Working Nomad
US Money, Foreign Life

Countries like Thailand, Costa Rica and Mexico are full of American and British retirees with small pensions. These are individuals who, had they stayed in their home countries, would be eking out a marginal living, counting pennies, clipping coupons and living on canned soup. But that same pension in a place like Bangkok goes a lot further. It comes down to a choice of living in poverty back home, or living in luxury in a third world country—and many retirees are opting for the ex-pat way of life.

But you don't have to wait until you get the gold watch and turn 65. Web 2.0 technology and collaborative tools have now ushered in a new era of work and employment. In many cases, it's just as easy to work from a table by the pool at your condo in Chiang Mai, as it is to work from a cubicle in an office back home.

Personally, I live part-time in Bangkok, and spend several months a year traveling around the world, and have met plenty of people who do this successfully year-round. I take my work with me wherever I go, and have worked remotely everywhere from Krakow to Macau. Most of the time, my clients don't even have a clue that I'm away from home.

Once you have been successful in establishing yourself as an extreme telecommuter—acquiring multiple clients, setting up remote connectivity, and making it clear that in-person meetings are unnecessary—you can go anywhere you want (so long as there is Internet access available), and it's not even necessary to maintain a residence back in your home country at all. The most obvious advantage of living abroad is that you have money from first-world sources, but you now have third-world expenses. What happens then is that instead of a middle-class lifestyle, you suddenly have an upper-class lifestyle on the same amount of money. Suppose for example, that you earn $60,000 or $70,000 a year. You're comfortable in the US on that, but probably can't afford a full-time maid, for example. My wife and I have discussed living in Bangkok full-time, and when we have this discussion, the question is not whether to have a maid, but how many maids to have.

Even if you earn less than that, emerging nation economies present many opportunities for a comfortable lifestyle if you know where to look for it. I have met Americans who live very comfortably on a thousand dollars a month in Asia. Smaller apartments can be had for two or three hundred dollars a month, or even less, if you're willing to live like a native. And to be sure, there are expensive, elegant restaurants, but there are also local eateries where you can enjoy a fine lunch for less than two dollars a person.

Those who choose to go for the US money/foreign life strategy will need to firmly establish those domestic connections first, though, and when negotiating, downplay your residence of choice. Make it clear that you work exclusively from your home office, and on-premises work time won't be a possibility. In most cases, things like Web conferencing have already rendered face-to-face meetings obsolete. Once the framework for your deal is made and the technology put in place, then your actual location will be of little consequence.

It will take surprisingly little in terms of extra technology. If you have a large client with ongoing projects, suggest that they establish a VPN (virtual private network) connection for you if you need to access their corporate servers on a regular basis; this will offer a reassurance of security and an easy way to access what you need. Voice communication can be done through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) connections very cheaply, and you can collaborate directly over shared whiteboards and private wikis. You may find yourself attending Web conferences at 3 o'clock in the morning because of the time difference, but it's a small price to pay.