In 2006, Nora Dunn sold off her possessions and gave up a lucrative career to travel the world full-time. She has co-written a best-selling book and writes for numerous publications and sites. Hobo Nora has become a celebrity in travel and finance circles and I have a feeling this is only the beginning. Nora offers extensive details about her experiences in this interview.
You sold your possessions to begin a nomadic life of travel, where did that decision come from?
I was living in Toronto Canada, running a successful financial planning practice. I really enjoyed helping other people realize their goals and dreams by helping them engineer their finances to get them there (personal finance is about more to me than just saving money…it goes deeper).
But somewhere in the mix, I lost sight of my own goals and dreams of long-term travel. As with so many things, life got in the way of my plans of traveling after high school, and I always figured I’d “do it later”.
So over the years while I tried to fill an ever-growing void inside of me with activities, I also filled my schedule a little too much. When my health became compromised, I was forced to reevaluate where I was and where I wanted to go. Did I really want to wait until “retirement” decades away, to make my dreams of travel come true?
The mountains of the world that I want to climb would probably remain unclimbed if I waited.
The humanitarian work I dreamed of doing (like being in the right time and place and raising money for cyclone victims or providing supplies to bushfire survivors) would not get done if I waited.
The more I thought about lifestyle design and the ultimate control we have over it (depending on the compromises we are willing to make), the less I could face getting up to face another day/week/month/year/decade of traditional work.
So together with my boyfriend Kelly, we sold just about everything we owned and started our full-time travel adventure in 2007. We tend to set up shop and live in many of the places we travel, to gain a deeper sense of the land, people, language, food, culture, and lifestyle. For us, this is our dream of travel. We do so in a financially sustainable manner, so that we can continue to travel for as long as we wish.
Where are you now?
Right now we’re in Australia, living in the rural countryside about two hours outside of Melbourne. It’s a beautiful spot.
I heard in one of your interviews that the Australian government extended your visa so you could stay longer, can you please explain?
Aha, indeed! Yes. Well, funny thing…
While I was busy enjoying this beautiful spot in the Aussie countryside, I happened to be here on February 7th, 2009, when Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster hit: the Victorian bushfires. The temperature was 50 degrees Celsius that day, and combined with 110km/hour winds the initial attack was fierce, pushing the flames to cover huge tracts of land and taking out many communities with very little notice. Although that particular day goes down in every Australian’s book as “Black Saturday”, fires all around our area continued to burn uncontrollably for over a month.
We were evacuated from our own home for almost a month ourselves, while the fire slowly swept across the mountain range in our backyard (literally). So what do a couple of Canadians do when they have no place to stay, a whack of extra time, and a whole heap of people who have were too burnt out to help? Volunteer, of course!
Having already established connections with the local Rotary club, it was easy to lend a hand. We volunteered full-time to help manage the warehouse that was receiving and distributing supplies for survivors of the fires (many of whom escaped with nothing but the clothes on their back).
Donations of supplies arrived from all over the country. It was a heart-warming experience; to see truckload after truckload of brand new supplies donated by fellow Australians who helped their compatriots in a time of need. A huge semi-trailer of goods even arrived from Queensland, where the gracious donors were ironically underwater with massive floods! We had up to 70 people volunteering every day, helping to sort through the goods that were arriving faster than we could organize and distribute them.
As a result of the work we were doing, the Canadian High Commission contacted us and worked with Aussie immigration to grant us one-year extensions on our visas – and they threw in working rights too. And for two travelers who are over the age of 30 (and thus unable to get working holiday visas at the drop of a hat), working rights are an uncommon delight!
Do you have a home base somewhere?
I do indeed have a home base for mail and official documents (my mum has graciously stepped up for me). I eliminated all the mail I could possibly receive by registering for electronic billing (since I need to do my banking online anyway) and unsubscribing from everything else I could think of. Mum opens everything I get and either files it away for me if it’s not immediately important, or lets me know if I need to deal with something. With the creative use of mail, email, faxes, and scanners, we’ve managed to make a pretty good go of it so far.
I have also made sure that multiple family members at home have records of everything from my bank account information (for example so my mum can deposit the millions of dollars in cheques that I get in the mail), to insurance policies, to copies of official documents and identification. Always better to be safe than sorry.
As for possessions, my boyfriend and I got rid of everything but seven boxes of stuff – between the two of us. We have them stored in the corner of a friend’s garage, along with a piano and grandmother clock, and the occasional box of stuff that we send back from our travels (which is either stuff we purchased to have later, or stuff we brought and didn’t need).
Please tell us about the book you co-wrote, “10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget”
When people ask what I write about, I say “travel” and “personal finance”. They usually look quizzically at me before saying something to the effect of “that’s a strange combination”. In fact, it isn’t! And I’ve married the two quite nicely in this book.
But 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget is about way more than just travel (which is one of a dozen sections in the book); there are literally 10,001 tips for inexpensive ways to eat well, look good, shop ‘til you drop, have fun, live green, budget and plan your finances, manage credit cards and debt, invest, improve your home, and even earn some extra cash – all in a frugal and savvy way. (Whew)!
The book was released in May of 2009, and has been flying off US bookshelves. The Canadian release even had to be delayed because we had to go to the printer for a second run! We are also expanding into other countries as I write….but all is top secret for now.
What is your relationship with Wise Bread, the authors of the book?
Wise Bread is one of the top personal finance blogs on the web. Ever. Full stop. (I’m not biased).
Seriously though, I have been lucky enough to have written for Wise Bread for over two years now, and I love it. There is an incredibly talented and diverse collection of writers who post articles about living large on a small budget. The topics have a pretty wide range, so there tends to be something for everybody.
