How I paid off $60,000 in student loans and auto debt and turned my side hustle into a 6-figure job

How To Fire co-founder Samantha Hawrylack shares the steps she took to reach her money goals and become her own boss.

Samantha Hawrylack
How to FIRE co-founders John and Samantha Hawrylack.
Courtesy Samantha Hawrylack

In 2016, my husband John and I felt financially stuck. John was recently out of school and I had one year to go. Despite our concerted efforts, and sometimes working a combined 120 hours a week, it never felt like we were getting any traction. The feeling hit us like a ton of bricks when we realized that we were spending our early 20s frequently choosing to work over spending time with friends, family, and each other. 

We wanted more freedom and flexibility in our lives, so we started researching FIRE (financial independence, retire early), and it really resonated with us. We started with a budget. With every purchase, we asked ourselves whether it was a want or a need, and worked toward decreasing our spending, while creating additional streams of income with our side hustles, a blog and a consulting business.

In 2018, we celebrated our second wedding anniversary, and we took stock of our money and careers. We had been able to make some real strides. We saved up three months worth of expenses in an emergency fund, and we consistently contributed enough to get the full match on John's 401(k). But we still had student and car loans totaling $60,000, down from $90,000 when we first got married. Plus, we wanted to invest more.

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We set our money intentions 

At the time, I was working as a brokerage investment professional in the financial services industry. It was a job that I dreaded going to every morning, due to a combination of a corporate culture that wasn't a good fit and the mental exhaustion that can come from being in a client-facing role.  

Something had to change when it came to our quality of life. So in 2018, we started a blog called How to FIRE as a hobby, and to hold ourselves accountable as we worked towards our debt and savings goals. As a team, we decided to use our blogging experience, my financial services acumen, and John's software engineer skills, to help other small-business owners. Our intentional money habits allowed us to reach a FIRE goal called CoastFI by our third wedding anniversary in July 2019. 

CoastFI means having enough saved in your retirement accounts that you can have a comfortable retirement at a traditional retirement age (65) without saving another penny. I leveraged these savings to make a big career move, but we plan to lower our actual retirement age as much as possible by continuing to save and max accounts on top of that, and hopefully retire sometime in our 40s.

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As we started gaining new clients and bringing in consistent income from our side hustles between 2016 and 2019, I also took the plunge and quit my job in July 2019 to pursue the blog and consulting business full time. In just one year, I made six figures and brought in 2.5 times the income I was bringing in from my 9-to-5 job. Even though I was nervous about becoming my own boss, the financial progress we have been able to make since 2016 made me feel more confident about taking that leap. 

If you are thinking about turning your side hustle into a career right now, here is how I turned my goal into a reality. 

Create a long- and short-term game plan

When I decided to go full time with my consulting business and How To FIRE, I had only two consistent clients. My first step was to come up with the financial and business benchmarks I wanted to meet before I quit my job, including several months saved in an emergency fund. 

In the first year of my business, I did not have a professional logo or website. I also didn't invest in digital marketing. Every client I established was from networking, word of mouth, and social media. We joined a large number of Facebook groups for blogging, freelancing, marketing, and personal finance, which accounts for the majority of my client base. We also attended personal finance blogger convention FinCon two months after I left my day job, which allowed me to meet people who turned into clients, peers, and mentors. 

Even though this was tough for me as an introvert, one of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of showcasing your skills and talents. It isn't "bragging" to effectively communicate your strengths and what you bring to the table as you attract new clients.

My best advice to help you stay the course after becoming your own boss is to set attainable and stretch goals for yourself every month to keep your business moving forward. For me, these goals included client numbers, hourly rates, and monthly revenue. I also make daily goals for myself by block scheduling my time. After only one year, I was able to earn six-figures in our consulting business.

My best advice to help you stay the course after becoming your own boss is to set attainable and stretch goals for yourself every month to keep your business moving forward.
Samantha Hawrylack
Co-founder of How To FIRE

Since I was able to earn 2.5 times my previous day job income, we are now able to max all of our investment accounts — my husband's 401(k), a health savings account, Roth IRAs, and a solo 401(k) for myself — while also putting money away for bigger purchases like a larger single-family home and car that will come along in the future. 

As for our debt, starting in December of 2019, if we had any additional funds left over every month, we put it towards paying down the debt. It took us eight months, but in July of this year, we also completely paid off the remaining $60,000. 

Remember you are your most valuable resource 

Even if you are starting a new venture, it's important to remind yourself of how valuable your existing skills are. My education and background in the finance industry and my blogging experience made me an ideal candidate for virtual assisting, freelance writing, project management, marketing, and more. Establishing myself in an industry that I was already familiar with made it much easier to gain traction quickly. 

And even amid all the stress of launching a business, it is paramount that you take care of yourself. You won't be able to deliver quality results for clients if you are not physically and mentally healthy. I needed to learn that a work-life balance is not optional. 

You may have heard the expression that the self-employed never sleep, and I felt this for the majority of my first year of full-time entrepreneurship. But I made a concerted change to practice more self-care when I realized that my mind was always on my to-do list, and I found myself sitting at the computer working more hours in the day than not.

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I would also encourage new entrepreneurs to take the time to learn something new every day. Read articles, take courses, learn new platforms, watch videos, and ask questions. I joined a Facebook Ads online membership group to learn how to run successful Facebook ad campaigns for clients. Now, I can offer that as a service for my clients. I taught myself how to use popular email software like ConvertKit, which enables me to enhance my marketing offerings. Each skill you master is a new service you can offer. 

Using these resources and with John's help, I grew the consulting business from two to 13 clients. Our blog also grew from 1,400 page views per month in August 2019 to 55,000 page views in August 2020.

Find a community that will be your support system

The fear of not making it as an entrepreneur was something that was constantly in the back of mind when I first started my business. I was also worried about other people's perception of my choice. Would they think I was ungrateful for the stable job I had or that I was throwing my education and work experience out the window? 

Instead of letting those insecurities undermine the progress I had made, I channeled them into creating the life that I wanted. Part of that process was maintaining a strong support system around me: my husband and family who believed in me and groups of fellow entrepreneurs who had similar interests and professional goals, who I met online and through Facebook groups.

Our long-term goal is to work to save 25 times our annual spending by the time we are 40. We are 26 now and are on our way to achieving it. Even though I was terrified at first, quitting my job to pursue my side hustle turned out to be the best thing I could've done for myself and our future. 

Samantha Hawrylack is a personal finance expert, full-time entrepreneur, and co-founder of How To FIRE. She has been featured in publications like Forbes, MSN, Yahoo! Finance, and Fox Business. She's passionate about helping others reach the freedom and flexibility they crave through the FIRE movement. You can find her on Twitter at @HowToFIRE.

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