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When does a side hustle truly become worthwhile?

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More recently, the allure of generating “easy” or “passive” income online has surged to unprecedented levels. “Money is everywhere! Seize it!” proclaims a TikTok personality, touting the ability to earn $50 per hour crafting real estate ads on Canva (with a staggering 2.5 million followers). “From nothing to $10,000 solely using my phone,” boasts another. Meanwhile, influencer Caden Booth, amassing 1.5 million followers primarily through experimenting with various side hustle concepts, remarks, “Kids are making money far too effortlessly nowadays.” The hashtags #makemoneyonline and #sidehustle boast 1.5 million and 2.5 million posts on TikTok, respectively.

As highlighted in a recent Washington Post article, digital side hustles are gaining popularity among Gen-Z workers due to their perceived low entry barriers for earning extra income. However, in a market increasingly saturated with competition, those barriers are often higher than they appear. We often hear about the success stories—the individual making $700 monthly from reviewing old fish tanks or the 25-year-old influencer banking $107,000 annually sharing finance tips. Yet, the reality is far less glamorous and much harder to quantify. For every standout success story, there are hundreds of individuals exerting significant effort and earning little to nothing in return.

Consider the experience of a graphic designer I know who attempted to generate supplementary income by selling templates and printed products online. Despite setting up shop on platforms like Etsy, she found herself virtually invisible to potential customers. “It’s easy to establish an online store, but attracting sales requires substantial investment in marketing,” she lamented. “Algorithms are so adept that you only capture attention through paid exposure, often necessitating expenditure equal to or exceeding generated revenue.” Fortunately, she abandoned the endeavor before sinking further resources into it.

Similarly, another acquaintance ventured into selling foot photos online while searching for post-college employment. Enticed by inflated figures circulating on Twitter and TikTok, like earning $5,000 to $10,000 monthly, she soon discovered the rarity of such outcomes. “Creating a profile, uploading photos, and setting prices doesn’t guarantee success,” she shared. After three months of fruitless attempts, she attempted to attract clients by upgrading to “premium” versions of photo-sharing platforms, only to incur further losses without any return on investment.

Nevertheless, amidst the challenges, there exists a digital business model tailored to almost every aspiration. Whether it’s online coaching, podcasting, earning affiliate commissions, or pursuing ad revenue on platforms like YouTube, opportunities abound. To navigate this landscape effectively, I consulted Melissa Jean-Baptiste, a financial educator and author of “So … This Is Why I’m Broke: Money Lessons on Financial Literacy, Passive Income, and Generational Wealth.” Here are her insights:

Monetizing something you’re already doing.

Monetizing something you’re already doing is often the most effective approach to side gigs, according to Jean-Baptiste. She learned this firsthand through her own experiences. Despite juggling multiple responsibilities—dog-walking, babysitting, tutoring, and content creation on YouTube and her personal blog—while holding down a full-time job as a high-school teacher, she found herself exhausted and with little to show for her efforts.

However, a breakthrough occurred when she realized she could leverage her existing resources. After spending countless hours crafting lesson plans tailored to her teaching style, she recognized their potential value beyond her own classroom. By offering them for sale to other educators online, she transformed her hard work into a lucrative side income. “I had already invested significant time in creating these lesson plans, but I was the sole beneficiary,” she explains. “Discovering that others were willing to pay for the fruits of my labor was a game-changer.”

In essence, Jean-Baptiste’s journey underscores the importance of recognizing and capitalizing on the intrinsic value of one’s skills and resources. Rather than exhausting oneself with disparate side hustles, focusing on monetizing existing talents can yield substantial returns with minimal additional effort.

To figure out what your equivalent product could be, Jean-Baptiste recommends making a list of five skills that you regularly use and enjoy. “If you’re employed, what are the top-five things that you do daily or weekly at your job?” she asks. Then, pick one and do some research. “Explore what is monetizable with this particular skill, that won’t really take over your entire life, and put in a few hours to see how it goes,” she says. She warns against “hustling backward” — taking a side gig just because it’s available. “If you do that, you’re just shooting in the dark.

Think about when you need the money — and remember that building an audience can take years.

Jean-Baptiste’s experience with her YouTube videos contrasts starkly with her success monetizing lesson plans. It took six years before her videos began generating any substantial income, and even then, the ad revenue was far from significant. “Influencing is more of a long game,” she reflects. While some creators may achieve rapid success, for most, it’s a gradual process that takes years to amass a sizable following, if they reach that point at all.

Moreover, relying solely on follower-generated income poses significant risks. Platforms that facilitate influencers in monetizing their audience, such as Amazon and Facebook, retain the power to alter their algorithms and commission structures unpredictably. Consequently, this can lead to substantial fluctuations in earnings. Natalie Fisher, a personal-finance TikToker, attests to this volatility, citing her monthly income ranging from $3,388 to $15,829 over the past year. Therefore, experiencing a single successful month does not guarantee consistent future earnings.

When immediate cash is a priority, agility is key.

For swifter results, Jean-Baptiste suggests exploring platforms like LiveOps, where you can submit your résumé to access short-term virtual jobs across the country. These roles, such as virtual assistants or customer service representatives, typically span a fixed duration, allowing you to specify your weekly availability and receive compensation accordingly.

However, if immediate cash is paramount, traditional side hustles offer a hands-on approach. Activities like dog-walking or Instacart deliveries provide quick earning potential, albeit requiring physical engagement. Additionally, participating in local focus groups, often organized by psychology departments at universities, offers modest compensation, typically starting at around $50 per hour.

It’s crucial to recognize that not every aspect of your life can be monetized. Furthermore, if your side hustle detracts from your primary job or career, it may ultimately prove counterproductive. Jean-Baptiste advises against overcommitment, recommending the exploration of one side hustle at a time to avoid burnout. “Many people end up working an extra 20 or 30 hours weekly for just a few hundred dollars more,” she cautions. “This can lead to exhaustion, especially when combined with a full-time job. Don’t overextend yourself initially.”

Determining when a side hustle is truly worthwhile involves assessing various factors beyond just monetary gains. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Financial Return: Calculate the potential income against the time and effort invested. A side hustle should provide a satisfactory return on investment relative to your goals and needs.
  2. Passion and Interest: Pursuing a side hustle aligned with your interests or passions can offer intrinsic rewards beyond financial compensation. It can enhance job satisfaction and overall well-being.
  3. Skill Development: Evaluate whether the side hustle offers opportunities for skill development or learning new competencies. Gaining valuable skills can enhance your professional growth and marketability.
  4. Work-Life Balance: Consider how the side hustle impacts your work-life balance. It should complement your existing commitments without overwhelming you or causing burnout.
  5. Flexibility: Assess the flexibility of the side hustle in terms of scheduling and workload. It should accommodate your lifestyle and allow for adjustments as needed.
  6. Long-Term Potential: Evaluate the scalability and sustainability of the side hustle. Assess whether it has the potential to grow into a significant source of income or career opportunity in the future.
  7. Risk Tolerance: Consider the level of risk associated with the side hustle, including financial risk and potential impact on your primary source of income. Ensure you are comfortable with the level of risk involved.

Ultimately, a side hustle is worth pursuing when it aligns with your goals, interests, and values, while also providing a reasonable return on investment and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

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