How to Be a Broke Twenty-Something Digital Nomad in Medellín, Colombia

I feel like an ass every time I use the phrase, but since arriving in Medellín it’s gradually become a normal part of my speech.

Digital nomad‘ is the social media trendy way of referring to me and at least a couple hundred other mostly Westerners in Medellín and dozens of other world cities who are working remotely, earning an income online or via one post-fordist technology hack or another that liberates us from financial dependence on one fast, never-changing location.

When I left for Medellín I only just barely had about $600 USD of monthly freelance income that I could, and in a little over two months, I still haven’t broken the thousand dollar mark*, but I’m already making a good chunk more.

But Medellín has so far been perfect for weathering the shocks and swings of my erratic online income, mostly because it’s a damn good place to be broke.

If you’re thinking of checking out of the office and going remote and aren’t too good for a humble start, or if your schadenfreude amounts to a vague interest in the petty struggles of the ambitious but financially inept, here’s a little case study.

medellin broke digital nomad graffiti

First, um, a little about my finances…

I’m a 25 year-old American from a working class family, and my financial life lines up unsettling well with those demographics: two university degrees put me just a smidge over fifty thousand dollars in student debt, and being 20 and having a credit card put me a couple thousand more into credit card debt (damn you, underdeveloped frontal lobe of my youth).

Womp womp.

CAHdebt

I’m sharing this only as a context for what my expenses look like here in Medellín, with my Western minimum payments and a cost of living that’s distinctly Latin American.

My expenses in Medellín

To get an idea of what it actually costs to live here without a generous salary or the safety net of savings, I’ll break up my expenses into the local ones and the international ones.

medellin digital nomad housing

My room in my shared apartment in Laureles, an upper-middle class neighborhood in downtown Medellín. Less than $200 a month.

Here’s what my monthly day-to-day living expenses look like in Medellín:

  • Rent: $595,000 COP/~$180 USD. I live in Laureles, the second-most popular neighborhood for expats. This amount pays for a room I share in a decent-sized city apartment with three Colombian housemates, all my services (internet, electricity, etc.), and a cleaning lady that comes twice a week.
  • Groceries: $300,000-500,000 COP/~$100-$150 USD. This is super subjective–you can check the prices on staple items on a site like Numbeo, but I find around $15,000 COP (~$5 USD) seems to be the average daily cost of feeding my face. This is, of course, shopping in the grocery store, not including the odd restaurant meal here and there.
  • Coworking space: $150,000 COP/~$45 USD. I wouldn’t be able to do this remote work thing without a dedicated space to do it in. The comraderie and community of Ondas is enough better than a library that I’m willing to drop fifty bucks a month on it. The coworking spaces in Poblado start at about twice that rate and have a thing for fluorescent lighting.
  • Doin’ stuff: $100,000 COP/~$30 USD. I think I’m more of a homebody than your ideal adventurer, but even people who want to hit the club every weekend can get by fine here. Most of my exploring is done from a park bench or bike seat, but every now and then I’ll splurge on a few drinks or a $4 two-course lunch in a restaurant.
  • Annoying life stuff: ??? This is the underreported budget breaker. Needing to pick up a curtain to keep your new room from turning into an oven in the afternoon, buying an 18-pack of AAA batteries because you can’t find anywhere that sells fucking normal quantities of batteries, and needing a wrench because your brand new bike is broken–it all adds up. Just take comfort in the fact that your oh-shits will be significantly less expensive in Colombia than elsewhere.

So for a total, let’s just arbitrarily say 100,000 pesos (about $30 USD) a month for your Life Abroad Is Hard fund, and add that all up to a range of about $1,200,000 – $1,500,000 Colombian pesos a month, or around $350-$450 USD.

medellin broke digital nomad food

A splurge meal at Miiroku. About $6 USD.

For everything. All that I need here to sustain my biological functioning and even get some work done and enjoy myself now and then.

But then the story changes a little bit when we go beyond daily living expenses and move to the bills I have to pay in the same currency I’m earning:

  • Credit card payment: $100-$200 USD. This is the highest interest payment of any of my debt, so I try to prioritize it.
  • Student debt payment: $50-$100. The bulk of my US student debt is still in forebearance, but this is a small private loan I took out for my MA, and private lenders aren’t so patient.
  • Phone payment: $80. This is a lot but unquestionably worth it to me. On top of my monthly payment on the phone itself, my plan with T-Mobile is $50 USD a month and gives me unlimited international data (!!!) and unlimited texting.
  • Small stuff and annoying bank fees: ~$50 USD. Netflix is eight bucks, every time I take cash from the ATM it’s $5, and every now and then I buy an ebook or donate five bucks to Wikipedia or something. I need to get a better bank.

