I grew up in Canada with parents who valued education and were strict about me staying on top of my studies and extracurriculars, with the hope that I would one day get into a top school. In my senior year of high school, I was accepted to Harvard, and everything was falling into place.
Then the pandemic hit and shifted so many people's plans, including mine.
When it became clear that international students wouldn't be able to attend class in person in the fall of 2020, rather than spend my freshman year behind a screen, I decided to take a gap year and figure out what I wanted out of my education, and my future.
When I started college this past fall, I was thrilled about the prospect of living on my own, making friends, and having some fun after a tough year. I also kept working on the side hustle I started during my time off.
Now I am making over $1,800 a month through that gig, and I have a whole new approach to budgeting my money and time. Here are the most important lessons I've learned.
Ever since I read Robert Kiyosaki's book "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" when I was 13, I have been fascinated by personal finance. During my gap year, I kept thinking about that passion, and I started a site called Financial Pupil to share my love for the subject and hopefully help other young adults make money decisions that made sense for them.
My earliest experiences with money were the $20 lunch allowances my parents gave me. They would often ask for any unspent money back, so I had a "use it or lose it" mentality that was hard to shake. And as much as I thought about my future finances, that more immediate money mindset had a negative effect on my bank account.
A few weeks into school, I realized that, after covering food, tuition, learning materials, and living expenses, I had very little left over to do the things I would enjoy. But I didn't change my spending habits, and once my first semester came to a close, my bank account was growing closer and closer to zero.
That's when I knew I needed to do something about it.
Around this time, I had joined a group of fellow bloggers to help me grow Financial Pupil. Many of the members shared that they were looking for writers, so I reached out to them one by one and slowly started taking on freelance writing assignments.
Over time, I started getting more work, and I realized that my balance was finally trending up and not down.
Before starting freelancing, I was worried that people wouldn't want to hire me. After all, at the time, I was just a college student without any credentials. I was so scared of being rejected that I didn't even reach out to potential connections.
In mid-September, I opened my phone to check my bank balance and realized it had dropped to less than $100. It was then out of pure necessity, that I reached out to a fellow blogger and asked if he would be interested in me writing an article about ETFs for his site. To my great surprise, he said yes and even agreed to provide me with weekly assignments if I wanted.
There is a quote from author Nora Roberts that has resonated with me throughout this process: "If you don't ask, the answer will always be no."
Video by Tala Hadavi
I've reached out to many bloggers and site owners alike to offer my freelancing services. Some politely decline, some say they'll "let me know," but a lot say yes.
Realizing that there's no harm in asking and putting myself out there has helped me tremendously and is a mindset that I've carried into other areas of my life as well.
My best advice for someone starting a side hustle is to build up momentum. Start by reaching out to people that you already know, and then slowly work your way up to strangers, people you're reaching out to cold.
Keep in mind that reaching out to people is an asymmetrical bet. You hardly lose anything when someone says no and rejects your offer, and you have a world of experience, connections, and work to gain if even one person says yes.
My best advice for anyone who is starting a side hustle is to lead with enthusiasm and an attention to detail. Early on, I was so concerned about my lack of credentials. But my fear about not making a good first impression actually ended up being my greatest asset. It meant that I put my all into every piece that I wrote.
I would make sure that the expectations were very clear from the get go, and I wasn't afraid to ask questions about the specifics of the project. I would thoroughly research every topic, create a detailed outline, and when I was done writing, I would even run the article through search engine optimization tools.
Since I was new to this, I knew that my work had to represent me.
Creating those standards for myself, rather than anyone else, helped me build my confidence. Over time, I got referrals and clients who asked me to write multiple pieces for them.
A couple of months into my freelancing journey, one of my clients reached out and asked if I could write a story about golf, a subject I personally know a lot about. I've played for over 10 years and I'm on the varsity team at Harvard. But this piece would appear on a major website, MSN, with a large audience, and to that point, I had only written posts published on small blogs and sites, and I was scared about taking it on.
In the end, deciding to say yes was one of the best decisions I could have made. That one post opened up many more opportunities to write for more notable sites and gain even more experience.
Video by Courtney Stith
I learned that no matter how tough a project may seem, if you say yes to it, you can find a way to learn, improve, and get it done.
The worst thing that can happen is you realize you bit off more than you could chew, and you talk to your client about making an adjustment. The opportunity might go to someone else, but it is always better to be honest and upfront about what you are able to accomplish.
Learning to say yes to these kinds of opportunities has allowed me to grow my freelancing side hustle faster and more profitable than I could have ever imagined.
The income from my writing opened my eyes to how important personal finance skills are. I developed a plan to invest at least 50% of the earnings either back into Financial Pupil or into long-term index funds, save 30% of my earnings towards tuition and school costs, and use the rest for fun.
I have stuck with this plan since earning my very first dollar and plan to continue following it all throughout college. That being said, for how committed I am to personal finance, I didn't place nearly enough significance on how I treated my time at the beginning of college.
College life is busy. When I began my schooling, not only did I have classes to worry about, but I was also on my school's golf team and had practices plus travel that ate up 20 to 30 hours of my week. As I took on more writing assignments, I realized that I started going to bed later and later every night. I found myself dozing off in lectures and barely making some school work deadlines.
Video by Mariam Abdallah
That was when I became more intentional about how I spent my time. On the advice from my coach, I started breaking my schedule into 15-minute chunks, and that has made a big difference. As soon as I began to budget my hours as seriously as I budget my dollars, work, and school became much more straightforward, and things began to fall into place.
I keep track of all my income manually through an Excel spreadsheet. Every week I will log into my PayPal and see how much I've brought in, and jot down the numbers in the spreadsheet.
I plan to start an LLC for Financial Pupil within the next few months. And those time management strategies have allowed me to take on more work while maintaining my commitments in school.
As I continue to write, I've tried to keep an open mind. I have learned so much about SEO, keyword research, and creating outlines for posts, and my hope is to use all these newfound skills to help grow my blog Financial Pupil into a profitable venture in the future.
Being on this freelancing path has taught me a lot and given my college experience a new purpose. As of now, my biggest goal is to grow my blog and freelance writing side hustles to the point where I can live off them entirely.
I believe that anyone can build a profitable side hustle with persistence and an openness to learn. My best advice is to keep pushing no matter how tough things may seem and put your best foot forward every time you take on a new project. But, of course, don't forget to enjoy the journey.
Jeffrey Fang is the founder of Financial Pupil and a Harvard Class of 2025 economics student. He has worked in private equity and is passionate about helping other young adults learn about personal finance. When he's not blogging, Jeff loves to golf, cook, and read.
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