Once upon a time, I was very poor.
My first marriage had a sad ending that left me a 24-year-old single mom with two babies. One of them had autism, although he wouldn’t be diagnosed until he was thirteen.
I couldn’t leave him in day care.
Trust me, I tried. I was routinely let go of jobs because I’d have to leave to go pick my son up. He uprooted a tree (!) at the Boys and Girls Club. He just walked away from the YMCA and came home. Twice.
So, I got very good at two things. Surviving on a little bit of money and creating income streams that brought in a little bit of money.
Here are some ideas for the whole income stream thing. Some of these assume you have access to the Internet. If you don’t have a smart phone or a computer with internet access at home, you’ll need to get yourself to the library.
Things People Need, But Don’t Want to Do (Or Don’t Think They Can)
I filed my own divorce papers. Just went down to the court house and picked up the free packet they gave away there, filled it out, went back and filed the thing.
I did the same thing for my bankruptcy. (I told you, my first marriage had a sad ending.)
I knew how to do that, because my dad is a paralegal and he’d taught me to do it for some of his clients in the past. So I was lucky — I’d learned the skill.
I realized that there were people who needed divorces and bankruptcies but for whatever reason didn’t feel like they could go pick up the free packets at the court house, fill them out, and file them on their own.
So I ran an ad in the Nifty Nickel and started a little document preparation business. No legal advice (I only had a high school diploma and a couple of semesters of college under my belt), just sitting with clients and holding their hand while they did the work.
And then going to stand in line for them. This was the real kicker. At first I charged $10, which felt outrageous at the time (in the late 1990s.) A $10 an hour job was crazy to me, for just standing in line. But so many people did it, that I started charging more. Eventually I realized that people would pay me just as much to stand in line and file their documents as they paid me to help them prepare them.
Seriously. In the late 1990s, people were willing to pay me $100 to make some copies and go stand in line at the court house to file their divorce and bankruptcy papers.
What to do: Think about the things that you know how to do, that other people need done, but don’t want to do themselves. It might not even be something complicated. Just something that other people don’t want to do. Like standing in line at a court house.
If you don’t know how to do them, can you learn how?
The Gig Economy
In the 1990s, of course, there wasn’t as robust a gig economy as there is now. In fact, I’m quite sure that no one called it that at all.
Instead of signing up at Care.com, I put a flyer offering my babysitting services on the bulletin board at the grocery store and my apartment complex.
These days, especially if you own a car, you can make some money in a dozen different ways by signing up for different gig jobs. Anything from babysitting to renting out your spare bedroom to walking your neighbors dogs.
This isn’t news. Everyone knows this.
But you can use the gig model to find clients for your particular skills, too. Make a list of the things you know how to do and start sending out feelers.
Medium would have changed my single-mom life, if it had been around in the 1990s. But I made money writing for a local weekly newspaper and freelancing for a couple of other publications.
I had a friend who had was an early adapter to digital cameras and she earned some money way back when by taking digital photos of houses for real estate agents.
Obviously, this wouldn’t work now that nearly everyone has a digital camera in their pocket — but you might be able to develop an income stream by being learning how to do something that’s awesome, but not yet mainstream, and doing it for people who haven’t figured it out yet. Lots of virtual assistants do this, for instance by offering to set up social media systems for bloggers who aren’t particularly tech savvy.
What to do: Brainstorm ways you can dive into the gig economy, either through an established channel (like Uber or Lyft or Air BnB) or by tapping into a freelance stream.
Again, this isn’t anything brand new. Selling stuff online is old news now. But in the 1990s? It changed my life.
I started by spending $20 on vintage clothes at a thrift store and posting them to eBay. I made $100 or so and reinvested half of it — and for the next several years, I had a pretty thriving online store.
At some point, I realized that I could connect photographers with models and add in my clothes and styling services. Photographers and models both need to fill out their portfolios and I was able to find both willing to work for free as long as I’d do the work of coordinating the whole thing.
I eventually shifted from eBay to Etsy. When my writing started to pay off, I phased out the vintage store, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted and it helped to keep a roof over our heads.
Selling digital products and handmade notebooks is still one of my income streams.
What to do: Brainstorm things you could sell or resell. For me it was vintage clothes, which I already loved and had an eye for. You can start with things you already own. That’s a good way to gather up some cash pretty quickly, to build up an emergency fund or dig out of a bad spot.