So all in all, my Colombia-external expenses add up to between $280 and $430 a month. That’s about equal to my in-country expenses. Qué pena…

But I guess none of this really matters without putting it in the perspective of income.

Making Money in Medellín: How I’m Flailing my Way through the Digital Nomad Thing

For me, nowadays I’m almost exclusively making my living off of freelance writing.

 

The majority of my income now comes from my regular contributions to the language learning blogs at Transparent Language and FluentU, as well as to the online lifestyle magazine Beyond Words.

Location Independence and Eternal Spring: Why Digital Nomads are Migrating to Medellín

5 Ways to Translate Your Language Skills into Online Earnings


I have the ideal freelance relationship with all three of these publications: every month I write a regular-ish number of articles for them at a set per-word or per-article pay rate that we’ve already agreed on. This is the kind of semi-stability I’ve been dreaming of since I started working toward location independence in Mexico City, giving me a fairly predictable monthly income as a baseline and earning enough to free my time up for other projects.

Listing what individual publications pay writers seems maybe less than tactful, so here a quick anonymized breakdown of what I’ve got coming in:

  • Publication 1: 3-5 articles a month x $70-$140 = $210-$560
  • Publication 2: 2-4 articles a month x $100-$205 = $250-$650
  • Publication 3: 4 articles a month x $30 = $120

The possible range then is from $580 to $1330 USD a month, but the actual range is a bit narrower: based on the reasonable minimum amount of work I can expect to do (i.e. the least I could reasonably do without being a total fuckup) and realistic circumstances (i.e. waiting on editors), I plan for $650 to $1000 a month. The last two months have fallen in the $800-900 range.

And as you’ll notice, those numbers look uncomfortably similar to my total expenses.

medellin broke digital nomad metro

Sometimes I picture my financial life as a barren inner-city slum as seen from a nearby metro station on a particularly cloudy, smoggy, ominous day.

But this is where Medellín comes in.

How to Be the Brokest, Happiest Digital Nomad in Medellín

If you’ve got nothing but a dream, a couple hundred bucks, and a crushingly boring home town to escape, Medellín might just be the place for you.

For young start-up digital nomads or nomads-in-the-making, I can’t imagine a much easier place than Medellín, if nothing else then simply because stuff is so cheap here. A week with no money sounds like a long time, but when $25 USD can get you this amount of groceries, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to weather the lean periods.

medellin broke digital nomad groceries

There’s a lot of meat behind those bell peppers.

If you make $500 USD a month and aren’t afraid to learn some Spanish, you can afford Medellín, and if you make a hundred or two less than that and are tenacious as hell about making ends meet and generating some more income pronto then yeah, go for it.

Here’s an idea of how.

Housing

Hostels, Air BnBs, guest houses, apartment shares, furnished flats, you’ll find expats living in all of them in Medellín. When I arrived, I paid $23,000 COP (~$7 USD) a night at the Yellow House hostel in Floresta, where my seven bucks included a hot fried egg breakfast and enjoyment of the tranquil homeyness that is the Floresta neighborhood. With a dorm bed that cheap, I didn’t have to rush to find a room right away (and the Yellow House quickly became one of my all-time favorite hostels).

medellin broke digital nomad hostel

The front patio at the Yellow House Hostel.

It’s not hard to find a room or apartment in Medellín, and it’s surprisingly easy to find a cheap furnished accommodation in a decent neighborhood. On CompartoApto.com you can find surprisingly nice accommodations even in the popular neighborhoods of Poblado and Laureles. I pay $595,000 a month for my room, but I viewed furnished rooms in places just as nice for $450,000 ($140 USD) a month or less.

Bottom line: If you’re willing to live simply and are looking for the added benefit of local roommates, you can find a place under $150. If you want your own apartment and a bit of Western-style luxury, maybe start around twice that.

Total: $140-300/month

Eating

I try to spend about $100,000 COP ($30 USD) on groceries every week. I eat a lot of good stuff: I cook a hot breakfast with three or four eggs and some kind of vegetable almost every morning, eat meat-heavy dinners, make a lot of big salads, and consume nearly one metric fuckton of fresh fruit every day.

medellin broke digital nomad cooking

Marinading some chicken breast for some curry to share with friends.

It’s also really easy to cut it down to $20 ($60,000 COP) a week by going heavy on rice, arepas, potatos, and canned tuna or eggs instead of fresh meat when times are lean. But when boneless, skinless chicken breast is € 3/kg ($1.60/lb), it’s hard not to just ‘splurge’.

