Given the wait times for a BTO flat in Singapore, many Singaporeans have to look for alternative accommodation in the meantime. This usually comes in the form of having to stay at their parent’s/in-law’s place or having to rent for a couple of years (if you want more privacy).

But as the rental market is at a current high, many Singaporeans loathe the thought of having to move out on their own right now.

Enter an enterprising couple, JS and Marilyn from (@ShrugMyShoulder).

HDB BTO Completion in 2025

They applied for a HDB BTO in 2020, but since it would only be completed in 2025, they opted for a very interesting alternative. Rather than waste the money on rent, they simply decided to travel around instead. Here’s their story: 

Decided to travel instead of paying rent

JS and Marilyn say that:

“We met and started dating when we were living and working in New York City. We travelled to Canada, China, and North Korea. After moving back to Singapore, we got our BTO flat in 2020. We were both living with our families, like most Singaporeans.

We explored the idea of renting an apartment, but we also enjoy long-term travelling. We had a combined budget of $3,000 for an apartment rental, but felt that it could be put to better use, given the comfort of our home and how easy it is to meet up in Singapore.”

Short trips to month-long trips

The couple had seen their travel durations grow over time – from short weekly trips to trips that lasted months. While immediate family and friends grasped their remote working lifestyle, it was harder to explain to the older generation like their grandparents and some relatives. These other family members assumed a divide between holidays versus working, rather than doing both on a trip. 

Nonetheless, the couple says that 

“We made it a point to be back for important occasions such as Chinese New Year and holiday gatherings. We’ve also lived abroad in New York City previously for much longer durations, so I guess that helped.”

Cost of rent vs travelling

Surprisingly, the couple says that the cost of travelling was not significantly higher than that of renting a home in Singapore.

Of course, this cost was weighed against an average whole apartment, and not of a room rental (which some couples do opt for to save on cost). The well-known travel website Airbnb, which allows you to find short-term rental homes rather than hotels, was a key part of the equation.

As such, for JS and Marilyn, the math worked out that by travelling simply and being smart with mile hacking and use of hotel points, they were able to achieve the same amount of spending monthly instead of renting.

Travelling costs the same as condo rental

“On average, travelling is about the same as renting a condo unit in Singapore,” they said.

“Of course, it depends on the country we are visiting as that affects the numbers significantly. We try to do a mix of expensive and more affordable countries throughout the year. In 2022, our average monthly spend was $3,200 per person inclusive of flight, accommodation, and expenses.

We also found that staying in a single city for long periods is much cheaper as Airbnb typically have long-stay discounts. We can also do groceries which is cheaper than dining out. We have a long-running series #MarilynMoneyDiary where we share our weekly spending down to every cent.”

One city at a time

One of the important elements here is to avoid trying to visit as many cities as possible, which could drive up the cost as well as commuting times:

“When we first started our digital nomad journey, we were trying to check off as many cities as possible. Because of that, most of our weekends were spent commuting. It was very tiring, more expensive and we could not enjoy what each destination has to offer due to the rush.

These days, we stay at a single destination for a longer time and buffer more time for travel days. A two-hour flight often takes up half the day as you’ll need to buffer in the time to get to and from the airports and including immigration. Slowing down made our experience better.”

They worked online remotely

A key thing to remember is that the couple weren’t behaving like they were on holiday.

A good number of hours were spent at work, and they often had to go out of their way to accommodate work needs:

“We have been on the road since September 2021,” the couple said, “Prior to the trip, finding accommodation with good WiFi and comfortable workspace is important. We also try to get multiple backup options like SIM cards with generous data plans and stay at locations where there are cafes nearby.

A disciplined digital nomad lifestyle

This meant that unlike what you’d typically see on social media, it’s not all fun and games 24/7 and there is a certain amount of discipline that you’d need to succeed at such a lifestyle.

“Traveling as a digital nomad is unlike travelling for leisure. We have to prioritise work on the weekdays, and we are not too ambitious with the number of activities and attractions to accomplish in a day. Time zone also matters when choosing the destination, you might have to compromise and wake up early or sleep much later to be in the same time zone as your co-workers.”

Still, this led to some interesting experiences, like the couple’s time in Botswana. 

South Africa & Botswana Travels

“We both agreed that South Africa and Botswana was our most interesting nomadic experience so far,” they said. “We did Safari drives in the morning to see animals in the wild, then continued working from the afternoon to night. It was a different routine compared to working in Singapore or other cities.

There were also frequent blackouts (aka load shedding) in South Africa, so we had to time our meetings at the right time and communicate with our co-workers ahead of time.”

How to be a digital nomad

The couple says it’s a combination of finding the right job (of course, as not all work can be done remotely) and tracking your finances:

“We use the app Spendee and SplitWise to track and split expenses. We also recommend making use of credit card points and travel miles to reduce the cost of travel and experience a better travel experience. That includes staying in five-star luxury hotels and taking business class flights. We share guides, travel tips, and reviews on our blog

When being a digital nomad/remote working, it is important to be flexible with your itinerary, and know that work is a priority as that’s what’s ultimately sustaining the travels.”

This is really important to understand, as such a nomadic lifestyle may not be for everyone. Still, for those looking to enjoy different experiences, this is probably the best time to do so before other responsibilities like family, etc come into play.

As for the issue of rental, the couple says that:

“Being Singaporeans, we have access to affordable housing and ample subsidies from the government when purchasing our flat. We also have the option of staying with our family while waiting for our BTO to be ready. On the other hand, the rental prices now are really high, and doesn’t make sense financially for us to rent given that we have alternative living options.

We think that although it is expensive, renting is still a viable option for many couples who want to have their own space before their house is ready.”