In this series, we’re exploring the various careers of world travelers, and how they make ends meet financially while living abroad. Yes, financially sustainable full-time travel is possible!
Kevin Casey, The Jet-setting Copywriter, is a global wilderness explorer and part-time digital nomad who pays for all his overseas adventures through freelance writing. Born in California, he now lives in Brisbane, Australia. As the Remote River Man, Kevin has been self-filming his journeys since 2004, producing several full-length DVDs. Articles about Kevin’s epic (and normally solitary) river expeditions have appeared in magazines such as Australian Geographic Outdoor, Wild and Sidetracked.
Kevin Casey is the author of the eBook ‘The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing’, which is available on his website The Jet-setting Copywriter.
How long have you been living/working on the road, and where have you travelled to?
I’ve been making a living as a freelance copywriter since 2013. My profits have paid for all kinds of journeys, including river expeditions, digital nomad stints and more ‘normal’ vacations. There’s really no such thing as a typical year for me, but here’s what I got up to in recent months: snorkelled with manta rays on the Great Barrier Reef, had a month in the jungles of Bolivia, enjoyed two weeks in Tasmania, experienced five weeks playing digital nomad in Cordoba, Argentina and spent part of the summer in Spain and Portugal.
Please describe what you do for income.
I’m a professional freelance copywriter. I write copy for all kinds of businesses. These can be articles, product descriptions, case studies, blog posts, subscriber emails, landing pages for White Papers, website copy for non-profits or ghost-writing eBooks. I’ve written about health, technology, financial services and even an article about how to find a good taxidermist! I tend to pursue medium-to-large sized businesses as clients – especially those that offer the promise of solid, long-term work.
How many hours per week do you work on average?
On average, I would probably work about 35 hours a week, including all research, writing, editing and self-marketing for my business. A few months back, I had to crank out 41 fairly substantial articles for an insurance company in just over two weeks, so I was working a lot more hours then! But when I’m travelling, I generally write a lot less. In most cases I set my own deadlines, so I have complete control over the timetable.
Sometimes, I go to places that are so interesting or beautiful that I can’t bring myself to do much work at all (I think I only wrote about eight hours a week on the island of Savaii in Samoa, for example). Sometimes I’ll leave the laptop at home – it all depends on the trip.
How much money do you make?
Before I took the plunge and got serious about starting a freelance writing business in 2013, I had already self-published several books. So I knew I could write (all my books made money) – I just didn’t know how much I would make by going freelance.
When I first started out, I had a brief and unfruitful stint writing for a couple of content mill sites (Textbroker and Constant Content), but it didn’t take me long to realize I was never going to make a living wage going that route. My income really soared once I ditched writing sites altogether, early in 2014. When I created my own writer website, started targeting my own high-paying clients and became more systematic, selective and aggressive in marketing myself, the floodgates opened.
Once I stopped wasting my time with writing-as-a-commodity sites, I went from zero clients to earning over $7,000 a month within my first six months. My income has been growing nicely ever since, but it has its cycles. When I’m not traipsing around the planet, I can make $10,000 a month from writing if I buckle down and focus on earning. These days, I consider $4,500 or less a poor month.
For the past couple of years, I’ve only been working 7-8 months of the year and travelling the rest of the time. It’s really wonderful to be financially able to do that. I would have no problem making a six-figure income if that was my goal, but to do that I’d have to sacrifice all the extremely cool aspects of my current lifestyle. I want my life to be experience-rich, but I have no interest in ‘being rich’.
I consider freelance copywriting an ideal means-to-an-end profession. It’s totally portable. There’s huge demand for good, dependable copywriters. You can work part-time or full-time. You can work from home or take your business on the road – it’s your choice.
Do you make enough money to support your lifestyle?
Yes, and then some. I have no debts, so the bulk of my writing profits go straight toward my travels to exotic locations. I’ve designed my career around my lifestyle aspirations, rather than the other way around as most people do. Although I have a home base at the moment, that’s by choice. If I wanted to take off around the world for two or three years as a laptop-toting nomad, I could do that. But my present situation is working out perfectly for me, so I’m happy.
