The Cost of Working Remotely


I’m writing this in Mexico, on a poolside patio. My flight down here was $400 round trip, and I’m staying in a hostel for $12 a night. I’m earning my usual $25-ish an hour and clocking a couple hours a day, in between trips to underground springs, Mayan ruins, and the sunny beach in the Yucatan.

This is a work-cation, the first one I’ve been able to take, though it’s been on my bucket list for a while, ever since I got jealousy pangs reading about them in Get Bullish.

I’m working a grant-funded contract doing web and graphic design, social media, marketing, and fundraising: the big bucket of nonprofit labor. Normally I go in to the office maybe once a week for face-to-face catch-ups, and the rest of the time I work at home in my pyjamas (or some slightly nicer loungewear).

Commuting in takes an hour and costs about $10 each way, plus a burrito while I’m there. I usually tether my phone and get some social-media work done during the commute, so it’s a net gain — or net minimum-wage, if you want to think of it that way.

My salary is just okay for my skill level, but I save a lot on the amount of time and energy I save not commuting, not buying lunch, not dressing up, and not spending extra time on my nails and hair. That’s worth it to me.

I occasionally hit a nearby cafe when I need to get out of the house, and that runs me $2–3 for a coffee and $2–3 for a baked good. Otherwise my breakfasts and lunches are cereal, sandwiches, or leftovers from the fridge; I make my own french press and have a tea or two throughout the day. If I price that out, it’s around $1.50 a day for my meals and drinks.

I splurged on a $50/month gym membership (plus a $200 startup fee) so that I can get my heart rate up once a day. I go in the evenings, watch Jeopardy! while on the elliptical, and give my partner a chance to be home alone.

I claim part of my rent and utilities, since I require space and electricity and internet to do my job, but I won’t get around to working that out on my taxes for another few weeks. I did it last year based on freelance income, and ended up deducting almost $2,000 from my income.

Dispensing with some common remote-work advice, I haven’t bothered to redecorate or “office-ify” any space in my apartment — partly because it’s simply too small for that, so every inch is shared and multipurpose.

The laptop I travel with is a Chromebook, which means it’s limited in functionality: a report I need to redesign apparently isn’t compatible with Google Drive or any of the other cloud services I use, so it’ll have to wait until I get back. Other free options are surprisingly flexible: Mailchimp, Tweetdeck, Wordpress, the tricks of my trade are almost all online. Canva works great with graphics collections like The Noun Project and Unsplash, so I don’t even need Photoshop for 80% of what I do.

An unexpected consequence of a grant-funded job is that payment can be laborious. Sometimes my pay comes in the mail, and sometimes it’s deposited into my account. I do monthly reports directly to the granting body, and send invoices to my boss. Sometimes I bill after two weeks, and sometimes I bill after ten days, and sometimes I bill after a month, making it hard to write up a monthly budget. The upside is that this position is banking hours towards Employment Insurance, which can be a real godsend when you can’t line up a new gig for exactly when the old one ends.

I used to do nonprofit work with arts organizations, before I went back to school for a masters degree. Now I’m realizing I may always be suited to nonprofits— I work well in small shops, where job-scope creep is the norm and the hierarchy is flatter. That means being strung along from grant-funded contract to grant-funded contract might be a staple in my future.

Good thing I’m saving all that money on office casual. Some smart people calculated (in 2013) that a remote full-timer, over one year, can save an employer $10,000 and an employee $5,000.

Looking around my hostel, I was expecting to see a few people here for the same reasons. There are lots of laptops out, but nobody obviously plugging away at billable hours. There’s a man here to buy a car, a woman luxuriating in her retirement, and the usual crop of perfectly-tanned, dreadlocked youngsters jumping from nightlife to nightlife.

I’m not sure if this means rumors of the “digital nomad” have been exaggerated. Perhaps the true digital nomads are so much more skilled at this work-lifestyle than me, they’re all at nicer accommodations. There are digital-nomad support groups, summits and conferences, a directory of coffee shops, and a Reddit (of course), but it all seems to necessitate thinking of your work as a core part of your identity. And I’m trying to get away from that.

Allana Mayer is a librarian, archivist, and freelancer writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @allanaaaaaaa.