In the past year, Alicia and John Gregoire dove the Great Barrier Reef, slurped beer from steins during Munich’s Oktoberfest and sailed over the ancient temple ruins of Bagan in Myanmar in a sunrise hot air balloon ride.
They visited 17 countries on four continents — and they did it all without missing a day of work.
They run an online marketing business, and they run it from wherever they happen to be at the time.
“We’ve always loved to travel, and during a trip to Spain I said I wished we never had to go back. That got us thinking, then planning,” said Alicia Gregoire, 30, who previously worked in advertising at Target headquarters.
The Gregoires are a new breed of untethered worker often termed “digital nomads.” Armed with a skill and a laptop, this small but growing number of freelancers, contractors and entrepreneurs are telecommuters on steroids.
The couple, married for six years, were back in Minnesota to spend the holidays with their families before departing on the next leg of their extended international road trip.
“When we went abroad, our expenses went way down,” said John Gregoire, 37. “In other countries the dollar goes so much farther. We sought out places that were cheap and had good Internet service.”
The peripatetic lifestyle requires flexibility, curiosity and a willingness to travel light.
“I bought one souvenir; I got a refrigerator magnet in the Galápagos Islands,” said Alicia Gregoire, who, like her husband, made the journey carrying a single piece of luggage.
“When we left, we simplified,” she said. “I got rid of 30 pairs of jeans; I sold some to secondhand stores and donated the rest. Why would I buy stuff when we spent so much time getting rid of our possessions? Now we spend our money on food and experiences.”
It’s not just tech tools that make roaming feasible; a more sophisticated international perspective readies travelers for their exotic stops.
“Today’s worker is more likely to have grown up with friends from different cultures and countries,” said Lisa Walden, a consultant at Bridgeworks, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that studies generational consumer patterns. “Facebook has opened up connections all over the world — it’s a normal part of everyday life to touch base with friends you met when you studied abroad. It’s easy to reach out to a network that is globally diverse.”
But work-from-anywhere careers can be complex to manage. Cliff Highman, who earned an MBA at the University of Minnesota, works exclusively with the growing number of what he calls “location-independent businesses.”
Digital Nomad Accounting, Highman’s Colorado-based niche firm, provides them with financial services.
“I prefer to work with people who are transitioning out of the cubicle so I can help them get set up right from the beginning,” he said. “I advise them on how to structure their businesses and figure their tax obligations. Moving forward, I think tax laws will have to change as there are more of these businesses. Borders are melting.”
Highman said he has a number of clients with six-figure incomes, but many more earn what would be a modest income by U.S. standards. He sees them stretching their earnings by working in developing nations where they live well for less.
Mixing business, pleasure
Jeff Sauer said he thinks one of the best parts of his life as a digital nomad is the reduced number of hours he has to work to support it.
“I’d been accustomed to 60-, often 80-hour weeks. Now I’m down to less than half that,” said Sauer, 34. “I’m in the routine of working in the morning and exploring in the afternoon and evening.”
Sauer began working with online development while a student at the University of St. Thomas. Armed with a degree in computer information systems, he started his career building websites, then moved into consulting, training and teaching digital marketing.
Last year, he and his wife, Amanda, put their possessions into storage and launched their international life. They’ve taken to it so well that they don’t see an end in sight.
They spent the holidays in Costa Rica on their way south to Peru and Argentina; their plan is to spend much of January and February, summer months in the Southern Hemisphere, in Buenos Aires.
“Figuring out inexpensive travel using points and miles is my hobby, and I have a pretty advanced understanding of how to play that system,” Sauer said, noting that his efforts have allowed the couple to score deeply discounted airfares and dozens of free nights in hotels.
When they don’t manage to sleep for free, they keep costs low by staying in private homes booked online through Airbnb.
“At our age, we’re not backpackers staying in hostels,” he said. “We want nice meals, excellent wine and to sleep in a comfortable bed. We can do that with smart financial management.”
Not all digital nomads play with such skill. The South African news media carried a story on two advertising professionals who set out to work internationally; a follow-up story six months later found them broke and cleaning public toilets in Greece.
The itinerant nature of the life is not without risk, said Colleen Flaherty Manchester, an assistant professor at the U’s Carlson School of Business who studies flex time and employee benefits.
“These workers lose out on the income security and benefit provisions that come with full-time employment,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand how assets accrue over time. When they take off during their critical earning years, it can hurt their career trajectory. What’s going to happen when they don’t want to be nomads anymore? Will they be able to re-enter and find full-time employment?”
Dealing with challenges
It hasn’t all been postcard perfect for the Gregoires. They contracted food poisoning in Thailand and dealt with sketchy money changers in Argentina.
But they’re excited about their travel plans for 2016, which will take them to New Zealand and then back to Southeast Asia. They plan a springtime return to Minnesota. The lease for the renter in the house they own in Orono expires in April, and the couple plan to move back in to enjoy summertime on Lake Minnetonka.
They’ll take their leave again as winter approaches. They envision a future of six months at home alternating with six months of international travel, “chasing summer,” as John put it.
While many digital nomads are single travelers, the lifestyle suits couples. There are advantages to traveling in pairs, and when the traveling partner is a spouse, it can create a new dimension in a marriage.
“It’s such a cliché to say my wife is my best friend or my soul mate, but it’s true,” said Jeff Sauer, who blogs about the pair’s adventures at jeffsetter.com.
For long stretches, nomadic couples have only each other for company, which can stress — or strengthen — their relationship.
“We both used to work very long hours and there were weeks when we hardly saw each other,” Sauer said. “Now we’re each other’s everything. Sometimes we stay in small spaces, so we have to be good together.”
Amanda Sauer has her own motto. “We say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Why would we when we’re having so many great new experiences together?” she said.
Embracing the lifestyle doesn’t mean that couples also can’t start families, Alicia Gregoire said.
“People keep asking us about a family, and we’re ready for a baby,” she said. “We’ve met a lot of parents out there who are doing this with kids.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.