Airbnb strategies – Part 1: Hosting

I’ve been a longtime Airbnb user. Recently on Facebook, a memory popped up from 2011, when I posted about this “cool site I was trying out.” Yes, it was a simpler time. I don’t even know if the phrase “sharing economy” existed yet. Fast forward a few years, and there are probably relatively few seasoned travellers out there who haven’t given that “cool site” a try.

 

While Airbnb isn’t all sunshine and roses (check out Part 2 for a few recent experiences I’ve had to prove that point!), I think it has some key advantages that can support both your pursuit of financial independence, and your location independence, if you so choose. If you keep a few simple strategies in mind, it could speed up your progress to both, and expand your horizons once you get there.

 

As this is a chunky enough topic, I’m splitting it into two parts, for both hosts and guests (primarily guests of the semi-nomadic variety). First up, hosting, to get your side hustle income stream flowing:

 

PART 1

HOSTING

 

Airbnb can be an easy way to add a little side hustle income stream to your roster. There has been much written and said about renting out a spare bedroom on Airbnb, or using Airbnb instead of longer term rentals in an investment property (if you didn’t already know, Paula Pant of Afford Anything is an amazing resource for all things investment-property related).

 

What I don’t see discussed as often, and perhaps with good reason, is the potential of making a place that you yourself rent, available as an occasional Airbnb rental. I personally was too scared to try this while I lived in the US. It just felt like there were too many legal/regulatory risks.

Whether or not that fear was justified, for whatever reason it didn’t seem as risky in Dublin, and thus I began my hosting career almost exactly 1 year ago.

 

Tips for hosting in a rental

 

First, I’d say you should determine how annoyed your neighbours and landlord are likely to get, if at all. And obviously have a read through your lease to see if there’s anything explicitly prohibiting it.

 

I took the view that I’d have no qualms about having an out of town friend stay in my place while I was away, which wasn’t so different from what I’d be doing, since I was only going to rent it out when I was out of town travelling. And my building was a pretty relaxed place in general, with people mostly minding their own business. It seemed ideal.

 

*I’m aware that many cities, probably primarily in North America, but possibly increasingly around the world, local authorities are getting a bit tetchy about Airbnb. It’s a complex topic, and often an emotional one, so make your best assessment of both the legal and ethical implications, and proceed accordingly.

 

In Dublin, there’s a full blown housing crisis, and that has knock-on effects into the short term and hotel markets as well. I’ve been told it’s often difficult for visitors to find a hotel room for less than €200 a night, which is far beyond the budgets of many travellers. I’m generally in favour of increasing choice for both residents of a city, as well as visitors. So I was and am satisfied that making my otherwise-unused apartment available while I was away (at far, far less than €200/night, let me assure you!) was a net positive for everyone involved.

 

So, if the stars align and you decide to take the plunge, what are some tips for would-be Airbnb hosts?

 

  • Make check-in/out easy and low-touch for you and your guests

 

Checking in should not require an in-person meetup, if it’s at all possible to avoid it. For me this was essential because I was almost always going to be on a plane heading out of the country whenever my guests were arriving. As a guest, I knew how much I valued being able to check in and out at my leisure, without having to text and coordinate with someone and cater to their schedule.

 

My solution to this was to buy a key-safe lockbox, which I attach to a railing near my building’s front door. I always inform my guests of this in advance, and I send them pictures of its location in case they are checking in after dark, and just to allay any potential worries that they might have.

The one I use is here:

 

Overall, I’m delighted with that solution. I’ve very rarely had anyone who had any difficulty with locating or using the lock box, and I’ve never received any negative feedback because of it. Possible alternatives could be a local business that doesn’t mind giving a key to your guests, especially if you’re a regular customer or if you have some relationship with them. Or an obliging friend or neighbour who you don’t impose upon too heavily. I’ve stayed in places as a guest that did both, with varying degrees of success. I’d still suggest going for the fully remote solution where possible.

 

  • Set expectations

 

This is so important for both your sanity, and that of your guests. I try to emphasise that my place is small, and in an older building, and is also my main dwelling place, so people know what they’re getting. This doesn’t mean I’ve never had a complaint that the place is small, but at least I’d caveated that emptor, so I didn’t feel too badly about it.

 

I’d also let guests know in advance the situation regarding parking, wifi, how heat/hot water/garbage worked, and what they could expect in terms of linens and bathroom basics. I’d still sometimes get questions on all of those things, and more, but to the extent possible I made an effort to be very explicit about all the quirks and features of my place.

 

  • Anticipate questions

 

This ties in closely with the above, but I made sure to make a house manual on Airbnb for specific things that I knew were unique about my place, such as the switch for the hot water, or the highly sensitive smoke alarm that will go off if you leave the door open while taking a shower.

 

Another thing I did that I think worked well was to preemptively send a link to the exact coordinates of the location on Google Maps. I actually don’t know why more hosts don’t do this! Addresses are funny and are so different from one place to the next. And it’s so blindingly easy to drop a pin on Google Maps that Airbnb should actually make it mandatory.

 

  • Bonus: prepare for tax time!

 

One of the things people sometimes worry about related to becoming an Airbnb host is what to do in terms of taxes. Generally, income is income is income, and whatever jurisdiction you live in would like for you to report that income, please and thank you very much. But how exactly that looks will vary widely from place to place.

 

In Ireland, at least, Airbnb very helpfully reminded their hosts that our income had been reported to Irish Revenue, just in case it might’ve slipped some people’s minds. How thoughtful of them! Here’s the email I received:

To Airbnb’s credit, as you can see, they did provide some links to resources in case people had questions. And when it comes to taxes, I know firsthand that people always do. And that it’s almost never an especially easy or user-friendly process.

 

If you’re a new Airbnb host and wondering what to do about taxes, here are some first steps to consider:

  1. Keep record of your related expenses

    From supplies like sheets and towels for guest use only, to getting that second set of keys cut, to the lockbox itself, it helps to keep track of all these small expenses as you go. I stuck mine all in a simple spreadsheet.

  2. Determine how and when you’ll report it

    Be especially mindful in case there are any pre-filing registrations you need. For example, in Ireland, I needed to register for MyAccount, which I discovered entailed Revenue sending me a code in the post. So I was glad I didn’t wait until the last minute, as the Irish tax filing deadline is coming up on 31 October!

