These Choos were made for walkin': an interview with a modern urban nomad

by Andrea Karim on 30 October 2007 24 comments
Photo: Nomad

Fabulously Broke in the City is the nom de blog of a young Canadian woman who frequently comments on Wise Bread. I've been reading her blog for several months, and have become intrigued by her lifestyle (modern nomad), and her shared struggle to pay down her education debt while living a fun, urban, and stylish life - all while living out of a suitcase.

Since one of Wise Bread's own Canadian bloggers, Nora Dunn, also leads a modern nomadic life, the concept of living out of a suitcase, literally, has been on my mind as of late. I asked Fabulously Broke to tell us more about her life and her lifestyle (FB actually lives in hotels, staying wherever her employer needs her to be - her husband travels with her, and they actually keep all of their worldly possessions in a suitcase). You can read her version of an FAQ here (recommended).

Who are you? Why do you blog anonymously?

*laugh* I'm "FB".. I'm 24 years old, just recently married to my husband whom I've lived with for the past 6 years, with a goal to clear the rest of my $35,000 in debt by the end of December 2008, and be debt-free, and begin saving for a mortgage.

Oh, and I'm a reformed shopaholic. Seriously. Until I started tracking my expenses in June 2005, I had NO IDEA where all of my money was going and I kept living on borrowed time and money. Now, I love organizing my expenses in Excel and budgeting as well as playing around with my debt repayment numbers.

I blog anonymously not because I really want to.. but because I don't want my friends and family to start reading this blog, and compromise my ability to blog about whatever subject I want - be it my monthly financial situation, problems with my family and Husband's family, and all that sort of information. Not a lot of my friends agree with my lifestyle and the choices I've made. *shrug*

You write a blog about your lifestyle, called Fabulously Broke in the City. Why did you choose that name? Are you actually broke?

I chose that name because I was inspired by the hit TV series by HBO called "Sex and the City", and I was fascinated with the idea of the main character Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), working on a modest writer's salary yet being able to afford a fabulous New York apartment that wasn't a rat-infested hole in the wall, and being able to shop to her heart's delight with and do all of these amazing things in a city that's so notorious for its high cost of living. But nowhere in the entire show did they really mention how the reality of her situation. Then I thought about Suze Orman, and how she calls our generation the "Young, Broke and Fabulous", and that's how "Fabulously Broke in the City" was born.

I actually am very broke, in terms of net worth. I think I started the blog in 2006, but I didn't actually take my blogging seriously until June 2007 when I finally got rid of my apartment, and began to aggressively pay down my debt, save for retirement and strive for a more frugal lifestyle - that's when the blog just evolved to what it is today.

I started with -$56,000 in education debt, no savings, no retirement plan, nada... and the real push to get out of debt began in June 2007 when I looked at what I was spending. As of today, I sit at about -$35,000 in total education debt, but with my retirement savings I'm at -$22,000.

You've described your life as being lived "out of a suitcase". What does that entail? How can one live in a big city without a fabulous apartment and a walk-in closet full of designer clothing?

It just takes a change in perspective. :) It was hard to think about becoming what I call a "modern nomad" but the more I considered it, it made more sense based on my line of work.

I basically live wherever my next project takes me, and while it's been mostly big cities, I could also be sent to a little town in the middle of nowhere - which I think might be better for me because there'd be less temptation and chances to shop!

The client normally loves having the consultant live in the city where the company is, because then I'm not coming in late to work on Monday, or leaving early on Thursday, and I'm available almost 24/7 as I am just a stone's throw away from the company. Plus, I love what I do, and that usually translates into working long hours, and if I have to worry about getting back to my home in another city when I'm trying to finish something for the weekend, it gets to be pretty frustrating. I also hate the hotel & airport song-and-dance.

It was pretty hard getting rid of my 'stuff' when I first started, and I still find myself pining for certain clothing items or shoes that I have stored away at home. But you just make do with what you brought. I also find that since I don't have a home and I basically carry my life on my back, I've learned to pare down more, pick essential pieces, buy less and really analyze whether I need certain items or not - which is helping develop my frugal streak. It's not for everyone, but I love the uncertainty and being able to see different cities and really immerse myself in the local milieu.

I've also never bought a piece of designer clothing in my life, unless you count buying it from a thrift store. I haven't even touched the threshold of $300 for a single pair of shoes/boots/piece of clothing and I don't want to!

You blog frequently about fashion. Is this cathartic, or does it just make you want to shop a lot more?

