As the well-known businessman and author, Robert Kiyosaki once said…
“Take responsibility for your finances or get used to taking orders for the rest of your life. You’re either a master of your money or you’re a slave to it. Your choice.”
One of the main reasons that digital nomads travel the world is because of the freedom to go wherever, whenever.
In other words, to not be a slave to time and mobility.
So why should your personal finances as a digital nomad be any different?
You’re right! It shouldn’t be…
That’s why I’ve put together this post to help you set up your digital nomad finances for success so you can travel smarter, longer, and cheaper.
More specifically we are going to focus on the following digital nomad personal finance topics.
- Banks 🏦
- ATMs 🏧
- Credit Cards 💳
- Exchange Rates 💹
- Taxes 🧾
- Backup Plans/Tools 🧰
- *5 Secret Bonuses…* 🤫
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional financial advisor or an accountant, or a lawyer, or a doctor… So don’t sue me.
Backup Plans & Tools
Digital Nomad Banks
I use three different banks – Ally Bank, Charles Schwab, and Chase.
Charles Schwab high-yield investor checking account is my main bank account when traveling as a digital nomad.
Aside from their brokerage account bonus, the main reason I use them is their $0 ATM fees worldwide.
Other banks may have tens of thousands of free AllPoint ATMs or other ATM networks, but sometimes you might get unlucky and pick a non-network ATM and be charged unnecessary fees.
Few quick notes on Charles Schwab.
- You have to open a brokerage account with a checking account, but you don’t have to put any money into the brokerage account.
- They have 24/7 chat support on their website – great in emergencies.
- You can deposit checks in their mobile app.
Other banks with $0 ATM fees worldwide include Betterment and Starling Bank (UK Bank).
Ally Bank is my backup bank when traveling.
Apart from 24/7 online chat and phone support, it’s a great backup in case something happens with your main checking account, such as fraud.
Additionally, they have competitive savings accounts APYs in which you can easily transfer money from a savings account into a checking account and withdraw cash from an ATM in a pinch.
Another highly recommended digital bank is Varo Bank.
Chase is my third traveling bank because apart from getting the free money from the signup bonuses if I need to deposit cash it’s the only physical bank of the three when I head back to the US.
I keep the minimum balance in their checking and business checking accounts to avoid Chase’s monthly minimum fee.
Plus, I have their debit card with me in an absolute emergency but I’ve never had to use it.
ATM Golden Rule: NEVER, EVER accept the currency conversion.
When the ATM asks if you want to accept or decline the conversion rate on the screen, always hit “Decline Conversion Rate”.
When you decline the conversion rate this means that your local bank will exchange the money.
This will usually give you the best exchange rate. Especially if you have a more established bank.
If you choose instead to accept the conversion rate, you will get a guaranteed exchange rate, but the ATM can add up to a 10% service fee.
This is where you lose money. But you can avoid this by using the without conversion option.
Highly recommend prioritizing going into a physical bank to use an ATM and use the ATMs of the more popular banks in your location since they will be more likely to be secure.
Pro-Tip: When using an ATM, avoid withdrawing even numbers of cash (e.g., 200, 800, etc.).
For example, I withdrew a 1000 MXN pesos and received two $500 MXN pesos bills. With bigger bills it makes it more difficult to negotiate and purchase items since sometimes vendors may not have change for such a big bill.
It’s ideal to enter in a custom amount, ideally an odd number where you can get smaller sized bills.
I only withdraw/carry about $20 – $40 of local currency and go back to the ATM when I need more. Otherwise, I use my credit card for almost every transaction to earn points and because I have the self-discipline to not overspend.
Lastly, it doesn’t go without saying, make sure to hide your pin and watch your back when using an ATM.
Digital Nomad Credit Cards
Now let’s discuss one of my favorite topics – digital nomad travel credit cards.
