6 Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Saving and Making Extra Cash to Pay Off Debt

dollar bills in a jar outside
Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder
Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. We provide you with accurate, reliable information. Learn more about how we make money and select our advertising partners.

Student loans, medical bills, credit card statements. They’re like evil vampire spirits that drain our money away, leaving us lifeless and broke.

We all want to fight off the vampires. That’s why we’re always asking the same questions: How can I scrounge up a little more cash? How can I save some money? How can I finally, finally, finally get out of debt?

Some people do it with discipline, hard work and serious commitment.

Others find out-of-the-box ideas to make and save money, whether it’s to pay off debt or just get ahead — ways you wouldn’t necessarily think of right off the bat.

Today we’re going to talk about some of our favorite such people — a  man who hacked his power bill; a woman who lost 50 pounds to win $1,200; and creative souls who rent out tents and such on Airbnb.

There are a lot of weird and different ways to make and save money. These ideas might get your creative juices flowing, and who knows — maybe you can use them to pay off debt.

1. The Single Mom Who Paid Off 9 Credit Cards

A dozen years ago, Melinda Smieja’s 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

“So here I am, a single mom, and my daughter gets sick,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘What am I gonna do?’”

Smieja lives on disability income. She’s unable to work due to reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a nerve disorder similar to MS.

She and her daughter moved to Seattle for six months for vital medical treatment. Insurance covered most of that. But to pay for their food and shelter, Smieja racked up over $20,000 in credit card debt.

“I was struggling,” she says. “I would cry every night, because I didn’t know how I was gonna pay these bills.”

In 2010, Smieja signed up with a company called Credit Sesame to get a free “credit report card.” She could see all of her debts and exactly what she owed to each lender, plus interest rates and minimum monthly payments.

It made her overwhelming situation manageable. She changed her spending habits and took a debt-snowball approach to pay off all of her cards, one by one. Over the past decade, her credit score has climbed from 480 to 760.

“(My daughter) is still here with us, and so it made it all worth it — the struggle I went through,” Smieja says. “The last 12 years of my life have been ups and downs, but just being able to have the financial thing off my back has made everything a blessing.”

2. Two Guys Who Slashed Their Student-Loan Payments

Due to the rising cost of college, student loans have become a modern-day curse upon us. Last year alone, more than 1 million Americans defaulted on federal student loans.

Millions of us are just trying to get out from under them — including Jammie Proctor and John DePrato.

Proctor was 36, had more than $50,000 in student debt and desperately wanted to pay off a house and start investing.

DePrato was $65,000 in debt, with a bachelor’s and an MBA. He wanted to build a house with his wife, but that seemed impossible with a monthly $850 student-loan payment.

Both decided to refinance their loans through a platform called Credible. It was easy. Credible aggregated a bunch of options, so they could each pick a personalized plan that suited their needs.

By refinancing, Proctor saved an estimated $6,000 to $7,000. He’ll be debt-free in seven years.

DePrato cut his monthly payments down from $850 to $400, so he could continue to build his dream home.

They just typed some basic information into Credible, and bam: so many refinancing options.

3. The Woman Who Shed Pounds and Collected Cash

You want to lose weight? Join the club. But if you’re serious about shedding pounds, you’re going to need motivation.

I’m betting cold, hard cash would do the trick. It was an excellent motivator for Angie Richards — she lost 52 pounds in six months.

What kept her going? The fact she’d win $1,200 if she met her weight-loss goals.

She read about a company called HealthyWage here on The Penny Hoarder and decided to give it a shot.

She created an individual weight-loss challenge, betting herself she’d lose 40 pounds in six months. If she accomplished her goal and won the bet, HealthyWage promised it’d pay her $1,200.

It sounds hard to believe, but HealthyWage actually is a legit company and will pay you to accomplish your weight-loss goals.

In addition to earning money from people who don’t reach their goals, it’s sponsored by “corporate and government clients who are interested in creative solutions to weight loss.”

Just enter how much weight you’d like to lose (10-150 pounds) in its calculator, how long you’ll take (6-18 months) and how much you want to bet (at least $200 per month).

Each month, you pay your promised amount into the program. In return, HealthyWage provides support through expert advice and weight-tracking tools. If you meet your goal in your allotted time, HealthyWage pays you!

In the end, Richards crushed her goal. Instead of losing 40 pounds in six months, she lost 52.

4. The California Man Who Hacked His Power Bill — and Saves Hundreds

San Diego resident John Hastie came across an online service called OhmConnect. It rewards consumers in cash and prizes for reducing their energy consumption during specific times, called #OhmHours.

These windows of time occur when the energy grid is overworked and must rely on dirty power plants to prevent a brownout. #OhmHours typically occur once or twice a week in the afternoons or evenings.

OhmConnect users are notified via text or email when there’s an upcoming #OhmHour. That’s when they can take steps to reduce their energy usage by waiting to run the dishwasher, unplugging the Keurig, turning off the fridge or switching the A/C off.

OhmConnect’s dashboard monitors your energy usage and savings. Hastie has experimented with the tool and devised a strategy that earns him the most money. He’s added smart plugs to his TV and fridge, which automatically flips them off during selected #OhmHours. He’s also connected his thermostat to OhmConnect, so it works the same way.

Note: OhmConnect can only tap into a few utility companies to monitor your consumption. These include California PG&E, SDG&E and SCE customers; as well as Toronto Hydro customers.

Hastie’s best month was June 2017, when he earned $487.52. That month, he explains, the state of California had a two-hour Flex Alert, a request for all consumers to conserve. OhmConnect offered to pay triple, so he banked $188 in those two hours.

His earnings keep increasing because Hastie tweaks his strategy month after month. He suspects he won’t hit the jackpot again like he did back in June, but he says OhmConnect a solid way to earn extra money — and keep his energy costs low.

Enter your ZIP code here to get started. Plus, right now, new users automatically get a $10 Amazon gift card when they sign up and connect their utility account.

5. The Crafty Folks Who Think Outside the Box on Airbnb

You don’t have to have an extra room — or an extra house — to make money on Airbnb. These days, hosts are getting super creative and offering a little bit of everything.

Invest in a tent, pitch it in your backyard and give it a creative name!

That’s what Jim did in Ignace, Michigan. “The Hidden Outpost” contains an air mattress and two full-sized lounge chairs. And, no, it’s not one of those tiny claustrophobic tents. It’s pretty darn big. Plus, a bathroom is nearby. The views of Lake Michigan ain’t bad either.

6. The Couple Who Stepped Up Their Side Hustles

You don’t need a six-figure income to get out of debt.

Here’s proof: Jen, 27, and Travis Smith, 30, an acupuncturist and aircraft mechanic in St. Petersburg, Florida, paid off $53,000 in student loans last year, more than half of their combined gross income.

After their 2015 wedding, they had $86,000 of debt between them — a huge hurdle for their goal of homeownership. So they attacked the problem head-on, immediately putting $9,000 of wedding cash toward their debt.

Through meal planning, they slashed their food budget by $200 per month. They moved into a cheaper apartment.

But the biggest game changer was stepping up their side hustles. Travis did everything from filing papers to stuffing newspaper coupons, while Jen took on freelance acupuncture work.

There are lots of weird and different ways to make and money. Sometimes an out-of-the-box idea is just the ticket and can help you put a dent in your debt.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He knows a lot about debt, through personal experience.