I recently wrote a blog post about the difference between being a digital nomad and being location-independent. People often use the terms interchangeably, but I think there’s a difference. Many people who refer to themselves as digital nomads don’t make enough money to choose their preferred working/living locations. They only make enough to stay in the world’s cheapest ‘nomad hotspot’ destinations. Their incomes limit their options, so they’re not really ‘location-independent’. I consider myself truly location-independent because I can travel whenever I want, to wherever I want, for as long as I want.
What do you like most about your career and lifestyle?
I like the choices it gives me. It’s completely flexible. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the main contributor to human happiness isn’t health, wealth, love or an incredible social life – it’s autonomy: the feeling that the activities and habits of your life are under your control. I’m a big fan of autonomy.
What are some of the challenges you have with this career and lifestyle?
Sometimes it’s far too easy to procrastinate instead of sitting down and writing. Self-motivation is essential in this business, but I struggle sometimes – just like everyone else.
I’m the sort of person who is quite happy to spend a month alone in pure wilderness, so I don’t really feel the sense of social isolation that many location-independent writers often talk about. I don’t like crowds and I love solitude, so writing for a living suits me well.
Many people think writing skill is the most important factor in success as a freelance writer. I disagree – I think the ability to market yourself and nurture business relationships is probably more important. A great self-marketer who is an average writer will always make more money than a brilliant writer who can’t find the right clients, develop a trust-based relationship with them and make them happy. So the promotion of my business is a never-ending process, which I’ll admit can be a little draining at times.
There really aren’t any downsides to my freelancing lifestyle – I’m loving it. I did have to unblock a dysfunctional toilet in an AirBnB apartment in Argentina this year, though, which was… interesting.
Sometimes my wilderness expeditions can get hairy. In Papua New Guinea I was robbed by axe, spear and machete-wielding bandits (and caught malaria the same trip). I survived a serious flash flood while kayaking in Canada and have dodged large crocodiles in Australia. When I was filming a wild orangutan in Borneo, it decided it didn’t like me being so close to its tree, so it broke off a large tree branch and started swinging it in my direction. And when I went up the Ntem River in northern Gabon in a tiny boat with four chain-smoking pygmies, I ate what they ate (it’s considered rude to refuse). So my meals included shrivelled little smoked fish with the consistency of boot leather, roasted palm beetle grubs, antelope stew and monkey casserole.
What is your vision for the future of your lifestyle on the road?
I see no need to change a single thing at the moment – I’m living life just the way I want to. I’m doing work I enjoy and balancing that with some excellent overseas adventures. I’m still new to the whole blogging thing (it was kind of an afterthought, to be honest), but I’m really pleased with the response both my blog and my eBook have been getting.
I’m constantly looking to improve my writing and research skills so I can do even more amazing work for my clients. Being a copywriter means always learning new tips, techniques and processes to get better than you were the year before.
There are still plenty of destinations on my bucket list, of course: Iceland, Botswana, Colombia, Hungary, Sweden and all manner of little-known islands and remote river systems. So I won’t stop exploring the planet any time soon!
Any advice for the aspiring traveller about living and working on the road and managing finances?
Make sure you’ve got at least two or three good, solid clients in hand before heading off on an extended digital nomad trip. Invest in a VPN (virtual private network) for your laptop – it’s essential. Take a Wi-Fi booster with you to improve dubious wireless signals.
The less you spend on accommodation, the longer you can travel, so look into cheaper, long-term places to stay. I think AirBnB is a superb concept. (Nora’s Note: Here’s a resource that discusses AirBnB and other comparable sites)
Check out house-sitting, caretaking, anything you can combine with your writing that lets you stay abroad longer. I prefer to stay in quiet local neighbourhoods rather than touristy areas.
(See also: How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World)
Stay well away from write-for-peanuts websites – they’re a financial dead end. Most of the best freelance writing jobs are never advertised – you have to pursue them on your own initiative. I use cold emailing to good effect: I once got over $35,000 worth of work from a single client this way.
Never change money at an airport – go to a bank in the city for a better rate. Get out of debt – you can never be truly free until you do. And make sure you grab your cash within five seconds from any ATM in Gabon, West Africa: if you’re too slow, the machine sucks your money straight back in, never to be seen again! (See also: 11 Tricks to Using ATMs Abroad)