Nicole SlaughterGraham - The Penny Hoarder

In the past year, I more than doubled my side hustle income.

And when I say doubled, I don’t mean I went from $500 in 2015 to $1,000 in 2016.

I made $12,000 from my side gig in 2015. But in 2016, I took home nearly $30,000, which many would consider a full-time income.

My original plan was to keep a full-time job in 2017 while ramping up my freelance income from writing and social media management. I didn’t plan to go full time as a freelancer until 2018. But because of a tough, unforeseen situation that won’t allow me to return to my full-time job, I plan to turn my freelance side hustles into a comfortable full-time income in 2017.

How I Got Started as a Freelancer

I started freelancing in 2011 as a college student. I was working full time and had a family, so I didn’t have much time to dedicate to a side gig.

But I was studying creative writing, and journalism piqued my interest, so freelance writing seemed like a natural fit. I was interested in higher education, finance, health and lifestyle, so I made these subjects my niches.

Eventually, I realized I wasn’t maximizing my earning potential as a freelancer. And I know there are probably so many people making the same mistakes I did when I got started.

Here, I’ll share the exact steps I took to maximize my earnings and how you can do so as well.

I Set Professional Rates From the Start

I hadn’t been writing as a freelancer for long, and I only had a few clips to present potential clients, so I thought I had to work my way up to professional rates.

But a recording from Ed Gandia, an award-winning freelance content creator and author of “The Wealthy Freelancer,” changed my perspective.

Gandia argues that setting professional rates from the start will make potential clients take you seriously, and you will be able to work less while making more money.

I used this rate sheet from Writer’s Market and reached out to other freelance writers I’d built rapport with to determine professional rates in my field.

At the time, I was writing blog posts for $15 or accepting work that paid 2 to 15 cents a word. I revamped this and decided I would accept no less than $50 per 500-plus-word blog post — and usually charge more, depending on the word count and research required.

As far as a per-word fee, I set my starting fee at 30 cents a word, which I also increase based on the complexity of the piece.

I now average $75 to $100 per blog post. One of my higher-paying clients pays $200 per post. My last per-word assignment paid 65 cents a word for 1,200 words.

I Started Pitching Clients Instead of Relying on Job Boards

I found work on Elance and Craigslist when I started freelancing. Most of it did not pay well, but I thought if I could find enough work, it was worth it. I spent quite a few hours searching job boards, writing intro letters and sending them off to potential clients.

Then I learned about pitching, which is when a writer comes up with an idea, does preliminary research and sends the proposal to an editor at a publication or marketing director at a business.

For many magazines, newspapers and blogs, a section editor is the person to pitch. Magazines usually have a masthead, which is a great resource to find editors’ information. Many online magazines and blogs also have a “Write for Us” or “Contact Us” page with detailed instructions on how to pitch an idea to the site.

Businesses are a little different. Generally, I pitch someone in the marketing department -- usually a marketing manager.

At first, I thought the process would be too time-consuming to be worthwhile. Why do preliminary research on an idea that might not get accepted? I learned from other freelance writers that companies accepted only a tiny percentage of their pitches when they started out. But I decided to do a trial run, despite my reservations.

I started pitching blogs and publications I read often. These were easiest for me because I was most familiar with them. Sometimes, an idea would come to me that wouldn’t fit in any blog or publication I read. After fleshing out the idea, I would start researching publications the idea might fit into. For instance, I wrote an article about veterans, so I researched magazines that focus on the military and veterans’ affairs.

The pitch took a while to put together, but it landed me the 65-cent-per-word article I discussed previously -- with a national publication.  

The key to pitching is putting in the effort upfront to impress your prospective client.

Here’s my step-by-step process for creating pitches:

  • I come up with an idea for an article and research experts to interview on the subject.
  • I craft a pitch that includes why the article would fit well in the publication, why it’s relevant to its readers, exactly how I’d format it and quotes from the experts I spoke with.
  • Then, I fire it off.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had tons of pitches rejected — about 80% when I started out. But I kept sending them.

Sometimes, an editor wouldn’t reply at all. Other times, they would respond and tell me why my piece wouldn’t work. Every now and then, though, there would be an acceptance email.

I Let Go of Low-Paying Work

When I was writing blog posts for $15, I had a ton of work.

I’d contracted with a content company that had spreadsheets full of posts they needed written. I would sign myself up for 10 posts at at time. Most of them required some form of research and a specific word count. Each post took me an average of one hour to write, which translated to about $15 per hour.

