Holly Johnson had an average job with an average salary, but she wanted more. She wanted to travel, spend more time with her kids, and feel in control of her life.
A little more than five years ago, Johnson was a director of family services at a funeral home, making $38,000 per year. Now, she and her husband earn roughly 10 times that amount and spend three months a year traveling.
It’s easy to see a successful person and ignore how they got there. We often view their experience as unrealistic and make excuses for why we can’t do what they’ve done. But Johnson’s story is one of a regular person building a successful business from scratch — all because she wanted to try something different.
Living an average, stressful life
Forty-four percent of Americans frequently encounter stress in their daily lives, according to a recent poll by Gallup, and 41% say they don’t have time to do the things they want. Both facts described Johnson perfectly.
“I really liked my job, but it was a lot of work and a lot of hours,” says Johnson. “I did a lot of paperwork, made cards for people’s funerals and their memorial folders, typed obituaries, and filed insurance paperwork.”
She worked between 40 and 50 hours a week and got 20 days of paid time off each year. At face value, that sounds like a lot. Americans get 10 days of paid vacation per year on average, according to payroll company Gusto. But in Johnson’s case, there was a catch.
“It was your vacation, your sick days, your kids’ sick days, and everything,” she says. “So, it was really more like a week and a half of vacation, and the rest was sick days for the kids and me.”
Johnson also struggled with major back problems that required two spinal fusions. “I didn’t know at the time, but stress made my back problems so much worse,” she says. “And that job was really stressful because you had to have everything perfect. You can’t mess up somebody’s funeral.”
The tipping point
In 2011, Johnson’s husband, Greg, a mortician earning roughly $50,000 a year, talked her into creating a personal finance blog. The couple found similar blogs online and figured they could do the same thing and maybe earn a little money. Johnson wasn’t sure at first. She had no formal experience with writing or personal finance other than having a real estate license.
But she felt she had natural writing skills, and she wrote a lot for her job at the funeral home. So, she agreed to start Club Thrifty.
Not long after she started blogging, Johnson realized that she enjoyed it and looked for other opportunities to write. She sent eight guest posts to a popular website called Get Rich Slowly, asking the owner if he’d be willing to publish them on his site.
“Eventually, they published some of my posts, so I reached out again and said, ‘If you ever want to hire me, I can write regularly,'” she says.
That was Johnson’s first paid client, and she quickly found more for her new side hustle. She and her husband attended FinCon, a financial media conference, where she networked with people in the industry and connected with new clients.
Dealing with growing pains
Working full time and building a side business is no picnic, and Johnson often struggled with fitting everything in.
“I had one child and was pregnant with another,” she says. “I worked full time plus some, and I was exhausted. All I could do was get up early in the morning and write before work, and then I’d write after work and nights and weekends.”
All that hard work paid off, and within a year or so, Johnson was making $2,000 to $3,000 a month from her side business. “I was over my full-time job at that point,” she says, and she decided that if she could sustain it, she’d quit her job and run the blog and freelance write full time.
She did just that in April 2013, when the couple had mostly paid off the $50,000 they owed in auto and student loans. It took them 18 to 24 months to eliminate the debt once they got on a budget and cut their expenses. Johnson’s new side hustle income also helped them get rid of their debt faster.
But once she had more time to work on her business, she had other problems to deal with.
“I had a lot of people in my life ask me, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?'” she says. “They kind of made fun of me for my decision to quit my job and write full time.”
Johnson learned that she not only needed discipline and work ethic to be successful at her new business writing online but also had to ignore the naysayers.
“I didn’t like my life, and I wanted to do something different,” she said. “All these people who thought that I was wasting my time, I was going to make sure that they were wrong.”
Fast-forward 5 years
Johnson took a major risk by quitting her stable, full-time job to focus on a career as a personal finance writer, and that leap of faith has paid off.
“I consistently make around $20,000 per month writing,” she says. And now that her husband has quit his job and manages their blog full time, their total monthly revenue can range from $30,000 to $40,000.
In the meantime, they’ve paid off the mortgages on their home and a rental property they owned from before Johnson started writing. They’re also finishing a $100,000 home improvement project they’ve been able to pay for in cash.
Looking back, Johnson remembers how different her life was before her husband convinced her to start a blog.
“We were spending everything that we earned,” she says. “It seemed like such a shame that we were working so hard and didn’t have the money to do what we wanted to do.”
Now, the couple is financially independent, and Johnson spends roughly 12 weeks a year doing what she loves: traveling the world.
“I love succeeding and failing by my own efforts,” she said. “I would rather do that than work for somebody else and have the stability of a salaried job.”
If you feel the same stress and discouragement she felt seven years ago, Johnson recommends that you stop wishing and take action. Find a side hustle that suits you and don’t look back.
“Some people look at someone successful in their field of choice and think, ‘I can’t do it now because they’re already doing it,’ and then other people look at somebody and think, ‘If they can do it, then I can too,'” she said. “That second mentality is what I wish people had more of.”
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