Hmm..... Good question. It depends. If the price tag is outrageous, but I still think it's beautiful and appreciate its workmanship, then I blog about it, but I don't even remotely fantasize about owning it. But if the price tag is reasonable, and more affordable, that's when I get in trouble..

I have one major weak spot: Just physically being in the store around all the beautiful, affordable items.

That's why I tend to try and keep very busy with my blog and going over my budget, so I don't feel the desire to go out and ultimately be tempted to spend for nothing. It seems to be working so far... until I need to go out and buy something like a winter coat. Then the temptation is really hard to resist, and I sometimes fall back into my old habits. The good news is that now I find that every purchase now goes through a different thought process than before I started caring about my money.

Now, I really, REALLY think about what I'm buying, and compare coats across 15-20 stores before I decide on the best one for the best price.

Can you tell me more about life as a "modern nomad"? I'm assuming you have a 'home-base' to return to? How long are you typically away from home? How do you save money on things like food if you are always 'out of town'?

I do have a home base. A home city in fact. But I've since given up my apartment, so it's really just a formality to let people know which division/department I'm from. I don't have any ties to the city whatsoever other than my family and friends, and everything is in storage in another cheaper city.

My job is such that I have to be willing to travel 100% of the time. At first I was very hesitant to do so, but ever since I gave up my albatross (my apartment), it's been a lot easier to ask for projects that are not within my home city, and my company loves it because not many people are willing to travel 100% of the time and not go back home.

Most of my projects last around 5 months, but I sometimes get extended for longer, up to 8 months, but that's quite rare. It depends on the nature of the project and what the client wants to get done.

I save money on food, shelter and utilities (the big 3), because when I'm on a project, the client pays for all of my travelling and living expenses (transportation to get there, hotel, food, laundry, taxis sometimes a car rental). It's sometimes cheaper for the client to keep me here than it is to let me keep going back home every weekend and I tend to work longer because I am in no rush to catch a plane.

I get a meal limit that I can use to spend on food every day, and they pay for my hotel as well as for my laundry. When you don't have an apartment, it works out very nicely to keep staying in a hotel - I've started thinking of my hotel as my home now. I also don't have to clean any more, or buy cleaning supplies, and/or basic necessities like toilet paper because it's all included in the hotel rate.

A lot of people believe that eliminating debt involves giving up benefits that seem so common to modern, middle-class living. What are some of the luxuries that you have given up in order to work at paying down your debt? Do you get a latte every morning, for instance? Do you have a gym membership? Do you own a car?

To be honest, I haven't given up anything that I truly miss. I don't get a latte every morning - I only get it once in a while when I know it's going to be a long day, and I'm in the mood for one, but sometimes when I'm waiting in line I start thinking about the cost of it, and berate myself for almost succumbing to the delicious nectar of Starbucks and I force myself to walk out of the store.

However,bh when I wasn't as serious about paying down my debt, I got a latte every morning (a huge venti one in fact). But as my wallet got thinner, my body started getting bigger. I put on quite a bit of weight and as a result I decided to cut myself off and now I only drink lattes as a treat.

I don't have a gym membership - all the hotels I stay at have a in-house gym, and/or I just walk everywhere since my hotels are usually located right in the heart of the downtown close to where the company is.

I don't personally drive or own a car, but my husband does. We just have an old beater car that we have had for about 6 years now. It stays in decent shape and working condition because we don't drive it :) We only use it to get back and forth between different cities if I'm on a project or if we're visiting family, but other than those occasions, we just walk (which is healthier for us in the long run), and we take the local public transportation (which is cheaper, considering the price of gas lately).

I think the 'luxury' I miss the most is having a lot of cash at my disposal to do whatever I wanted with and knowing that I'd be able to clear it without a problem with my next cheque. This was what fuelled my shopaholic habits before I got serious about clearing my debt (mid-2007). Now that I have a budget and I track every single penny of my expenses, I am a lot more frugal and discerning about buying items because I want my budge to succeed.

Luckily, I've gotten so used to the bank debiting a HUGE amount of my paycheque every month, that I don't even register how much extra money I have now that we're modern nomads. I just take the amount I would normally pay into my rent or utilities if we had a place to live, and channel it into debt. I don't miss the extra money because I foster a sense of scarcity in our household, and my husband knows I'm deadly serious about clearing my debt (he calls it obsessive, I like to call it aggressive).