  3. What are your expenses when you don’t own the place yourself?

    This will vary depending what jurisdiction you’re in, but one approach that makes sense from an accounting perspective is to take a ratable portion of your monthly rent as a rental expense. 

    For example: My monthly rent was €850, so if I rented my place for 5 days in a month, I’d figure my expense for that month as follows

(850/30)*5= €141.67

You could reasonably treat your monthly wifi, heating/electricity, and even bin charges, in a similar fashion.

Be aware that if there is no specific guidance from Revenue where you live, you should have a sound basis for why you claimed the expenses you did.

 

  1. Seek out a professional

My general, and very high-level tips aside, if you haven’t reported rental income before, and if you have any doubts at all, you should definitely seek out a qualified professional. It’s almost always worth the expense, both in terms of peace of mind, and in the cost of your valuable time. Getting your reporting right the first time, and avoiding time consuming and potentially costly questions or corrections with the tax authorities in your location, is definitely the way to go.

If you have questions from a US perspective, I’d be happy to assist you. In my experience, US reporting is likely to be one of the trickiest, and adding rental income when you’ve previously been a simple W-2-only kinda gal or guy, might mean you’d benefit from a little initial guidance.

 

PITFALLS

 

Becoming an Airbnb host is a great way to generate a little side income, to fund your travels, and to help utilise a resource that might otherwise go unused. These are all good things, but there are some potential pitfalls. In my experience as a host, these are actually pretty minor and most importantly, rare.

 

  • Cleanliness/potential damage

 

The main concerns of most hosts would be the condition that guests leave their place in. I have to say, my expectations have been wildly exceeded in this regard. Of the 17 different bookings I’ve had, ranging from solo travellers, to couples, to, in one case, a young family with a 1 year old, no one has done more damage than a broken plate (which they kindly left a euro to compensate for!). And the extent of any “mess” to clean up has been a few stray crumbs.

 

Have I just been preternaturally lucky? Well, it’s possible, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But being an Airbnb host has actually cemented my belief in the general soundness of people. I feel like this concern shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most would-be hosts.

 

  • Unexpected guest needs

 

This one might be a bit more of a wildcard. Again, my guests have been lovely. But I could certainly see a guest who had a lot of demands being difficult to manage from afar.

 

I have had people who had questions about things that I wasn’t always able to respond to immediately (usually due to being mid-flight), and my terrific guests have either figured it out themselves, or been wonderfully patient.

 

And then there was the time that, thankfully, I was in town, and I almost had to go assist a guest with the keysafe at 3 am, which I definitely would have done. In fact, I was somewhat tipsily attempting to hail a taxi when they rang to inform me they’d figured it out! So hosts should be prepared for that to happen on occasion.

 

  • Last minute cancellations

 

There’s not much you can do there, besides set a stricter cancellation policy and hope for the best. Airbnb do a good job of managing this on both sides.

 

So should you consider becoming an Airbnb host? I say yes, with some caveats:

 

  • Be aware of the impact on those around you, including any landlords, neighbours, housemates, etc

 

  • Educate yourself on the tax and legal implications

 

  • Be ready to be flexible and adaptable to guest needs

 

Opening your home to a traveller in need can be a wonderful experience. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the guest side of the equation, particularly the potential utility for digital nomads.

 

What do you think? Would you try hosting on Airbnb? If you do, please consider using this link to sign up as a host, and I’ll get a small referral credit!

 

Frugality and flexibility are freedom

 

What if there were a tool that could enhance your freedom and improve your life more powerfully than mere monetary wealth? I read, write, and think about money and personal finance a lot but I’m a firm believer that money is far from the most important thing in life. Certainly, if used wisely, money can be a tool that increases access to the most important things. But there are other tools in our arsenal that can be even more impactful, when wielded intentionally.

I find a lot of value in the principles of minimalism, but I’m aware it doesn’t appeal to everyone. While many aspects of minimalism might in fact be more broadly applicable than is sometimes assumed, there are two related concepts that I do think can be employed by everyone, regardless of their position or circumstances. These are the complementary practices of frugality and flexibility. If taken as practices, to engage with repeatedly and continually, these two ideas can transform the way you live, travel, and move throughout the world and towards your goals.

Frugality

Thanks to excellent bloggers such as the Frugalwoods, the concept of frugality is enjoying something of a revival. The word used to carry a sort of dour, joyless undertone, but that’s an unnecessary association that’s quickly dissipating. I consider the concept of frugality to be centred around appreciation and mindfulness of value. And that definition of value should be expansive enough to include value as measured not just in money, but also in time, focus, energy, and attention. No matter how much or how little material wealth we may have (and that itself is always a relative matter), we can all practice avoidance of wastefulness and excess. In fact, the practice of frugality is one of the most freeing aspects of minimalism. Best yet, one needn’t identify as a minimalist to enjoy the freedom-enhancing benefits of frugality.

For me, one of the most important elements in a practice of frugality is an honest assessment of value, and of one’s needs. This assessment is uniquely personal to each individual, but it does require a high level of self-honesty to be used to its full effect. For example, should the frugal traveller, be she a vacationer, an expat, or a digital nomad, take a taxi or the local public transport to and from the airport? My personal vote will almost always be to go for public transport, but someone who suffers from severe motion sickness might make another value assessment. I’d caution, however, that if the full benefits of frugality are sought, enduring or even seeking out some level of discomfort could become an occasional practice. I genuinely enjoy discovering both how resilient I can be, and, much more frequently if I’m honest, how little discomfort is really involved in making the more frugal choice.

But how, specifically, does this practice translate into greater freedom? It’s simple: the fewer resources you need to consume, the freer you are. This is especially true for the nomadic. This means you’re free to go more places, do more, experience more, without the shackles of many expensive (in terms of money, time, or otherwise) self-imposed ‘requirements’. If you build up your frugality muscles, you’ll simply need fewer resources to sustain your travels. You may find you are just as happy in a small, modest accommodation as in an expensive hotel, just as satisfied by local fare, stumbled upon while walking around the neighbourhood, as in a pricey, top-rated restaurant. It’s not that those experiences don’t have their place, but with no baseline concept of frugality, it’s all too easy to allow them to greedily take over, and subsume the other experiences. Too much luxury is an expensive prison. Frugality unshackles us from that prison, and opens up ever more of the world for us to explore.

