When Is a Side Hustle Actually Worth It?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Like any adult with a looming fear of scarcity, I’ve dabbled in online side hustles since my teens. One of my longest-running ventures was editing other people’s graduate-school applications in my mid-20s. It was easier than babysitting (I could do it in my pajamas), but it was still labor intensive — I got up at 5 a.m. on countless mornings to rewrite strangers’ badly punctuated personal essays before putting on real pants to go to my actual job (more editing) at 8 a.m. Eventually, it became clear that this revenue stream — roughly a few hundred dollars every fall, when applications were due — wasn’t worth the hours it took.

More recently, the promise of making “easy” or “passive” income online has reached a fever pitch. “There’s money everywhere! Go get it!” claims one TikToker in a post about how anyone can make $50 an hour creating real-estate ads on Canva (she has 2.5 million followers). “I turned zero dollars into $10,000 using only my phone,” boasts another. “Kids are making money way too easily right now,” declares the influencer Caden Booth, who has racked up 1.5 million followers mainly by testing various side-hustle ideas. The hashtags #makemoneyonline and #sidehustle have 1.5 and 2.5 million posts on TikTok, respectively.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, digital side hustles are increasingly popular among Gen-Z workers because they “have low entry barriers to make additional income.” But in an increasingly crowded market, those barriers are higher than they seem. You only hear about the success stories — the man who makes $700 a month from his old fish-tank reviews, or the 25-year-old influencer who made $107,000 a year sharing finance tips. The real numbers are harder to grasp and a lot less compelling. For every fish-tank guy, there’s hundreds of people trying much harder and earning a lot less, if anything at all.

A graphic designer I know thought she could make extra income selling templates and other printed products online, only to find that she was virtually invisible to potential customers. “It’s really easy to set up a store website or a shop on Etsy, but the only way you’ll sell anything is if you spend a ton of money on marketing,” she said. “The algorithms are so efficient you only get the eyeballs you pay for. So you will end up spending at least as much, if not more, than the revenue you bring in.” Luckily, she quit before that happened.

Another woman I spoke to tried selling foot photos online while she job-hunted after college. “I saw numbers on Twitter and TikTok, like $5,000 to $10,000 per month, but that’s actually very rare,” she said. “You can’t just create your profile, prepare your pictures and pricing, and get in touch with customers.” Instead, after three months of posting photos without any traction, she tried subscribing to the “premium” versions of the photo-sharing platforms to attract more clients. “But it didn’t work at all. So I lost more money!”

Still, there’s a digital business model for every possible pipe dream — you could do online coaching, make a podcast, earn commissions on stuff you convince people to buy through affiliate links, or vie for ad dollars on YouTube. To get a better idea of what’s worth your effort (and what isn’t), I spoke to 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 tips.

The best side gigs are the ones that use your existing skills, says Jean-Baptiste. She learned this the hard way: After years of dog-walking, babysitting, tutoring, and creating content on YouTube and her personal blog — on top of working a full-time job as a high-school teacher — she was exhausted and didn’t have much to show for it. Then she realized that she could make a few hundred dollars a month selling her lesson plans to other teachers online. “I had already spent hundreds of hours creating these lesson plans, but I was the only one using them,” she says. “Other people were willing to pay for the work I had already done.”

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.”

Unlike her lesson plans, Jean-Baptiste’s YouTube videos didn’t bring in a paycheck until six years after she started making them; even then, the ad revenue wasn’t meaningful. “Influencing is more of a long game,” she says. While some creators do manage to break out of the pack and make money quickly, it takes most people years to build up a big enough following to do so, if they even get to that point.

What’s more, banking on income from your followers is risky — many platforms that help influencers leverage their audience into profits, like Amazon and Facebook, can change their algorithms and commission models at any time, creating huge fluctuations in how much money they generate. Natalie Fisher, a personal-finance TikToker, says her income swung between $3,388 and $15,829 per month last year. So just because you have one successful month doesn’t automatically translate to future earnings.

For quicker results, Jean-Baptiste recommends submitting your résumé to LiveOps, a platform that matches independent contractors to virtual short-term jobs around the country. “For example, a company might be looking for a virtual assistant or a customer-service representative for 12 weeks. You specify how much time you’re available to work every week, and then you get paid,” she says.

And if all else fails, there’s always the more traditional side-hustle route. “If you need money right away, you’ll probably have to do a more hands-on, physical side hustle — like dog-walking or Instacart deliveries — as opposed to a remote side hustle that requires research,” she says. You could also sign up for focus groups in your area — psychology departments at local universities will often have them. “They typically start off at about $50 for an hour of time. So you’re not going to be making thousands of dollars, but at least you know what you’re getting into.”

At the end of the day, you can’t monetize every inch of your life. Plus, if your side hustle takes time and energy away from your actual job or career, it could backfire. That’s why Jean-Baptiste recommends exploring just one side hustle at a time. “I see a lot of people working an extra 20 or 30 hours a week just to make an extra $100 or $200. Especially if you’re doing that on top of a full-time job, that leads to burnout,” she says. “Don’t overcommit up front.”

Email your money conundrums to mytwocents@nymag.com (and read our submission terms here.)

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