A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

Tips for a Sustainable Side Hustle

Last September, determined to ramp up the pace of our debt repayment, I decided I needed to make more money. My regular paycheck was consistent, but it was also relatively meager. Forget the credit card bills - it barely covered the rent. When a search for more lucrative employment initially yielded few opportunities, I took a popular page from the personal finance playbook and leapt into the world of side hustling. (A side hustle is basically a part-time job designed to supplement other employment, and at present, it's a much-touted way to plump up your income.)

Faster than I expected, I landed a position as an adjunct online science instructor. The first term went well: My students were engaged and enthusiastic. The workload felt reasonable. The material was interesting. Best of all, the extra cash made a satisfying dent in our debt. Side hustling FTW!

Soon I was invited to take on a second class. I said yes immediately, eager to maintain momentum. Then an editing job landed on my plate. I wasn't super excited about it and didn't know what to expect, but I said yes to that, too, because if one side hustle was good, then surely a second one was even better!

It was a lot, to say the least. The last two months of 2017 found me burning the candle at both ends: working 8 to 5 at my regular job, spending a few minutes with my family at dinner, and then digging into two side hustles before crashing into bed around 10, only to repeat the same process the next day. Oh, and searching for another full time job and trying to have a social life, too. What started out as a positive experience slowly morphed into one that made me grumpy and frustrated on a daily basis, especially when I realized that the editing gig was a poor fit for me.

Now I'm putting the side hustles on hold. My new job has a one-year non-compete clause, for one thing. For another, I was more than ready for a break. I just plain wore myself out.

Although I'm not saying never again, the next time I pick up a side hustle, I'm absolutely going to do some things differently. Here's the advice I'd give to myself and to anyone else venturing into the realm of side hustling:

1. Don't pick a side hustle that you don't enjoy. I genuinely enjoy teaching, so I didn't mind logging into the classroom for two hours every night. It was fun to talk science with my students and see their interest in the topic grow over time.

The editing gig, on the other hand, was a slog from day one. I regretted it almost immediately. I quickly discovered that it would require way more time than I'd initially anticipated and that what I was being paid wasn't reflective of the amount of work I was putting in. The instructions were haphazard and vague. While completing my tasks, I regularly felt the urge to cry and/or pound my head on the keyboard - but it was too late to back out.

It seems obvious, but it's worth reiterating: because a side hustle involves work in addition to your regular work, often during your "free time" when you might rather be hanging out with your friends or family, make sure you choose a gig you like. Be a little picky! Preferably, choose something that feels more like a hobby than a job and gives you an opportunity to employ your skills and strengths.

2. Calculate your pay per hour, and assess whether the compensation is appropriate. From personal experience now and in the past, not all side hustles pay fairly. Talk to others who have worked similar gigs, and use sites like Glassdoor.com to research what the going rate is.

Many side hustles pay a set fee instead of an hourly rate. Fortysomething and I suspect that some companies go this route because it allows them to hide the fact that the pay is actually pretty underwhelming. If you've been offered a fee for service, don't let yourself get carried away by the big shiny number in the offer letter until you have a chance to do the following:
  • Estimate how much time you'll need to devote to the project (easier said than done in some cases, but try to ballpark it).
  • Calculate what you'll make per hour after taxes. 
  • Assess whether that hourly rate is fair.
Example: Let's say I'm offered $1000 for a project. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but whether it's actually worthwhile depends on the amount of time I'll need to complete that project successfully. If the project takes 20 hours, that's $50 per hour. Sign me up! If it takes 80 hours, that's $12.50 per hour.  Probably a no-go.

Only you can decide what qualifies as fair pay for you, but just remember that your time is incredibly valuable, especially given that you're using time that would otherwise be spent on more personal endeavors. Your side hustle should be worth your time. 

3. Pace yourself. When you have a big financial goal - paying off debt, saving for a vacation, stocking up your kid's college fund, getting off the paycheck-to-paycheck hamster wheel - it can be tempting to take on every opportunity that comes your way. That's what I did because more side hustles mean more money, and more money means less debt, and faster.

The danger in taking on too much at once is that you'll quickly burn out. Instead, start with one side hustle and make it your only one until you're comfortable with what it entails and how much time it's going to require. If things are going well after a few weeks or months and you're still hankering to take on another job, then give that a go. But build up slowly so that you can figure out what your limits are. Otherwise, you may find yourself feeling so overwhelmed that you can't finish all of the projects you signed up for.

Also, don't compare yourself to others. There will always be people who seem to turn 24 hours a day into 48, who can work multiple jobs without losing steam, who seem to thrive on a few hours of sleep a night. I'm not one of those people. Maybe you're not, either. And that's okay. Run your own race!

Pacing yourself is particularly important if you're using your side hustle to dig out of debt and/or stop living paycheck to paycheck. In both instances, consistent and slow progress is more sustainable than a set of hustles that have you working nonstop and exhausting yourself in the process. Note to self: it's okay to go slow as long as you're moving forward.

4. If you start to feel bitter and angry about the time you're devoting to your side hustle, ditch it. This goes back to Tip #2: life is short. It's too short for wasting your time on things that make you feel bad on a regular basis. If your side hustle is constantly stressing you out, making you bitter, or igniting frustration, consider cutting back... or maybe even cutting out. It doesn't mean you have to walk away forever. Just take a break.

If you've side hustled before, what advice would you give to others? In particular, how do you manage your time when you're working multiple jobs?


1 comment:

  1. Yes, to #4, especially.

    I have a complicated history with side hustles. I had a lucrative, but mega-stressful, side hustle for a couple of years. While it was nice to have the extra cash, ultimately, I was feeling anxious all the time about getting the work done, and it was interfering with my family time. Another downside (for me), was that I started to count on that money as part of my income, and would spend accordingly. I would do work, bill for it, then spend the "extra" money I had earned in the meantime, thus using the side hustle paycheck to pay back my regular account after the fact. It rarely went towards paying down debt.

    Ultimately, it was crucial for me to redefine what the income from any side hustle was for. Instead of dedicating it to debt or bills, I decided whatever "extra" I brought it from a side hustle would be for "extra" spending I wouldn't normally do. It is completely outside of the budget. The caveat is that I can't spend it until I have it, and I have to keep the money separate from the rest of our household money.

    Once I took that direction, my whole attitude about it changed. I even switched the gig entirely, so now I have a very low-pressure thing going on. I don't make nearly as much money, but I can pick and choose the work and only do what and when I feel like it. I generally do the work in 30-60 minute increments...sometimes on my lunch hour, or at the very end of my workday. I let the earned money accumulate in my PayPal account and every now and then, I spend it on something I would never want to use our household money for - a splurge on a new pair of shoes or an expensive restaurant.

    That's my long-winded answer, LOL.