I turned my side hustle into a full-time business and built a life I don't want to retire from: Here's my best advice

"I identified all of my fears and wrote them down. This allowed me to deconstruct them one by one."

Jessica and Corey are the married founders of the financial independence blog The Fioneers.
Courtesy The Fioneers

In the summer of 2018, I was 31 and I started experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks. I was burned out from the stress, long hours, and organizational politics at my toxic HR job. There were even times when I could barely even open my work computer without having a panic attack. 

Something needed to change. So on the advice of my health professional, I took a six-month medical leave. I was fortunate to be able to receive 60% of my salary through the company's disability insurance. It was a tough time, but it led to my turning point. 

Before this, I'd been living on autopilot. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do to climb the corporate ladder. This time to take care of myself gave me the strength to quit that toxic job. 

In January of 2019, I went back to work part time for a different employer, and as I started feeling better, I decided to maintain those hours. Then, in March of 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, I decided to use everything I had learned hiring, coaching, and training employees and start a career and life design coaching business.

I ran my side hustle for about eight months before I quit my day job to take it full time. Initially, I thought I would wait until I was earning enough to cover all my family's expenses. But towards the end of 2020, after running the numbers, between our emergency savings and my husband's salary, I decided to make the leap once my income could cover half of our expenses. 

Today, even though I am passionate about my work, I am not aiming for explosive growth. My goal is balance — and having the time to devote to my relationships, my health, and my love of travel.

Here is how I built a life that I don't want to retire from.

I started building wealth 

I graduated from college in 2009 during the recession. While I was fortunate to not have any student loans, it was extremely challenging to find a job. My husband and I started our careers with very low incomes. He made $12/hour working part time at a university, and one of my first jobs was with AmeriCorps, where I made $11,000/year.

Living in the New York City metro area, we struggled to make ends meet.

So we took control of our finances out of necessity. We created a clear budget and did everything we could to not take on debt. This included not dining out for an entire year, unless someone else was paying. 

After a few years, we started to see our incomes increase. We did inflate our lifestyle a bit and found a new place with a dishwasher and washer and dryer. Still, the bulk of our income went to our emergency fund and our retirement accounts.  

We didn't want to be where we were in 2009 ever again. We wanted to be ready to adapt to whatever life threw at us. By 2017, we were saving about 35% of our income. By 2018, we even started to embrace FIRE and talked about the possibility of retiring early in our 50s.  

I theoretically knew we were in a good financial position, but our financial cushion didn't feel real: What we had felt like Monopoly money.

How a FIRE supersaver plans to retire at 32

Video by Courtney Stith

I began thinking about money differently 

During the first few weeks of my mental health crisis in 2018, I struggled to figure out what to do. At first, taking significant time off did not feel like a viable option. I felt an urgency to get back to work and keep earning.

Then I started to critically look at our finances.

I realized that our emergency fund would cover nine months of our total expenses. If my husband and I were both out of work for the better part of year, we would be OK. And while we saved about 35% of our income in 2017, in 2018, we had both increased our salaries and were on track to save about 50% of our income for that year. 

Understanding this gave me the confidence that I needed to take the time I needed to get well. It seems simple now, but it was the first time I analyzed my finances in this way.

At that moment, I realized that working toward financial freedom could have a dramatic impact on our lives right now, not just in the future.  

I changed my relationship to work

In 2018, my life was consumed by work. The vast majority of my time was spent working, thinking about work, preparing for work, recovering from work, and commuting. I had little time or energy to focus on my life outside of work. I saw myself as an ambitious HR professional and little else.  

As I recovered, I realized that putting so much of my identity into my career wasn't healthy. So during my leave, I went to mental health counseling and read about new definitions of success and ways of living.

I spent time reflecting and writing about what I wanted and who I wanted to be. 

How to find the best job for you: Tips from a recruiter

Video by Mariam Abdallah

I realized that I wasn't just my job title. I am a person who prioritizes her mental and physical health. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and a dog-mom. I am a writer, a photographer, a reader, a hiker, and a learner. I am a traveler and a language-learner. I seek out beauty and new experiences wherever I go. 

Today my life is a lot more balanced and aligned with what I value. Where before work made up 80% of my time, now it is only about 30%. I have a lot more room in my life for curiosity and fun, and more energy to devote to my health and my relationships.

I created a side hustle to pursue my passion 

After a year of working three days a week, my mental health improved significantly. Around this time, I learned that we had reached Coast FI, the point where you've already invested enough in your retirement accounts that you don't need to invest another dollar.

Instead of increasing my hours at work, I decided to try building a passion-based business.  

My question was, "If I were financially independent and no longer needed to work, how would I want to spend my time?"  Throughout my career in HR, I considered becoming a career coach. But based on my experience, I knew I didn't want to just help people climb the corporate ladder. I wanted to help them find work they loved and figure out how they wanted work to fit into their lives.  

After working with a few initial clients that I met through my blog, I realized I loved it so much I would do the work for free. So I decided to pursue it. I didn't originally plan for my passion project to become my main gig. 

4 common side-hustle myths debunked by a pro

Video by Courtney Stith

As I started the business, I didn't put pressure on it. It was fun and meaningful. If it provided some income, great. If not, it was still a worthwhile investment of my time.

My side hustle grew more quickly than I expected, and I was able to quit my part-time job less than a year after starting the business.  

I overcame my scarcity mindset

Starting a business and making it your main gig is scary. I had so many fears and what-ifs that I needed to work through, questions that kept me up at night, like: 

  • What if the business didn't work out? 
  • What if I put myself out there and failed? 
  • What if my husband lost his job and then I felt pressure to cover all our expenses immediately? 
  • What if we were hit with another Black Swan event like the recession and were unable to recover financially?  

First, I identified all of my fears and wrote them down. This allowed me to deconstruct them one by one. Second, I articulated the most likely scenario. For example, I'd already seen a track record of success in my business while running it part time. It wasn't a fluke, so it was unlikely that the demand for my services would immediately dry up. 

Third, I worked through each question. I asked myself, "If my business doesn't work out, what would I do?" I realized that there were a lot of options. I could pivot my business, find a new job, use my skills in a freelance capacity, or work in the gig economy. I have the ability to generate income in so many different ways. 

Finally, I worked through my finances again. How much did I have in my emergency fund? What did that mean for my life today? If I dramatically reduced my savings, how would that change my retirement timeline? Would I be jeopardizing a comfortable traditional retirement or would I be okay?

I worked through my fears enough to finally quit my job. Today, my conviction about my ability to generate income has continued to grow, and I feel more confident than ever about my decision to take the leap.

Jessica is a lifestyle design coach and co-founder of the blog, The Fioneers. Since 2018, she has grown the Fioneers to become a globally recognized and Plutus award-winning resource focused on enjoying the journey to financial independence, not just after. Jessica's goal is to build a life she doesn't want to retire from and help others do the same through her writing, courses, and group coaching programs. Jessica has been featured in MarketWatch, Business Insider, The Motley Fool and Forbes.

More from Grow: