Ashley Gainer - The Penny Hoarder

It was late 2011 and I was eight months pregnant when my husband moved into the guest room. My marriage was over, and I didn’t see it coming.

I didn’t have a job because we’d planned for me to be a stay-at-home mom, and I was living 1,700 miles away from family.

Plans change -- that’s no surprise to anyone. And when I spent that first November night alone in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering what was going to happen in the new year, I knew my plans had to change.

But one thing wasn’t going to change: my commitment to being at home with my baby.

I was losing my marriage and the future I’d counted on, but I wasn’t about to let it cost me precious time with my son.

Determining My Approach to Single Stay-at-Home Mom Status

I’d been working on building a freelance business earlier the same year, but it was nothing more than a side project at the time.

I had long-term plans of making a full-time income from freelancing, but not for years.

As it was, I didn’t have much focus and I earned an average of $300-400 per month -- hardly enough to support myself, let alone the baby that was five weeks away from arriving.

But with some determination, a lot of sacrifice and a bit of luck, I was able to ramp up and keep working for myself -- even though I was a single mom with no other income.

Two essential factors made it possible for me to work from home with a baby: marketable skills and a low cost of living.

Putting My Journalism Degree to Work

Because I’d been on the freelancing scene, I knew it was theoretically possible to make a decent income working part-time hours.

I’d already begun to develop a personal network of other freelancers, so I had models to follow and people who could answer some of my most basic questions. Between my journalism degree and the work experience I’d picked up in various communications roles since graduation, I had a solid foundation of writing and editing skills.

About a month after the baby was born, it was time to get serious about freelancing. I started with what I knew: academic editing and formatting.

Graduate students often needed help with formatting their theses or dissertations, and it never hurt to have another set of eyes on anything, either. I plumbed my networks for any referrals, which is how I ended up getting a lot of my work.

In the first three months of 2012, I brought in about $300 per month --- the same amount of money as the year before -- while working about 25% fewer hours. It was a step in the right direction, but not enough.

In the second quarter of 2012, my work fell off. I focused on maintaining my sanity as a new mother navigating a divorce that, in my case, also meant a cross-country move. After the move, in June, I dug right back into work.

As I tried to figure out how to find gigs on sites like Thumbtack and Elance (now Upwork), I ended up finding even more information about ditching them for better-paying opportunities.

After about a year and a half, those opportunities drew me out of academic editing (which I didn’t enjoy) and into freelance writing. I focused on freelance blogging, and once I started landing gigs, I never looked back.

Logistically, “working around the baby” wasn’t easy. I’d moved from Colorado back home to North Carolina for the family support (and a more affordable rent situation). But even with their help, it was challenging to manage my workload on top of home life with a baby.

I soon figured out there needed to be a distinct delineation between work I did when the baby was awake, and work I did when he was asleep or with a grandparent.

I didn’t waste valuable nap times doing things like folding laundry. That’s when I did client work and anything requiring real mental effort -- with no exceptions.

Keeping My Expenses Low

As terrible as getting divorced was, I was fortunate to come out of my marriage with no debt and even a tiny cushion of about $3,000, thanks to an old personal injury settlement.

Having no debt gave me a tremendous amount of freedom. As long as I could find safe, low-rent housing, I could keep my overhead low.

For a while, I rented a small garage apartment from a family member in North Carolina. It ended up costing me about a third of what the rental house in Colorado had (where rentals are much more expensive than in North Carolina).

Then, beginning in 2014, I shared a place in the same town with a long-time friend who’d been looking for a roommate.

By that point, I was making about $1,000 a month in freelance income and receiving child support, which wasn’t a lot but covered a good chunk of the rent.

The single most effective thing I did for keeping my expenses low was putting myself on a cash budget.

I used the old-school envelope system, with the white envelopes and everything. It’s absolutely the reason I was able to stay out of debt -- even when making less than $12,000 per year, including child support.

With the cash budget came the commitment to sacrifice.

I gulped down every bit of frugal living advice I could find, and did it all: I stopped buying new clothes and getting my hair cut. The library became my source of entertainment. I used discounted gift cards for regular purchases and everything we ate was made from scratch.

And, of course, I kept my 12-year-old car, instead of picking up a car payment.

It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

What Can You Do?

No matter where you are in life, there are things you can learn from my experience.

Get Out of Debt

This is the primary lesson -- and do it as quickly as possible.

Debt will strangle any hope you have of succeeding during a long period of lean income, and you never know if or when that time might start.

Because I started out with no debt, I was able to raise a child as a single, stay-at-home mom on a very low income. A car payment, a credit card balance or a student loan would have made it impossible.

Build Your Network

Any time you’re looking for ways to make money or start a business from home, you need three things: a peer group, a mentor and a role model.

I started freelancing in 2010, but it wasn’t until I had all three of these pieces in place in 2014 that I made some real traction and began making decent money.

Look for people who can fill each of those roles, no matter what your business is.

Have a Plan B

Always, always, always have a Plan B (and C, D and E) ready to go in case your current life doesn’t go as expected.

You never know when or how your situation will change, and it’s best to be prepared for the bottom to fall out before it happens.

I didn’t have a Plan B, but my modified long-term plan filled the gap. After my first full year of freelancing, I’d brought in about $8,000 before expenses. It wasn’t easy, but it was enough.

And my story has a happy ending: At the end of 2014 -- after three full years as a freelancing single mom -- my stint as a broke single mom ended. I had my highest-earning month to date, bringing in more than $3,300… and I remarried.

Your Turn: Have you ever had to find a way to live and work on lean income?

Ashley Gainer is a writer, editor and coach. When she’s not writing for her clients, she’s teaching other at-home freelancers how to be successful. You can find her online at ashleygainer.com or on Twitter @ageditorial.

Maybe you’ve seen them: People walking around with their smartphones in front of their faces, chatting away and talking about hearts. While it might look unusual, it’s actually all part of an app called Periscope.

Periscope lets you give live video broadcasts and view other live videos. You can have real-time conversations with anyone who tunes in and comments during your broadcast.

All of that is great. But you can also use Periscope to make money.

The app, with its 10 million users watching 40 years of broadcasting each day, offers a new opportunity for you to boost your business’ bottom line. Here’s how you can make it work for you.

How to Use Periscope

First, you’ll need to download the app, which you can get on the iTunes AppStore or Google Play. Next, follow these instructions to sign in with your Twitter account or phone number.

Once you’re set up, follow other users, watch live broadcasts (or replays, which are available for 24 hours) and create your own video broadcasts. Share your “scopes” whenever you want, based on what works best for you and for your target audience.

Periscope’s Greatest Strength: Build Relationships With Subscribers

Periscope facilitates a live, interactive conversation with viewers. This new level of interaction can give your business a significant boost, like it did for Courtney Johnston, who offers copywriting services, training and products for other writers and small business owners.

“People get to know you at lightning speed,” Johnston said. “For me, it’s all about the relationship, and I always try to be helpful.”

Use Periscope as a relationship-building tool -- the foundation of a solid income stream. By being authentic (not stiff and scripted) and sharing information your audience wants, you’ll rapidly form new relationships.

This relationship-building pays off when your viewers join your mailing list and then become buyers, so be sure they can find you on the web.

Turn Demos Into Sales

Demonstrate your products or services on Periscope, then mention where your viewers can buy them, the way Johnston does.

“I just sort of mention products I have if they’re relevant to the topic, and people come in and they buy stuff immediately,” she commented. “A certain percentage of people who will always do that.”

Periscope’s not just for buy-it-now products, though. Shaundle Pruitt, a real estate agent in Canton, Ohio, uses Periscope to do online walk-throughs of available properties. Packaging them as live, virtual open houses has generated a lot of interest.

“Sellers are always intrigued,” said Pruitt. He leverages that interest to land listing contracts -- the foundation of many successful real estate careers.

Are you an artist with a new release coming up? Offer previews and teasers of new merchandise, music or books to generate interest and preorders. Encourage your audience to share your scopes (and reach new eyes and ears).

Share Your Expertise Through Tutoring or Q&A Sessions

If you’re interested in tutoring, offer sessions in a subject you know well. Have customers purchase the sessions in advance, and then use Periscope’s private broadcast feature to teach anyone, anywhere in the world.

You can even tutor more than one person at a time, meaning your hourly rate has nowhere to go but up.

If you’re an expert in a product or skill people want to know about (like essential oils, resume writing or selling on eBay), set up an “ask me anything” question and answer session. Your followers can pick your brain, you’ll build more credibility and you might even come away with new ideas for your business.

Mention your services and/or products and see how many new clients you pick up -- just don’t forget to include your blog or website!

Sell Products and Programs

Direct selling isn’t the most common way to make money on Periscope, but it’s still an effective option.

“I’ve done a couple of flash sales and they worked really well,” said Danielle Ford, a marketing strategist who sells digital products and programs, among other things.

“I can have a conversation with up to hundreds of people at one time about what I’m selling.” The instant Q&A, plus a quick order-by deadline, helps her drive purchases.

If your business is an online enterprise with membership programs, courses and frequent launches, Periscope can be a powerful marketing tool. Shelley Hitz, an author, author coach and business strategist said, “The last push I had for my signature program was at the end of July, and 25% of my new members came from Periscope.”

