Side Hustles To Keep Your Family Finances Afloat

After “side hustling” for the last couple years I now find it difficult to remember a time when I wasn’t mowing lawns, building websites, or writing articles. Though we got by on my my salary, we knew it would take forever to pay down debts and meet our savings goals without adding to our income. I had also recently gone through the process of surviving a layoff at my previous employer, but the experience left me feeling less secure by any form of employment.

Break The Living Paycheck To Paycheck Cycle

Less than a year ago I shared a statistic that nearly half of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck. After the labor market’s free fall since January of this year, I suspect that number is even higher today. Relying on a single source of income has simply become too risky for many families, forcing non-working spouses into the workforce, or forcing a working spouse to take on a part time job.

The results of an interesting survey recently conducted by CareerBuilder.com indicate nearly half of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck.  Combine this with the news in recent years that we actually had a negative savings rate for the first time since the Great Depression era, and it is easy to see why so many Americans are struggling with their financial lives.

Defining Paycheck to Paycheck

I don’t know that an official definition of “living paycheck to paycheck” exists, but since I’ve been there myself I can sum it up by the example of checking your balance the day before payday and breathing a sigh of relief that you are not overdrawn, even though the $1.81 left in your checking account doesn’t leave much breathing room.  Your credit cards are nearly maxed out, you have nothing in an emergency fund, and your wallet is empty.  Kind of reminds me of my own soggy hotdog story.

The Numbers

The survey revealed some interesting statistics:

  • 47% of workers live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet
  • 21% of those earning over $100,000 also live paycheck to paycheck
  • 25% of all workers reported they save nothing each month
  • 33% do not participate in any retirement programs (employer-sponsored or otherwise)

The numbers are telling.  One in four workers save $0 each month, either because they don’t have any additional money, or because they choose to spend it.  While there are a few in the former category, I imagine a large percentage of those who save nothing could find something to save if they simply cut back on their lifestyle.  These folks probably pay for cable, have cell phones, go out to movies, drink beer or cigarettes, indulge in meals out, etc.  If only one or two items were cut from their monthly budget they could probably free up $50-$100 dollars to begin a savings program.

A side hustle is a sort of part time job, but it typically involves you building something around your current trade. Perhaps you write software for a living and can build websites on the side. If you work in construction, perhaps you could build privacy fences or decks for homeowners in the evenings and on the weekends. The idea is to find something you are already good at and cultivate a little side business around that hustle.

Chances are you can make much more money working a side hustle than working at a part time job for someone else, particularly in a retail environment. The real beauty of a side hustle is that over time it will start to generate a second source of cash flow for your family. No longer will you be absolutely dependent on your full-time job for paying the mortgage, keeping the lights on, and putting food on the table.

But How Much Can I Really Make Working Nights and Weekends?

The answer depends on the hustle you decide to take up, how passionate you are about your idea, and how hard you work to promote it. I’ve seen some people work really hard for six months and then flame out because they were only making  a “few hundred dollars a month.”  They made the mistake of comparing a side hustle to their full-time job.

Think about how many expenses you could cover with just a “few hundred dollars” of extra income each month from a side hustle if you should lose your full time job. It might make the difference in keeping your car to help you find another job, or the difference in keeping power on at your house, or food on the table for your family. It might help you cover the costs of COBRA insurance, other utilities, and maybe even supplement your severance pay to make it last longer.

The point is that by earning income in addition to your regular earnings you are, over time, making a potential layoff less and less of a major financial event. Coupled with a solid emergency fund, you would have little reason to fear losing your job, except that this is a particularly hard time to find another one.

Dedicate Side Hustle Earnings To A Specific Cause

To stay motivated, try dedicating your side hustle earnings, or at least a major portion of it, to a particular cause in your family financial plan. Perhaps you could use all of the earnings to help speed up your debt snowball (this is how we use side hustle earnings). Once you are debt free use the extra income to build savings, and then save for a major purchase such as a down payment on a home, or a new(er) car.

Over the last couple years of working two jobs I have found this strategy helps keep me motivated when I want to throw in the towel. If I simply lumped all the earnings in with my regular income it might get lost in the shuffle, and I might simply be tempted to raise our style of living to match my total income. However, we have made a point to continue to live on my current earnings from my full time job while whittling away debt with side hustle money.