So, I suppose the one luxury I miss the most is shopping with abandon and without any cares in the world, and safe in the knowledge that I could clear it without a problem with my next cheque... if that makes sense.

What tips do you have for people who are interested in adopting a lifestyle that is similar to yours?

You have to be willing to be lonely and away from anything familiar, as well as not having everything you would normally have in an apartment, nor being able to go to parties or special events that are happening in your home city unless you're willing to pack up your home into a suitcase every weekend, and crash at a friend's place for that weekend to attend the party.

To elaborate, when I join a new project, I normally don't know ANYONE. And depending on the client culture (so far, it's been fabulous), you may or may not make friends with your colleagues - the age gap can be a huge factor, as well as personality.

You have to be willing to be by yourself for a majority of your weekends and weeknights for the first month or so, and be OK with not having your friends to go out with, or your entire wardrobe to pick out exactly what you want to wear. Whatever you've brought, is all you've got and you have to work with it. If you start rebuilding your wardrobe again, you're going to amass a LOT of junk that you'll have to figure out how to carry around for the next year or so.

A lot of people cannot understand why I would willingly stay in any foreign city the entire time and be away from my friends and family, but I'm not very close to my family, and while I'm very close to my friends, I make it a point to do an hour-long call each week to a different friend just to keep up on what's happening in their lives. It is VERY easy to just communicate by email, MSN or other social networking sites like MySpace. But there is no substitute for seeing a friend in person, so I try telephoning them each week so I can hear their voice and connect that way to stay an active part of their lives.

It's pretty lonely at times. Even with my husband here. But I find that we've started to really connect on another level and we're finding ways to have fun together, and go for walks as tourists in a new, unfamiliar city, and experience all the local sights and attractions together.

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Guest's picture
Naomi

Wow, that's weird. I was telling my husband the other day how much I liked FB's blog and reading about her struggles and triumphs getting her debt under control and about the interesting way of life she has. Then, yesterday I was telling him how much I like your articles and writing style. Then, I check my feedreader this morning and see your excellent interview here. It's like I woke up in my own parallel universe, lol. Thanks!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Nomadic lifestyles have their pros and cons. Your interview has done a good job of pointing out the realities of both.

Julie Rains's picture

Great interview and topic Andrea. I love that someone (Fabulously Broke) has combined frugal living with a meaningful corporate job, and in fact that her corporate job is enabling the lifestyle! I also like that FB is getting closer to how communities of all sizes operate, large and small.

Guest's picture
Dwight

Great post! I find it instructive to consider people who have unconventional ways to live or work. We might not copy them, but we can think of the pros and cons of each situation. Then, we are better equipped to design a life that fits our own needs and desires.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks, guys! FB is fun to interview. I enjoy reading about her experiences, too. Every now and then, I feel jealous of that type of freedom, but then I realize that I'm mostly a homebody, so I'm better off traveling in small doses.

I hope that Nora does some more posts on her particular brand of nomadism, which is also very interesting.

Guest's picture
allen

I had never heard/read of her blog before, but I think I'll take a look this evening. Thanks, Andrea, for a good interview. Does anyone know if FB's line of work is discussed on her Blog? If not, just curious what kind of work entails that much travel. One would assume that her Husband has a job that can be mobile as well, which helps, I'm sure.

MikeCinFLA's picture

I went nomadic 3 years ago, moving out of a 5 bedroom house in the burbs into a 30 foot sailboat. I kept my house and my Harley, the house for a rainy day (I rent it out) and the Harley for sunny days. Right now I live in a marina with a pool, spa, and healthclub. This waterfront resort lifestyle costs me a whopping $265 a month. I drive a 1980 Chevy a fellow nomad gave me when he decided to sail his home to Mexico and I will pass it on when I get the urge to move on. I can't begin to describe the sense of freedom I feel everyday. Long Live the Nomads!

Guest's picture
nunomad

Mike,

I'd like to connect with you about your lifestyle. Please email me at carmen at nunomad.com

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, Allen. As far as I can tell, FB doesn't discuss her line of work. If I've read her blog correctly, her husband doesn't work, but travels with her.

Mike, your lifestyle sounds like so much fun! Feel free to contact our admins if you want to share more of your story - I'd like to interview other nomads, too, to show how varied the lifestyle can be. 

Guest's picture

I think this is feasible only for awhile. I have done it and I dont enjoy it. Different people different strokes!

Guest's picture
allen

Thank you, Andrea.

