Conversations about real estate between my Millennial/ Gen Z friends and I are wild.
Our options encompass communal living spaces; Harry Potter-esque scenarios where a magic piece of paper grants admission to the wizarding world of independent wealth (i.e. an inheritance, sudden bitcoin fortune, etc.); going completely nuclear and hitting the red button that ejects us into expatriatism; to giving away/ selling all of our possessions and moving into a minivan or boat.
The stats tell this same story too, in their own way. The current median price for a home in the United States is $357,000. Meanwhile median individual income in the United States in 2021 was $44,225. This was up from $43,206 in 2020, not adjusted for inflation.
Real estate in San Francisco, where I lived for most of my adult life, lands far above the US median. There, $350K will get me something akin to a shoebox. All of a sudden, wild ideas about alternative housing become serious options.
The Tiny House Movement opened the door for the exponentially growing population of van and bus dwellers. Why not take that tiny house and put it on a chassis? The progression of tiny home to camper van to school bus conversion was swift. What our parents thought was extreme in the 60s, we made even more so by doing it full-time.
School buses, or what the community lovingly calls skoolies, provides ample space that can house whole families and even their dogs. There are skoolie conversion companies thriving in Texas, Tennessee, Colorado, and Canada, just to name a few.
While I have converted and lived in a skoolie before, today I rock a truck with a camper shell and live on the road for a good chunk of the year. The burning questions I am often asked are what I do for work, do I sleep in the truck every night, and where do I park.
There are many ways to tie these particular knots (almost as many as the ways you can MacGyver your skoolie build). I’m in no way implying that the following is the best or even the worst way to support yourself on the road. This is just what I’ve done to survive full-time.
What do I do for work?
Before pulling the trigger on bus life, I spent more than a decade in the restaurant industry. I knew I had to abandon the hope of higher pay as a manager, as most establishments don’t exactly go in for the transient-manager type. I considered falling back on my roots as a bartender but competition there for seasonal work is stiff. You almost always have to know someone to get an in. And quite frankly, I was completely over the brutal world of hospitality. So I turned to that shining green city on the hill: Freelancing. After all, I couldn’t let my literature degree go to waste!
I have been publishing poetry since I graduated college, but I had never made any serious money doing any of it. While researching remote writing gigs, freelance editing kept cropping up. Sure, targeted ad campaigns were behind it, but still, it sounded like a slightly more manageable attempt at guaranteed income than creative writing. Facebook eventually served me an ad for Proofread Anywhere.
Proofread Anywhere was founded by Caitlin Pyle, a firecracker with a somewhat murky and dramatic history. She Perez Hiltons her life, broadcasting life events over social media often and with painstaking detail. But that wasn’t what piqued my interest. What did was her assurance that I could make at least $40,000 a year proofreading transcripts for court reporters.
During court proceedings, there’s a person off to the side, typing. That person is called a stenographer and they take down everything that is said, word for word, in shorthand or stenography. Then a process of translation and editing takes place using a scopist; someone who listens to the recorded audio, fills in missing words and/or phrases, and translates any leftover pieces. Finally, it’s handed off to a proofreader, who goes through with eagle eyes to catch missing punctuation and misspellings.
Proofread Anywhere trained me to read and edit court transcripts and then to market those skills to capture clients. It required reading more than 3,000 pages of practice transcripts and hours of online tests. It’s not cheap. It cost me $974 in course fees, and I was looking at around $200 per book. Then there’s the cost of software and hardware (like an iPad and Pencil for editing, as everything is electronic).
Did I recoup that money? Yes. Did I suffer debilitating episodes of self-doubt? Yes and very often. It helped that I didn’t quit my day job while I did this training.
The absolute best part of buying into this was the community of graduates that welcomed me upon completion. Via a private group, we shared leads, crowdsourced solutions to elusive grammatical problems, warned about clients who don’t pay invoices, and provided each other supportive feedback and encouragement. It was here that I met people who successfully supported themselves and their families through proofreading.
After completing the course, I threw myself into branding my new editing business. In short, it requires constant hustle to network and self-market to capture clients. I wasn’t a big company taking out Google ads. It was just me cold emailing and calling court reporting agencies asking for work.
I also hired an accountant who specialized in freelancers. 1099 taxes make W2 taxes look like child’s play. The penalties for messing it up can be astronomical. For a person with limited income, especially at the start, I did not want to be slapped with a massive penalty.
It took almost six months for me to get two regular clients. I had quit my day job as a restaurant manager, officially lived on a skoolie full time, and was being supported by my ex-partner while I built my business. Not everyone is as lucky as I was. I will say the stress of it was a factor in the demise of that relationship.
Jobs ranged from a few pages to hundreds of pages and deadlines were STRICT. I played the proofreading game for a few months before I realized it just wasn’t making me enough money.
So I learned how to scope. Scoping is where the big money started coming in. Right now, the industry accepted per page rate for proofreading is $0.45. The per page rate for scoping is $1.50.
So the big question: Was scoping enough to sustain my life on the road? Yes. Did I stick with it? No. Last summer, I applied and was offered a full-time job at a company that makes astrology software. This is an incredibly lucky and rare turn of events that I am forever grateful for.
I found a full-time job that pays well, provides benefits, is remote, and sells something that doesn’t keep me up at night riddled with guilt and anxiety. This is the unicorn of digital nomad life. I found it and I will never let it go. And I hope all my fellow nomads win this lottery too.
With Covid, it’s actually easier now. A recent study done by McKinsey found that there is now "four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic".
Or, to quote a New York Times article, "The last two years ushered in an unplanned experiment with a different way of working: Some 50 million Americans left their offices. Before the pandemic, in 2019, about 4 percent of employed people in the U.S. worked exclusively from home; by May 2020, that figure rose to 43 percent, according to Gallup."
I still edit, but only for private clients on creative projects that I actually care about. To successfully clock the requisite 32-hour minimum per week for full-time status, I make sure I have access to Wi-Fi or cellular data during the week. Sometimes this means biting it, and booking an AirBnb to get Wi-Fi in really remote places; and then saving outdoor adventures for the weekend. Sometimes I find campsites where I get cell service (preferred). Sometimes I wander parking lots, parking in front of various businesses to see whose Wi-Fi is strong enough to use sitting in my car.
I didn’t sign up for the nomad life thinking it was going to be boring or easy.
In summary, freelancing is hard but can also be rewarding. If you have the option to get a full-time regular job that’s remote, do it and don’t ever let go. Ideally, do a little bit of both.