Liesbet Collaert was born in Belgium and recently became an American, but calls herself a world citizen. She’s been a digital nomad since 2003 (sailing, house sitting, and RVing), earning money as a freelance writer, photographer, translator, and editor. Her first travel memoir is almost ready for publication. Liesbet connects with her readers on her blog Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary, as well as her Facebook page or Instagram account.
While Liesbet’s income seems small, I think you’ll agree that she and her husband have lived an extraordinary life of travel, and by using creative budget travel tips (like getting accommodation for free) they haven’t been left wanting for much. Check it out!
How long have you been living/working on the road, and where have you traveled to?
Where do I start? Since I’m pretty impulsive and adventurous, my nomadic existence and means to make money developed organically. I’ve always been a traveler. One of the reasons I became a teacher in Belgium was to have a long summer vacation designed around exploring the world. I took two “leave of absences” during my first four years of teaching, to backpack in Southeast Asia and Down Under. Being frugal and passionate about travel, that’s what I used my income for. I never owned anything, making it easy for me to be flexible. The third time I left Belgium for an extended adventure, I never returned. That was in 2003.
While I didn’t need to make money during these initial escapades, as I had savings from my “real job” and I run a tight budget ship, one – of course – can’t journey forever without earnings. Darn! I think it was in 2008 – after a few years of RV-travel and getting close and personal with sailboats – that I started to create some sort of income. Up until that point, I’d cleaned a few boats for change and kept a free blog about our sailing journey on SV Irie to share our experiences and inspire others.
I traveled throughout Europe while living in Belgium until I was 27, backpacked in Southeast Asia and Oceana for two years, explored the continental US, Canada, and Alaska in a truck camper for a year and a half and Mexico and Central America for another year. In 2007, the sailboat episode followed – a journey that brought us from Maryland (USA) south to Florida, throughout the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, spending hurricane season in the Dominican Republic, and on to the Eastern Caribbean via Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
After three years up and down the Leeward and Windward Islands, we skimmed the out islands of Venezuela, spend time in Colombia, and enjoyed over a year in Panama. The next steps were transiting the Canal, being blown away by wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, and concluding our sailing voyage after cruising in French Polynesia for two years. Eight years after casting off (in 2015), we sold Irie in Tahiti.
Since then, we’ve slowed down a bit, house and pet sitting throughout the United States and exploring North America in our 19ft camper van Zesty. I am more than ready for tropical and exciting destinations again, whenever this pandemic allows it.
Please describe what you do for income.
First, I’d like to point out that my husband and I are very frugal and we’ve found that being careful with expenditures allows us the life we desire – more freedom and less need to be workaholics. The way we manage our money, our aversion towards collecting material goods, and our love of simplicity are leading factors for how we make this nomadic lifestyle work – financially and otherwise.
See also: Lifestyle Inflation – Why Earning More Money Sucks (the Life Outta You)
I’ve done a fair amount of jobs to make a buck, from cleaning boats to tending bar to painting fences to home schooling to writing lesson plans – work can be found everywhere! Yet, once I decided to turn my passion and aptitude for writing (in English) into a means to make money, I stopped doing manual labor.
My freelance writing career started in 2008 in the Eastern Caribbean – between St. Maarten and Grenada to be precise – with the first destination pieces I submitted to the Caribbean Compass and All At Sea boating magazines. I became a regular contributor for both. Over time, my work was accepted by all the major sailing magazines around the world. I also posted a few times a month on my sailing blog and jotted down notes for a future book. These last two “occupations” didn’t pay me a dime – and still don’t. I was never a fan of plastering ads or affiliate links on my websites, but enjoy the connections made by blogging and the raw writing process.
Around the same time, I started doing translation work for several companies: English to Dutch and Dutch to English, later adding proofreading, transcription, and voice-over services to the mix. For the last year and a half, I’ve been an assistant editor for a Caribbean boating magazine as well.
See also: 7 Surefire Ways to Make Money While Traveling
How many hours per week do you work on average?