Flexibility

Closely related to frugality is the practice of flexibility. Not necessarily in the yoga sense of the word (although that can be a good metaphor), I see flexibility simply as openness and adaptability to a variety of circumstances. It means not clinging to preconceived notions of how we think things are or should be. It means adapting to change or to the conditions we find ourselves in with grace and good humour. And it means practicing putting things in perspective. With a little effort and intention, it can be an incredibly powerful tool in your freedom toolkit.

Firstly, the more flexible and adaptable you are, the easier your practice of frugality will become. But perhaps even more important is how it improves your experience of the world in general. When you practice dealing with delays, setbacks, unexpected challenges, and disappointments with a positive attitude and a sense of humour, you are building up an incredibly valuable skill. It allows you to move through the world much more freely and confidently. You can start to see everything as simply another interesting experience, when you know you’re adaptable enough to make the best of it.

How do frugality and flexibility improve location independence and financial independence?

Both frugality and flexibility are tools that serve those pursuing location independence and/or financial independence especially well. For one, travel requires both, and provides plenty of opportunities to put both concepts into practice. And so does being mindful with money. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that those who want to enhance their location and financial freedom could find no tools more powerful than frugality and flexibility combined.

It makes sense to approach both frugality and flexibility as practices to continually incorporate into our lives, as opposed to unreachable ideals that are met with either success or failure. When we cultivate a practice mindset, then success is simply defined as returning to the practice. Then, all the results that come with the practice are just more interesting bits of data. In that way, we can avoid both judging ourselves to harshly, or being too self-congratulatory. And, as with a yoga practice, for example, there won’t always be linear progress, and that’s OK.

Even once we become location independent or financially independent, we can continue these practices. The person who has meticulously planned their 4% withdrawal rate might incorporate a bit of frugality and flexibility should they encounter a market downturn in their early years of retirement, for example. And if they’ve spent some time getting accustomed to the practice, they may be able to flex their plans, and to be a bit more frugal, and avoid too much unnecessary stress and worry in what might otherwise be a rather stressful time. The person who’s planned a few stops ahead as a digital nomad might reassess based on changing personal needs, or changing conditions in their current or future locations. The key is being willing to re-evaluate and adapt, ideally with a smile.

Even those who don’t identify as minimalists can benefit from incorporating more frugality and flexibility into their lives. It will continue to open up more doors and enhance your freedom, and your overall experience and enjoyment of life.

Nomad budget

While I’m still in Dublin, and still have my apartment here, I’ve been thinking ahead to my plan after I give it up and become more fully nomadic. Being something of a personal finance geek, and given that my income is now highly variable, the topic of my monthly budget has been top of mind. I have no intention of blowing through too much of my savings on this experiment/adventure. So I’ve been considering how to plan and forecast to ensure my financial goals are being met, as well as lifestyle ones.

I believe the digital nomad lifestyle can be even more affordable than living full time in many expensive cities, even when some of our untraditional costs may be higher than is typical in many budgets. So I’ve been planning, running some numbers, and researching the options. I like to keep things simple, so I’ve minimised the categories to the extent possible. But I think it’s still realistic and includes room for both the things I value, and for emergencies.

 

Monthly budget for digital nomad in Europe

Budget for Europe nomad-ing:
Rent (including wifi/heat/electricity) 650
Food 200
Phone 50
Flights (yearly average) 250
Local transport 50
Entertainment (including Netflix & Spotify) 50
Insurance (World Nomads estimate for a year) 50
Yoga 100
Total 1400

Process:

  1. Determine the required line items
  2. Research
  3. Think both best case and worst case

Most of the line items on my budget are fairly obvious. I don’t have a lot of must-haves, and yet as I look at it, I see luxuries built in at every turn. The rent budget is sufficient to stay in Airbnb’s all to myself in many cities in Europe, when booked on a monthly basis. If I had to I could easily find cheaper accommodations. The food budget is has plenty of room in it even here in Dublin, and in many places in Europe food is much cheaper. Yoga is something I really love to do, and is important enough that I include it in the budget, even though it’s a total luxury. I could practice on my own, but I really love finding local studios to practice with a teacher and in a group setting. So that stays on the budget, knowing it could be cut if necessary.

My research has consisted primarily of checking Airbnb, sites like Expatistan, NomadList, Numbeo, and Teleport. I also monitor Google Flights and Skyscanner on a regular basis so I’m pretty comfortable with how much I’d spend on flights in a year.

However, the flight budget is a good example of what I mean by thinking both best-case and worst-case. If I go back to Vancouver twice a year, without any trips booked on points, and with trips at some of the more expensive times of year to fly, that could be €1,400 in flights on its own (worst case). That would leave €1,600 in the yearly budget for flights to and from everywhere else. With any flexibility and advance planning at all, I think that’s very doable, thanks to some of the low cost carriers operating in Europe. It’s important to me to be able to both go back to Vancouver regularly, as well as spend time in regularly Dublin, to be with my boyfriend. So in the best case, I might very well spend less than €200 in any given month. But if I spend €3,000 in a year, it won’t be a disaster.

Plan:

  1. There’s never a “normal” month, in any budget
  2. Lows will help offset highs

A universal truth in personal finance, regardless of whether we’re settled or nomadic, is that there’s no such thing as a normal month. The only true constants in my budget seem to be the cost of Netflix and Spotify. Everything else is in a constant state of flux, and it’s useful to be aware of that so the fluctuations aren’t perceived as stressful or unexpected. A good budget can and will flex and adapt to accommodate these perfectly normal, abnormal occurrences.

For example, I’m very much hoping that my housing costs may average out to be less than €650 per month. Some of the cities I’m eyeing up have really nice Airbnb offerings for closer to €500. But the trick then will be not to increase spending in other areas, because I see that extra “room” as being like built in insurance for unexpected increases in other areas, like if I’m somewhere that I need to take an expensive taxi, or if I need to replace any clothing.

