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Read articles and blogs about personal finance long enough, and you’re sure to run into a suggestion or two about starting a side hustle to earn more money. A “side hustle” is a term that describes any kind of work you do on the side of your regular day job in order to increase your income.
If you want to improve your financial situation, this can be a great way to do it. The math is simple: When you have more money coming in, you have more cash to allocate toward your financial goals. You can pay off debt faster, pad your savings accounts and invest more money each month.
But the idea of side hustles raises a couple of important questions: How do you get started, and how do you balance a full-time job with a side hustle (and not lose your sanity along the way)?
Getting started with a side hustle
I wondered the same thing a few years ago. I was earning $28,000 per year from my full-time job, which wasn’t enough to keep up with my ambitious financial goals. I knew I needed to make more money if I wanted to achieve those goals.
I started by exploring some of my existing skills and figuring out how to leverage them to boost my income. My background is in research and professional writing, and I’ve always been obsessed with nailing financial success — so I started writing about it. I created my own personal finance blog and gained valuable experience writing about money. Before long, I was pitching ideas to magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs.
I wrote many of those initial articles for free. But then I started scouring job boards and Craigslist to find freelance opportunities — and I landed them. The very first paid article I wrote was 500 words long and only paid $15, but it was a start.
Fast-forward three years (and a whole a lot of hustle) to last fall. Not only had I consistently increased my skills and value as a freelance writer, but I’d even parlayed my experiences into a new full-time job with a salary of $47,000 per year. Add to that the $4,000 per month I was pulling in from my side hustle, and my financial goals were fast becoming my financial reality.Read about another writer's success with side hustles
Balancing a full-time job with a big freelance workload
The biggest challenge in earning $4,000 a month from freelancing? Balancing a significant workload with the regular demands and responsibilities of a full-time job. When I started, I worked 80-hour weeks in an effort to hustle as much as I could.
Obviously, this wasn’t sustainable. During that period, I didn’t see my friends and didn’t spend much time with my significant other. My life turned into work, eat (sometimes), sleep and repeat.
But that kind of dedication upfront allowed me to eventually increase how much I charged for my work. That meant I could take on fewer assignments and still make the same amount, which translated to a much healthier work-life balance. I slowly dropped the work that didn’t pay me and took steps to align my schedule with how I value my time.
5 practical steps to managing your job and your side hustle
Taking on additional professional responsibilities and tasks in addition to your day job can create chaos. I needed to use several tools and systems to keep me on track and save me from dropping the ball on my freelance work or my job.
Here’s how I managed my time and my workload:
I used a task manager
The web application Asana tracked all my to-dos, and I mean all of them. It was my one-stop system for my personal tasks, work projects and freelance assignments. Everything was organized and sorted into different projects, but I could also see a master task list that I used to plan my days.
I scheduled everything
I scheduled my time down to the very last working minute. Again, this included chunks of time for personal needs along with job responsibilities and my freelance writing. I used Google Calendar to make sure I didn’t forget any appointments, meetings or deadlines.
I protected my work time tenaciously
I’m a writer, so of course I prefer communicating in writing. I would much rather email someone than get on the phone. Calls require you to sync schedules and they often go on longer than needed. Not to mention, stopping work to take a call disrupts your flow and productivity. So I blocked off days in my schedule that were just for work, and I refused to take phone calls or have meetings on those days.
I delegated some of my tasks to virtual assistants
Earning $4,000 a month didn’t just require a lot of writing; it required a lot of administrative work like scheduling meetings, sending invoices and researching new ideas to pitch. But I didn’t earn money for completing those tasks, so I hired virtual assistants to help me. I paid $20 per hour for their time — well worth it when an hour of my productive work time could be worth $100.
I prioritized my tasks
A few times, I had to cancel existing appointments and reschedule. I didn’t like doing that, but managing a lot of commitments means prioritizing. I always tried to learn from when I had to flat-out cancel, and I practiced saying “no” upfront when similar meetings came up in the future.
Most of the time, taking these actions allowed me to juggle everything successfully. But with so much going on, just one unexpected issue was enough to throw off my entire week. I made mistakes and had to deal with the consequences, but I learned some important lessons about how to manage a job and side hustle.
Here’s how I dealt when things went off the rails:
- I reached out to my editors as soon as I could. If I even suspected I might miss a deadline, I reached out to the editor to let them know I was running behind. Giving them the heads-up meant they could work with me and possibly offer a deadline extension. While this still inconvenienced them, they were never surprised with a missed deadline.
- I canceled or declined nonessential meetings. When I simply didn’t have time for everything, I protected my days from anything that wasn’t essential. I declined coffee meetings and asked to communicate via email instead of through video or phone calls.
What $4,000 actually looks like when you work for yourself
I had to do a lot of work to earn that extra $4,000 a month — and that was only my gross income. When you take on freelance work, you don’t get to keep every penny you make. I put aside 30 percent of everything I earned to pay taxes on my additional income. Taxes on 1099 income are higher than on income you make as an employee who gets a W-2.
After taxes, $4,000 per month was closer to $2,800. I also incurred expenses to run my side hustle successfully (like paying an assistant to help me, attending networking events and traveling to conferences where I could potentially get new gigs).
After taxes and expenses of about $1,000 per month, I was left with a net of roughly $1,800. That’s still a good amount of money to make on the side, and I used it to help me accomplish a number of financial goals, including:
- Maxing out my Roth IRA (in addition to funding my employer-sponsored retirement account from my day job).
- Contributing to a SEP IRA.
- Creating an emergency fund of $15,000.
- Building my travel savings to $5,000.
- Investing $10,000 in personal development (specifically, hiring a life coach, which was transformational).
Making the leap from side hustle to full-time freelance work
Working both a day job and a side hustle was fun because it provided me with a lot of discretionary income that I used to make incredible financial progress in just a few short years. But I also knew I didn’t want to do it forever.
Once I consistently made $4,000 per month on my own, I started thinking I could easily double that amount — and perhaps make even more than that — if I freelanced full-time. My day job still took 40 hours of my week, while I only freelanced about 10 hours per week. (Remember, I constantly worked to get higher-paying assignments so I could earn the same, or more, and work less.) If I could dedicate those 40 hours to freelancing, I figured I could actually earn more on my own.
In October 2016, I officially made the leap. I was terrified, especially because I had gotten used to the cushy life that a double income afforded. Before I quit my job, I took home $3,900 per month from my salary (before taxes or contributions to retirement accounts). Leaving might have meant cutting my income in half. But as it turns out, I was correct in my initial thought that I could make more on my own.
I grossed $14,725 in my first month of full-time self-employment — over $10,000 more than I made at my job! I didn’t receive any benefits from my previous position, either, so my expenses didn’t change too much when I switched to working for myself.
Full-time self-employment comes with its own challenges that could fill a book, but I don’t regret making the change. My experience with a side hustle taught me what I needed to know to successfully navigate the hard times, and today, I feel like I can take on anything that self-employment can throw at me.
And I hope my story shows you that it is possible to take control of your finances to reach your goals. If you’re in a place where saving more money simply isn’t an option, consider finding ways to earn more instead.
It takes work and dedication, but you can proactively improve your financial situation by boosting your income — even on the side of your day job.