My work is VERY flexible and sporadic, other than the monthly editing job. Once a year or so, I have a big translation project with a tight deadline, forcing me to focus on that eight to ten hours straight for one or two weeks. But mostly, my work situation is a hit-or-miss kind of thing.
I generally work about twenty to thirty hours a week (blog or book-related), based on whether we are in “sightseeing mode” or “settled mode”. I joke with my best friend that I am really good at working for free. On average, I receive payment for about eight hours of job responsibilities a week. We live by the motto, “The less money you spend, the less you need to make.” ?
How much money do you make?
I currently earn an average of US$6,000 – US$7,000 a year.
Do you make enough money to support your lifestyle?
That depends on the year. Our combined household income just did the job in 2019. If I was single, I might be able to support myself, as I’ve been known to live off $300 a month for many years. My nomadic family consists of a husband and a recently adopted 60-pound dog. My partner supplements my income with random jobs like manual labor through Amazon CamperForce last winter (and possibly this coming winter) and small investments. We have savings for years we can’t balance out expenses.
From 2009 to 2018, my husband and I ran a marine WiFi-product business from our sailboat and then while house sitting. The first years this – in combination with my personal writing efforts – did not support our lifestyle; just grocery expenses. Savings took care of boat maintenance. As the product evolved and internet became more important in people’s lives, we managed to reach a status quo for a few years and the last couple of years, we made a small profit. It was tough – eight to ten-hour days for my entrepreneur husband, while also dealing with our alternative lifestyle and its challenges. My upcoming memoir reflects on how that evolved.
Bottom line is that we never know what we will dive into next or how we can add to the travel kitty. We are flexible and open to new initiatives and are not too stressed about our options. After all, we find free accommodation and only spend about $16,000 a year for the three of us, so, as long as we can offset that, we are solid enough. If anyone is interested in our expense report for 2019, have a look here. I’ve been posting monthly and yearly overviews like this for the last five years.
See Also: How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World
What do you like most about your career and lifestyle?
It is extremely diverse. I love the flexibility of our jobs and our lifestyle, and the opportunities it comes with – seeing the world for little money, having a chance to volunteer at the biggest no-kill animal sanctuary in the US, meeting fascinating – and sometimes famous – people, interacting with wildlife and nature… Plus, I don’t have to get up at 7am or stick to a schedule; I’m not a fan of routines. I have three major passions: traveling, writing, and animals. I manage to enjoy all of those, every day, in lieu of eating out frequently, paying utility fees, or buying the newest gadgets.
What are some of the challenges you have with this career and lifestyle?
Challenges aplenty! Good internet is required every single day. This used to be a major impediment the first decade of our nomadic life, but gets better every year. Electricity is another biggie, but we try to be self-sufficient with a wind generator (on the sailboat), solar panels, and generators. When sailing, we always anchored. When RVing, we always boondock (camp for free). This is for financial reasons as well as our desire to have privacy and space. Starting a business from the middle of the ocean and traveling with dogs add a tad more complications. And, “deciding” to work while others are having fun is just one aspect you have to get used to.
Over the years, we have learned that the combination work – travel is only successful, or even doable, when taking breaks from sightseeing and driving/sailing. When you’re constantly on the go, there is no time or energy to work. Finding a balance is extremely important! Having jobs without deadlines works best. In my case, when there is a tight deadline, we drop everything and have to go park somewhere with AT&T cell service for the duration of the project. When we were sailing on Irie, we could only anchor in bays with WiFi, as my husband needed to be online every (work)day. Not easy!
What is your vision for the future of your lifestyle on the road?
We pretty much live in the here and now. The three of us enjoy this lifestyle and since I’m a nomad at heart, I could never see myself settled. I haven’t had a “normal” life for 17 years – the longer I’m out and about, the harder it is to ever fit into society again. I’m not planning to. Plus, how could we pick just one place to be (knowing from experience that the perfect spot doesn’t exist), when there is an entire world to be discovered?
That being said, it would be nice to take a break once in a while, to charge our batteries (full-time travel is exhausting), to focus on making “real money” in order to retire early, or to find a little home base that’s ours and that we could potentially rent out. I know, though, that after a few weeks of being stationary (during this pandemic for example), our feet get itchy. Many more adventures await!
