Supplementing your income with side projects

Although I’ve begged her not to on a few occasions, Anne Gentle keeps making me think. A recent case in point: Anne left a comment on a post I wrote a few weeks ago about contracting in the current economy. Here’s the comment:

I just had an IM conversation with a technical writer in India who has to take a 5% pay cut. He wondered if he could make up the difference by working on freelance contracting jobs. I pointed him to and, but I wasn’t sure if it’s probable or even possible to make up the difference on your salary with freelancing.

Anne then asked what advice I would give to a writer in a similar situation. My response:

Is it possible? I think so, to a point — if you’re making $40K/year, a 5% cut is $2K. The problem is a full-timer willing and able to spend the time and energy doing that. One decent side gig can pull that much in. But chances are the writer will have to take on multiple smaller gigs.

It’s not just a matter of doing the job, it’s getting the job too. Many of the employers who post on freelance bidding sites are looking for the lowest bidder — there are a lot of people who will work for lower wages.

As usual, the answer isn’t as simple as that. Sure, we all could do with making more money. But it’s not as easy as some people would have you think.

How much do you want to and expect to make?

As I mentioned in my response to Anne, making an additional 5% or 10% on top of your salary by freelancing is possible. For the most part, you’re not going to get one big gig that will pull in that amount of money. It could happen, but it’s more likely that you’ll be working at and chasing multiple gigs.

Even when times were better, the employers who advertised on bidding sites like,, and tended to pay … well, let’s say the pay can be low. In the distant past, I did couple of gigs through and they paid an hourly rate in the lower double digits. Interesting experiences, but not as financially rewarding as I would have liked.

Time vs. money

That’s definitely something you have to weigh when considering a side gig. Consider how much time you’re spending on a project, and how much you’re making. You might be offered $600 to write a quick start guide or to create a small help system. You might be writing 500 word articles for $10 a shot. Is that extra money worth the time that you’ll spend working on those projects? Well, if you can write five articles an hour or finish the documentation in 10 hours it might be. But chances are, those jobs will take you longer.

Also, consider the time you’re going to spend searching for and applying for gigs. It’s a lot of hustling, especially when you’re using your spare time to do the hustling.

Here’s an example: last year, I had a few writing gigs on the side. Yes, even freelancers take side projects. I was making decent money overall, but I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to do the various other things that I wanted to do. So, in an attempt at rewiring my systems, I took a close look at some of those gigs. The amount of time that I spent working on them wasn’t worth the pay. So, I dropped them.

The upshot? I have more time to do the various things that I couldn’t before, and my wife and daughter no longer call me Mr. Nesbitt. Sure, I’m making less money but I’m not as rushed and am happier. That’s worth more than the lost income.

To do it or not?

I’m not one to discourage anyone from taking a side job to bring in a little extra cash to help make ends meet, to fund their vices, or to help defray additional expenses. I’ve done it in the past (well, two out of the three) and probably will do so in the future.

That said, I try to be a little more selective in the gigs that I look at. There’s a minimum hourly fee that I expect, and a minimum amount that I expect to make for an article. Nothing astronomical, but what I consider a decent payment for good work. That said, not every client or publication is willing or able to pay those amounts.

If you’re not that picky, then there are gigs out there for you. Keep in mind, though, that there is competition. A lot of it. You won’t get every side job that you apply for. The pay for some of those gigs won’t be great; it could turn out to be less than minimum wage in some cases. And you’ll be spending less time with family and friends, and probably not getting as much sleep.

So, if you’re willing to put up with all of that then there’s no reason why you can’t make a bit of money on the side.

Questions? Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

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  • Rhonda

    This is an excellent example of a cost/benefit analysis. Is it worth all that stress, energy, effort, time, frustration, disappointment, printer ink, time tailoring your resume to a particular gig, crafting emails/proposals etc. (the ‘cost’) just to gain back $40 a week (the ‘benefit’)? If you’re not in dire straits financially, I’d suggest that it’s not. You might even gain back the $40 lost just by cutting out the fancy coffees, bought lunches, or by reducing alcohol or cigarette intake.

    Maybe you can use the extra time to spend with your family, start (or resurrect) a hobby or activity, volunteer, exercise, or just stop and slow down for a bit.

  • Tom Johnson

    This post couldn’t be any more relevant to me right now. I’ve been spending a lot of my evenings and weekends doing WordPress consulting, and it’s really straining me. I’m about ready to completely cut back on the consulting activities and just focus on my regular work as a technical communicator. Just need enough money to buy that car ….

  • Scott

    You’re in the same situation that I was in a few months ago. I thought I was Superman (but really, only Green Lantern). Having that extra free time is nice. As for the car … get a toy version first. :-)

    Good points, similar to the ones I make in my personal life and ones made by my favourite personal finance blogger. But sometimes the siren song of quick cash in the PayPal account is hard to resist.

  • Julia

    This is something I’ve been thinking about as I try to get my full-time freelance tech writing career off the ground. And I’ve steered clear of the bidding sites for that exact reason. I don’t want to spend 10 hours working on something that will only net me $100.

    Having said that, I did spend an afternoon this week bidding on a few projects on one of these sites, however I was quite selective and only bid on 8 of the over 100 projects I saw. Two have already closed and I wasn’t the winning contractor. I saw that the winners were people who would do the project for less than $50, which is FAR below my threshold. I’m glad I didn’t get those projects now. The old adage does apply here, in my opinion: you get what you pay for.

    • Scott

      I think you hit the situation on the head: you can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it done well. Two of them will cost you, and only one will be worth it.

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  • Craig

    What’s wrong with being called MR? Grin. Hey, grab that respect where you can!

  • Josh

    The money you have given up for time gained is called the opportunity cost. Everything has a cost and weighing the opportunity costs is an important decision making tool.