One of the best ways to pay off student loans early is to earn more money, but people with full-time jobs often feel like they don’t have enough time to pick up a side gig.
However, with modern technologies and a growing freelance economy, starting a freelance side hustle is easier than you might realize. In fact, I was able to build a side income of $40,000 in 2015 while holding down a full-time job.
These are the steps I used to build my own freelance success.
1. Eliminate distractions
Freelance work requires distraction-free work hours, so removing unprofitable distractions from your life is step one.
When I started freelancing on the side, my productivity skyrocketed after I cut cable. Getting rid of that single distraction opened up several hours each week to start earning enough to cover my bar tabs, freeing up precious dollars for student loan payments.
Once I realized I could easily make $50-$100 per week in only a few hours freelancing, I reorganized my schedule to focus my time exclusively on what I valued most. I eliminated wasted time to focus on building freelance income outside of my eight-to-five “day job.”
Remember that freelancing on the side is not going to take forty hours per week. If you can budget an hour or two each day, or block off a big chunk of time on the weekend, you have plenty of time to build up a substantial side income.
2. Hone your skills
When I was figuring out how to freelance, I knew that I was coming in at entry-level for both writing and WordPress support projects. As my freelance work progressed, I practiced as much as possible by writing daily on my own blog and taking courses on Udemy to expand my skills.
With a fresh writing portfolio and updated HTML and CSS skills, I have been able to increase my rates substantially, giving me more freelance income for each hour I dedicate to client projects.
My highest paying gig paid 50 times what my first one did. That took years of work, but anything is possible with the growing demand for freelance work from startups and large businesses.
3. Practice on a friend
If you are brand new to freelance work, one of the best places to start is with your friends and family. After learning current HTML5 and CSS3 standards, I helped about a half dozen friends build and improve their websites to get better experience and build a portfolio of successful projects.
When it came time to find my first paying client, I looked to my own network and offered projects at a discount while building a reputation as an expert freelancer.
In freelancing, your reputation is critical. Meeting deadlines and promises and delivering the highest quality product possible will earn your repeat clients and new clients.
4. Start with your first dollar
Freelance work can be intimidating. While learning how to freelance and searching out new clients, create small goals and milestones that you know you can reach. Just like your first job, it all begins with your first dollar.
Head to job boards like UpWork or Freelance.com for general gigs, or find industry specific sites for your specialty. As a writer, I frequent the ProBlogger Job Board and Media Bistro when looking for potential gigs. You can find other freelance resources at this guide to freelancing.
Earning your first dollar is the most difficult milestone. Once you have that first paying client, finding new clients and repeat business becomes much easier.
Track your clients in a new freelance portfolio and resume, and keep your credentials and the projects you are proudest of handy so you can send out a resume and work examples quickly when an opportunity arises.
5. Build an online presence
Whether you are planning to work online or offer offline services, building a website for your freelance business is an essential step. Your freelance website should be modern, professional, and easy to navigate.
In just a few seconds, visitors should know what services you offer, be able to find examples of your freelance work, and have an easy way to contact you.
More advanced websites include contact forms, booking systems, and invoicing and payment systems. However, you do not need anything fancy. You can create a simple website with your own “.com” in just a few minutes. Self-hosted WordPress sites offer the most flexibility at the lowest cost, but solutions like Weebly and SquareSpace are the easiest to get started.
Plan for the long-term when building your website. Moving between platforms is challenging, and can be expensive if you have to hire a web developer to handle it for you. Do plenty of research and pick the right platform to meet your long-term needs.
6. Keep your budget under control
As your freelance work grows, do not be afraid to invest some of your earnings to further develop your skills and build a larger presence. However, keep in mind that you are in business to make money, so don’t go overboard.
Additionally, avoid lifestyle inflation from your new income by keeping yourself on a budget. If you don’t have one already, learn more about budgeting from these experts, and check out these tips to avoid overspending.
7. Make extra student loan payments (and repeat)
Now that you are earning more, but keeping your living expenses under control, you should have enough income to make extra student loan payments each month. While paying off my $90,000 private school MBA, I made a full monthly payment each payday, giving me two to three full payments each month.
Even if you can’t pay quite that much, every extra dollar you can put into your loans today saves you more than a dollar down the road. Extra payments lower your current principle, which lowers your interest cost for the entire life of your loan. Check out the Student Loan Hero prepayment calculator to find out how much you can save.
It starts with action
Student loan payments may make you feel miserable, but you really do have the power to pay them off early. Take action today to earn your first dollar on the side, and you will find yourself debt-free before you know it.
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and freelance!
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