Professional Hobo Nora Dunn Explains How to Live a Financially Sustainable Nomadic Life

If you are looking for surefire tips on how to achieve your long-term travel goals, look no further as Nora Dunn aka The Professional Hobo is here to help you out!

In 2006, she sold everything so she could travel the world – and she has been on the road ever since (that’s more than 10 years on the road so far!)

In this interview, you will learn how to save over $100,000 on accommodation. You will also learn how to travel full-time with carry-on luggage only – and how it’s really possible for all of us to keep travelling for years!

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Volunteering at a retreat centre in New Zealand

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi! I’m Nora Dunn – aka The Professional Hobo. In 2006, I sold everything I owned in Canada to embrace my dreams of long-term immersive world travel. I’ve been on the road ever since, having traveled to and/or lived in 50+ countries!

At the moment, I’m house-sitting in Tokyo, Japan – a place I’ve wanted to visit long pre-dating my full-time travels, but for which I’d been awaiting the right “opportunity” to visit. My patience has paid off, as this is an excellent gig, and a relatively inexpensive way to live in Japan (a notoriously expensive country) for a couple of months.

How and why did you become a nomad?

Prior to selling everything I owned, I ran a busy financial planning practice. I had become somewhat noteworthy in the industry, because for me it wasn’t about picking investments and plotting graphs, but more about how to design people’s finances to enable them to live the lives of their dreams. But somewhere in there, I realized I’d put my own dream on the back burner; a dream of living around the world and immersing myself in cultures completely.

Over the years, I realized I couldn’t achieve the kind of travel I really wanted to do with standard vacation slots, and after a few “wake-up calls”, I realized I was unwilling to wait another 30 years for a conventional retirement to do it. For more info on my (emotional and logistical) switch to becoming proverbially homeless, check out: How I Became The Professional Hobo.

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Nora in traditional yukata (summer kimono) in Tokyo, Japan

Why is having a nomadic life important for you?

I started traveling full-time before it was en vogue. Now there’s an ever-increasing number of people embracing “location independent” and “digital nomad” lifestyles, and for good reason – it’s a great way to expand your horizons, embrace adventure, and live an unconventional lifestyle. It’s also incidentally generally much cheaper than living in one place – an added benefit, so that you don’t have to bust your butt to make enough money to just get by; with this lifestyle I can have my cake and eat it too!

What have been the best and most difficult parts of being a nomad?

My answer is the same as the answer of anybody who lives this lifestyle: I love the freedom it affords. I can stay as long as I like (visa-dependent) in a location, and move on whenever I choose, to wherever I choose.

Now, it’s worth noting that I’m not playing “tourist” all the time, and I’m certainly not on permanent vacation. I have a career like anybody else, and I put in my hours. But the difference is, when my work day is done, I have a new destination to explore on my front door step.

As idyllic as the nomadic lifestyle may seem from the outside, it’s not always a walk in the park. Achieving a proper work-life balance on the road can be very difficult – especially if you’re staying with or traveling with people who don’t understand the lifest4yle and its work requirements. Travel fatigue is also very real, and I’ve learned the hard way that traveling too fast and moving destinations too often isn’t sustainable in the long run.

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Living on a boat in St Martin

Where do you live as a nomad?

I tend let my destinations choose me, and it’s usually in the form of a unique opportunity to live somewhere for free – either by volunteering or house-sitting. I’ve specialized in getting free accommodation around the world, and in the last 10 years I’ve saved over $100,000 in accommodation expenses this way. There are a variety of really cool ways to do this, and in great style too (let’s just say I don’t slum it).

I also like staying somewhere where I have some degree of autonomy, and a kitchen to cook in with a nearby grocery store to shop and eat locally. It’s a great cost-saver, and also a great way to experience a slice of local life.

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
House-sitting in Panama

Where do you usually work?

I usually get my best work done in the place where I’m living, where I can set up an ergonomically friendly workspace, and can create an environment conducive to productivity. But very shortly, I’m going to try my hand at co-living and co-working spaces, where I’ll share work space with other digital nomads. I’m curious to see if it ends up being an inspiration or a distraction. I think it’s different for everybody (some people, for example thrive on working in cafes; I like cafes, but tend to find them a bit distracting, and I’m always paranoid about leaving my computer and stuff all set up when I have to go pee).

How do you build a social life as a nomad?

Social media is a wonderful thing (despite its inherent downsides like being a time-sucker and superficial way to communicate). When I arrived in Japan, some readers and colleagues learned I was here through my social updates, and they reached out to me and we ended up connecting in person. I’ve met up with locals, expats, and travelers alike while here, and it has been a fabulous experience.