Besides having a solid emergency fund, one of the best ways to hedge against financial ruin while surviving a layoff is to have one or two (or three) side hustles. Side hustles are a little different from traditional part time jobs in that they generally involve you starting up something on your own. They can range in complexity from selling yard sale finds on eBay to starting your own small business.

1. Dog walker. On the way to work each morning I pass a lady walking five or six dogs, usually three leashes in each hand. She carries a small shovel like a sword strapped to her waist, and has quite a few plastic grocery bags stuffed in each pocket. I’ve never seen them in action, but I assume these tools are for performing the neighborly deed of removing dog poop from lawns along the way.

Pros: You are getting exercise; your own dog can tag along and get exercise
Cons: Clean up (need I say more); untangling twisted leashes

2. “Date-night” sitting service. This is an idea we kicked around a few months ago when we were looking for ways to boost our income, without being away from the kids. A date-night sitting service is basically a Friday and/or Saturday night in-home service where neighbors and friends drop off their kids for a few hours while the parents enjoy a “date night.” Hosts charge a little less than a single babysitter would, but make a little more because they have more than one child to watch. Kids can play games, watch movies, and hosts usually order up some cheap pizza, or grill hotdogs and hamburgers (always a crowd favorite).

Pros: Your kids can participate in the fun; hourly earnings typically higher than retail job
Cons: Liability issues; five extra kids running around the house; no date night of your own

3. Survey participant. Anyone who has been on the web any length of time knows opportunities abound for participants to earn money completing surveys. What is less known is that there are only a small handful of reputable companies offering this service, in a space crowded by many scams. I have personal experience working with CashCrate, where I used to net $40-$60 a month working surveys a few minutes each day. Over time, I’ve managed to take advantage of their lucrative referral system and I now make a couple hundred dollars a month. It won’t make me rich, but it does add a little to the grocery budget.

Pros: No costs to participate; can be done from home
Cons: Email box full of offers (use a separate email account if you sign up)

4. Blogger. I’ve been writing for nearly a year now, but if I read this myself this time last year I wouldn’t have believed being a blogger could actually become an income-earning opportunity. The money comes very slowly, but for those with patience it can actually add up to become a nice supplemental income. It is not completely passive income though, as there is a lot of writing, editing and behind-the-scenes administration that goes along with being a blogger. Still, if there is a subject you are passionate about it is worth a try.

Pros: Work at your own pace; minimal startup costs; interacting with readers and other bloggers
Cons: Time consuming; requires mental effort tough to conjure up at the end of a long day

5. House sitter. I have family member that recently graduated high school. He is headed into one of the military services, but his enlistment was delayed. Instead of hunting down a place to rent, he got the opportunity to house-sit for a couple that would be away from their home for a few months. While this job doesn’t pay an income, money saved is money earned. Rather than shelling out several hundred dollars for a half-year lease, now he gets to live rent free and pocket earnings from his job.

Pros: Free rent; take advantage of amenities (pool, home gyms, etc.)
Cons: No place for your own things; wondering when you’ll be asked to move out

6. Lawn painter. No, that’s not a typo. Painting houses has always been a nice way to make a few extra bucks, but in times of dry climate and numerous foreclosures, greening up lawns with paint is in high demand. Realtors would much rather show a “green” home than one with a brown yard. But the benefits of a green lawn don’t stop with curb appeal. A green lawn makes the house looked lived in, lessening the chances of the home being vandalized, or squatters taking up residence.

Pros: High demand (especially in winter months)
Cons: Product costs; green legs and shoes

7. Holiday Decorations Installer. This one is seasonal, obviously, but with the holiday season approaching I’ve heard of many enterprising people advertising their services to install decorations. Many homeowners enjoy adding icicle lights and yard decorations, but don’t have the time, energy, or know-how to set them up themselves. That’s where you come in. Charge a flat fee based on the amount of decorations the owner wants displayed, and offer a discounted fee to come back after the holidays and take down the decorations and pack them away for next year. Who knows…you might earn a little extra Christmas shopping money by helping out your neighbors!

Pros: Minimal equipment needed (maybe just a ladder, scaffold, etc.); set your own schedule
Cons: A lot of patience needed (ever try to unwind a 100ft strand of tangled Christmas lights?)