When Michelle Checchi, 29, left the US in 2019, she planned to be gone for only a few months — as long as it took to drain her savings account.
Today, she's still traversing the globe, working remotely as a freelance writer and video producer and making $4,000 in the typical month while working 15 to 30 hours per week, bank documents reviewed by Insider showed.
"Instead of just feeling stuck in my one place of living, I live in an international environment that's international for me, where I am still a traveler and a visitor," she said.
She is among a growing number of digital nomads, or remote workers who travel for weeks, months, or — in Checchi's case — "for the foreseeable future." Over 15 million Americans describe themselves as digital nomads, up 42% from 2020 and 112% from 2019, MBO Partners' 2021 State of Independence study found. Driving this trend is the growing flexibility of remote work, a longing to see the world, and the desire to cut costs.
As of June, over 25 countries had introduced digital-nomad visa programs aimed at luring remote workers and their wallets. The World Population Review said that only two countries — Bermuda and Switzerland — have a higher cost of living than New York City, where Checchi grew up. For her, living abroad has been a budget saver.
After graduating in 2015, Checchi enjoyed her job as a local news producer for four years, but she had a persistent desire to "travel and experience freedom," she said. In September 2019, she sold most of her possessions, drove across the cross, and hopped on a one-way flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.
In her first months abroad, Checchi traveled to Cyprus, India, and Nepal, where she tried to stretch out her savings for as long as possible, she said. But after about three months, when it looked like her fun was coming to an end, Checchi had a "spark of an idea": What if she found a way to make money working remotely? She began browsing Upwork and other platforms for freelance writing gigs.
"I was thinking, 'If I'm going to get a full-time job, it's going to root me down to one place,'" she said. "I really wanted to create a lifestyle where I could maintain my location independence."
While she found some work, money was "not good" early on — a few hundred dollars here and there, not enough to put off her return to the US for long. But slowly, her workflow began to grow. After about six months, Checchi was making just as much as she had in her news job — which paid about $50,000 per year — while working about half the hours, not to mention traveling the world as she did so.
She surpassed her old salary a few months later, breaking $10,000 in income some months — including $17,000 this past June when she did on-site video production for a convention. Checchi also has over 68,000 followers on TikTok — where she posts her travel highlights and tips — though she said she only recently began to make "a little bit of money" via social media. Checchi said she used to wonder how digital nomads could possibly afford their lifestyle.
"I was really surprised," she said. "I was like: 'Oh, OK. So this can be sustainable.'"
While she continues to do freelance content writing — "ghostwriting blogs, articles, and web copy" — she's begun skewing more toward her video-production roots. Although her clients vary, she often films and produces content for companies in the tourism industry — projects that typically pay for her travel.
Checchi said it's strange to look back at her time as a local news producer, when she felt her skills weren't transferable anywhere else.
"Now I'm like, 'Wow, there's so much that I can do with my skills when you think outside the box a little bit,' she said.
When she's not traveling, Checchi has a home base in Tel Aviv, which she chose in part for its accessibility to both Europe and Asia. While Tel Aviv can be quite an expensive place to live, Checchi pays $871 per month to rent an apartment with a couple. She typically sublets her room when traveling for an extended period. She tends to stay in hostels and Airbnbs, which helps her stick to a monthly housing budget of about $900. That's a big savings compared to the average June rent of $3,100 for a studio apartment in New York, where she previously lived.
Airfare is her biggest expense, but given that she doesn't cross the Atlantic Ocean often to see her family, she's able to travel relatively affordably from place to place. There's also more competition in Europe's airline industry compared to in the US, which helps keep her flight prices lower.
But it hasn't all been roses. During the pandemic, she had to return to the US and stay with her family in Staten Island, New York, for a time. Aside from that, she said, she doesn't see her family often — though she's now making an effort to return to the US every three to four months. These flight costs add up, but she said they were well worth it, and that if need be, she could seek out extra work to offset them. While her best friends are in the US, Checchi has friends "all over the place," she said, adding that traveling alone has been a "great way to meet new people."
While she doesn't think a nomadic lifestyle is for everyone, she has no plans to give it up anytime soon: "I'm living for myself at this point in my life."