- Lona Alia and her husband are digital nomads, working remotely while traveling the world with their children.
- They save money this way through “geo-arbitrage,” living in lower-cost countries while earning a US salary.
- Expenses like food and childcare are much cheaper in the countries they visit than in the U.S., Alia said.
Lona Alia never liked being stuck in one country – especially one as expensive as the US.
As a remote worker since 2018, she says she’s visited dozens of countries, lived on multiple continents, and learned seven languages in recent years.
At the same time, she says she’s saved a lot of money through a time-honored practice that’s become increasingly popular during the pandemic called “geographic arbitrage.” The term refers to living in a lower cost country while earning income in a higher paying country.
But four years ago, he feared he would have to give up the lifestyle he loved.
“Whenever I thought about having kids, I was worried that my life would end, that it would end and the fun would stop,” she told Insider.
But then she and her husband decided that maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
“As soon as the first was born, he got a passport, went transatlantic, landed in Germany, bought a car there and started traveling for a while. It was so much fun exploring different countries, cultures, meeting friends in different places. of the world. We really haven’t seen a change in our quality of life.”
Alia navigates an American economy with increased worker flexibility, but also a rising cost of living. Even before inflation drove prices up over the past year, the high costs of housing, healthcare, schooling and child care made the US among the most expensive countries in which to live. The flip side of the high cost of living in the US is that the country’s median income is among the highest in the world, and that money goes further to countries with a lower cost of living.
That’s one reason why a growing number of digital nomads are traveling the world while continuing to work remotely for weeks, months, or—in Alia’s case—the foreseeable future. Nearly 17 million Americans describe themselves as digital nomads, an increase of 9 percent from 2021 and 131 percent from 2019, MBO Partners’ 2022 State of Independence study found from a survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults, including 901 of current digital nomads.
Not all locals are fans of nomads frequenting their countries, for a number of reasons: visitors often don’t pay taxes there, occupy limited housing, and put pressure on an area’s environment and infrastructure, for example. But these travelers can also boost the economy with their spending, which is among the reasons many countries are opening their doors and embracing digital nomad visas.
Geo-arbitrage saved her family ‘so much money’
As Alia and her husband prepared to have their first child in 2018, they thought about how much it would take to raise a family in New York City or San Francisco—two cities they had lived in and enjoyed .
She estimated she would need to earn between $500,000 and $1 million a year to have the lifestyle she wanted in the US. Since they are not earning that much now, they soon decided to look abroad for cheaper places to live. Today, their family – which has since welcomed a second child – travels to countries that include Mexico, Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Costa Rica, moving from one country to another every five months. They also have a mortgage on a house in Miami where they stay between trips.
Alia and her husband have jobs that allow them to navigate this balance. Alia is Head of Revenue at SafetyWing, which is based in San Francisco and Oslo and provides travel medical insurance for other international digital nomads. Her husband also works at SafetyWing as an account manager. Alia refused to share any information about her salary other than that they are a dual income household.
Alia says the geo-arbitrage of living in lower cost countries has allowed her family to save “so much money”. In New York, she estimates her family’s lifestyle would cost at least $10,000 in a month or two. But in countries like Mexico, Albania and Croatia, it would be only $2,000-$3,000, she said.
“It’s potentially one-tenth the cost of the US,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a third. It depends on the country.”
Her family mostly stays in Airbnbs, which allows them to limit their housing costs. Alia also says that childcare – which can cost thousands of dollars a month for two children in the US, costs her family only $200-300 in Europe, for example. Private childcare can cost between $23 and $250 a month in Mexico, estimates InterNations, an online network of expats. In comparison, the monthly rate for child care in the U.S. is about $900 a month, according to a recent Care.com survey of 3,000 parents and guardians.
And she says she and her husband can get a “very good” meal for $30-$50 that might have cost more than $100 in the US.
Although they’re always on the go, she says her family keeps their transportation costs down by traveling as light as they can. They are also looking for walkable cities that allow them to get around without a car.
She still pays taxes in the US where she earns her income. The family returns to the US for a few months each year to ensure they can continue to do so.
Because they travel all the time, her children, who are two and four, are not enrolled in a traditional education system. While they’re young, she says they embrace the “world school,” an educational philosophy that focuses on helping children learn and explore their interests through travel and experiences, rather than in a classroom.
“When you’re not tied to location, the world is your oyster”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it threw a wrench in Alia’s nomadic lifestyle. Her family returned to the US in March and stayed with her parents. But “as soon as the borders opened” last year, they “got on the first” plane overseas to Albania – which she says did not have strict COVID measures.
“It was such a great life,” she said. “You could go out, still be super normal, eat amazing food, live on $400 a month in rent. I really took advantage of that.”
Moving forward, she says her family plans to continue this lifestyle for as long as possible.
“Remote work opens up your whole life and an opportunity where you can live an amazing life wherever you choose because you’re not tied down to location,” she said. “When you’re not tied to location, the world is your oyster.”