Also, when you’re cash-strapped and hungry for a hot meal, empanadas and arepas on the street are normally between 1-2 thousand pesos, or about 35-70 cents. Quality is a gamble, but there’s nothing like these little greasebombs to sit in your stomach and give the illusion of nourishment until your next paycheck comes in.

Bottom line: If food and nutrition are particularly important to you and worth what little bit of extra spending you can dedicate to it, then you’ll probably sit in the $30-35/week range like I do. If you’re cool with simpler meals and filling up on starches, aren’t a big eater, or are as broke as I was when I got to Medellín, you can get by with $20 or less a week.

Total: $80-$150/month

Working

If you haven’t heard of them before, coworking spaces are like shared offices for remote workers of all kinds, where you basically either rent a particular desk or the privilege of entry for a day, week, month, etc. Some are all cubicles and white walls, and others look more like Ondas, where I work.

medellin broke digital nomad coworking

Chill spaces at Ondas Coworking.

Ondas happens to be the cheapest place in town (fact, not just shameless promotion of my favorite spot) and one of only two coworkings on the west side of town, the young, up-and-coming, and ever so slightly alternative expat neighborhood. As far as I know, the coworking spaces in Poblado (the true center of both Medellín’s expat and nomad scenes) start at at least twice the $50 USD I pay for my monthly pass at Ondas.

Of course, the true budget option for the truly broke is to forgo the coworking space completely. But where to work? If you need to get out of the house, check out one of Medellín’s many libraries, particularly the parques-biblioteca, a Medellín-born urban innovation that’s now being used in urban development strategies around the world and incorporating these hybrid library-community centers into poverty and crime reduction strategies.

medellin broke digital nomad library

Parque-Biblioteca Belén, one of the neighborhood ‘library-park’ community centers that together form an important part of Medellín’s urbanismo social development plan.

Bottom line: If you can’t afford a coworking space on day one, or you just don’t want one, save the money and hit the free library. If you want your own desk in a modern building surrounded by posh cafes, look to spend $150 or more in Poblado.

Total: $0-$150/month

Doing

There’s a lot to do here. At most, you can get 180 days of the year on a tourist visa in Colombia, and I think you could spend all 180 of them in Medellín without running out of attractions and cultural endeavors.

medellin broke digital nomad centro

Centro, as seen from above Parque Berrio.

But if you’re on a budget and Medellín is your nomadic launching pad, it’s also not hard to keep it cheap.

Two of the top 5 attractions for Medellín on TripAdvisor are the Metrocable and the Medellín metro. These two public transit installations along with TripAdvisor #3 attraction Parque Explora are all integral parts of the ‘social urbanism‘ approach to urban development that transformed Medellín through the late 90s and early 2000s, and it’s kind of a beautiful side effect that today they’re highly rated tourist attractions as well.

medellin broke digital nomad floresta

Mountain views from the Floresta metro station.

Bottom line: There is so much worthwhile free stuff to do in Medellín that some people, maybe especially location-independent professionals who are more worried about making deadlines than snapping selfies, really don’t need a special entertainment budget in Medellín. If you want one (as I certainly do when I can afford it), a small chunk of change will get you a long way here.

Total: $0-$30/month

Living

I think this is always the most annoying part of expat life, the endless miscellany of little crap you need to keep your life from collapsing in on the toothpicks and scotch tape you propped it up with.

My flip-flop burst apart last week, so rather than search for comfortable replacements in my giant gringo shoe size, I took it to the zapatería down the street, as recommended by the folks at the pharmacy just a bit further up, where they brought it back to life for 15,000 COP, about five dollars. That same week, my new bedroom curtain cost $10 (30,000 COP), a bike lock was $3 (8,900 COP), wrench was about $3.25 (10,800 COP), and when my other flip-flop broke a few days later, the same zapatería charged me just over three dollars (10,000 COP) to do the same thing again, because Colombia.

medellin broke digital nomad taxi

Even taxis don’t break the bank in Medellín.

Bottom line: For me at least, my “oh shit” expenses have been closer to “meh, would’ve rather spent that on empanadas”. If you can squeeze twenty or thirty thousand pesos ($6-$10 USD) out of each month for the inevitable onslaught of dying batteries, expiring lightbulbs, and expenses that hold out for the most inconvenient moments to strike, you can squeeze by.