Periodically assess:

    1. Revisit plan vs. Actual on a regular basis
    2. Adjust accordingly

Planning is nice (and I do mean that, although I do get that not everyone enjoys it as much as I do), but the reality can only be assessed in hindsight. That’s why I will go back and revisit the plan vs the actual spending on a regular basis. I think quarterly is the right frequency, as it’s not so granular that a single month could cause too much alarm, and yet it’s often enough to allow for course corrections throughout the year as needed. And, crucially, I’ll have to be open to adjusting based on those periodic assessments.

Starting out with a plan, as well as an expectation of variability and the need to be flexible and adaptable, seems like a balanced approach. If the plan is reasonable and within the boundaries we’re comfortable with, then we can move forward without fear or regret. And as always, rigidity is the enemy of frugality.

This budget accounts for yearly spending of €16,800. Depending on your perspective, that might be very lean indeed, or represent a princely sum. I think it’s enough to live well in many of the areas in Europe that I’m interested in right now. Stay tuned for my quarterly updates throughout 2018 to see how that looks in practice.

Housing can make or break you

Housing is a hot topic for everyone, especially millennials. In many cities around the world, prices are rising faster than wages, home ownership feels out of reach for many, and even renting is becoming unsustainable. As though that weren’t stressful enough, it’s also the single biggest line item on most people’s budgets. That’s why it’s such a huge opportunity. Yeah, yeah, I know. But stick with me.

No matter your situation, I think that optimising your housing choices is the single most powerful tool in your arsenal to improve your finances and your life. There are a number of variables you can play with, depending on what matters most to you. More flexibility will result in more options, so I think with the right mindset, anyone can improve their situation by carefully examining this one, crucial choice. We tend to have a lot of emotions and preconceived notions wrapped up in our housing choices, but taking a step back and approaching it intentionally, as a deliberate choice, will dramatically impact your life and your goals.

Church ruins are an adventurous, if unconventional, choice

When you are location independent, a lot of the standard personal finance advice may not apply to you. I’m thinking of things like debates over whether to pay off your mortgage early, etc. Depending on your personal circumstances, it may not make sense for you to buy a property at all. And, don’t despair, because there are plenty of smart people with good reasons why that may not be a bad thing. However, when you don’t own your home, you constantly have to (aka: get to!) reconsider and reevaluate your housing situation.

Broadly, I think of housing consumers (that’s all of us, for the most part!) as fitting into three main categories, depending on how long we’re going to be staying in a given location. Most personal finance advice I’ve seen tends to be tailored to those who will be staying put for the long(ish) term. In my mind, that’s more than around 5 years, which might not seem very long to some! For the location independent or digital nomad communities, we may find ourselves looking at more the medium term (say, 1-5 years) or more often shorter term (1-12 months). Thusly, I’ll focus more on the latter two of the below categories:

  1. Long term: when you’re staying put for a long time (5+ years)

  1. Medium term: when you’re staying for the time being (1-5 years)

  1. Short term: when you’re testing the waters or just passing through (1-12 months)

In any of these situations, however, I think the main competing variables to consider are as follows:

Variables:
  • location

  • cost

  • size/privacy

  • fanciness/amenities

  • specifics (i.e. large kitchen, outdoor space)

  • commitment

Generally, the more flexible you can be with each of these variables, the more options you’ll have. One of the advantages of being location independent is the freedom to play with the first variable as much as you like. It’s the factor that I think is the single most powerful, and gives you the most choice within each of the others.

Beyond location dependence

A large part of why housing markets can suck so badly is that they traditionally have you as a fairly captive consumer. You have to live in a particular area because of where your job is, so you’re stuck with very little latitude on perhaps the most important variable. By becoming location independent, we remove that condition. Instead we can come to view it as a competition of where can offer us the best combination of variables based on our particular values and needs.

Looking at each of the above variables in turn, I think we can make some deliberate and intentional choices about what really matters to us, and what will ultimately make our lives better. Then, we can apply some creative thinking and find housing solutions that work for us rather than against us.

Location

This is a real estate cliche for a reason. But as digital nomads we can think about this beyond neighbourhood and commute time. Considering location, we can expand our search across cities and countries, and then narrow it down to our ideal neighbourhoods. Looking beyond the area you’re in can dramatically improve your options. You can choose less expensive cities and countries for part of the year. You can choose areas outside those adjacent to the CBD of a particular city, if you won’t need to be commuting into city centre every day. However, you may be more concerned with finding a walkable neighbourhood, or somewhere within easy reach of the nearest major airport.

Some of the high cost of living cities around the world don’t offer great value for money. Dublin, where I’m currently based, is in a full blown housing crisis. If I don’t need to compete with thousands of others for overpriced, substandard options, why would I? Then, when I am evaluating a location, I can narrow my search to locations that offer the lifestyle I’m looking for, and be a bit more stringent with the next, and next most important, variable.

Cost

As cost of housing rises, we have to either earn more to keep up, or accept that a higher percentage of our current income gets eaten up by this greedy line item. I prefer to set a maximum percentage of my take-home income that I’m willing to spend on housing. I think 30% of take home is a reasonable maximum. And yes, I’d want to be firm on making that 30% after taxes and retirement contributions, or in other words, 30% of spendable income. If that’s not possible in a given location, I’d have to concede that that location may be temporarily off the short-list. Or maybe it’s a location to work into your plans in shorter increments, or by utilising some unconventional options (some examples of which are briefly noted below).

Location and cost are of course very closely linked, and are the most important variables. If you’re going to be very picky on either of those, you’ll want to be quite flexible indeed on the below, secondary variables.

Size/privacy

In many desirable locations, having housemates is a very common solution to rising costs. If you’d rather more privacy, you’ll likely want to be very flexible on the size of your accommodations. I’m quite happy in small spaces, so that’s an easy one for me to concede. I’d happily accept less space for a location and cost I was happy with.

Fanciness/amenities

If you’re going to be a digital nomad, and sampling the housing offerings of many different locales around the world, being quite flexible on this will serve you well. I personally don’t derive much life satisfaction from expensive finishings or lots of fancy features. Sure, those things are nice to have, but if they become deal-breakers, you will find your options severely limited. Clean, safe, and functional are about as fancy as I personally need. Plus, if you’re looking for somewhere for a shorter term stay, it can be an interesting quirk to practice living without certain things you may have become accustomed to. You may find they’re less essential to your happiness than you thought!