I'd be really curious as to what kind of work allows one this freedom. Just curiosity, really, I kinda like being able to see my friends; but then again, i don't/didn't have over $50k in debt to pay back! Sounds like a great line of work if you don't mind the hardship, and need/want to pay down your debt, or REALLY get ahead in your savings. ;)

Also, sounds like a good deal for Him! No cleaning for him, either. Heh. Maybe he's a writer, or some such, as can be in another city for months and months at a time, like she can be.

Guest's picture
Guest

Let me see if I have this right. She has a free, upscale place to live, free food, free transportation, an obviously well-paying job, and she's patting yourself on the back and being admired because she's paying off your debt? I don't see the virtue there; it just seems like common sense. When would she pay it off otherwise?

Guest's picture
Guest

I didn't edit very well when I changed my pronouns, but I hope the idea got through

Guest's picture

I have to really say, Andrea's been the best for asking the right questions to get those kind of responses out of me and it was a great experience being interviewed by her, and for having the opportunity to do so!

Just wanted to answer a couple of things..

My husband doesn't work. It's a choice we made together because he initially offered me the chance to stay at home all day long if I wanted, and for him to go to work. But since he doesn't like to work (he calls it 'living the dream'), and I don't mind that he doesn't as I make enough to cover the both of us even without this lifestyle, I just told him to take it easy for now. In the future however, we plan on getting a house, and he's quite handy around the home, so he'll be working for the next couple of years 'full-time' to finish our house, and basically run the household once we settle down in a city (such as doing dishes, cleaning, making dinner, cutting the grass, shovelling snow, fixing our cars if need be, etc).

It will also help our relationship in the long run, because we've observed in other couples that if one partner has a high-flying career, and the other does as well, they tend to grow apart in the long run as they are both so consumed by their jobs and the stress of it.

Maybe he'll get a part-time job, or start his own business in the future, but for now, he's 'retired'.

It's a good point that he could also be a mobile employee, but the problem is finding a job that will let him truly live anywhere and be anywhere 100% of the time. Sure, he could become a consultant like myself, but most consultants need to be on client site, and if the client site is not in the same city as mine... we might as well be living in an apartment and having me travel back and forth every week. He could become a writer or a webdesigner that doesn't really require client contact, but he doesn't have any skills in either area. He's more of a hands-on guy.

We basically consider him retired, and actually that generates a lot of discounts for him, even though he's so young.

I don't blog about my work because I don't want to compromise the confidentiality of my clients as well as get myself in hot water with my parent company... just not a good idea. So I tend to stick to fashion, life, style.. mostly geared towards women (rarely men), and a lot on personal finance & how I'm getting around paying down my debt.

Guest: I can totally see what you're saying, but I was under the impression it was more of an interview and look into my chosen lifestyle as a means of getting rid of my debt, not so much a glorification of my lifestyle and/or trying to receive praise about my debt repayment methods. I'm just writing about how I'm doing it, and if others can benefit from it, all the better!

Guest's picture
allen

I would most deffinitly not ask you to comprimise your position, or your clients! I was just curious as to what LINE of work allows you this option/freedom.

Guest's picture
Cindy M

For paying off the debt. Few things are better for the self-esteem than to work diligently at it and seeing it decrease, at least that's how I feel about it. You never truly appreciate anything if you have not earned it, is my take on it, at least it's been true in my life and in my observation of others' lives. I have tried to help my niece and sister with their financial messes over the years, and it has frankly not been appreciated and it never ends, not good for either side. Actually, I have found it makes a problem worse instead of better, ha-ha. No wonder the bible says among other things on the subject that "The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again," (Psalm 37:21). Anyway, good for you, and I bet it makes you appreciate the little perks even more. I frankly think it's the secret to the little bits of happiness we get on this earth, being honest about how we live our daily lives, I mean, always paying back what we owe.

Andrea Karim's picture

I wasn't even going to reply to the Guest, FB, but since you did, I'll just throw in that no where in the interview did anyone try to convey that FB has it really tough. It's just a matter of looking at a different way of living. You don't have to immediately buy a home and settled down in one city. You can find a great job, travel around, and still pay off your debt. You can be a fashionista and not go into bankruptcy by making prudent purchasing choices.

I've never known anyone who has lived like FB does, so I find it fascinating. Her debt is really a minor issue of importance for me and for many readers, although it is fun to see someone erase a mound of debt over time.

And thanks, FB, for participating. 

