Why I quit the digital nomad lifestyle for location independence (and no, they're not the same thing)
Location Independence, Musings

Why I Quit the Digital Nomad Lifestyle for Location Independence (And No, They’re Not the Same)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard the term ‘digital nomad’ thrown around a lot over the last few years.

For millennials, it seems that going on year-long backpacking trips is no longer good enough to satisfy our stubborn desire to travel and experience the world.

The solution? Become a digital nomad, or in other words, a person who works from a laptop and travels whenever and wherever they want, supporting themselves along the way.

What is a digital nomad?

Digital nomads are free from ties to any single geographic location. They leverage the Internet to create job opportunities for themselves in fields that didn’t exist just a decade ago, and these jobs allow them to travel the world at will.

They find remote jobs with distributed companies, they freelance, or they become entrepreneurs.

They may initially set up shop in inexpensive cities in Southeast Asia or South America, living a modest lifestyle while they bootstrap their businesses and take advantage of geoarbitrage (a favorable discrepancy between their third-world cost of living and the first-world currency they are earning).

A Digital Nomad's Packing List

As the term nomad implies, this distinct breed of traveler will typically change location every few weeks or months, usually moving to a city just as cheap as the last.

For those still at home in a 9-5 job but aching to see the world, the digital nomad lifestyle might sound like a dream come true; but the drawbacks of this lifestyle are well-documented, and the truth of the matter is, not everyone can hack it.

Eager new nomads may move too quickly from one place to the next–a surefire path to travel burnout. The physical exhaustion that results from a life lived on trains, buses, and airport floors is very real, and it will catch up with you if you’re not careful.

Not to mention that when resources are tight, all that travel is a huge strain on your budget. Traveling too quickly is a good way to blow through what little savings you may have without giving yourself any real time to earn. I’ve seen this happen to friends more times than I can count.

To make matters even worse, constant travel (no matter how slow) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to form a community. This may seem inconsequential in the first few months or even the first few years of life as a digital nomad, but make no mistake–this will catch up with you, too.

Having lived the digital nomad lifestyle myself, I know the pain of these mistakes all too well.

I’ve never been more tired, more broke, and more lonely than when I was a digital nomad.

The village of Plaka, Milos, Greece

Even when I drastically slowed the pace of my travels so that I was only moving to a new city every three months or so, I still found it difficult to grow my business, make friends, or live in a way that felt healthy (regular sleep, exercise, and eating habits were hard to come by).

Still, I couldn’t stomach the idea of going back to a “real” job.

Worse than the exhaustion, the loneliness, and the financial insecurity combined was the thought of giving up the freedom I had worked so hard for to go right back to the bottom of the totem pole, slaving away at some job I hated just to make someone else rich.

I couldn’t hack it as a digital nomad, but I wouldn’t go back to a 9-5 job.

I needed a solution, and I found it in the form of location independence.

How is location independence different?

Just like being a digital nomad, location independence means not being tied to any one geographical location. It means working from a laptop and traveling wherever and whenever you please. It means having a flexible schedule and the ability to work at whatever hours of the day feel the best.

It comes in the form of remote work, freelancing, or entrepreneurship.

Now, you might be wondering where exactly the differences lie–some will certainly argue that ‘digital nomad’ and ‘location independent’ are synonymous and interchangeable, but I beg to differ.

Co-living and co-working with Hub Fuerteventura in Corralejo, Spain

The differences are subtle and nuanced, but they exist.

Admittedly, I myself am guilty of using these two terms interchangeably, but I intend to be more clear about the distinction going forward.

Of course, there’s no Webster definition to double check for accuracy here–the following is simply based on observations I’ve made over the years and personal beliefs I’ve acquired.

For example, while a digital nomad is indeed location independent (in that they are not tied to a geographic location), the reverse is not necessarily true:

Not all location independent people are digital nomads.

Most self-designated digital nomads I know have no fixed address, no home to return to when they need a break from their travels. They are constantly (and indefinitely) sleeping in hostels, rented apartments, or on their friends’ couches.

Digital nomads spend the large majority of their time outside their home country, whether moving frequently or living as an expat in one location for an extended period of time.

It’s not uncommon for digital nomads to consider themselves homeless (or to take great pride in this fact); modern nomads in the truest sense.

Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Location independent people, on the other hand, often have a home base where they spend much of their time when not traveling; many are even long-term renters or homeowners. Having the option to travel is more important than doing so frequently or even on a long-term basis.

Furthermore, I don’t know many digital nomads who still refer to themselves as such once they’ve moved back to their home country, even if they still travel regularly. The term seems to imply living in an exotic, faraway land, and once that way of life is gone, so too is the title of ‘digital nomad.’

To me, location independence is less about travel and more about designing a lifestyle that I love.

It’s about tailoring my work to my lifestyle rather than letting my lifestyle be dictated by my work.