Specifics

This is where you can tailor your search to the things that really do provide you with life satisfaction. I’d want a place I could cook in, in most places if I was staying for longer than about a month. Reliable wifi is probably another must-have. But what makes you happy? Do you crave outdoor space? A quiet street? Enough floor space to bust out a few yoga moves? Or space to host friends and family when they come through town? For me, once I’ve been sufficiently flexible with the categories that matter less, I find I can devote the appropriate level of attention to those few areas that matter most. And then keep experimenting, because they can and will fluctuate over time.

Commitment

As a shorter term housing consumer, you may wish to avoid signing year-long leases. This is easier to pull off if you don’t have a lot of stuff you need to move around with you. I think the default assumption is you’ll need to pay a lot more for the luxury of less commitment, and this is very likely true in many expensive cities in the West. A cursory search on Airbnb reveals at least a dozen attractive cities where a month-long rental is far less than I pay now on my year-long lease in Dublin. And that’s including wifi, heat, electricity, etc. If the conditions are right, I think this is another variable that can work in favour of the location independent.

Unconventional ideas

I’m going to be experimenting with a few untraditional options, such as month-long Airbnb rentals, coliving spaces, and some newer sites that appear intriguing, such as GoGo Places. I  think the options will only continue to increase as more and more people adopt a location independent lifestyle. I’m excited to see this space develop and what other creative solutions people come up with.

 

What does housing mean to you?

Ultimately we each need to decide what really matters to us. Is housing just a place to rest your head, or do you need your home to be your refuge, your nest, a reflection of your taste and personality? I don’t think there are any wrong answers, but examining our answers honestly can help hone our housing choices. And those choices will drastically impact our ability to progress towards our other goals, like financial independence, contribution, and travel.

What does it take to be happy? I believe that the fewer “must-haves” on our list, the greater our access to contentment. And the more flexibility we allow into the most expensive line items on our budget, the better. When approached as an opportunity to be flexible and creative, you can avoid being a victim of the housing market and instead continue to advance towards your goals.

Planning an international move: a checklist for minimalists

Making your move as a minimalist

When you’re getting ready to make a big move, the to-do list can start to feel overwhelming.
You can get caught up in minutiae that isn’t worth your time, and that can distract you from
fully being in the moment and really living those last few weeks or months before you start
the next chapter.

In my most recent international move, from the US to Ireland, I had fortunately been in the
process of decluttering and moving towards minimalism for about a year prior, so it was
about as stress-free as an international move can be. I realise not everyone making an
international move will have such a spartan amount of personal possessions. But I think anyone can encourage a shift of focus off of the physical possessions that can loom so large, and
onto some of the less obvious things that future-you will really thank you for getting figured
out.

Plus it’s just fun being a minimalist and making lists.

Various types of stuff and what to do With it:

Physical stuff:

General rule: Decide what you’re bringing, and then bring less. This is a good
time to get rid of old stuff: donate/give away most, sell some if you have time,
store an absolute minimum. I stored a box of sentimental stuff with my parents,
and got rid of the rest. Any clothes you have that you’re not bringing, you
probably don’t need. Donate, donate, donate. (Bonus tip for future-you: remember those trips to the charity shop before your re-accumulate more stuff.)

Kitchen stuff: I love to cook, and even as a minimalist, I briefly considered
whether I should try to bring some of my kitchen stuff with me to Ireland. NO! I
happened to mention this insane notion to my cousin who’s much smarter than
me, and her response was: “Um, no. Definitely don’t do that. I thought you’d done
this before?” Touche. Kitchen stuff was donated and zero fucks were given that
day.

Furniture: This is one of the worst categories of stuff. It’s big and heavy and hard
to get rid of. Get rid of as much as you can, ideally by selling it. I’ve had good luck
with Craigslist in Canada and the US, other countries have similar sites.

Clothing/personal effects: Keep these to one or two suitcases, max. Yes,
including shoes and accessories. You’ll replace a good bit of it once you settle
into your new location, anyways. I try to keep only what I’m currently using, plus
what I’ll definitely use in the next 3-6 months. Even doing this, and even with an already minimal wardrobe, I still got rid of yet more stuff within a few months of arriving in Ireland. Bring less than you think.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30, my ride or die

Bring like this amount of stuff, if you can

Money stuff:

Banking: This comes up surprisingly often on various expat subreddits etc., especially
given how simple the best approach is: Keep your bank account in your home
country, and open a new one in your new country. Done and done. There’s usually no downside to this and it will make your day to day life so much easier.

  • Americans will need to remember file an FBAR to report any non-US bank
    accounts, to the extent their total foreign accounts exceed $10,000 USD in a given
    year. Talk to an expat tax pro (such as yours truly!) about this if you don’t
    know how to file it!

Credit cards: If you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction
fees, and has a low (or no) annual fee, keep it. I’ve learned the hard way that
credit cards are expensive and sucky in some countries (hi, Ireland!), so I like having my
US credit card as a fallback for any time I’m in a country with a currency I don’t
normally deal with.

Retirement/savings: Consider what you’ll do with your retirement/long term
savings accounts in both your departure and destination locations. I rolled my old
401k into an IRA, and I’m planning on maintaining that for the time being. I have
some specific ideas on what to do with US retirement accounts when leaving the
US, both as a US citizen, and as someone who will become a US non-resident,
but that’s for a future tax-nerdy post.

Transferring money: I like Transferwise for quickly moving money between
currencies, for a good exchange rate and with low, easy to understand fees. Don’t do anything silly and complicated like old fashioned wire transfers, unless there’s really no way around it.

Taxes: Just adding this to the checklist, as you’ll want to consider your residency
status in both locations, as well as arrival and departure filing requirements.
These really vary a great deal depending on your personal circumstances, so,
again, find a friendly expat tax expert for all the countries you deal with!

Simplify: I got rid of any excess cards and accounts that I wasn’t using, and
continually re-examine this to see if there’s anything further I can minimise or
simplify. I like having as few accounts as possible to get the job done. Right now that tends to average two per country I deal in, one for everyday banking, and another for long term savings/investing.

 

Practical stuff:

Communication: Everywhere else in the world uses Whatsapp, but I had to get a
few of my American pals on board with it. Yes, you may be used to texting me.
Now you can text me on Whatsapp and then the evil empire (aka the cell phone
company) doesn’t triumph over the downtrodden.

