When I graduated from college in 2012, I had high hopes for my career in corporate finance. Although I didn’t have a job lined up, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I would find one.
Six months later, though, I was still unemployed. I had applied for countless jobs I knew I was qualified for and always made it to the final interview, but I was always somehow muscled out by the competition.
At that point, I had no choice but to get any job that would take me. I ended up getting a job as a bank teller making $9.75 per hour with the hopes of using my education to land a job in the bank’s finance division. That never happened, however, because around the same time I took the job, I made a small investment that changed the course of my life.
Why I invested $300 when I couldn’t afford to
By the time I applied for the teller job, my wife and I were broke. She had been working as a substitute teacher the previous school year and would soon start teaching full time, but during the summer, neither of us had any income.
We were living with my in-laws at the time, but we were helping pay for food and utilities and had student loans and thousands of dollars in medical bills to pay.
It was at that time when I came across a personal finance blog called Budgets are Sexy. I had always been passionate about personal finance — I read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover in 2009 and had been budgeting ever since, and I also had some experience with financial planning as a college intern.
But what astonished me about this particular blog was that it was its owner’s full-time job. I’d read blogs before but always thought them to be a labor of love rather than a legitimate business opportunity.
The blogger happened to have a page where he lists all of his favorite personal finance blogs, so I read as much as I could, realizing that he wasn’t the only full-time blogger out there.
The more I read, the more I thought, “Hey, I could do this.” I loved the subject matter, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. So I convinced my wife to agree to sink $300 into a website, including the domain and hosting, then I started writing.
My failed attempt as a blogger
I loved writing on my blog, but I didn’t realize at the time that my writing was awful. I also didn’t know how to run a blog as a business and my total revenue for the year and a half that I had it was just over $100.
While my attempt to make money blogging didn’t pan out, though, it did launch my career as a freelance writer.
A month after I started the blog, I reached out to a website I had written a couple of articles for as an assignment in college and asked if they had any paid gigs. They offered me $10 per article of 500 words or more. That’s an incredibly low rate even for new freelancers, but it was more than I made in an hour at my job. So I figured if I learn to write quickly enough to finish each article in an hour or less, I’d be doing alright.
A couple of months later, I got an email from a company wanting to pay me $60 an article to write about the stock market. They had seen a post I’d written on my blog about Twitter’s initial public offering, and liked my perspective.
Over the next year, I made a few hundred dollars extra per month, which was enough for me to make my next investment: a trip to New Orleans to attend FinCon, a financial media conference.
While at the conference, I met a new client and applied for a full-time writing job at NerdWallet. I was rejected quickly for the job, but the client offered to pay me $100 per freelance assignment, so it still felt like a success.
Instead of accepting everything I wrote without a word of feedback, my editor sent every article back with several edit requests. After a month or so of this, he sent me a Word document with more than a page of problems he found with my writing.
I was shocked — no editor had ever given me feedback before, so I thought my writing style was just fine — but also excited to improve.
A few months later, with a lot of feedback and improvement, I applied again for the job at NerdWallet and got it.
Gaining the necessary experience and taking a big leap
Over the next two years, I continued to improve my writing skills by learning from some of the best writers and editors I’ve ever met. I asked for frequent and candid feedback and worked relentlessly to implement it.
Because of a non-compete agreement, though, I had to give up my freelance business. At first, it wasn’t a problem. But after a while, I started getting the itch to gain more freedom as a writer. To get there, I made another investment by taking a job and a $10,000 pay cut at Student Loan Hero, whose non-compete agreement wasn’t as strict.
At the time, changing jobs was a leap of faith; I wasn’t sure how I’d make up for the salary decrease. I hadn’t been in the freelance mindset in a long time and didn’t have any contacts anymore. So I started cold pitching and taking every gig that came my way.
Over the next year and a half, I woke up early, stayed up late and worked on the weekends to build my freelance business. By the time Student Loan Hero was acquired by LendingTree in July 2018, I was ready to branch out on my own.
Why it’s essential to invest in yourself
The S&P 500 has grown by 42% since August 2013. So if I had invested the $300 in an S&P 500 index fund when I started my blog, I’d have $426 today, excluding fees and reinvested dividends.
Instead, I invested that money in myself and now earn six figures from my full-time freelance writing job. That’s not to say you shouldn’t invest in the market, but that the best investment is often staring right back at you in the mirror.
It can be tough to invest in yourself without knowing your odds of success. There’s also no guarantee you’ll see immediate results. It took me five years of hard work and subsequent investments to achieve my goal of earning a living working for myself.
And while the income is nice, it’s the power the change my own circumstances and the freedom to determine my own destiny that have made it all worth it.