Any advice for the aspiring traveler about living and working on the road and managing finances?
I think there is an art to managing finances. I’ve been frugal my entire life and believe that this is one of the reasons why I managed to be a nomad for so long. It’s all about priorities – sure, I rarely splurge on eating out or any form of paid entertainment, but it actually gives me joy to just buy the essentials, hike in nature for exercise and entertainment, camp for free, live minimally, and stretch my money. If that’s not you, count on working hard, finding a niche, and capitalizing on your knowledge and efforts. It will take time, unless you don’t mind picking up manual labor along the way, which might cause issues in regards to country laws, paying taxes, and upsetting locals.
I also think it’s an art to successfully combine working and living on the road. You have to find a profession that is flexible, easy to do worldwide, and enjoyable. You might have to be creative. If you require creature comforts 24/7, fancy food and specific shopping brands, routines, and a steady income, this lifestyle might not be for you.
In any case, I highly recommend keeping track of your expenses, maybe even creating budgets. While we are frugal, we actually don’t “budget” (dedicate certain amounts of money to certain categories). My husband and I just spend as little as needed to live healthy and basic. Knowing what you spend provides insights and moments of reflection. Plus, it makes you accountable – no pun intended.
See Also: Financial Planning for Travelers
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It doesn’t hurt trying out this lifestyle, but make sure you have something – or someone – to fall back on if it’s not what you expected. To me, being a digital nomad represents freedom, independence, and adventure – three ingredients that enhance my life.
23 thoughts on “Financial Case Study: Liesbet Collaert, Roaming About”
Thanks for featuring me – and our life less ordinary – here. I hope our experiences , travels, and outlook inspire others to expand their horizons and their ideas about a nomadic lifestyle. It is possible to see the world without being rich or working 40 hours a week. 🙂
Liesbet is inspired Nora. So cool to see one of the original digital nomads out there. This was well before DM hubs like Chiang Mai and Ubud has co-working spaces and communities of digital nomads. I salute her. Reminds me of a multi-millionaire who guest posted on my blog. He was a digital nomad and expand running an online business in Thailand some 20 years ago. Dial up internet in those days over there. Wow, we have so much convenience today.
Totally agree, Ryan! Being on the road and work these days has become possible because of the internet. I remember those days in Thailand… calling my parents collect – or handing over lots of money to the people running the indoor calling boots – and sending letters and postcards with “old news” by the time they arrived in Belgium.
Back in the nineties and early 2000s, the term “digital nomad” didn’t even exist and the internet was in its early stages. Yep. Dial up and using monstrous computers with keyboards that were different in each continent, haha. I’m glad I became of the “working age” right after that.
Wow! What a great post and how wonderful you have had so many adventures.
Hi John and Susan,
Thank you for reading and swinging by here! One day, I hope we can exchange adventure stories in person!
That was a fascinating read. I love how content you are with your life despite the ups and downs. I don’t think most people could say that. Thanks for sharing so much about yourself!
Thank you for commenting here and on my site! I appreciate you following along in our adventures and tales – almost like reading a suspense novel, right?
Such an interesting read, Liesbet. You both sound to be very organized and dedicated to you freewheeling lifestyle. I applaud your ability to live the life you enjoy with such a ‘small’ income. Your adventurous spirit is obviously what keeps you keeping on. I always enjoy seeing your photos.
Hi Sylvia! Thank you for reading and commenting here. I think this interview “proves” that what we are doing is a lifestyle and not a vacation. Like others, we have to make a living. Yet, we spend our money in different ways. 🙂
Liesbet, you certainly know how to make a title clickable! Few people are willing to share their income sources or “bottom line” because of inevitable comparisons. Brava for that!
As I have observed first-hand, you and Mark are solidly and contentedly “planted” in a nomadic lifestyle, a wonderful thing. Fortunately, you both are flexible and focused on similar goals; otherwise, it wouldn’t work.
Nora, thank you for featuring Liesbet this week. I love the name/logo for the Professional Hobo. 😉
Hi Marian! You are too nice. Yes, Mark and I are on the same page and I hope this will continue to be so.
