Uncharted Waters

Mar 18 2013   3:14PM GMT

Interview With A Digital Migrant: Meet John Hunter

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

John

“Move to low cost-of-living area of the world, set up shop working remote, work ten hours a week while building a huge nest egg.”

Whole books have been published on this model, along with terms like “The Nouveau Rich”, people who get to earn wealth while enjoying the easy life.

And yet …

It seems to never actually happen.

Or, at least, it doesn’t seem to happen much.  Often the people living the “Jimmy Buffett Life” are already millionaires living off interest.  Often the person speaking is selling something (perhaps a dream) more than a reality. We can do better.

Then I met John Hunter and learned about his technology business.

John is not independently wealthy.  He did not have a big IPO, and does not have have a revenue stream.  Nor does he have a best-selling book on, say, how to live cheap.  Instead, he was a practicing programmer and IT program manager who moved from Virginia to Malaysia, on the expectation of taking a year long “sabbatical,” and, if he could find a way to make it work, to stay a bit longer.

And Now

John has been in Malaysia for a bit over a year now, with no sign of returning anytime soon.

I thought he was worth talking to, and sharing here.

Matt Heusser: ‘Inverting’ your life, that’s kind of a big deal. How did you decide to up and move?

John: I had been thinking about it for years.  Originally my focus was on moving to cheaper area in the USA (and with warmer weather).  At that time my plan was to make the move into a full time job – with the plan to transition out of that into working for myself in a few years.  Then I started to think of building up some sources of income (management consulting, management seminars, income from my web sites and rental income) and move without a full time job.  I worked primarily on building up web site income for years.

I was mainly focused on just building what I wanted while seeing if also I could have that make some money.  I did put a bit of effort into thinking about making money to guide my effort, but very little.  I also did a bit presenting: about one management seminar a year.

The main factors that got me to move were: figuring out I could make it work financially and deciding it was better to try something that could be great than to just do what was expected.  If it didn’t work out, then I could return to a more traditional ‘job.’  Also I found limits with my strategy of working side projects while fully employed.  I like the side-job approach,  but I had reached a point where I couldn’t move nearly as fast as I wanted on my web sites and I hadn’t made progress on seminars or consulting.

I also don’t think much of the fake barriers we erect.  There were two time where I was in a job where going part time wasn’t an option; both times I managed to convince management to let me go part time in order to get more time for my side projects.

The main reason I decided on going to SE Asia (or somewhere else cheap) was I thought I needed that very low expenses to make it work.  I also wanted SE Asia because I wanted to use some of my free time (at least 7 weeks a year) to travel.  As it turns out I think I was significantly overly conservative.  I could easily have done this by moving to a cheap area in the USA.  I think maybe my expenses would be double in the USA but still that would leave me in good shape.  This is actually very good news for me, as I am convinced I won’t have to go back to a “real job” when I move back.

Matt Heusser: What is life like in Malaysia?   How much does it cost to survive for a year?

John: I am enjoying it.  Great weather, good food, all sorts of great travel opportunities (though I haven’t taken nearly enough advantage of that).  It can be cheap.  My apartment is $800 a month (large unit, 3 bedrooms) overlooking Singapore, and the complex has a very nice pool which I use regularly).  Saving a bit on that wouldn’t be tough especially if you wanted to share an apartment (they don’t have many small units – most have 3 bedrooms though in the last 2 years they have started to build 1 bedroom units – though aimed upmarket with fancy finishing touches so not that much cheaper than older, much larger units).

Health insurance and food are cheap.  I don’t have a car and taxis are cheap (owning a car is not cheap).  Electricity is cheap but has graduated charges (the cost per unit of electricity increases the more you use, so if you go over a level they consider excessive costs rise dramatically – I did that 1 month but most bills have been under $20).  This is actually a cool economic strategy.  Essentially they subsidize electricity for most users by charging those using very large amounts of electricity (who mainly are going to be rich people living in big houses using a lot of air conditioning) very high rates.  Alcohol is not cheap, that isn’t an issue for me but may add hundreds of dollars a month to expenses for some people.

