Introducing Cris Gawlik, 40, a maths content developer originally from the US. Cris made the choice to become 100% location independent when she was 37. She started her business whilst on the road and is now saving 70% of her income with the aim of securing financial independence and early retirement (FIRE).
Sam: Cris, I was really interested to hear how you became location independent and what you’re achieving through it. Tell our readers a bit about yourself – where you’re based at the moment and how you earn income on the road.
Cris: I’m currently enjoying life in a small beach town called Puerto Morelos, which is between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. I’m going to spend a few years hopping around different countries along the Caribbean Sea, and I came to Mexico because as a US passport holder, I can be here for six months on a tourist visa.
How Cris generates a location independent income as a content developer
I create and develop math content for educational publishers. This might include content for books, online content and videos. It’s something that I fell into over time. I started out as a high school math teacher and I did that for three years. Then I decided to go back to school to get a PhD so I could teach at university level. And so I taught university math and I also became a math educator, showing future teachers how to teach. After a while I chose to leave the classroom and I left university. That’s when I decided to work on the corporate side of education.
I was a curriculum developer for a while, with a small startup company that focused on STEM education. Then I worked for an educational technology company as a manager of professional development.
Why she up her own business
But I kind of had a falling out with my last two employers, when I got written up by two vice-presidents for being “over productive”.
Sam: Wow. I’ve never heard of that before! That’s ridiculous.
Cris: Yes, I think it’s jealousy. I think people feel threatened by other people that do good work and who are smart. And the second time it happened, I knew right then and there that I had to work for myself. Because if overproduction is the worst thing I was doing at these other companies – that could be the number one asset that I bring to my own company.
Sam: That’s an inspiring tale. How old were you when you made that decision?
Cris: I was 37. At the time, I was really quite devastated. Now there’s no turning back – there’s no way I could ever work for another company again. I know I’m really good at what I do and my small business is proof of that. I get all my business through referrals and word of mouth. I only work about 25 hours a week and I’m generating more than enough to be able to save hard, which is important to me.
It’s great, I don’t rush in the morning. I enjoy my coffee. I walk on the beach twice a day. I’m really enjoying life and living it, but I’m still making a solid low six figure income working 25 hours a week.
Location independent aged 35+
Sam: When you made the decision to start your own business, was that also the time when you decided to become location independent?
Cris: Actually, no. I was already location independent with the last job, when I was managing professional development. At the start of the job I moved to Arizona, as the company specified I could work from home as long as it was on the west side of the US. After some time, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to do that job in my home office. As long as I had power to charge up my devices and internet, I could go anywhere.
So that was the ‘aha’ moment when I realised that I didn’t have to have a home base anymore – I could give it up. At that point I decided to become location independent within the United States, with a few trips abroad mixed in. But I was still working for the company.
Plans to retire early through geoarbitrage
A year after starting my business, I began researching the cost of living abroad. I was interested in living somewhere where the cost of living was much cheaper, so I could pursue my dream of saving hard to retire early. I took a year to research what was involved, looking at all the details: rent, health insurance, internet options, SIM cards, the works.
Throughout that time my new company was growing, and I started hired subcontractors to help me. In my second year of business growth, I pulled the trigger, sold everything I owned, including my car and four bedroom house, and decided to live overseas on a more permanent basis. I now live in countries where the lifestyle is significantly cheaper, but I’m still earning as much as I did as when I lived there. Another term for this is geo arbitrage.
The importance of proof of concept
So I did my proof of concept before I became location independent in another country. This showed me that I was making enough money and I could see the trajectory for further growth. And this then gave me the confidence to make the leap. Now I’ve got a whole team of people that are helping me grow the business.
I recently managed to save $20,000 in six weeks, just from the volume of work that had come in at that particular time. In the past I’ve never been able to save that much. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making good money. It’s just that I just spent everything. In all honesty, I never sat down and did a budget. I knew my costs for the house and my car, maintenance and insurance etc. I understood all that, but I did not pay attention to what I was spending. I have a ballpark of what I think I was spending, which was more than likely over my salary.