Nora is probably one of the first digital nomads who blogged and wrote books about that lifestyle. I’ve known about her since circa 2010. 🙂
Interesting read, Liesbet! I have always enjoyed the monthly accounting of your outgo, but have wondered about your actual income. The only thing I’d add to this piece – for those of you who don’t know Liesbet and Mark – is that, despite being extremely frugal, they are also very generous. They don’t allow their unconventional lifestyle choice to get in the way of sharing what they can.
Hello Janis! Thank you for your kind – additional – notes here. I don’t know what to say… We do LOVE sharing what we experience, what we have, what we talk about, what we cook, and what we drink. And, we enjoy company like the two of you – wish we could get together again soon.
Hi, Nora – I was excited to see Liesbet featured here. This interview made me even more excited to read her upcoming book. Great questions and as is typical for Liesbet — very honest, straight-forward answers!
Hi Donna! I’m glad you liked this interview. Nora asks some good and insightful questions! I’m also glad that you like my honesty and “bluntness”. Not everyone appreciates that, yet my memoir is the product of it…
Great read. I really admire the way you take everything in your stride and just go for what you want. Even knowing what makes you happy is quite an achievement. Inspiring.
Thank you, Tracey. For some reason, I “fell” into this lifestyle and never got out anymore. But, I’m pretty sure it is what makes me happiest. So, we work around those goals and interests and somehow make it work – sometimes the challenging way, sometimes the easy way. Life is an adventure! 🙂
Hi Nora, Thank you for featuring Liesbet here. You have asked many great questions. As you can see, there is a reason so many of Liesbet’s followers love her. This nomadic lifestyle may sound idyllic, yet Liesbet is very candid about the pros and cons to this lifestyle. Liesbet is an inspiration. I look forward to reading her memoir!
Hello Erica! It makes me smile to read your kind and supportive words here. And, I’m super happy to be able to inspire you – and (hopefully) others – any time of the day, week, month, year. 🙂
What an absolutely wonderful read Liesbet. I love your philosophy of living in the here and now. I admire your flexibility and absolutely share your loves of travel, writing, animals and nature. Kudos to you for living your dreams and making each day an adventure. Stay safe, smiling and keep enjoying it all. xx
Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I hope I mentioned before how I LOVE your zest for life and your love and appreciation for all things nature, animal, travel, and beautiful! Kindred spirits…
I think the biggest advantage of living my life this way is that I started “early”. So many travelers and especially retired folks wish they’d made that decision earlier and the decision to do so is one thing I will never have to regret. 🙂
Liesbet, this was a fascinating read and we learnt so much more about you from this post. Love the three priorities that you have and your motto, which makes total sense. Quite extraordinary that you have made a life with someone who has the same nomadic and frugal and adventurous aspect. You have covered a LOT of ground with your travels.. the first comment that Peta made was that this is how much travel one can do with no young children in tow. Not that one can’t travel with children but of course way easier and cheaper to cover a lot of ground without them. I really appreciate that you distill your own experience through the prism of rigorous budgeting and income. This blog post is a go to reference that I am sure we will use in the future as we so frequently get asked about the cost of a nomadic lifestyle. While we are no where as frugal as you two, we do appreciate the correlation of minimizing expenses to not have to chase a higher level of income.
You certainly have had a wide range of job experiences in the past, that was interesting to read about. I like that you are frank and honest about full time travel and how exhausting it can be. Worth it, but for sure sometimes exhausting. Great post all around.
Thank you for leaving a comment here as well.
While we have met some families on our journeys, Peta is certainly right about how much harder travel (especially the logistics) and maintaining a nomadic life would be, let alone the extra cost and requirements for more comfort.
When I was in my twenties, I covered a bit of ground backpacking for two years. Since then, slower travel has been pursued in a more comfortable matter. The last seventeen years, this was with our own home, either on wheels or on hulls.
I do believe our frugalness has affected the extent of our travels, but there are other factors as well. Like the one you point out immediately… being able to have a partner with the same or similar passions in life. Mark didn’t used to be an adventurer before he met me, though. 🙂