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The Truth About Side Hustles

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This is the age of the side gig. With automation eating up jobs, rent prices soaring, and student loan debt plaguing millions, many have started looking to supplement their income.

A recent study found that in the past 20 years, the gig economy has increased 27 percent more than traditional jobs. With sharing services like Uber and digital marketplaces like Etsy flourishing, earning an extra buck seems easier than ever. Others still rely on old business models like selling Cutco knives or Mary Kay makeup to earn some dough. I know the allure well, here’s a brief list of my own forays into side hustles: conducting online surveys, selling plasma, selling makeup and clothes online, dog sitting, and, of course, freelance writing.

But just because the side hustle is more popular than ever doesn’t make it a sure thing. Plenty of people fail to realize any kind of significant earnings from their extra job. The ubiquity of side hustlers has also opened up the market for scams and sketchy “opportunities.” As easy as it is to make some cash, it’s just as easy to waste your time or end up being swindled.

Moonlighting as an Ebay maven, bartender, virtual assistant, or seasonal salesperson can feel like the answer to all your money problems — but there’s often more effort involved than you may realize.

Indianapolis residents Allie and Ryan Stahl recently started boarding dogs at their home through DogVacay, which lets people book dog-walking and pet-sitting services. Allie and her husband have two dogs of their own, and take on canine clients while owners go on overnight trips and vacations.

The Stahls were surprised at how much time the whole process takes. Allie said they meet all the dogs before they agree to board them to determine if they’re a good fit for their current pups. All “meet and greet” time is unpaid, which eats into their hourly price. Some dogs also leave accidents in their home, which adds more clean-up time. After website fees and taxes, they earn about $15 a night.

“I think it’s a good way to earn extra money if you like dogs, aren’t needing to make a ton of extra money, and don’t want to do much,” Allie said. “It’s kind of like the Uber of pet sitting, where if you put in a lot of effort you can make decent money, but casual users won’t be rolling in the dough.”

On the upside, time spent side-hustling is time you aren’t spending your own money. Allie says that because their new job requires them to spend more nights at home than at the bars, the dog-sitting jobs have a more positive effect on their budget than what their net earnings might suggest.

At least, that’s how it should work. But some “easy money” gigs can end up costing you.

Author and blogger Lauren Greutman, who chronicled her debt-free journey in The Recovering Spender, said she was sucked into selling cosmetics for a multi-level marketing company in an effort to earn money on the side.

She spent thousands of dollars trying to become one of the firm’s top sales people. She was dazzled by the possibility of earning enough money to make it a full-time career; and initially earned six times what she expected to in one month. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize that was almost impossible to sustain.

“What people don’t understand is that in an MLM, you are the first customer of the company,” she told me earlier this fall. “The company will try to sell to you first and there is so much pressure for you to reach certain milestones so that you get rewards and prizes.”

Most multi-level marketing companies require you to buy a certain amount of the products that you then sell to other people, putting a lot of pressure on you to make up those out-of-pocket costs with sales. Many encourage selling to friends and family first, and hosting regular product parties where you invite anyone you know. For many, making these requests can be awkward and uncomfortable, and quickly leads to burnout.

“To make a good living in an MLM, you need to spend a lot of money and also a lot of time,” Greutman said. “Many of the top consultants are doing it and not making a ton of money.” MLM expert Robert Fitzpatrick has claimed that 99 percent of MLM participants do not make a net profit.

So how does an aspiring hustler evade the pitfalls and build a legitimate source of income? Read ahead for tips and tricks from yours truly, someone who’s been making a steady income on the side for over a decade.

What to know before you start

Starting a side hustle is like starting a new job. Before you can get the ball rolling, you have to know if it’ll be a good fit. Will you like the atmosphere, the work-life balance, the co-workers, the customers? Do your research before jumping in.

When a side hustle is a good idea

While it can be frustrating and grueling to build a business, it can also be truly rewarding. Here are some traits of a successful side gig:

When a side hustle is a bad idea

Not every side gig is a great idea. For example, I sold plasma while I was a college student. It was easy money and didn’t require much advance notice. But eventually my iron levels dropped, and I wasn’t eligible anymore. Even though I’d been making $20 a session, my honey pot was now empty.

This story was originally published on Make Change. If you like what you see sign up for their weekly newsletter.

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