Total: $0-??/month

The Bottom Bottom Line

Adding up all these estimated ranges puts novice nomads at a cost of living ranging from bare bones $220 USD to $630 a month. But being a broke twenty-something digital nomad myself, nothing gives me quite that special kind of paranoid anxiety like estimating prices, especially when they’re as suspiciously low as these. First, a couple quick important points.

medellin broke digital nomad park sign

“A briefcase to work, or a backpack to travel the world?” A Johnnie Walker ad in the park near my house.

These numbers as I’m estimating them are your basic, guaranteed monthly expenses and nothing else, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from horribly underestimating my own expenses, it’s that no matter how hard you budget, your monthly expenses will almost certainly be higher than this.

Another thing is that I’m purposely not talking about entertainment, nightlife, dining out, and stuff like this here. Those are recreational expenses, and everbody’s are different, but I’m assuming that if you’re as broke as I usually am, these things aren’t registering high on your budget priority list anyways.

So to get the real number, I do two really simple, totally arbitrary things. They’re both bullshit and you should do something based on logic or evidence instead.

First I add 25% to both ends of my range, to get $275-$788 a month. This is because I just assume I’m being too optimistic about my expenses, but I at least hope that it’s not by as much as half, so a quarter seems like a good arbitrary cushion. And then, I just round up to the next hundred. It helps keep me from being disappointed or spending frivolously.

So, for a just-starting, tight-budgeted, erratically-earning young digital nomad, you can cover the basics of a humble life in Medellín for about $300-800 USD per month.

Lifestyles and expenses vary as much as people and professions, but I challenge any aspiring expat with a bit of mobile income to gracefully descend a few rungs on that socioeconomic ladder we’re all rushing to climb so fast and give it a go in Medellín.

medellin broke digital nomad vista

For myself, I can say that my own expenses here fluctuate with my income, stress levels, and social ups and downs. Nowadays I’m satisfied spending four or five hundred dollars a month in Medellín on my modest shared apartment in my cool neighborhood, with my good food and sporadic trips and shenanigans.

Last year in Mexico City, this life seemed like a luxurious dream. I think a lot of people I know might find it uncomfortable and cramped. I’ll probably agree with them in a couple of years, but for now I’m just a broke twenty-something digital nomad trying to make it in Medellín.

 

This was my stab at telling ‘the real story’ of cost of living for humble location-independent professionals getting their start in Medellín. Did I miss anything? Does this kind of lifestyle sound more restricted by money than liberated by flexibility? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons.

*That was true when I started writing this post, but I’m glad to report falling a dollar and change short of $1200 in April, and, notwithstanding nuclear winter or other disaster, a bit more than that in May!

 

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6 comments

  1. Erika Alc · May 2, 2016

    It amazes me how little money we actually need to live comfortably. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what my life would be like if I lived as an expat somewhere. Like you, I’m also a “digital nomad,” and the thought of writing and making a living from somewhere outside of the U.S. is an enticing notion. I’d consider it a little more if my income was more consistent. That kind of lifestyle seems more liberating to me than it is restricted. But I could only know for sure from first-hand experience. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jakob Gibbons · May 2, 2016

      Yeah, I can definitely understand the hesitations around inconsistent income, that’s where I was until basically riiight when I arrived in Medellín. I took a gamble coming here, but it was worth it!

      I really do think, especially if you’re US-based, this is really close to the perfect place to get started. And like I said, those lean periods in your sporadic income aren’t so hard to weather when you can get two empanadas for a dollar :-P

  2. Nico Atienza · May 2

    Thanks for the tips. I’m going to check out Ondas when I’m in town!

    • Jakob Gibbons · May 2

      Definitely do! Since I left it’s expanded into a pretty cool hostel, but it’s still got the great cafe and plenty of room to work too :-)

  3. Kristina · May 2

    “Quality is a gamble, but there’s nothing like these little greasebombs to sit in your stomach and give the illusion of nourishment until your next paycheck comes in.”
    This was one of many one-liners in your post that made me guffaw out loud. Thank you so much for writing posts like this. My husband and I want to live in Thailand and Colombia for a year or two each at some point, hopefully within the next 5 years. Posts like the ones you write keep me hopeful that our dream of being globally mobile will become a reality and not just some “i wish we would’ve…”

    Cheers from los angeles,
    KLD

    • Jakob Gibbons · May 2

      Yes, do it! Grab life by the greasebombs!

      I’ve heard great things about Thailand as well, but especially if it’s (one of) your first home(s) abroad I think Colombia is so perfect for Americans because it’s a short cheap flight away but still challenging and different.

      And thanks for the kind words ^_^

      Good luck to you and your husband, safe travels!