I’ve created my ideal lifestyle by earning money through my travel blog, working as a freelance social media consultant, and selling my own digital product. All of this is done with little more than a laptop and a WiFi connection.

Location independence affords me the freedom to wake up whenever I please, to work from wherever I choose, and yes, even travel whenever I want.

Unlike when I was living the digital nomad lifestyle, however, travel feels more like a perk and less like an obligation. There is no more FOMO, no need for constant motion, no keeping up with the Joneses travel mentality.

Finding Nature in San Francisco: China Beach

Now that I am location independent, I live in one place most of the year. I have a routine that allows me to be productive in my work and maintain wholesome habits. I am closer to the people that I love and I have a supportive community around me.

I work from home most days (pants optional), but could just as easily head to a local cafe if I’m in need of a creative boost (pants probably required). I save all kinds of money by traveling less and feel pretty good about my reduced carbon footprint, too.

I have more time and energy to do the work I love and as a natural consequence, I’m earning more.

I may go a lot longer between new passport stamps these days, but the life I’ve been able to build has been well worth the sacrifice.

If you’ve considered the digital nomad lifestyle but aren’t sure if it’s the right fit, perhaps location independence is the solution you’ve been looking for, too.

And no–they are NOT the same thing.

What do you think? Is digital nomad the same as location independent in your mind? Why or why not?


Want to know how YOU can achieve a location independent lifestyle? Download Chapter 5 of my eBook: Paths to Location Independence

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17 Comments

  • Reply Norm March 3, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I agree with most of what you wrote, except the part about having to live in my home country.

    You are very young, at a stage where friends and finding a mate are of paramount importance. You have family at “home”.

    But people over 60 like me have no home. I have no brothers or sisters. My parents, aunts and uncles are all deceased.

    I don’t want to build a business. Been there, done that.

    So I disagree with you that my home base has to be in my country of citizenship.

    I am moving to Colombia where my fixed income pension can buy me a much better lifestyle than back in the states. Leaving money to travel. That is not something that is possible living in the US.

    Plus, being surrounded by millenials who think someone 40 is old is not much fun. Age discrimination is much less outside the US.

    Still, as insurance, I will sublet my apartment in case I decide to come back.

    And I am studying to be able to work remotely as a Salesforce Admin.

    • Reply Leah Davis March 4, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Hey Norm! Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comments. I’m not sure where I said that anyone’s home HAS to be in their home country. To be location independent does not by any stretch mean you HAVE to live in any particular place. My observation was simply that most people who refer to themselves as “digital nomads” are the ones who live outside of their home country. Call yourself whatever you like, it’s all subjective anyway.

      I’m glad you are doing what clearly seems to be the best fit for your personality and lifestyle, and I hope you absolutely love living in Colombia.

  • Reply Peter Korchnak March 3, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    We (travelers, humans) get hung up on definitions a lot. Traveler vs tourist is a classic. Digital nomadism vs location independence is certainly high up there among the current topics of distraction, it seems. Live your life the way you want to and can, be good to yourself and the world — what does it matter what it’s called?

    Whether you are (or call yourself) a digital nomad or location-independent, both definitions falsely assume, or at least implicitly suggest, that where you are physically does not matter. It is an illusion to think place is of no or little importance, that you are somehow not connected, tied, or dependent on place. Whether it’s the place of your origin or destination, the lifestyle you love isn’t somehow disconnected from place, it’s closely tied to it, both by virtue of your deciding where you don’t want to live and where you do.

    You could not travel if you weren’t from where you are, travel where you want because of where you come from, and certainly not live in another country without its (government’s) consent which correlates to your passport. You may generate income from other countries by working online, but if you live in one place most of the year, you are most certainly dependent on that place, for community, food, lower expenses, and certainly permission to stay.
    Peter Korchnak recently posted…Most underrated Portland: Top picksMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis March 4, 2017 at 11:40 am

      On the contrary, Peter, where I am absolutely matters. Which is a large part of why I stopped living a nomadic lifestyle in which I moved every couple of months.

      I agree with you that definitions mean very little–language is completely subjective. I just choose not to identify with a “nomadic” lifestyle, and for the sake of convenience (that is, explaining my way of living using language that other humans understand) I use the term location independent to get my point across.

      I CAN move around if I want to, but I’m not ALWAYS moving around. I choose to live in one place most of the time precisely because that place matters to me.

      I’m not trying to force my definitions down anyone’s throat, but simply putting forth my own personal point of view.

      As far as where I am from being important, of course that matters, and I will never take my privileges as an American traveler for granted–however, I think that’s an entirely other conversation and not sure how it’s relevant here.

  • Reply Eva Casey March 4, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Well, you already know that the exact scenario you’ve described happened to me when I tried to be a digital nomad 😛 I am looking forward to figuring out what life looks like while moving around less..even though I will have to get a “real job” for the time being while I sort out my finances. But I am trying to see that as a positive step in the right direction, not a death sentence. At least I know that the location independent lifestyle is possible, so it feels like miles away from where I started. The difference between feeling “stuck” in a real job and knowing that a real job is just a stepping stone to achieving the lifestyle will hopefully allow me to not go totally crazy! But I guess that remains to be seen.. Thank you as always for being so open and helpful about this topic!