Free your phone: I happened to own my phone outright, so I was able to ask my
previous phone company to unlock it before I left. This made getting a new SIM a
snap. I’d suggest this where possible. Using a foreign SIM sucks for a number of
reasons, not least being extortionate roaming charges, and not being able to easily give your number to cute people you meet. Trying to explain your weird foreign phone number with its country code and plus signs and leading zeroes will really kill your flirtation game. Kidding! Sort of! It’s good for giving your number to local services too. Just get on a local SIM as soon as you can, and start living your life.

Mailing address: This one doesn’t come with any easy, pithy answers. Physical,
paper mail is the sucks and there’s no really satisfactory way of transporting those
horrible bits of paper around the world. Minimise the amount of physical mail
you’ll need to the extent possible, and then ask a friend if they can forward you
the really essential stuff.

  • For me this basically amounted to my W-2, as my previous employer wouldn’t email
    it to an external email address. And even this managed to suck! They
    ended up sending it to my old apartment, despite my best attempts to update my forwarding address to my friend’s address before I left. Ugh, fine. Fortunately, I had set myself a reminder to follow up on the W-2 if it hadn’t arrived by a certain date, so they would have time to resend it to the correct forwarding address. Doing this one time was fine, but doing this monthly would be unpleasant. Avoid paper mail to the extent possible.

Passport: If it will be expiring anytime soon, you might want to renew before you
leave. I have a gorgeous 10 year passport and it’s my most prized physical
possession.

Driver’s licence: In my experience you really don’t need that “international driver’s
licence” thing people sometimes mention. But it will be handy if your current
driver’s licence has as much time left before it expires as possible. Fortunately, I had just renewed mine before I moved, so I’m using this
to buy time and decide if I want to get an Irish driver’s licence. They make you
take the test, so I’m leaning towards no. I haven’t had any difficulty renting a car here on my old licence.

Anything else?

I’ll be making another move soon, this time to become semi-nomadic and
location independent. I envision having a few mini-bases in a few important locations where
my most beloved people are. But I’ll still rely on the above concepts of minimising and
simplifying, as they have served me well. What would you add to this list?

How to think about your side hustle income

Originally published at Millennial Money Guide:

It’s no secret that millennials are a generation of hustlers. Many of us have, or are looking to develop, side hustles to supplement the income from our main jobs. But how should you categorize your side hustle income? Make sure every dollar has a purpose with these 4 strategies.

1. Don’t double count your earnings

I recall my first non-wage side hustle income. It was the simplest introduction possible: I started selling my old stuff on eBay. My primary motivation wasn’t even the income, but rather the decluttering that selling my stuff would facilitate. I was looking to ditch dead weight, and focussing on physical clutter seemed like one way to begin. But, when the sales actually began hitting my PayPal account, I began thinking of all the things that new income stream could offset. And I do mean all the things. I was full of excitement about how that $75 I earned selling a handbag could cover my groceries for a week! And half a plane ticket to Vegas! And a nice restaurant meal out! I needed to slow down and realise it might offset one of those areas of spending, but not all. And that it ultimately represented a net loss anyways, given the handbag probably cost over $200 new.

Once your side hustle income starts flowing, check that you’re not allocating it to more than one area. Give each dollar a singular purpose, be it covering day to day spending, bulking up your emergency fund, or investing.

2. Don’t spend it before you earn it

Closely correlated to the above, be mindful about adjusting your spending upward, especially before your side hustle income really starts materializing. My preferred way of looking at it is, earning side hustle income is not a good reason to spend recklessly, or in a way you wouldn’t have done otherwise.

An example of this is income earned from Airbnb, particularly if it’s only when you travel. I list my apartment on Airbnb when I travel, but I only do so for trips I would’ve taken (and would’ve been able to afford) anyways. If I started taking trips just for the purpose of earning more Airbnb cash, I’d want to be very mindful of the overall cost of that travel, relative to the potential income generated. The same could be said of buying items to flip, which is a really interesting area to look into. Just be conscious that the inventory you bought doesn’t represent actual cash until you’ve successfully flipped it. And it should go without saying, but please don’t go into debt chasing side hustle income.

3. Budget for taxes

Depending on the character of your side hustle income, you may need to report it as self-employment income. One way or another, in most cases it will ultimately end up on your tax return. One exception would be when you have a loss on the sale of personal-use property, such as your car, home furnishings, or clothing (i.e. that $200 handbag I sold for $75), which is not reportable, as it’s not a deductible loss. In general, any source that has paid you more than $600 is required to issue you a 1099, which is reported to the IRS, and is then your responsibility to report on your tax return. For a broad overview, the Turbotax blog provides a summary of what to think about. You should consult a tax professional for the specifics on this as related to your personal circumstances.

4. Enjoy the process while you develop your hustle muscle

I’ve found delving into different side hustles to be a really fun process. Even just those first few eBay sales started building up my entrepreneurial drive. My side hustle muscle, if you will. It’s remarkable how different it feels earning your first independent income, versus getting the same old paycheck you’re used to. I’ve found, and have noticed in others, that it tends to spark the desire to do more, to seek out new opportunities, to optimize other areas of life. As millennials, we’ve tapped into the power of developing multiple income streams, and we certainly love the freedom and flexibility that allows. Keeping a few key concepts in mind as we do this will serve us well as those income streams grow and change over time. Whether your goal is to replace your day job income, pad your savings, or fund your next adventure, thinking more like an entrepreneur is going to get you there faster.

The Secret Superpower of a (Relatively*) Low Salary

When I accepted the job that allowed me to move to Ireland, I was acutely aware I was taking a pay cut. Cue the shock and disbelief! How could someone who prides herself on being financially responsible, on the path to financial independence, voluntarily accept less money?

One of the common threads I note in the financial independence community is that, for basically all of us, money is far from the most important thing in our lives. Instead, we simply agree that mastery of money is one of the best ways to give those things that are the most important to us the time and attention they deserve.