But my one-hour time frame only came after I got used to writing this kind of content. There’s always a learning curve when it comes to writing for new clients, so in reality, I was making much less than $15 an hour because the posts took longer than an hour to write in the beginning. There were also times a post took more time to research or required interviews. I was earning a nominal fee for a ton of work.

After adjusting my rates and pitching potential clients, I realized these low-paying gigs were taking up valuable time.

In the end, I decided to let go of low-paying gigs, which opened up more time for marketing and writing for clients willing to pay more. On average, my hourly rate increased from $15 to $70.

I Kept Learning

One of the best ways to make sure you have the skills needed to compete in a competitive side hustle market is to keep learning.

I took a class on pitching clients to up my game. The class cost $299, but I made over $900 off one pitch I sent out after applying the strategies I learned.

Seasoned freelance writers Carol Tice and Linda Formichelli taught the class, and editors from national publications, like Redbook, were on hand to critique students’ work. The class focused on four major points of the pitching process:

1. How to flesh out an idea into a workable topic.

2. How to research publications where the idea will fit.

3. How to get quotes and interviews from experts.

4. How to take all this info and write a well-researched, solid proposal to send to editors.

I’ve just signed up for a class designed to help young freelance writers make more money. The class is a joint effort by Tice and Christina Vanvuren, who made $72,000 last year from freelance writing and social media management. Vanvuren set up each module as a step-by-step guide to help young freelancers get organized, set goals and leverage their experience as millennials to make more money.

I Joined a Community of People Doing the Same Work

This might be the most useful tip I can give when it comes to maximizing your side hustle’s earning potential.

A few years ago, I found and joined Tice’s online community of freelance writers, The Freelance Writer’s Den. I’ve been a member of for three years now, and it’s a nice mix of freelancing veterans and newbies. I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve interacted with.

In fact, all of the suggestions I’ve presented today I picked up from that group and implemented in my own career.

Whether you write, edit, photograph, walk dogs or make goods to sell on Etsy, it is beneficial to find a group of your peers to bounce ideas off of and learn from.

I don’t recommend joining the first group you come across. Do a little research to make sure the group will be worth your time. Here are some questions to ask yourself before joining.

  • Is the creator of this group successful in the field I want to succeed in?
  • Does the fee for the group (if there is one) seem reasonable?
  • Will this group help me grow my side hustle?

Watch out for constant self-promotion and spamming. These are red flags that the group could be a waste of your time. Consider researching current members, if possible, and reaching out to them for more info.

Your Turn: Did you turn a minimal side hustle income into something substantial? How did you do it?

Nicole Slaughter-Graham (@nicoleg_86) is an editor at duPont REGISTRY Media and a freelance writer. She’s a true book-nerd and blogs about books and writing at manyhatsblog.com.

My husband and I have been together for 10 years, and married for nearly five. We were young when we met, and long-term financial stability wasn’t something on our minds.

But it should have been.  

Now, with a child, mortgage, credit card and student loan debt amounting to around $200,000, I wish I’d had the foresight to sit down with him and hash out the hard questions -- as well as come up with some financial goals.

And we’re not alone. In fact, financial issues are the number-three reason couples decide to divorce.

Luckily, we’re now on the same page. But we could have saved a ton of time, energy and money if we’d just discussed these four questions before we started dating seriously or got married.

1. Do We Want Kids? If So, When and How Many?

Questions to ask before you get married

We’d briefly discussed kids when we started dating, but didn’t have a serious conversation about it.

My answer: A hard no.

His answer: Yes, but after 30.

And that was the end of the conversation. We didn’t discuss the financial burden of children, our career goals or anything else.

Four months later, we found out I was pregnant… while on birth control (no, I didn’t skip a pill, nor was I on antibiotics).

If we’d had an in-depth discussion about the possibility of children, we might’ve been able to better prepare for such a surprise.

At the time, we had no savings.

Luckily, I had a job that offered full benefits and short-term disability, which paid 40% of my salary for six weeks. My husband worked two jobs: a full-time plumbing job by day and a part-time retail job on nights and weekends.

We’d done a great job of keeping expenses low, though.

We only had one car payment, and rented a tiny one-bedroom house with low rent. We didn’t make any financial changes until I went back to work when our son was six months old, which helped us stay afloat -- but it wasn’t easy.

2. How Much Debt Do We Have?

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This question probably seems intrusive, but when you’re considering combining your finances in the future, it’s important.