Myscha Theriault's picture

you might want to read Tales of a Female Nomad, by Rita Golden Gelman. She is a children's author who gave up an actual home years ago and lives where she feels like it for however long she feels like it.

As far as the sanctimonious individual who was commenting on the back patting . . . while it is certainly cool to jet set about, I'm sure FB would be the first one to agree that there are certainly some tough elements to her lifestyle. Every job has it's issues. And if you think it's easy to uproot your life constantly, try it and get back to me. Picture everything you have on automatic pilot and then imagine having to figure it out all over again, sometimes on a daily basis. Imagine having to deal before coffee every morning with ATM locations, pharmaceutical issues, internet speed for dealing with stateside financial issues and more. Oh yeah, and do it in a brand new language that may not even have the same alphabet characters you are used to. Picture having to deal with long air flights and the airline industry whether you want to or not on some days. Travel and cultural immersion are wonderful, and I'm one of the biggest toads in the puddle, believe me. And I've had numerous jobs where things were taken care of for me just like FB. But there were still issues, including having an evacuation go bag packed at all times and wiring all but pocket spending money out of the country every pay day due to the worry of goverment collapse.

Before you assume she has it so easy, consider this: if it was easy to do what she's doing . . . EVERYBODY would be doing it. Hence the very small percentage of Americans who even have a passport. And oh yeah, about kudos for paying off the debt? You'd be surprised how many expats and even stateside nomadic executives use their lifestyle as an excuse to live large and couldn't afford to stop if they wanted to. So yes, she deserves credit for paying it off. She also deserves credit for taking the risk, thinking outside of the box and finding a way to put her marriage first. Back off.

Sorry Andrea, if I've overstepped my bounds by getting on a soapbox.

Andrea Karim's picture

No apology necessary. :) I always took FB's comments on her blog about her job and life to mean that she is happy to give up some of the comforts for the fun that she has in her job. But it's true that I wouldn't really be able to do what she does, and it would be hard.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm sure she is very happy. I usually was. It's just that snarky commenter just struck me on the wrong day. One thing I had to constantly face when I was an expat was people who didn't necessarily understand everything else that comes along with those types of jobs and made me feel like I had to feel "guilty" for my lifestyle. It was the commenter I was responding to, sorry if that wasn't clear. I'm certainly not trying to discourage anyone from trying the nomadic thing. It's in my blood too. Have a great afternoon!

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a great interview and very similar to others at the NuNomad blog. For those of you wanting to get other ideas for nomadic lifestyle, I've learned a lot by reading them. If you go to the blog, go to the Meet the Nomads category. I

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a great interview and very similar to others at the NuNomad blog. For those of you wanting to get other ideas for nomadic lifestyles, I've learned a lot by reading them. If you go to the blog, go to the Meet the Nomads category.

Guest's picture

Allen: I'm a consultant :) As other fellow consultants will attest to, it means 100% travel. If you're not willing to travel, you're in the wrong business....

Andrea: Well, I normally don't reply to those posts (actually who am I kidding?) but it just struck a chord in me... which is deftly explained and fleshed out by Myscha in her next comment.

Myscha: I haven't had the opportunity to travel beyond North America, but I can just imagine what kind of hassles would transpire from doing so. Especially in Europe, where a different language is almost a given. At least in North America, everything is sort-of always in English, which makes it easier...

I am extremely happy with my job, but that all depends on the client you end up working for. They can make your life a living hell but I've been super lucky with the projects I've been on.

I love doing what I do, and if I can clear a huge amount of debt in such a short amount of time (and as a result, build up a healthy emergency fund AND a big down payment on a mortgage), all the better.

As for comforts of the home... it's true. My husband and I keep thinking about the day we'll finally get a home and settle down, and be able to grow herbs, and do what we want to make it ours.

Everyone DOES imagine my life to be glamourous, on a plane, sipping champagne, and staying in plush posh hotels, but it is far from what actually happens. Being on a plane, catching cabs, and trying to find a decent place to eat something somewhat healthy is a trial, and trying to always tell myself: Hey, if you buy that bowl/purse/coat are you going to lug it around forever while you're travelling? ...gets to be hard.

Pros and Cons. :) Worst con: missing my friends. :(

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm glad you felt supported by the comment. I certainly wasn't trying to speak for you . . . more like advocate for you and others in the position we've both been in. There are major perks, but it is certainly not a rose garden, is it? Good luck in your future endeavors.