My mindset and attitude were the problem. My thinking went along the lines of “Oh I’m due a paycheck soon – I’m entitled to spend it.” I kick myself now! I lived a materialistic lifestyle. I can’t change the past, but I can definitely change my future.
Now I’m literally living out of a suitcase and my rent is all inclusive, if you will. And I’m perfectly comfortable. I’m saving 70% of my income, and living off 30%. It’s insane.
Adopting a more minimal lifestyle
Sam: Good for you, especially given that you are able to reflect that your previous lifestyle was perhaps a bit excessive. Do you feel you’ve become more minimalist since you adopted this new approach?
Cris: Absolutely. When I first set off abroad, I over-packed. I had two suitcases weighing over hundred pounds (about 45 kg). I have a lot of heavy technical equipment which didn’t help, but it was still too much. Over time I’ve realised that I just don’t need a lot of it, so I’m sending stuff back to put into storage, or getting rid of it.
Having said that, I’ve lost 10lbs as a result of this new lifestyle so I do need to replace the clothes I have. I’m going back to the States for thanksgiving soon and I will purposefully shop in the sales to buy clothes made of certain fabrics and in a different size. I’m living in a hot and humid area so the right fabrics are important. So when I do shop, I shop with purpose and intention, and I like that.
Sam: Tell me about your living and business expenses there in Mexico.
Cris: Business expenses come directly out of the business account, and amount to 8% of what the company makes. Mostly these are for subcontractors and annual digital subscriptions. I expect my business expenses to increase a lot in 2020 because I’m planning to grow the business and I’ve got more subcontractors lined up to take on more work.
With regards to my personal income, as paid to me by my company, I spend about 30% of it on living expenses. I’m doing really well at sticking to a monthly budget of $2,500, which amounts to $30,000 a year. This gives a daily budget of $82. I have an app that I love called Wander Wallet and it allows me to track everything really well whilst travelling. My lodging amounts to around 47% of this, the rest is mostly spent on eating out – which I also count as entertainment.
Travelling with purpose as a location independent nomad
Sam: Do you feel as though you are traveling differently now than a few years ago?
Cris: It’s 100% different, but mainly because I’m not traveling to go on a vacation. I’m purposefully choosing to move countries every few months, so I can experience what it’s like to live in them. When I would go on vacation, I would try and cram in as many excursions as I could, every single day, so I could see it all. My mindset was “I might never come back here”. But I don’t have to think like that now. I take my time, getting to know the area intimately and becoming friends with people who live there, too.
Sam: I wondered if you have any family responsibilities back home which you need to juggle? How have your parents felt about you moving to Mexico?
Cris: My family is spread out throughout the US. My mom is 67 and she lives in Kansas, where I was born and raised. My sister is 43 and she lives in a small town in Connecticut. My dad is in Arizona and he’s married, so I have a stepmother, and I have step siblings throughout the US.
And I started moving right out of graduating high school. I moved all around Kansas for a while, then I went to Dallas, Chicago, and Louisiana, before heading to Phoenix, Arizona (where my Dad is). I literally moved every one to four years.
Persuading family members
So when I told my family what I was doing, they weren’t surprised about me moving but they were concerned about me moving abroad. I had to explain to them that I’d done my research and I could dramatically reduce my cost of living and save the majority of my income if I lived in another country, and my company was doing well so it was very possible. I had to show them that I would be crazy if I did not take up this opportunity.
But they were still very emotional. My mom literally cried down the phone when I bought my one way airplane ticket. My mom only ever cried if someone died. I was blown away. I was about to turn 40 years old and their reactions seemed over the top. But then she came to visit me in Mexico, and I showed her that as a country, it’s not as scary as people make it out to be. So many people said to me before I came, “don’t join a cartel and don’t buy drugs”. And I would reply by saying “as if I’m going to do that!”