My international credit cards look like this:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Amazon Prime Card
- Apple Credit Card
Additionally, I have other credit cards such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited, Chase Flex, Chase Unlimited, and a local bank credit card but those all have international transaction fees. So I don’t use them when I travel, unless in an emergency.
To make things simple we will focus on credit cards with zero international transaction fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is pretty much the holy grail of travel / digital nomad credit cards. I use it for over 95% of my transactions when traveling.
The benefits speak for themselves:
- $300 Annual Travel Credit
- 3X Points on Dining and Travel Worldwide
- Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Fee Credit
- Complimentary Airport Lounge Access (Priority Pass)
- 24/7 access to Customer Service Specialists
- Bonus Points Intro + 50% More Points Redemption
The big underutilized perk here is their phone support service. 90% of the time within a minute calling in you’ll be connected to a live person to help.
Chase Sapphire Reserve toll-free numbers are:
- US: +1-800-436-7970
- International: +1-614-776-7050
Pro-Tip: Create a contact in your phone with their phone numbers in case you lose your Sapphire Reserve.
I’ve had several successful travel claims with this card such as delayed and canceled flights, travel evacuation, overcharging, baggage claims, and much more.
Additionally, I’ve had my Sapphire Reserve stolen 2x times. Both times Chase has shipped new cards across the world, once in Sweden and recently in Ecuador.
Note: Specifically ask Chase for expedited shipping.
Amazon Prime Credit Card
The Amazon Prime card is my primary backup credit card. Plus I buy stuff on Amazon to be shipped back to my home when I make a pit stop back in the US.
The main perks of this Amazon Prime card are for buying stuff on Amazon and a $0 annual fee…
But what most people don’t realize is that it has zero international transaction fees.
Other Digital Nomad Credit Cards
Aside from the sleek white metal card, the Apple credit card has zero international transaction fees, a $0 annual fee, and serves as another backup credit card.
American Express (AMEX) has several great travel credit card options such as The Platinum and Green Card.
Only drawback is that AMEX might not be accepted by all merchants, whereas Visa is accepted worldwide.
Recommend taking a look at NerdWallet and The Points Guy as credit card resources for comparing travel / digital nomad credit cards.
Exchange Rates & Local Currencies
If you’ve been following the recommendations above and use your travel credit cards and withdrawing small amounts of cash, you shouldn’t have to worry about exchange rates or local currencies.
However, this could happen if you’ve withdrawn too much local currency or previously had a lot of local currency.
If this is the case, before you do anything, research the exchange rate.
The real way to know if you are getting the best exchange rate is to know what the current rate is.
Recommend to download the xCurrency app (iOS | Android) or XE app (iOS | Android).
Exchange Currency or Buy Local Currency
Two best places to exchange currency or buy local currency are usually:
- Local Established Banks – Likely to have the lowest currency exchange fees.
- Airport Currency Exchange Counters – Typically offer better rates than city-center equivalents.
Besides that, if you plan out your cash right, you should only need to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Digital Nomad Taxes
Disclaimer: Again, I’m not an accountant, but in my experience the big draw to being a digital nomad / full time traveler is leveraging the tax break of FEIE.
Otherwise known as Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.
At a high level this is avoiding paying federal income tax, and depending on your state, state income tax, up to a certain amount of income.
Right now that amount is up to about $109k amount in income but can change each year.
FEIE Rules / Criteria
According to the IRS, the rule is that you must meet one of the three criteria:
- A U.S. citizen who is a bona fide resident of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period that includes an entire tax year.
- A U.S. resident alien who is a citizen or national of a country with which the United States has an income tax treaty in effect and who is a bona fide resident of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period that includes an entire tax year.
- A U.S. citizen or a U.S. resident alien who is physically present in a foreign country or countries for at least 330 full days during any period of 12 consecutive months.
The last criteria is most commonly used by digital nomads.
From FEIE alone, I’ve been able to legally avoid paying over $20k in taxes.