    • Reply Leah Davis March 4, 2017 at 11:43 am

      That’s such a good attitude to have, Eva! You got a feel for it (and learned what not to do 😉 ) and now you can approach it from a different perspective if and when you should decide to pursue it again. I have no doubt you will figure out the perfect lifestyle for your needs. The freedom and flexibility are what attracted me to this way of living in the first place and what I couldn’t fathom giving up now.
      Leah Davis recently posted…How to Find Remote Jobs: The Best Sites to SearchMy Profile

  • Reply Rhonda March 4, 2017 at 7:22 am

    A very interesting take on it, and one I had not really considered. I am still working to earn enough to sustain me on the road in whatever location I choose:) but am never going back to the 9-5. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Reply Kelly March 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I absolutely LOVE the way you’ve described this! Back before I really got into traveling, living the digital nomad life was my ultimate dream. I got a tiny taste of that when I began working part-time remotely during a three month backpacking trip, and realized almost right away that it was NOT for me. I also probably approached it in an unrealistic way – since my trip was only three months long, I was moving around really frequently, and fitting in the time (and motivation) for work was a nightmare.

    Fast forward 1.5 years, and today I’m fully location independent but most definitely not a digital nomad, and I don’t plan on ever being one. I like having a home base and an apartment, but I also like that it’s not a big deal if I pop down to Mexico for a week or two to hang out and do some work, or take a few weeks off to travel without having to get permission from an employer (I’m also engaged, so I try to stick to solo trips <1 month long now).

    I think the main thing that I was really searching for was a lifestyle that offered flexibility and freedom, and eventually I realized I could have that through location independence, without having to constantly be traveling. For me, it's also a much more sustainable lifestyle.

    All that to say, I love love love what you're written here!
    Kelly recently posted…2 Perfect Days in Denver in the Winter [Day 2]My Profile

  • Reply Veronika March 4, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Hey Leah! I prefer being location independent too 🙂 I never even fully tried the full digital nomad lifestyle, as I love my homebase too much and always look forward to coming back home. Being fully uprooted is not for me. But of course, I still feel restless and need to go somewhere every so often 🙂
    Congrats on realizing what you want and need yourself! And perhaps see you at another TBEX 🙂

    • Reply Leah Davis March 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks Veronika! It would be awesome to see you again at TBEX! 🙂

  • Reply Elizabeth March 6, 2017 at 4:41 am

    This is a wonderful post, Leah! I’m a long-term, location independent expat and I love that it works with my partner’s set vacation schedule, and that I can spend more time at home with my son while he is little. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it is worthwhile!

  • Reply Mindy @ Nourishing Vegan Journeys March 8, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Love this Leah! Subtle but definitely important differences! I’m four months into a one way ticket journey (and have spent almost all that time in one place here in Goa) and know that this time constant moving around is not for me, my health or my wellbeing. I took a gap year in 2014 where I was constantly on the move from place to place, country to country. It was an amazing trip but took much more energy and money than I want to afford this time. I had an end date that time, and a return ticket back to the UK with no plan to make travel, living outside the UK or location independence a part of my life. That was, until I got back to the UK and found myself back working for someone else, fixed to a location and job that was unfulfilling. No thank you! So after saving up again and getting my blog up and running, this trip I’m on a one way ticket with the intention of becoming location (and financially) independent, regardless if I remain abroad or return to the UK. Whether I’ll want to continue to travel long term or live outside the UK remains to be seen, but I know that basing myself in one place for months at a time as opposed to days is more my style of travel. I would like the blog to generate an income and/or use it as a portfolio of my work to generate income through nutrition consultations and workshops, I haven’t quite figured all that out yet and know it will take some time, but the 9-5 and working for someone else’s dream is something I’m sure I DON’T want!!

  • Reply Lorna July 19, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Bit late to the conversation but I was just writing about the same thing yesterday and came to pretty much the same conclusions as you. I’d much rather try to earn enough in 10-11 months to afford to travel for 1-2 months a year where I can zip around and see lots of places without the competing demands of work. I want a home to come back to and to make proper friends and belong to community/sports groups here. I’m learning computer programming to try and make remote working a reality.

    • Reply Leah Davis July 19, 2017 at 9:31 am

      Awesome plan Lorna! At this point, I’m excited about even short weekend trips as long as I don’t have to be working at the same time 😉

  • Reply Kyrsten July 24, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    This is great and along the lines of my own personal research, I have quite a few friends who are digital nomads or eternal wanderers. I decided traveling a few times a year and living in one location is the best bet for my sanity and affords me lots of room to grow.

    • Reply Leah Davis July 26, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Sounds like we are definitely in the same boat 🙂

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