We’d opened a joint account for bills and expenses about a year into our relationship. For a long time, we handled our own debt.

About two years into our marriage, everything changed.

I knew my husband had student loan debt even though he hadn’t finished college, but I never asked how much. He knew I had credit card debt, but he didn’t ask how much.

One night, I decided it was time to sit down together and put our financial cards on the table. I calculated all of my credit card debt. He brought his student loan statements.

My credit card debt was about $8,000 and his student loan debt was well into five digits. Together, between credit cards and his student loans, we were looking at about $25,000 in debt. Not knowing this ahead of time definitely set our financial plans back.

I ended up opening a new credit card with 0% interest on balance transfers to pay off my debt faster, and we’re paying three times the minimum payments on the student debt.

Thankfully, we’ve paid off all but $5,000 of this debt.

3. Where Do We Want to Live?

Questions to ask before you get married

My life goals involved travel and living in multiple places.

But with our surprise pregnancy, we weren't able to move around like we'd originally wanted to. Rather than moving to a region with more opportunities or a lower cost of living, or trying out a few cities to see where we felt at home, we chose to stay close to family in the Tampa Bay area.

But as we watched rental prices skyrocket beyond the cost of owning, we realized renting wouldn’t be a good long-term choice, and we decided to purchase a home.

Here’s what renting vs. buying looked like in the Tampa Bay area when we purchased our home in 2012:

Renting

  • Application fee of anywhere from $25-$50
  • Rent for a standard, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was more than $1,200 per month.
  • For a single-family home (our preference) most landlords require a security deposit, plus first and last month’s rent. Security deposits were usually the same amount as a month’s rent, so we’d be paying about $3,600 -- just to move in.

Buying

  • Record low interest rates of 3.75%
  • We qualified for a first time buyer’s program, which only required a 3.5% down payment.
  • The average price for a standard three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was between $120,000 and $200,000.

We found a pretty spectacular 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath home for $117,000.

We had to put down around $5,500 and the seller covered our closing costs. Even with mortgage insurance, our payment is $945 a month -- much less than the $1,200 landlords were (and still are) asking to rent the same style of house.

We may not have originally intended to buy a house in the Tampa Bay area, but it’s worked out well for us so far.

4. Do We Want to Go Back to School?

Questions to ask before you get married

I steadily trudged through my bachelor’s degree during the majority of our relationship. Our unexpected child made the process a bit slower, but I graduated in 2014 with a creative writing degree.

Thankfully, I was able to find a full-time job as an editor for a national magazine without having to leave the area, but I’d always talked about going back for a master’s degree at some point.

My husband had a good job in the trade industry that didn’t require a college degree, and he had no desire to return to school… or so he thought.

About a year ago, he decided the trade wasn’t his lifetime goal, and he instead wanted to finish his degree and start a nonprofit. He’s studying full time in an accelerated night program so he can still work full time and finish college in 2017.

The private college is a little more expensive than a state college would be, but he’ll finish faster and the small class size offers him a great education.

We still haven’t finished paying off his previous student loan debt, and now he’s tacking on a bit more. Luckily, we discussed his return to school before he actually decided to enroll, and we’re making sure we don’t take out too much loan money.

Unfortunately, returning for my master’s degree is on hold until we save enough to pay for it outright -- or until we pay off our current debt.

Managing Money as a Couple

When you’re feeling out a relationship, these questions don’t seem like a big deal. Sometimes, it can feel scary to bring them up for fear of running someone off.

But knowing what I know now, I wish we’d started talking about these big decisions sooner. We’d probably be better off than we are now.

Luckily for us, we’re both willing to throw in a little extra work on the side to get where we want to be, and we’re supportive of one another.

My husband uses his plumbing skills for side work, and I’ve maintained a freelance writing income that equals close to my full-time income.

All of our full-time income goes toward bills, home expenses and savings. With our extra income, we operate under the 50-30-20 rule.

  • 50% of our extra income goes to paying off debt
  • 30% of our extra income goes into savings
  • 20% of our extra income goes toward extracurriculars, vacations and wants

Oh, and we have another child on the way, which means now we’re onto saving for maternity leave -- something we definitely didn’t discuss the first time.

Your turn: Have you had a sit-down with your significant other about finances? What did you talk about, and how did it go?

Nicole Slaughter-Graham (@nicoleg_86) is an editor at duPont REGISTRY Media and a freelance writer. She’s a true book-nerd and blogs about books and writing at manyhatsblog.com.