Personal finance

This 35-Year-Old Lives in Croatia: ‘I Make $4,500 a Month—Here's What I Wish I Knew Before Leaving the U.S.'

Photo: Steve Tsentserensky

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of digital nomads. These are the workers who travel across countries and continents, taking "workcations" and enjoying the ability to work from anywhere with internet connection.

I started my digital nomad journey in 2019. Currently, I'm a freelance writer and video producer living in Croatia. Having traveled and worked abroad for the past few years, I've learned — especially through my mistakes — how to make the process seamless and stress-free.

For anyone thinking of taking their worklife abroad, here's what I wish I knew before leaving the U.S.:

1. Create recurring income before taking the plunge

If you run your own business or are a freelancer like me, planning ahead and having a reliable stream of income is crucial. Otherwise, you might end up stressing about running out of money for basic expenses.

If I could go back in time, I wouldn't have spent so much time chasing larger one-off contracts. Instead, I'd have focused on securing long-term contracts with clients who, although they might have paid less per project, would have hired me for ongoing work.

Recurring income creates stability and lowers financial stress. Upwork was a game-changer for me; I still use it today to find clients who I can rely on for a steady stream of income.

2. Do research on cost of living and create a budget

When I first started my digital nomad journey, I made the mistake of not having a financial plan. I had worked in the cruise industry for years, so a lot of the costs for basic needs (i.e., housing and food) were already covered.

The idea of budgeting and tracking my spending never crossed my mind.

Even though I had a sufficient amount of money in my savings account, it would have been smart to budget in advance and research the cost of living in different places.

For example, I currently make $4,500 per month. Luckily, that's enough to live a comfortable lifestyle in Croatia, where I spend an average of $1,700 per month. But it'd be a different case if I was living in Bermuda, where things are much more expensive.

A cheese burek and a double espresso at a café in Split costs around $5.
Photo: Steve Tsentserensky
A cheese burek and a double espresso at a café in Split costs around $5.

Decide where you want to go and plan your budget around the cost of living there. And don't forget to factor in long-term savings goals, too, such as retirement or paying off debt.

3. Create a routine that you can bring anywhere

If you're leaving your oceanside hometown to be a digital nomad in a big city, you won't be able to continue your morning routine of, for example, taking a morning stroll on the beach.

But there are still elements of your daily routine that you can incorporate no matter where you do. I didn't think about this when I first arrived in Croatia, so there were times when my days felt disorganized. Practicing some of my usual morning routines would have kept me more mentally grounded.

Now, my routine involves making coffee and reading in the morning; the quiet time gets me mentally prepared for the day. I also keep a calendar, set aside dedicated work hours, and make time to exercise regularly.

Having a set structure keeps me sane, boosts my productivity, and gives me time to rest — while still getting to explore the city.

4. Don't solely rely on Airbnb

While it's feasible to secure a reasonably-priced rental on Airbnb, there are several other services to help you find a place — without all the extra fees.

In Croatia, digital nomads can use online sites such as DNAStay, Trawerk and GoingRemotely. There are also local databases that have hundreds of listings, like Njuskalo, which is where I found my current apartment in Zagreb.

A view of the Zagreb Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral-church and the second tallest building in Croatia.
Photo: Steve Tsentserensky
A view of the Zagreb Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral-church and the second tallest building in Croatia.

Check out the digital nomad groups on Facebook, too. Some communities are solely focused on helping people find housing.

5. Building a social life doesn't have to be hard

Loneliness is a real concern for many people when they first arrive to a new place. But traveling alone doesn't have to mean always being by yourself.

In fact, one of the things I love most about being a digital nomad is getting to meet so many different people from different parts of the world.

Here are some resources to help you meet new people and make friends:

  • City-specific Facebook groups (the "Expats in Zagreb" group has over 10,000 people)
  • Co-working or co-living spaces
  • Websites like Nomad List or Meetup
  • Staying in hostels
  • Community-based programs like Remote Year, which allows you to explore destinations with other remote workers

6. Worst-case scenarios rarely happen

Early on in my travel-planning stages, I unnecessarily stressed myself out by fixating on all the worst-case scenarios.

I worried about so many things: Will there be language barriers? How will I communicate with people? What if I have a hard time making friends? What if there's a lot of crime in the area? What if my things get stolen?

There's a name for this: catastrophizing — and it's quite common. But throughout my entire experience as a digital nomad, none of the worst-case scenarios I had anticipated actually happened.

When I started contextualizing my fears and reframing them as opportunities, it made the unknown far more comfortable to embrace.

With that mindset, language barriers became an opportunity to learn and meeting people became a fun challenge.

Steve Tsentserensky is a writer, video producer, photographer and digital nomad. He currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia. Follow him on Instagram and Medium

Don't miss:

Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us