Thus, when I was offered the opportunity to have another expat experience, which has always been one of my goals, I took it, and decided not to worry (at least not too much) about the lost savings potential. Life’s too short, #YOLO, and all that. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and here’s why:

The Secret Superpower of a Low Salary

  1. Keeping expenses low is a superpower

If you can live within your means on a low salary, it means you can budget, find the best deals, and eliminate the unnecessary. That makes you a badass who can demonstrate immigrant hustle when called upon. This is a good muscle to develop no matter your income, but it really shines in situations where income is limited, or taxes/cost of living is higher than what you might be used to. You’re proving to yourself that you can survive, thrive, and be happy, while spending very little. This is a necessary precondition for the next step.

  1. Determination to save, no mater what, is a superpower

I consider saving money a non-negotiable. When you are living far from home, it’s especially important to not be spending every cent you earn and thus have a cushion to fall back on. It’s just a good practice that will serve people at any income and with any lifestyle goals. But when you can take a relatively modest take-home salary and decide how much of it absolutely must be saved, no matter what, you’ve just levelled up your superpowers and are ready for the next, most crucial phase of this process.

  1. Low salaries aren’t that difficult to walk away from (or replace)

And here’s the kicker, the biggest secret superpower of a low salary: no golden handcuffs here! You’ve proven to yourself that you can be happy, and save, on a fairly modest amount. Now you can start doing the math, and figure out exactly how much you’d need to replicate that lifestyle. Playing around with the numbers in lower cost of living areas is particularly fun, for example. But the important thing is now you know the income amount on which you can continue your totally satisfactory and financially responsible lifestyle without changing a thing. And you may find that it’s not that daunting to try and replace it.

If you’ve mastered these superpowers, the real secret is you’re already free. You can take the leap into self employment, entrepreneurship, alternative income streams, or side hustle work. You can happily walk away from the salaried job, with its stress and demands on your time.

Being debt free is the foundation that makes it all possible

It’s really much easier than perhaps many people think to keep expenses low, but I feel the need to caveat that it’s made possible by having no monthly non-negotiable expenses. Yeah, none. Most notably, no debt payments. Everything else can be optimised and adjusted, everything else is just a fun variable to plug into our calculators (what does it look like if I spend €50 less on food? What about €100 less on housing?). Debt sucks, I’m extremely grateful I don’t have any, and I’m vigilant about guarding against acquiring any debt in future. Being debt free, combined with being even a little flexible or creative in your other must-haves opens up the entire world to you. Quite literally, as I’m about to find out.

*One important note. I’m being a bit flippant about the comparatively lower salaries on offer in Ireland vis-a-vis the US, combined with high cost of living and high taxes. I’m very, very aware that my salary here is above the local average and is certainly enough to live comfortably while making very few real sacrifices. I’m very grateful for that and am conscious that being in a position to walk away from any salary is a huge privilege. But, with that being said, it is a privilege I think more people could get closer to, if they wanted, with just a few changes in mindset and habits.

Damn the man. Start investing.

When you hear the word “investing”, what comes to mind? Do you think about old, rich, white guys talking about mysterious (and possibly shady) things involving acronyms? Or does it start to sound like the grownups on Charlie Brown are droning on again? Hold that thought.

Now, what happens when you think about socially aware, even radical, ideas and causes? Does an image of the noble, penniless activist pop into your head? The idealistic dreamer who has far loftier things to think about than something as unpleasant as money?

Money occupies an uneasy place in our culture. The oft-cited cliché that money isn’t the most important thing is, of course, true. But it’s still a major factor in how our lives play out. It dictates, to a large extent, the amount of time we have to dedicate to the areas that truly are the most important things to each of us. Things like family, travel, community service, political activism, art, creativity, and personal development. All of these are best served when we have the bandwidth to focus on them, both financially and in terms of our most valuable resource: our time.

Money is something we all grapple with; it flows around us and weaves its way through our lives. And I’m going to make the case that one of the most radical, woke things you can do, dear reader, is more than just get your finances together. And no, it’s not only to get out of debt and start saving, which everyone (correctly) advises we all do. But instead, it’s to start investing, doggedly and with determination, both for your freedom and to advance the freedom of others. And in dedication of your loftiest ideals. Here’s why.

Breaking down mental barriers:

To many people, perhaps especially millennials, investing can seem not only out of reach, but somehow perhaps even incongruent with our values and beliefs. But the image we may have of being broke as some kind of noble condition is unnecessary and outdated. A more accurate picture would be to conceptualize that the forces that many of us oppose want us to stay broke, stay in debt, stay mindlessly consuming. And that our act of educating ourselves and taking control of our financial future is an act of rebellion against the status quo.

Getting rid of the taboos and breaking down our limiting beliefs about money is a necessary first step. Not talking about money doesn’t serve us. And buying into the false belief that investing is for the elite and the privileged, doesn’t make us any freer. Depending on the backgrounds we come from, we’re all carrying around different inherited and received ideas about money. And for those of us coming from less economically privileged backgrounds, the very idea of increasing our wealth can make us feel like class traitors. We need to validate and acknowledge that feeling as normal, and then systematically dismantle it.

Self-education:

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to financial literacy would have been access to information. But we no longer need to belong to a wealthy family in order to learn about investing, nor do we need an expensive financial advisor to get us started. There’s more and better information online, and a plethora of low-cost options out there. The barriers to entry have become all but nonexistent, with the exception of our own (totally normal and understandable) fear of getting started.

I’m not a financial advisor, but low-cost index funds seem like a reasonable place to start, for example. We should all do our due diligence and read about why they’re a good option, and then actually take the steps to open the account and contribute to it. Once you do, you’ll be doing the same thing Warren Buffett has instructed be done with his own estate. What could be more democratic than your money sitting there alongside the money of one of the richest men in the world?

If you are living within your means and building up a surplus, you’ll eventually need to put it somewhere. Interest rates on savings accounts are essentially zero, and that’s no way to build real, life-changing wealth. To do that we need to invest, and whether that takes the form of simple index investing, real estate, or otherwise, we need to do more with our money to allow it the chance to really grow. Investing is for everyone. You deserve to benefit from economic growth as much as anyone else. Don’t shortchange yourself.

The benefits of financial freedom:

Once we’ve tackled our limiting beliefs, and taken the steps to educate ourselves and take action, how is investing going to impact us in a way that really matters? We all care about more than the bottom line, or on numbers on a spreadsheet. I think there are three ways that increased financial freedom benefits us as individuals, in ways that we can align with our values and beliefs.