The founders of Wise Bread also have an incredible vision, which they work actively towards every day. A big part of that vision was realized when I got an email from them saying “we got a book deal”! And it’s all history from there.
Was it difficult to get the book published?
Yes and no. The founding members of Wise Bread did most of the grunt work in terms of landing the agent and publisher. And that’s a lot of work.
Then we all pitched in to put together the articles for the book, bios, photos, and we fleeced our rolodexes for anybody and everybody that could make a good marketing contact and started the wheels turning for reviews, promotions, etc. And that’s a lot of work too.
And some would say the real work of getting a book published is not so much the act of publishing, but the constant promotion afterwards. And so far – yup; that’s a lot of work too!
But with a team of 20 authors, we also split the work many ways and manage to accomplish so much more by virtue of our numbers. And because we’re such a darn tootin’ talented bunch, the work isn’t particularly difficult at all.
What opportunities has the book opened up for you?
I think I’m still learning what opportunities this whole published author thing is opening up for me. I wrote a guest post for I Will Teach You to Be Rich about full-time travel on the cheap that was his most popular guest post…ever. This – as well as other promotional activities – triggered a tidal wave of internet activity that kicked book sales and promotions (as well as my own Web Site The Professional Hobo) into high gear. I was on Canadian national television, I have given interviews for a number of well-regarded magazines and papers and radio shows around the world, and I’ve made lots of awesome new contacts (both online and off) because of 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.
Has it been lucrative?
Um, no. But the book hasn’t been out for that long, and we do have over 20 ways to split the royalties – so I don’t expect to live a life of leisure as a result of this book!
But you speak of doors opening…I am now finding (whether it is a direct result of the book or my other business-building activities) that editors are starting to approach me to write for them, not the other way around. That’s a great feeling! I never know what bizarre opportunity is sitting in my inbox at any given time. Speaking of which, I should check my email….
How much annual income do you think is required to be a perpetual traveler?
Yikes. That’s a tough question to answer in a general sense. This is where personal finance and travel marry so nicely as topics. You see, the amount of annual income you need for perpetual travel depends entirely on the way you travel. Where are you traveling? How fast or slow? What do you eat and drink? How much privacy do you need? Where are you willing to sleep? Can you work in trade for your accommodation or other perks? How much free time do you have? (Don’t kid yourself: free time can be expensive)! And what do you want to accomplish at the end of it all?
The answers to these questions (and more) will give you the budget. My own cost of travel has gone down since I started in 2007, as I learned from some initial mistakes and wound my way up the learning curve. Probably the toughest thing I had to do when I started traveling was to scale down my own standard of living to one that made travel sustainable. There are lots of little things that you don’t think twice about spending money on…until you travel full-time, when every expense comes under a certain amount of scrutiny.
But if it’s a number you’re looking for, our full expenses to travel for all of 2008 came to $20,000. I would wager that one person can do it for $14,000. All in.
How do you earn an income?
I have been developing a location independent career as a freelance writer. With little more than a laptop and an internet connection, I am able to make a living with my oh-so-prolific words. It has been a slow process, but as with most entrepreneurial ventures, patience and tenacity pay off.
As I have learned more about location independent lifestyles, I realize that there are many ways to earn a living on the road. A good dose of business sense along with an awareness of new opportunities can take you places.
Does your website bring in a good income?
Honestly? Not particularly! But that’s not what my web site is for; I developed it as a showcase for my writing, to keep family and friends apprised of my latest adventures, and to spark community discussions among travelers about travel-centric issues.
However even this is changing; as my site increases in popularity, so too do the advertising rates I set!
Do you think it still possible to make a decent income as a travel writer?
Absolutely I do. Thing is, I don’t think it was ever particularly easy to make a decent income as a travel writer. So even though the print industry is waning and the online industry is still learning/writing the rules of engagement, I don’t imagine it is much more difficult to “make it” as a travel writer now than it was before, when all factors weigh in.
There are more media outlets with the advent of the Internet, but there are also more wannabe writers rushing to the table. So as with any competitive industry, it is important to find your niche and separate yourself from the masses to be successful.
It’s also pretty easy to do a lot of free – or almost free – gigs and convince yourself that travel writing doesn’t pay. It does pay; but you have to find – and then get – the paying gigs. And that involves the same sort of work as it took in the days of yore to get published in the print industry: research, tenacity, business sense, and patience.
Do you see your income sources becoming more passive and requiring less work over time?
That’s the idea! One of the beautiful things about writing for some online publications is that the articles never go away, and (depending on the compensation arrangement you have) you keep getting paid every time somebody views your article or clicks on the ads on your page.
So with an ever-growing online repertoire of articles that are regularly searched, read, and linked to, my passive income continues to grow.
How many hours a week do you think you spend working on your website and writing projects?
That depends on where I happen to be living and the circumstances. I’m currently working hard towards three day work-weeks. However with the sheer number of emails I field every day and reading I like to keep up with, I do tend to log in on my “days off” for an hour here and there to stay on top of things.
All in all, I don’t usually spend much more than 30 hours per week writing and working on my site.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
As with many businesses, tenacity is a must. Do your research on your particular niche in the industry, apply a good dose of business sense, and keep shaking those trees until money starts to fall out of them. Oh yeah – and write, write, and then write some more!
Do you have any plans to settle down and have a more traditional life?
I’ve never been a particularly traditional person, so my efforts at living a traditional life may still look skewed to many others! To answer your question though, I don’t imagine I’ll travel full-time in the way I currently do for the rest of my life, but I do know that travel will always be a part of it.
The Professional Hobo – Nora’s personal site.
Wise Bread – Nora’s writing about personal finance & travel.
10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget – Information on the book.
Travel Full-time for less than $14,000 a Year – Nora’s guest post on IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com