For personal or business taxes, I highly recommend NomadTax.io as I’ve had an amazing experience working with them the last few years.
Another popular digital nomad tax-related resource is Nomad Capitalist. This resource is usually suitable for more high net-worth / income earners ($300k+ annually).
Backup Plans & Tools
While I’m generally not a big fan of backup plans, since a back up plan is planning for failure… It’s not a bad idea to have a backup finance plan as a digital nomad.
Two big things to cover here:
- Emergency Cash + Extortion Cash
- Backup Payment Methods
Note: I’ve had to use both methods in a pinch and they have been lifesavers, literally and in terms of saving money.
Emergency Cash + Extortion Cash
First part is emergency cash.
I carry around $60 USD in $20 bills, one in my wallet and two in a backpack so it’s separated.
Recommend USD since it’s pretty much accepted worldwide.
If you are in a foreign country for a while, you can also have emergency cash of the local currency.
Second part is extortion cash.
Yes, there are countries where you might get extorted by police and other people, so it’s important to have some extra cash to bribe them.
Pro-Tip: Keep your extortion cash separate from your other cash so whoever is trying to extort you only sees that you have this cash, not a full wallet.
These are definitely for more extreme cases, but it’s important to always be prepared.
Backup Payment Methods
Pretty straightforward, have a third-party tool in which you can pay across borders.
Common examples include PayPal, Transferwise, Payoneer, etc.
These are also highly effective if you own a business or for paying contractors/employees.
Now it’s time for the best part – the secret bonuses!
- Take Picture of All Cards
- Separate Card Locations
- Negotiate Everything
- Sharing Expenses
- Finance Spreadsheet Resource
Let’s dive in!
Take Pictures of All Cards
Pretty simple, take pictures of all your cards, both credit and debit.
In case you lose all your cards, you can still purchase something by having someone manually enter your card number.
Or you can be a nerd like me you can memorize them with the chunking method.
Pro-Tip: Take pictures of your passport, driver’s license, and other identification cards.
This allows you to sometimes get away with showing a picture of your ID, instead of having to carry these documents during a night out. And risk getting it lost or stolen.
Separate Card Locations
Don’t carry all your credit and debit cards in one location because if your wallet or backpack gets lost or stolen, you still have backup cards.
In my wallet, I carry $20 USD emergency cash, Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, Amazon credit card, Charles Schwab debit card, and US driver’s license.
In my backpack, I’ll have my backup credit cards (Apple + Chase), Ally Bank and Chase debit card, $40 USD, and passport.
Again, this is just reducing risk in case something happens.
Nothing is set in stone when traveling.
Which means everything can be a negotiation.
Plus, there’s a good chance that someone recognizes you as a foreigner and will charge you more.
A solid resource for learning to negotiate is Chris Voss’s MasterClass and book: Never Split the Difference.
Pro-Tip: Here’s how to save over 50% on your next Airbnb stay (video version). I’ve used this exact negotiation script to save over $10k on Airbnbs.
If you travel with other people and split costs, then I highly recommend the app Splitwise.
Download the app, create a group, invite other group members, and then log shared expenses in the app. You can log expenses in local currencies.
And then at the end of a trip, square up with Venmo, PayPal, or other money transfers.
Digital Nomad Personal Finances Spreadsheet
I’ve saved my best for last.
And that’s a Digital Nomad Finances Cheat Sheet that I use to track income, investments & savings, expenses, and financial goals.
Included are step-by-step instructions (plus a video) on how to automate your digital nomad finances to just 30 mins per month.
Note: I also use Mint for a snapshot view of all my finances. If you are just looking for the 80 / 20, then go with Mint – it’s free.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Which tactic from today’s post are you going to try first?
- Are you going to open a Charles Schwab checking account so you can avoid ATM fees worldwide?
- Or download the Digital Nomad Finance Cheat Sheet?
Let me know by leaving a comment below, right now.
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