I don’t have fancy habits but I live on $1,300 a month easily without feeling deprived.  All told, surviving on $16,000 for the year is easy – not including my travel.


When I interview contractors, I think they are often cagey about income and expenses. Listing your hourly rate (or what you ‘need’ to survive) ‘sets’ the expectations of some potential customers and can drive away others — it can even alienate your peers. So when John was willing to talk about expenses, real expenses, in Malaysia, I was impressed. At $16,000 a year means not a lot per hour to survive, or else not a lot of hours a week.

Next time, I’m going to talk to John about the other side; where he got the income.

11  Comments on this Post

 
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  • notinterested
    Have to admit I find this hard to believe. With rent being 800 dollars per month that is 9600 dollars per year or 60% just on housing alone.
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  • wabznasm
    I moved to Thailand about 7 years ago with no particular long term plan, and had the time to get back into coding as one of my passions that I hadn't followed up when previously being a part of the great rat race,

    Nowadays, running a car, motorbike, and paying the bills on a rented two bedroom house and feeding a family of three costs me about $900 per month. I live well away from the usual expat haunts but still near to the beach, eat out 2 or 3 times a week, have a holiday or two each year, and pretty much want for nothing. And I still bank about three quarters of what I earn as a freelance web developer/systems administrator.

    I can totally understand why John is doing this. I have friends who have similar lifestyles who earn income from blogging or writing ebooks who work an impressively low number of hours each week.

    It is about breaking out of the box that most of us live in. Not everyone needs to, and not everyone wants to. But I find it to be a much more enjoyable way of living than my old life back in the UK.
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  • Matt Heusser
    [...] * If you want to be able to live well on $15 an hour, check out Malaysia. This guy did and is loving it. [...]
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  • p0tato
    Look, man

    I've moved out from the States 2 decades ago into Asia and my business have been growing and growing all through these years

    As for Malaysia, methinks it's a bad choice - that country practices apartheid
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  • Shorinji
    If he is overlooking Singapore, he has to be living somewhere close to Johore Baru. Yes, it is possible to eat and live cheaply in Malaysia. I guess he does the visa run to Singapore.
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  • chindian
    Why Malaysia and why not India? India has a big IT industry and can be very cheap. It is culturally rich and can be much more accommodating of minorities & foreigners than Malaysia.
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  • SanJuanSufficiency
    I'm quitting my engineering job in a couple weeks to work full time on my 'hobby' business, which only requires an internet connection. I've carefully downsized my life and my expenses will be below $1,500 per month (not including health care). I live in the state of Washington. It can be done.
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  • Matt Heusser
    [...] supposed Malaysia is more open to foreigners making a living in the country than developed countries such as U.S.A. & [...]
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  • JustNiz
    $800/month for an apartment is an indicator of general costs and isn't particularly cheap even compared to the US.
    Is there anywhere in the world where you could rent a reasonable place for say $200/month and still be somewhere you would actually want to live?
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  • albertsol
    I used to work in Los Angeles. and then convinced my employer that i can be just as effective offshore, but with a salary cut. I am now making only $18 /hr as a SENIOR developer of a U.S. company (major salary cut) but living in the Philippines. I bring home net $2,600 after taxes and transfer fees. I own a 2 bedroom condo unit in Makati, a major city in the capital with malls and parks around me and living the good life. I earn double than what most high-paying jobs have here and i spend only half of what I earn. I have a car and travel often around the country as it is a beautiful land. I respect the people and I get back lots of love. I am seriously considering staying for good and marry a local. Only thing I can complain about this place is the traffic congestion which makes it a pain to go around. Good thing i work from home.
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  • su093
    I live in Long Beach, in a not-that-bad area, secure building.  1 bedroom 1 bath apartment for just $975/month.  It even has a secure 1-car garage and an extra parking spot.  I have similar income streams as him, so yeah it's definitely possible.  1.) lower your rent 2.) comb your monthly expenses and bank statements thoroughly and cut cut cut.  I have more money now than when I was making twice as much, simply because I have to actually pay attention to where my money goes.
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