Thanks to my side hustle, I went from paycheck-to-paycheck to traveling full time, debt-free

Making Sense of Cents founder Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, who now travels full time, shares the steps she took to pay off her student debt and become her own boss.

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner
Michelle Schroeder-Gardner.
Courtesy of Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Today I run my own business with my blog Making Sense of Cents and I travel full time on my sailboat with my husband and our two dogs. But eight years ago, these goals seemed out of reach.

Even with a full-time job and multiple side gigs, I was living paycheck-to-paycheck. I absolutely dreaded my day job, and I had nearly $40,000 in student loans.

While I was in college, I had started a blog where I wrote about my struggles with money and debt. I kept working on it even after I left school. The site introduced me to a group of people who were in the same position, and I began to learn about different ways to make money online and strategies to pay off my student loans. I kept hearing about all of these amazing financial success stories, and I realized that I could start making major changes too. 

It wasn't easy. Between all my obligations with school and my day job and growing the blog, I was working over 100 hours a week for about five years. But the experience taught me a lot, and I still use the money moves I made to pay off my debt and become my own boss today. 

1. Set goals and a plan to achieve them

I realized that my blog wasn't just a community. I could earn money writing about personal finance, and it could help me pay off my debt.

Once I knew I wanted to leave my day job as a financial analyst, I made a plan to pay my student debt off as quickly as I could and to build an emergency fund of at least six months of expenses. I wanted to start my next chapter with Making Sense of Cents as unencumbered as possible. 

By building my business on the side, I was able to focus on what I enjoyed about running the company, while still having the security of the income from my day job.

I wanted to do three key things, I realized: Improve my voice and style as a writer, begin to grow my audience, and figure out how to best market and monetize my work. I found that setting these goals made it easier to take the leap.

2. Get expenses down

I started by lowering my monthly expenses by around $500 a month. The upside of working so much, even if it wasn't sustainable for the long term, was that my clothing, food, entertainment, and other discretionary spending went down considerably.

I cut down on dining out, entertainment, clothing, and negotiated monthly bills like my car insurance and cellphone bills. I also started couponing, which helped me save on household goods like shampoo, detergent, and even dog food.

The additional money that I saved after reducing my budget was put towards my debt, and then the emergency fund after I paid off what I had owed.

3. Get earnings up

In addition to the blog, I also had a number of side hustles, including selling items online, mystery shopping, taking online surveys, taking part in market research studies, and writing articles for other publications. When you start a side hustle, my best advice would be to make sure you're passionate about it, because it can take some time to become the vision you see in your head. But the investment is worth it. 

Thanks to the income from my side hustles, I was able to pay off nearly $40,000 in just seven months.

I paid off my debt starting with the highest interest rate first. I found that this system really helped because seeing the progress of lowering my interest payments motivated me to continue to meet those goals and save in a big way.

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The emergency fund part of my plan was important to me because I wanted to have a cushion that would allow me to focus solely on growing the business rather than having to fill in any gaps with additional gigs in the event of any variable or low income months.  

I found that the budgeting skills I developed from focusing on paying off my debt helped more than I realized. Because I'd lowered my expenses, I ended up not needing as much to cover six months as I thought I might. That meant that it didn't take as long to save up the funds. 

Going from living paycheck to paycheck to being a solopreneur and having the option to retire early is something that I never thought would be possible for me. If you too want to pursue a big dream, I recommend working backwards from your goal with the steps you need to take to get there. Even the smallest action can make a big impact. 

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner is the writer and founder of Making Sense of Cents, where she helps readers learn how to earn more, save more, and live more. She paid off nearly $40,000 in student loan debt in just seven months and now travels full time via sailboat with her husband and two dogs.

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