When Freelance Writing and Expat Living Go Hand in Hand

I’ve been following an American “how to make money freelance writing” blog for years. I started following it because Carol Tice has interesting and useful things to say about making better money as a freelance writer. I kept following her because I’m trying to understand freelance writing from the perspective of someone trying to make a living at it in a developed country.

Carol Tice has integrity and I give her credit for making me realise just how underpaid I was, so what follows is not a criticism, just a different perspective.

The Freelance Writers Den: Grow your income!
Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den. If you join, I get a commission.

Some time ago, Carol did a reader survey to find out how much her readers made. She has a large following and her audience does seem to be serious about wanting to Make a Living Writing. Nevertheless, only about 3% of the readers who completed the survey reported they made over $10,000 a year freelance writing. I can relate to that. If she had conducted the survey in 2008 or 2009, I would have said the same. I’m still not close to the six figures some of her guest bloggers claim to make, but I have had a couple of $5,000 months. I’ve had a lot more $1,500 months and that’s only thanks to a handful of regular clients.

I’ve been meeting a lot of freelance writers lately. They pass through Sihanoukville looking for a place to settle down. Some stay and some move on, but they all have a few things in common:

  • They’re young;
  • They’re single; and
  • They don’t make a lot of money freelance writing.

They don’t make a lot of money writing, but they make enough to keep travelling because they live in places where a single person with no debts can comfortably survive on less than $1,000 a month. I know people who have paid as little as $60 a month for a secure Western style studio apartment. Add electricity, water, internet and cable TV and the bill is still only around $100 a month. If you eat in cheaper restaurants or do your own cooking, you can get by on $10 a day for food.

We’re up to a whopping $400 a month to survive. That gives you plenty of change out of $1,000 for a few luxuries and you can still save money. The freelancers I’ve met either make more than $1,000 freelancing or have another income stream. On $1,500 or $2,000 a month you can live quite well in Cambodia, Vietnam and parts of Thailand and Indonesia and still save money if you don’t have other financial obligations.

Believe it or not, this is possible.

Some of the people I’ve met are serious about wanting to make a career out of freelancing. Others may argue otherwise, but I believe they have a better shot at kick-starting their careers as expats than they would if they tried to do it back in their home country.

Carol Tice boasted in her Fourth of July newsletter that she was taking a whole week off because she could afford to. She went on to write that she wished she had learned how to make more money freelancing earlier. I’m not sure she could have, even if she’d had the opportunity to follow a good mentor’s advice.

I spent a year and a half crawling my way up from a penny a word to a whopping two cents a word (that’s $10 for 500 words), so I wholeheartedly agree with Carol when she says avoid the bidding sites and content mills. I disagree with her, though, when she implies you can make a good living writing overnight. I’ve never heard of anyone who went from 0 to $40,000 a month overnight, much less $100,000 or more.

When a young freelancer recently asked me for advice, I told him to skip Elance, Freelancer and Craig’s List. To give him a leg up, I turned him on to a travel site I quit writing for because they didn’t pay enough ($30-$40 per 500-600 word article plus photos). I sent the editor an introductory email and am sure it helped, because my friend didn’t have much of a portfolio. The money was enough for him and the site also gives author credits, so writing for them was good for his portfolio, too. He’s now focusing his attention on finding more lucrative markets and will probably be making as much as or more than I before long.

If he were living in the United States or Australia, he wouldn’t have the leisure to go through the hit-and-miss process of finding well-paying freelance writing gigs. I certainly didn’t, back in Australia. The assignments I got paid well, but the money wasn’t steady enough for me to quit my day job. Yes, it’s great to get $1,500 for a 1,200 word article, but most of us aren’t able to sell three or four of them a month, especially when we’re working full time.

My friend is very ambitious and is tackling his freelance career on two fronts. He’s looking for (and finding!) decent paying gigs and writing a commercial website at the same time. I believe he has the potential to make enough money to return to the United States if he wants to. The thing is, he doesn’t want to. Why would he? Even if he makes $10,000 a month, he can enjoy a better lifestyle in Southeast Asia, Central America or South America and that’s what he plans to do — travel the world until he finds a place he wants to stay.

Too many freelancers can’t get their careers off the ground because there is no guarantee of a steady income. When you’re living in a developed country, there is too much pressure to make a lot of money and make it regularly. Expat living in a less developed country relieves you of that pressure, but it can make you lazy. Freelance writing and expat living go hand in hand when you have a combination of an independent spirit, self-reliance and self-discipline. If any of those ingredients are missing, you’ll probably find yourself returning to the safe haven of your home country and a 9 to 5 job. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with that, if it is what you want. If it’s not what you want, though, pack your bags and laptop and get started.

  • HerHealthySelf

    Thank you for this post–I found your blog earlier (through a google search), tho came to this post from carol’s site (which is wonderful, as you note).
    One question I haven’t seen addressed by expat blogs of freelancers (writers, especially, but all of them): did you get a visa for your extended stay, or do most freelancers arrive and simply keep a low profile? I’m planning on moving to Wales as a freelance writer (not nearly as warm–or as cheap–as your current digs, admittedly), and hope to simply lie low and write.
    Also, it would be great to know how much of your legwork as a freelance writer was done before you left the States. Would you suggest writers have regular gigs in hand before stepping on the plane?
    Thanks for your work.

    • Hi, Thanks for your reply and questions. I’m not sure how visa extensions work in other countries, only that Cambodia is one of the easiest countries to stay in long term. After you get an initial 1 month visa, you can apply for what used to be called a business visa but now is just called an ordinary visa. It costs around $300 a year and can be done through any travel agent. Some expats try to keep a low profile, but it can backfire on you when you want to leave. The fine can be very heavy.

      I did it the hard way and started from scratch. A friend who used to be my editor did it the right way. She quit her job after she got enough well-paying clients to start freelancing and then saved her money. She is now living in Bali and doesn’t have the stress of finding work. Since the cost of living is so much lower, she can work part time and enjoy herself more than she could in Australia, where most of her income went on expenses.

      I think you’ve just given me a topic for a blog. I know several expat freelance writers now and each of them went about it a little differently. Thanks!