Also, when I’m volunteering in trade for my accommodation (as I did for the first five months of this year, assistant managing a retreat centre in Ecuador), I was living in a community of like-minded people from around the world, along with locals. It was a fabulous social and cultural experience.

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Hiking in the Peruvian Andes mountains (where Nora apprenticed with a shaman for 2 years)

How do you finance your nomadic life?

I have a location independent career as a freelance writer and travel blogger and vlogger. My income has fluctuated over the years, but I’ve always managed to live in a financially sustainable way.

In fact, I hold myself accountable to my readers every year, by publishing my annual expense and income reports. My biggest expenses tend to be accommodation (when I’m not getting it for free!), transportation (when I’m not flying in business class for free with miles!), and business/insurance expenses. But I always live and travel within my means.

What kind of gear do you bring with you?

The contents of my travel bag have evolved considerably over the years; I even traveled for a couple of years with carry-on luggage only (remember – that’s everything I own, in a carry-on bag)! I’m back to using checked luggage, but I’m a very savvy packer and choosy about what goes in my bag and why. The best explanation I can give you is this post, which includes a video of what I pack and how, along with links to my actual packing lists (detailing absolutely everything I bring).

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Hanging out in Cuenca Ecuador (where Nora house-sat for 2 months)

What has been your best gear purchase below $100?

One of my favourite pieces of travel gear under $100 that I’ve had for years now is the Hoboroll; it’s a fabulous packing aid, and also serves to keep things (like socks and underwear and scarves and workout gear) perfectly organized at my destination. Not only that but it compresses down beautifully for travel days. In fact, the Hoboroll was one of the packing tools that enabled me to travel full-time with carry-on luggage only.

What is your best advice for new nomads?

Well, the standard answer to this question is usually “just do it”! The hardest part of embracing a lifestyle like this is overcoming fears of the unknown, letting go of stuff, and getting out the door.

But I’ll qualify this bit of motivational advice with the caveat that although you don’t need to have everything planned out (in fact, it’s impossible and not recommended), it is important to get your financial house in order (for example, get out of debt), and also to establish the foundations of how you’ll earn money before you go.

If you’re planning to teach English or work on cruise ships, learn what you need to know, get your accreditations, and line up a job (or at least some leads) if you can. If you’re starting an online business, get it off the ground before you leave. I didn’t start developing my own online career until after I’d left Toronto, and the first couple of years were tough, because I was not only struggling to learn the ropes of a travel lifestyle and carve out my own style, but I was also spending a lot of (largely uncompensated) time developing my business. It was a lot to juggle. (Then again, that was in the days when there wasn’t the plethora of resources to help you do it that there are now. I had to hit every bump along the learning curve)!

Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Hanging out in Grenada

What inspired you to write your books?

Writing a book is damn hard work! (I even have the makings of a memoir in my head, but I’m procrastinating with everything I have because it’s such a huge project). It’s a big time commitment, and a lot of work up-front for what may – or may not – be a financial hit. More often than not, writing books aren’t huge money-makers (depending on how you publish and market them), but they can certainly open doors. And for me, it has been a pleasure to share my knowledge to empower other people to embrace a similar lifestyle to mine, without having to make all the mistakes I did!

Here are my three favourites from the books that I wrote:

  • Working on the Road: The Unconventional Guide to Full-Time Freedom – It’s about how to redesign your career to suit your lifestyle desires, instead of what most people do (which is the other way around). It’s chock-a-block with practical tools, tips, ideas, and ways to make money on the road. It also addresses how to arrange your life and affairs to travel, and is full of interviews with dozens of other experts who are doing it successfully themselves in one way or another.
  • How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World – Based on my experience getting free accommodation using five different modalities such as volunteering, house-sitting, living on boats, hospitality exchanges, and home exchanges. I’ve saved over $100,000 using these techniques, and your first night of free accommodation will more than pay for the cost of the book.
  • Tales of Trains: Where the Journey is the Destination – Not a how-to book, but rather a memoir of some of the most epic train journeys I’ve done, including 11,000kms of Australian trains in 11 days straight (all to see if it was possible to get bored on a train!), and 25,000kms of trains in 30 days traveling from Lisbon to Saigon.
Professional Hobo Nora Dunn
Filming a TV show in Nepal

What will the future bring?

The future is always an unknown for me, and I rarely know where I’m going to be or what I’m doing until mere weeks prior. This freedom of plans is what has enabled me to do some of the crazy amazing things I’ve done, such as apprenticing with a shaman in Peru for two years (who could have predicted that?!), and having the flexibility to jump on opportunities like my current house-sitting gig in Japan. But just yesterday, with two weeks’ notice, I booked my flight to my next destination, which will be Bali, where I plan to spend 1-2 months. After that, who knows…

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