I’m also lucky that all my parents are healthy, my stepmom included. Both my dad and stepmom are around 72 / 73, and my mom is 67. So I feel also that this is my time now – I want to maximise this opportunity. I’ve got to do this because I don’t know how long they’re going to be as healthy as they are now.
With regards to the future, in terms of looking after my mom, I don’t know what that will look like yet. I’m not keen to go back to Kansas and my sister’s quite independent too. But we’ve started having conversations about it now – we’re much more open about things like that, which is great.
Connecting socially and giving back to local communities
Sam: Just coming back to your trip and your experience of it, how have you approached making friends in each place?
I’m quite good at making good friends quickly! I join the Facebook groups for the region I’m going to – digital nomad groups, ex-pat groups – that sort of thing. These show where the best locations are to stay and have helped me find rentals (there are specific groups set up for month by month rentals). They also list social events which I attend.
I’m also a very proud member of Rotary International, a worldwide international charitable organisation. Its aim is to bring clean water to communities and education to all. There are 33,000 clubs worldwide, 1.3 million members. I’m the secretary of the SW USA Rotary Club, but I can also connect with any club worldwide. I recently made contact with the English speaking one here in Playa del Carmen (my Spanish is not good enough yet for the other ones). They have a volunteering position coming up in November which I’m going to participate in.
I love connecting with Rotary International because it’s a movement that gives something back. Whilst I was in Arizona, we drove down to Mexico and helped deliver a radiator for a school bus allowing 250 kids to attend school on a daily basis. We also renovated a school.
Cris’ tips for other digital nomads over 40
Sam: It’s lovely that you’re able to give something back to your host country. What tips do you have for other people who are looking to become location independent like you have?
Cris: I think people from our generation have an ideal opportunity because we’re adults now, we’re not 20. We’ve been in the workforce for many years, we have the resources to be self-sufficient – even if you are just spending paycheck to paycheck, you have problem solving and life skills that you’ve learned because you’re older.
I’ve connected with a lot of young 20 somethings that just want to travel the world but they’re not making enough money and they can’t sustain themselves, and many of them are becoming burdens on the countries that they go to. I don’t think that’s a good plan, but each to their own.
As older location independent people, we have the ability to either rent out our properties in our homelands or to sell up and go. I think that is really going to be helpful.
Then, if you want to retire early, it’s a case of locking down a plan to financially sustain yourself, and to save much more than you earn. This can be done by moving from one place to another more slowly, so you get to know it and you reap the savings from long term rentals, and by living a minimal, less consumer focused lifestyle whilst you travel. I’d love to meet more people who are doing what I’m doing – saving hard whilst working in a location independent way – but I can’t seem to find them! But I know they’re out there.
Plans for a location independent future
Sam: What are your plans for the future?
Cris: I’m excited to go back and see family and friends for Thanksgiving. But to be honest, I’m dreading it a little bit because, you know, I’m sitting here in a kind of ratty t-shirt and some sweat shorts and I’m perfectly comfortable, but I’m in Mexico. It would not be looked highly upon if I walked into a top restaurant in Arizona dressed like this. I’m excited to visit, but I don’t miss that in terms of living there all the time.
My remaining overseas travel plans are organised through to June 2020. I’m going to spend a lot of time in Ecuador and a small town on the south side of Belize.
In terms of business plans, I’m looking forward to growing the business with the help of my subcontractors – friends and associates I’ve built up over years. And I’ve been writing a book and blog of my experiences to help other people reach their early retirement goals while travelling full time. It will be filled with details: for example, how to look after the book keeping side of things, even if you’re on a much smaller budget than I’m on. The aim is to help people by showing them what I’ve done.
Sam: Cris, thanks so much for the interview. I look forward to welcoming you back in the future, perhaps after you have finished the book and got your blog started. Thanks again!
- Read Cris Gawlik’s blog, A Suitcase and a Smile
- Learn more about the FIRE movement
- Fire movement calculator
- Read other interviews with nomads who are over 40
P.S. Would you like to get a free copy of my new eBook, Become location independent over 40? Get yours here.