Firstly, when we choose to save and invest our money, we are necessarily making a choice that involves less reliance on consumer culture. Every dollar we earn has potential and possibilities. It could be spent on consumer goods, and with that the attending questionable labour practices, environmental waste, and dodgy ad campaigns we may not subscribe to. Or it could be invested in our future wellbeing, and that of our loved ones and communities.

Secondly, increased financial freedom means less reliance on jobs that may not align with our beliefs, or at the very least take our time away from the things we truly value. If we’re going to be trading our time for money, as the vast majority of us do, we should demand a better return on investment. If we don’t invest a portion of our earnings, we’re not getting any closer to free with each passing year. No matter how much you may like your job, think about what an impact buying an extra year of your freedom could have.

Finally, when we are financially secure, we have increased ability to make a positive impact on our communities and spheres of influence. Similar to putting on your own air-mask first on a plane, the idea is to get ourselves right so we can more effectively help others. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about, talking about, and organising around the systemic issues contributing to inequality and injustice. Far from it. But as individuals, taking concrete, deliberate action towards our own financial freedom is powerful. Think about the positive impact it can have on generations when the first person in a family goes to college. I think the same can be true of opening the first investment account.

The knowledge and ability to invest no longer needs to be shrouded in mystery, or the province of elites. It can and should be for everyone, and is a powerful way to better serve our communities and our goals. We now have unprecedented access to information that allows us to democratize and de-mystify investing, to normalize it so it’s no longer solely the inherited, protected knowledge of the wealthy and privileged. So if you’re progressive and pissed off, take the radical, counter-cultural step towards freedom. Damn the man, start investing.

Frugal expat tip #2: have a no-spend work week

When you’ve really settled into a place, you eventually find the rhythms and routines that work for you. It’s part of what makes a new location feel like home, instead of like an extended business trip (or, depending on your mindset, vacation).

One of the things that I’ve been doing lately is getting my weekly grocery shopping and most of my batch cooking done on the weekends, such that my meals are more or less ready for the entire week. It occurred to me that on workdays, where I walk to work, bring my own lunch, and go to yoga after work, I wouldn’t need to make any purchases at all.

Veggie-heavy meal prep

The Challenge

So I thought, why not make it into a challenge? I’m going to see how many weeks I can go without spending anything at all from Monday-Friday. It’s really not that different from usual, but it will cause me to be more mindful about just stopping in at the supermarket to pick up one or two things, and walking out having spent €15 on random items. Or getting coffee during my lunchtime walk, just because I feel like it.

My intention with this challenge is to be more mindful of my day to day spending, to plan my food shopping more carefully, and to practice being extra frugal in anticipation of some big changes I hope to implement soon. And I also just want to engender not spending money as the default modus operandi. Making a purchase should be a considered and mindful occasion.

It goes without saying, but of course anyone could avail of this frugal strategy. But I feel like especially expats and/or the globally mobile might not think to set up the same kinds of thoughtful, frugal routines as they would at “home,” and thereby mightn’t be as aware of their day to day spending habits. This will help push the reset button! Home is where you’re at right now, and being mindful with your money is one of the best things you can do to enhance your freedom and mobility even further.

I’ve now completed my 2nd week of this challenge and I plan on keeping it up for the rest of the summer! What ways are you saving money this summer?

 

…and taxes

Given that taxes are one half of the oft-cited only two certainties in life, you might expect my humble profession to have a more glamorous, or at least dramatic, reputation. And yet, despite having a profound influence on every aspect of our financial lives, some people (inexplicably!) find the topic less than scintillating. Shocking, I know.

I found myself in this field somewhat by accident, but after nearly a decade working with expats and taxes, I can tell you it’s far from dull. Especially working with individuals, and never more so than in the context of international moves. Helping people sort their taxes out can be incredibly gratifying at the best of times, when I ideally help set someone’s mind at ease, or provide insight into complex areas that can be rife with misinformation. Then there are the other times, when someone perhaps wishes they’d thought about taxes a bit sooner. Those conversations can be a tad more dramatic, albeit not the kind any of us hopes for.

But at the end of the day, dealing with tax means dealing with people and their lives, in all their beautiful, messy complexity. The intermingling of their pasts and their futures. 

International moves can be overwhelming. And for busy professionals, often their taxes could be one of the last things they want to devote their valuable time to thinking about. So I always count it a personal, as well as professional, win when someone tells me how glad they were they spoke with me, even at that most hectic time in their life. And even in those, shall we say, ‘dramatic’ times, it’s always better to get a plan in place sooner rather than later.

When I say I found myself here by accident, I will admit I didn’t set out to be a tax professional when I grew up. I sometimes joke that it doesn’t tend to be what little girls dream of. (For the record, I believe my top professional aspiration at age 8 would’ve been “princess.” Still waiting on that one…)

When I signed up for the on-campus interview through my university, I was drawn in by the “international” aspect of the job description. I later found out that the job entailed diving deep into this very specialised area of US tax that many people never think about. But it has expanded my own global mindset in every way possible, and now I count myself truly fortunate to be able to work in a profession that so closely aligns with my values.

I deeply believe that global mobility is an incredibly powerful tool for personal and professional growth and fulfilment. I also deeply believe that the freer people are to move around the planet, the better our world becomes. In that sense, I consider it an honour to play a part in facilitating that freedom, one person at a time.

The other side of the equation is helping people sort out a major area of their finances. To the extent that I can help people feel more empowered, and less in the dark, about the financial impact of their relocation, to me that’s absolutely worthwhile, values-driven work. To take something that can feel overwhelming and undecipherable, and make it relatable and actionable to individuals, given their own individual facts and circumstances, is really rewarding.

So, despite a somewhat mild-mannered reputation, I see my work as furthering two of the things I value the most: empowering individuals in both location freedom and financial freedom.

I try to keep that in mind even when I delve into the denser or nerdier aspects of expat tax, which I may even do on this blog. And if it inspires or reassures anyone to take the leap into the expat or globally mobile lifestyle, it will be well worth it!

Do you have any areas of confusion on expat tax issues?

Particularly from a US perspective, either people moving to the US, or US people moving abroad? I’d love to hear from you and plan some posts to help bring some clarity to any areas of confusion! There are absolutely no silly questions in this complex area, and remember, smart people ask.