Will You Make Money With Periscope? 

There’s no limit to the number of ways you can use Periscope to make money. All you need is an idea, some know-how and a smartphone.

Whether it’s by direct selling through product demonstrations, offering a quick how-to or tutorial for a skill you teach, or simply building credibility and trust by being accessible and relatable, live-stream video broadcasting on Periscope could help you earn extra cash or build your business.

Your Turn: Do you use Periscope? Have you tried using it to market your business or make money? Share your experience in the comments!

Ashley Gainer hangs out at ashleygainer.com, where she makes content for businesses and entrepreneurs, and teaches other writers how to do the same. She also spends a lot of time building pillow forts, making pretend-pancakes for Mr. Hippo and Mr. Puppy, and setting up elaborate wooden railways.

Summer is well underway, with its hot temperatures, hot dogs and even some hot deals for savvy shoppers!

Whether you’re a college student getting an early start shopping for your dorm room this fall, a homeowner on the prowl for a patio update, or just someone who likes getting the best prices at the grocery store, July has something for you. Here’s the scoop on the best items to buy this month.

1. Outdoor Goods

From outdoor furniture to sporting equipment, now’s the most financially savvy time to update your backyard trappings. Discounts on patio furniture in particular will be as much as 60% off, RetailMeNot senior planner Joe Smyth told WRAL.

If you’re looking for a badminton net, pool or other sporting goods, you’re likely to get around 38% off regular price, RetailMeNot business analyst Erin Hartman, explained. She noted July is the best time of year to buy these items.

2. Indoor Furniture

The patio isn’t the only place to put some steeply discounted furniture. With showrooms receiving new stock each August, July takes on an “everything must go” refrain -- which means deep discounts on all of the previous year’s models, according to the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

This doesn’t extend to everything you’ll find in every furniture store, though, warns to CBS Money -- office furniture sees the best discounts in August, and you’ve missed the best month for mattress deals, which is May.

3. Corn, Plums and Nectarines

It’s no secret that in-season produce gives you the best bang for your buck. These days, look for the best prices on corn and stone fruit like plums and nectarines, according to online deals powerhouse Brad’s Deals.

Combine markdowns with grocery apps to find even better bargains, or do some savvy farmers market shopping to get a hot deal.

4. Swimwear

If you’re in the mood for a new swimsuit and you don’t want to wait until the fall when retailers are desperate to get swimwear off their shelves, July is the time to buy.

“Expect for the sale racks at retailers like J.Crew, PacSun and Tilly’s to feature discounts from 40 to 50% off,” Smyth advised WRAL. Online shopping site DealNews predicts sales will be as deep as 80% off.

5. Suits

In addition to jeans and winter coats, which enjoy deep discounts in the hot month of July, suits often see markdowns this time of year. With people wearing heavy clothing as infrequently as possible, merchandisers tend to offer sales to move their products off the racks. (Say your goodbyes, ancient blazer in the husband’s closet -- you’re going to be replaced!)

6. Housewares (and Dormwares)

With June being the most common month for weddings and August not far behind it, July puts us firmly in the middle of wedding season. Combine the crush of wedding registry purchases with college students getting ready for their fall semesters, and you get houseware retailers offering big discounts to move as much merchandise as possible. Keep an eye out for combos and two-for-one deals, too.

From twin-extra-long sheets and storage items to silverware and candles, Real Simple estimates average savings to be 20 to 50% off. So cross those wedding gifts off your list, and maybe even get ahead on this year’s holiday presents.

7. Back-to-School Electronics

While the absolute best electronics deals tend to show up in November and December, Independence Day marks the beginning of the back-to-school sales season -- and personal electronics like tablets and printers lead the way.

Expect to find markdowns as deep as 30%, according to consumer shopping expert Andrea Woroch. And dorm-scale 32-inch TVs see great pricing this time of year, says DealNews.

8. Air Conditioners

If you need a new air conditioner and the outdoor temperature isn’t enough to convince you to spring for one, July’s sales should do it. July offers the best deals of the summer -- last year’s prices were 16% lower than June’s and 14% lower than August’s, according to DealNews.

Here’s what I’ve got on my July shopping list: white cotton sheets for enjoying the thunderstorms we’ve been getting, a laptop for our preschool’s director (whose machine conveniently waited until sale season to die), and all the juicy peaches I can find, because that’s what summer’s all about at my house.

Your turn: Which of these deals strikes your fancy? Share your best finds in the comments!

Ashley Gainer is a full-time parent and part-time freelance writer who teaches other parent-preneurs how to be successful freelancers while remaining parents first. She also spends a lot of time nerding out over home economics and setting up elaborate wooden railways.