So you want to be an expat: travel the world, find new friends, immerse yourself in a foreign language. But how can you actually make a living?

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to expat living is figuring out how to fund your lifestyle.

In my opinion, the absolute best method is to create a portable occupation. But maybe I feel that way because this is the route I took. And to be honest, I stumbled upon it by accident.

Before I started my business, I was trapped in a country and city I didn’t want to live in. I had no savings, and I was basically unemployable by the standards of anyone who would hire me. And I didn’t want to work for them anyway because I hated the 9-to-5 treadmill.

I was earning a little money from my writing, but we were still living on my wife’s salary as a translator in the automotive industry. Payment for freelance work was irregular at best, and I needed money to pay some bills. Badly. By the middle of next week. And I had no idea how I was going to get it.

Know what I did? I drew on everything I learned in my 20-plus years of martial arts training. It was the only other thing I could consider myself a legitimate “expert” in.

I drove over to Future Shop and bought a mini-DV video camera and some editing software with my credit card. Then I sat down with a paper and pencil and wrote a list of every crazy push up variation I could think of. I got on the floor and made up a bunch of new ones too.

I filmed it all as a 25-minute tutorial, named it Beyond Pushups, uploaded it to a website called E-Junkie, and linked it to my PayPal account. And then I posted a teaser and description of my program on a fitness forum where I was a certified coach, and I emailed the link to everyone I knew.

I set the price at $10. My wife didn’t think I’d even be able to pay for the camera. She gave me a smug look and said, “And then what are you gonna do?”

I plugged my ears and went to bed. And when I woke up the next morning, I had $1,000 in my PayPal account. I paid off the camera and software immediately, and still made a nice little profit.

expat lifestyle

Conversations abroad in a Jordanian Bedouin camp. Photo by Jason George/Outpost.

That little online project grew into several more video tutorials. And then a multimedia e-book. And then much larger projects with a coauthor who eventually became my business partner.

Today, that same partner and I run ShapeShifter Media Inc. We sell fitness programs through blogs and by email, and we help other authors publish their work in the online marketplace too. We have team members in nine countries. Each is an independent contractor who works from home and sets their own schedule.

A company like this is all-consuming for the first two or three years. We started it with pocket change and did everything ourselves. There were no weekends or evenings off. But with each new virtual employee, we were able to spend more time focusing on those crucial tasks that required our unique talents.

So what’s the takeaway message here for expat living?

These days I can run the business from anywhere with a decent Internet connection, and an average of three to four hours of focused work per day. That means I’m free to spend the rest of my time exploring exotic destinations, chatting in cafes or just loafing on a Mediterranean beach.

It takes a bit of advanced planning to set up that sort of expat income. But in my opinion, it’s the best option.

Relying on a portable occupation—preferably an Internet business of some kind—means that you won’t be tied to the local economy. And there are positive and negative implications to this.

On the positive side, you won’t have to worry about work visas, or finding a job, or doing the 9-to-5 grind. If you don’t like the place you’re living, you can pick up and go at a moment’s notice. You can even keep moving and work from hotels if that’s your thing.

And you can live in a place where your currency and purchasing power is stronger—which means you live like the upper classes on a fraction of what that would cost back home.

The biggest negative implication with currency is that this may work in reverse. I get paid in US dollars from my business, but I’m living in euros. So in addition to many things costing more on an island, I also take a hit on the exchange rate each time I send myself cash. But, for now at least, I feel the tradeoffs of living on a Mediterranean island are worth it.

So what can you do if you haven’t got a portable job or income stream or a teachable skill, and don’t really want to create one?

You could try to find employment in the tourism industry. If you’re a chef or bartender, or if you’re a certified scuba instructor you’re likely in demand abroad.

The writer and photographer in a Bedouin cave in Jordan. (Outpost/Jason George)

You might check to see if you qualify for a working holiday program. Many Commonwealth countries have them, and they’re open to Canadians. This is a special type of visa that allows you to supplement your income while travelling. It’s normally restricted to those 30 years old and under, and it’s a short-term option for those who are moving around temporarily, rather than someone intent on settling down as an expat. But it might be a good way to test the waters, make contacts in the country, and get your foot in the door.

You could also earn money by teaching English abroad. I did that last one for a couple of years when I was looking for an easy way to live in Japan. The main qualification is that you’re a native English speaker.

Most companies require some sort of TESOL or TEFL certification—I got mine at a three-day weekend course. And countries like Japan require a university degree to qualify for a work visa. Others do not require university or college as a qualification.

Just remember though: you’re signing up for a job, not a vacation. You do have to take it seriously. If that’s not for you, it’s better to save a pile of cash and take a long trip instead.

Expat living is a lot more flexible than it used to be, thanks to the Internet. The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination.

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