to stay in Asia long term, that I would work only enough to get by and leave myself plenty of time and energy for creative work. That’s a major reason for my being here now. If I ever get ahead financially, it will be through that creative work, and that’s how I want it to be.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.
– Charles Dickens
One reason I am staying in Asia is that, here, “enough to get by” is a lot less than it is in the U.S. I used to struggle so much to make ends meet, and now I see why – life in the United States is effing expensive! Here, I can live on a fraction of what it takes in the U.S., and I’m finally writing productively.
I keep my expenses low by staying in hostels or guesthouses, either in dorms (which have anywhere from 4 to 12 beds in a room together) or, when they’re affordable, single rooms. Currently I’m staying at the Old Penang guest house in Georgetown, Malaysia. A bed in the mixed-gender 12-bed dorm with air con costs around $7 per night, and a small single air-con room runs around $12.50. I bounce back and forth between those two options depending on how my finances are doing. I spend about 20 ringgits per day ($4.60) on food. My only monthly bills are my storage unit back home ($27) and my cell phone, which I can keep down to $35 if I’m careful about data. So here in Georgetown, I could scrape by on $500 a month if I had to. In Thailand, in my favorite little town of Chiang Khong, I can live on a third of that.
Are you wondering what $5 a day for food looks like? It’s better than you might imagine. It helps that my guest house (like most) offers free coffee, tea, filtered water, and a breakfast of fresh fruit and toast. Lunch every day is at my favorite Indian restaurant, Woodlands on Penang Street in Little India, where they offer a delicious chapati set (thali) for 8 ringgits ($1.85). Tea or filter coffee is another 2 1/2 ringgits (60 cents).
I usually eat lunch late in the afternoon and then have just a snack in the evening: whole-grain bread from the Rainforest Bakery around the corner, fruit, and/or raw fresh vegetables from a local market. Occasionally I go to the Mugshot for a bagel (6 ringgits) or splurge on pesto penne primavera at Wheeler’s, just up the lane (15.5 ringgits). I’m not living on Pop Tarts, and I’m healthier than I’ve been in a long time.
Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.
– Norman Vincent Peale
Things get tight at times, and the difference between my income and my outgo can become petal-thin. A few times I’ve come close to having an actual “adventure.” At those times I’m grateful for some of the things I learned at Reevis – about resourcefulness, and about myself. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met or read about who’ve demonstrated creativity and positive attitudes. And I’m grateful to have a morsel of faith in a benevolent God. When the spreadsheet turns bloody, I can tell myself everything is going to be OK, and actually believe it. If I weren’t able to do that when I needed to, I might have gone back to Arizona by now. (So much of life is about belief and attitude rather than mere facts …)
Of course, the cost of living varies in different places around Asia, some a lot more expensive than Georgetown, some a lot less. You learn your way around, find out where you can get healthful, cheap food and which guest houses have comfy beds and reliable wifi. You discover which towns and cities offer an enjoyable blend of activities and setting, and then balance that with the cost of being there. I have my favorite spots, now, and lately I spend most of my time in those places but enjoy exploring, too.
Things change all the time. I’m working on shifting toward more writing. I want to blog more and participate more on social media. I’m planning to go to some new countries later this year (new to me, not the world 😉 ), and also travel in a new way (more about THAT soon!). Of course, money is a factor. What I’ve noticed over the past six months, though, is that my feelings about money have changed. It’s no longer a controlling factor but a factor I can control. It’s also become more a measure of what I’m giving to the world than just a cold quid pro quo. I really hope the value of what I give will keep increasing, as I shift to work that’s more creative, inspiring, and soul-centered.
Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.
– Henry David Thoreau
Meanwhile, heck, if you’d like to support this adventure and experiment, you could pre-order my novel for the low low price of 99 cents and you’ll be among the first to read it when it’s ready. Be assured a dollar goes a long way here, and you’d be buying me a useful amount of time to write when I’d otherwise be transcribing audio or taking surveys on Amazon. More info here.
I’ve been in Asia for a year now, and the money/work/livelihood axis of life is absolutely one of the areas that I’ve learned a huge amount about during this time. My financial life has improved to a point that’s better than it’s ever been in my life. Not in the sense of income – I did earn more at times when I was working a regular job – but in terms of having work that aligns with my interests and serves my growth, and in terms of feeling empowered to choose my work and earn enough to meet my own needs – and even a lot of my wants.
Just this month (October 2017) I reached the point where I ditched that spreadsheet where I planned ahead for every baht or rupiah, and started a new financial spreadsheet that’s an actual, normal budget and tracking system. In other words, I now have enough that I don’t have to hyper-control my spending in order to avoid running out of money unexpectedly. I’ve switched to managing my income and spending to meet my goals. Lordy, look at that – I just used the word goals in the context of my finances. It is indeed a new world.
What this means is that I’m working a lot. The new challenge here is to manage my time so that I still do the writing that I want to do. Long term (which I hope won’t be very long), I’d love to transition to earning my keep and making my contribution to the world through writing fiction and essays. Besides which, I just love writing – and reading – someday I’ll post about why – and I want to be sure these get a big portion of my daily energy. So now I’m launching a new endeavor to do the same thing with my time that I did with money. To learn to value every minute the way I learned to value every penny, and spend them wisely. I feel a new spreadsheet coming on …