Q&A with David Carlson: How side hustles can pare debt
Millennials can take on extra work to pay student loans. It worked for this blogger/author
By Cathleen McCarthy | Published: June 28, 2016
When he started his blog, Young Adult Money, David Carlson was exploring a subject he knew all too well – debt. Now he’s turned the experience into a book, “Hustle Away Debt.”
His story in a nutshell: Newly married, he and his bride dreamed of furthering their education, owning a home and traveling the world. But they were facing a combined student loan debt of more than $100,000. Even if they made the minimum $1,000 payment every month, it would take a decade to pay off.
It’s the dilemma of their generation. Outstanding student loans in the U.S. now total about $1.3 trillion.
How did Carlson beat his debt? He landed a full-time job in finance soon after graduation, but his entry-level salary wasn’t enough. He began taking on side jobs to pay down the debt, experimenting with various “travel hacks,” and documenting it all in his blog. The Carlsons eventually bought that house, travel regularly and she is back in school.
In “Hustle Away Debt,” Carlson lays out a plan to get debt under control, then supplement your income with a side hustle or two.
Author David Carlson
Q: Your generation bears a heavy debt load from the get-go, and it sounds like you carry your share. How do you keep from being overwhelmed?
A: That’s part of the problem. People who have to take out student loans graduate from college with more than $35,000 in debt on average. If you get married, as I did, that’s $70,000 on average per couple.
It’s pretty overwhelming. People either deal with it head-on or put it on the back burner, figuring they can go back to school and take advantage of the interest-free payment plan. Either way, it gets to you that you have this huge debt load that’s going to take forever to pay off.
Q: As someone who’s paying off debt yourself, and a personal finance expert who addresses this age group, what approach do you recommend?
A: First, look at the interest you’re paying on credit card debt or student loans and reduce that as much as possible. One way is to transfer your credit card balance to a 0 percent APR credit card. These typically give you a 12-month grace period, so you have to keep rolling it over. Offers are constantly changing, so we post them on my blog, Young Adult Money. Second option is a debt-consolidation loan, which can easily cut a 20 percent interest rate in half.
The harsh reality is that there is no magic formula for getting rid of student loan debt. It’s worth discussing student loan refinancing before diving into side hustle strategies, but having a side hustle can greatly improve your ability to pay it down.
Even if you get a decent job on graduation, you’re not making a ton of money because it’s your first job. If you have a really large monthly payment, it can be crippling. But if you focus on whittling that down, you can buy yourself some breathing room.
Q: Is that where the side hustle comes in?
A: Pursuing a side hustle can give you a bit more long term. At the very least, relieving some of the debt stress allows you to perform better at your day job and increase your income there.
Q: You’ve done everything from delivering pizzas to freelance writing and spreadsheet consulting. What worked best?
A: Things like delivery and Uber driving are great for filling in gaps around other jobs, and they don’t take a lot of mental energy. Those are what I call quick-money hustles.
Spreadsheets and blogging were skills I picked up on the job, and proved useful for making money on the side.
I advise people to think about the unique skills they bring to the table, and then find a way to offer that. You don’t have to have a website. Sites like Craigslist or 99designs can work.
Things like delivery and Uber driving are great for filling in gaps around other jobs, and they don’t take a lot of mental energy. Those are what I call quick-money hustles.
Q: I love your line about getting stuck in idea land. That’s so easy to do as an entrepreneur.
A: Everyone has ideas! Sometimes doing something different from your day job can be more enjoyable.
If you do a lot of writing at work, you may not feel like blogging or freelance writing. But if you’re working on a skill you can use in your full-time job, that’s going to help you get paid more through promotions or just being a more qualified employee.
If you can get paid and improve your skills, that’s a big win, especially if you have debt that you’re trying to knock out. I call that the long-tail hustle.
Q: What’s the secret to making a side hustle work?
A: The most important thing is planning. It’s hard enough to work a full-time job. If you’re doing something at night, you really have to plan for it.
If you’re in a relationship, you have to get your partner onboard and decide together what you’re going to let go. You won’t be able to go out every night or commit to as much as you would have in the past.
I recommend picking and choosing what you do with your time. Set up a calendar and stick to it. A lot of people get burned out even if they do that, but if you plan ahead and make sure you’re spending your time how you want to spend it, it can end a lot better than just jumping in.
Q: In your book, you talk about the 20-80 principle. How do you identify the 20 percent of what you do that delivers 80 percent of the payback?
A: That’s easier said than done. With my blog, for example, there’s always something more I can do to improve my site. Honestly, it’s tough to let any of it go. But eventually you do have to focus on what is going to benefit you the most, long term.
Q: You were a virtual assistant yourself as a side hustle, and now you’re using VAs. How much do you outsource?
A: Right now, I have three writers on the site and they each do one post a week. I have a Pinterest consultant doing monthly work. I could probably outsource more. I still do quite a bit of the work myself.
Q: Do you make money on the blog, or is it more of a marketing platform?
A: I make money on it, but I feel like even if I outsource more and break even, I can sell the book for profit.
I think bloggers who have products they can sell are in a unique position because they don’t necessarily need to make money from their site if they can make money on their products. That’s encouraging me to look into outsourcing a bit more.
Q: Besides books and e-books, what kind of products work best?
A: A lot of people I know are making money on online courses. One of my former writers made a course for people who want to write full-time. She’s a new mom of twins and her course is targeted toward moms who would rather be home with their kids, working online and setting their own schedule.
Another friend set up Savvy Spreadsheets. It’s a great service – I bought a spreadsheet from her myself – and it’s a really good source of passive income for her.
Q: What kind of products are you working on?
The harsh reality is that there is no magic formula for getting rid of student loan debt. ... But having a side hustle can greatly improve your ability to pay it down.
A: I’m partnering with a friend to create an audio-TV project that we’re selling on Amazon. It’s pretty easy to do that, once you know the general steps.
The product was his idea, but he needed help with production and marketing. We outsourced the voice work to someone we found on Craigslist. You can also outsource the actual design of the CD and give the manufacturer templates. Then you just ship them all to Amazon and they do the fulfillment, including two-day shipping.
It’s pretty affordable. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for people.
Q: How do you manage all this and travel too?
A: Partly through rewards and credit-card churning. We paid for some United flights with miles and got a couple nights in a Marriott free.
Best deal I’ve found so far is the Sun Country credit card. You get 40,000 miles by spending $500 within three months, which is doable for just about anyone. But the airline only operates out of Minnesota.
Q: Any tips on credit card churning for millennials?
A: First, pay off all your credit card debt before you attempt it. If you plan on getting a house within a year, or if you don’t have much of a credit history, you probably shouldn’t churn a bunch of cards.
A lot of cards now have the FICO scores in the dashboard so you can check your score each month.
The key to churning is to plan your spending. Don’t get the card and then spend money just to get the bonus rewards. But if you track your spending each month – which is a pain, I know – you should be able to see how much you spend on gas, groceries, etc, and plan it around that.
Q: You mentioned burnout. Do you ever feel like you’re burning out yourself?
A: I think if I had kids I’d be burning out right now. That’s partly why I think millennials should look at opportunities they have in their 20s and 30s, because life gets crazier over time.
If you can get motivated by debt and try a few things you wouldn’t, you might end up with some opportunities that wouldn’t have come up otherwise.
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