How Working for Free Has Paid Off

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If you read a lot of personal finance blogs, you’re probably familiar with the term “side hustle”. A side hustle is simply a way to make extra money outside of your regular 9-5 job. Most personal finance bloggers consider their sites their side hustles; they write, build a following, put up ads and/or sponsored content, get paid to guest post, etc. And there are a few bloggers who bring in some serious dough. (I’m talking thousands of dollars each month – you go, friends!)

I can’t really explain why, but I’ve never seen Blonde on a Budget as my side hustle. In fact, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve made exactly $0 from this site. Call me crazy, silly or stupid, but I just can’t talk myself into putting ads up. When I was still paying down my debt, I hated the idea of anyone coming here and seeing an ad for a credit card or any other financial product that I didn’t use personally. “I can’t be a hypocrite!” Once I hit 100,000 pageviews/month, I started to question that decision – especially when some of my best blogging friends told me how much I could be making – but I have yet to change my stance.

So, this site isn’t my side hustle; if anything is, my side hustle would be the posts I contribute to other sites. But here’s another secret: I don’t really make any money doing that either. I’ve been blogging since October 2010 and, in all of that time, I’ve only earned about $1,000 from a few freelance posts. You must think I’m nuts now, right? It’s ok – sometimes, I do too (again, mostly when I see how much money my best blogging friends are making). But I’ve always cared more about the opportunities and experiences that could come my way… and, in my opinion, some of the work I’ve done for free has paid off exponentially. Here’s how:

I Completed an Unpaid Internship That Was Priceless

In 2011, I applied for and was offered an unpaid internship with LearnVest’s editorial team. Unpaid internships are a hot topic in Canada right now but, truthfully, I was never bothered by the $0 paycheque. Back then, LearnVest was a personal finance site for women. (I swear, I probably would’ve paid them to play a part in what they were doing.) Nothing about the job was particularly glamorous. For the most part, I was just filling in spreadsheets, updating old blog posts with new links, categories and tags, managing Twitter and writing new posts. But seeing my name as an author on the site filled me with pride, and the editors I worked with helped me become a better writer. I learned how to write and stick to a style guide, maintain an editorial calendar and explain financial concepts in simplest terms – all of which I do on a daily basis now, as the Managing Editor at RateHub.ca. Of course, I know that not everyone can afford to accept opportunities like this – the only reason I could is because I was already working full-time, and completing my internship assignments on nights/weekends. But I don’t think I could’ve been as successful in my career at RateHub.ca, without the experience I got during my internship at LearnVest.

I Decided to Only Write for Sites I Was Passionate About

Since starting my blog in 2010, I have accepted and declined a number of freelance writing opportunities. My first writing job was actually for my current employer’s biggest competitor, which is kind of funny to think about, especially because it’s the only one that offered me some steady side income for a few months. After that, I stopped caring about the money, and decided I only wanted to write for sites I was passionate about – even if they couldn’t pay me. The second writing job I accepted was my unpaid internship at LearnVest. At the same time, I wrote a few posts (for free) for a career website for women, which had a content syndication agreement with Forbes. After that, I wrote a handful of guest posts for other blogs, projects and startups I loved. Eventually, all of this led to a conversation with Gail Vaz-Oxlade about writing on her Other Voices blog. And, more recently, I have been invited to contribute on both The Huffington Post Canada and The Globe and Mail. I can’t specifically say that doing so much writing for free led to each of these opportunities, but I do think that only writing for sites I was passionate about (despite the small paycheques) helped me strengthen my voice, and build my writing portfolio and brand.

I Took the Career Route (Not the Freelance Route)

For a little over a year, I was working full-time in the BC Public Service, going to school basically full-time (or so it felt like), interning at LearnVest and writing this blog. As you can imagine, I lost a lot of sleep! There were times when I wanted to quit school, quit LearnVest, stop writing my own blog, etc. but only because I had way too much on my plate. Instead of quitting, I wrote about how I was learning to manage my time, while finishing school and still working on projects I was passionate about. I didn’t realize it back then, but there were a couple of readers out there who were following my journey – and one of them eventually offered me my current job at RateHub.ca. Having been with the company for a little over 18 months now, I’ve since had the opportunity to ask my boss why she liked my blog and wanted to hire me. Her answer: She saw that I could manage multiple projects with multiple deadlines, obviously wanted to learn new things, and she loved that she never found any spelling mistakes in my posts. (Apparently, it’s as easy as that, friends!) Of course, I had been trying to build up my writing portfolio, but I wasn’t conscious of the fact that my blog was a portfolio in itself – until that job offer came through.

Now, none of this should be taken as advice: I’m not telling you to work for free! In fact, most people will tell you that you should never work for free. But I do think it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of every opportunity that comes your way. Of course, I think my time is important; it’s our most valuable resource. But with certain writing opportunities, I placed more importance on the experience and the networking (i.e. learning new things, and working with people I respect and/or for sites I am passionate about). From the day I applied to work at LearnVest, I knew I wanted to gain experience in another field so, in the long-term, I could make some career moves that would never be possible in the provincial government. Basically, right from the start, I’d clearly misunderstood the meaning of the term “side hustle”! But when it comes to your career, some experiences are worth more than a paycheque. (And eventually, the paycheques do come.)

Have you ever worked on something for free? What were the benefits of doing so?

Flickr: jakecaptive