Getting by without a job, part 2--boost income

Photo: John Vachon

[Editor's note:  If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]

If there's one fundamental rule for financial success, it's "spend less than you earn." That rule applies whether you have a job or not. But, if you're used to having a job, the adjustments to getting by without one are going to be huge. It can be done, though. I suggest a three-pronged strategy, the first prong being to boost your income.

This is part two of a four-part series. Part 1 was on the first things to do if you lose your job. Parts 3 and 4 will be on cutting expense and getting what you need without money. Look for them here over the next few days.

There are countless ways to raise your income, besides the obvious one of getting a job (which I assume that you're already applying yourself to in a workman-like fashion). Here are a few categories, and a few suggestions.

Casual labor

The most obvious option is working--just outside the framework of a regular job. Some kinds of work are traditionally structured this way and others are freelance versions of work that is just as often done by employees. Either way there's a long list of possibilities. Here are just a few:

  • handyman
  • house cleaner
  • house painter
  • gardener
  • writer
  • editor
  • web designer
  • massage therapist
  • dog walker
  • photographer
  • tutor
  • bicycle messenger

None of these are likely to be well-paid and all are likely to be facing a drop in demand (because the potential buyers are also suffering in the economic crunch) at just the same moment that there'll be a surge in supply (as all the other unemployed folks try to pick up a little extra cash). Still, an income above zero is better than an income of zero.

Seasonal and temporary work

This category covers everything from detasseling corn to being a department store Santa. Although in many cases people are technically hired as employees for these sorts of jobs, I'm including it because it's not like having a permanent job.

There are seasonal jobs for every season. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, stores hire extra sales help and delivery companies hire extra package loaders and sorters. There is agricultural work at almost any season except the dead of winter. These sorts of jobs are usually very hard work for not much pay.

Especially early in hard economic times, temporary work tends to dry up--temps are the first to be let go, during the phase when employers are still hoping to avoid layoffs. But there continues to be some temp work right along, because companies always need some things done and don't want to hire employees when they can't offer long-term employment. In particular, as a recession winds down--but while companies are still waiting to see if this is really a lasting increase in business--they often hire temps in large numbers.

Seasonal workers are usually hired directly. Temporary workers are more often hired through a temporary agency.

Employ yourself

Some people already have a small business that they were running on the side while working at a regular job, in which case ramping up the small business to bring in more money can be a great option. Other people have always wanted to run a small business, and losing a job can give them the freedom to take a chance on doing so sooner rather than later.

If you don't already have a small business--or at least have some kind of small business in mind--this may not be the best choice. Starting a small business requires capital, and unless running a business is what you really want to do, you might be better off just investing the capital in something that pays interest.

Sell assets

Another place to get some money, at least for a while, is to sell stuff that you've got that has some value. Sadly, it's probably the case that most of your stuff is worth only a tiny fraction of what you paid for it, but a lot of it will nevertheless be salable. Depending on the item, consider:

  • vintage clothing stores
  • consignment shops
  • pawn shops
  • used bookstores
  • garage sales
  • internet classifieds and auction sites

This is a limited source--you've only go so much stuff--but you can pick up some money here.

Sell crafts

More sustainable than selling your used stuff is selling stuff you make. Almost any hobby that produces an actual thing (quilts, sweaters, mugs, earrings, jam) can produce some cash income--sometimes quite a bit. Even when it isn't particularly profitable--when the selling price barely covers the cost of materials or maps to a ridiculously low hourly wage--it can still be a way to turn stuff you bought back when you had a job (fabric, yarn, beads) into more money than you could make trying to sell the raw materials.

Stuff you make is also good for bartering, something that I'll talk about in part 4 of this series.

Other hobby-related income

Related to selling things you produce, many hobbies also provide other ways to pick up some extra cash by teaching, writing, speaking, and so on. I wrote about this a while back in Make your hobby pay its way.

Rent out assets

Some assets can be rented out in a way that produces a sustainable income rather than the one-time cash payment you'd get from a sale. Your savings earns some amount of interest (until you spend it). A spare room in your house can be rented out to a boarder. There are legal issues involved--if you rent your car to someone, you're probably taking on considerable liability if he gets into an accident--but if you've got stuff that people will rent, it's worth considering.

Not a complete solution

For most people, the sort of money you can pick up through casual labor or by selling crafts will never match what you could make at a regular job. That means that, if you want to get by without a job, you're almost certainly going to have to cut your cost of living--the topic of the next post in this series:


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Guest's picture
poor boomer

Craigslist can be a good way to find misc "gigs" to earn a few extra dollars, BUT you have to respond VERY quickly, since it appears there are a number of people ready to pounce on these opportunities within a few minutes of being posted.

In other words, if you see an opportunity which was posted yesterday, it's probably long gone.

Guest's picture
poor boomer

I'm doing piecework separating catnip leaves from stalks. Not sure what it pays yet - it's based on the DRY weight of the leaves, and I'll have an hourly rate estimate next week - but I'm guessing MAYBE $3-$4 per hour.

Oh, and it's a two-hour (sub)urban bus ride each way.

I've done online piecework for less than $1.50 per hour.

Such is life when you're poor and broke.

Guest's picture
poor boomer

Another idea is to POST on Craislist any services you can offer, and have people call or email you.

Guest's picture

If you have a digital video camera (or can reliably borrow or rent one), Elastic Lab hires hobbyists to shoot raw footage (interviews, b-roll) on an occasional basis. In addition to competitive pay, they also reimburse for shipping and materials.

(Disclaimer: I work for them, so I can guarantee they're awesome to work with and very reliable. Feel free to shoot me questions at marina.martin (at) elasticlab (dot) com.)

You could also use videography skills to film weddings or special events, and/or sell stock footage online at Artbeats or iStockPhoto (or your own private site).

Guest's picture

Some good ideas here. A couple of points that might be worth considering:

- read and think carefully before signing any contract that binds you to a job-finding agency. I don't mean career-type headhunters; I mean the places that provide daily staffing. You almost certainly will have to attest that you will not cut them out of the loop (i.e., their share of commission) by you agreeing to work directly for the on-site employer or a placement competitor.

- wedding photography (and photography of other "one-time" events) is a minefield. You may find your customer is the infamous "bridezilla". Other times you may have a camera die on you mid-session -- no do-overs here (there's a reason the pros have at least two cameras ready to shoot). If you're taking commercial photographs (for annual reports, ads, etc.), you may not be able to assemble that shot again if it comes out poorly. You can make some money on the side with photography, but don't think it comes by just showing up and snapping pics.

Guest's picture

I don't agree that being a message therapist is casual labor - it requires a license and training.

Guest's picture

I don't agree that being a web designer as casual labor is good idea.

First the casual web design, ruined the professional business, second there is a lot of competition around the world from people working for almost nothing.

I am a professional and I am thinking about starting a new carer :(

Linsey Knerl's picture

While I certainly agree that casual labor and the outsourcing of freelance work to foreign countires for pennies has brought down the working wage of freelance designers, writers, photographers, etc.. that doesn't automatically make "casual" opportunity unethical or impossible.

Most full-time freelancers had to start somewhere.  Many of them "dabbled" in the art of their choice after finding their hours cut, or when they generally became dissatisfied with their 9-5 job.  It was after they were able to test the new field, get some experience, and build a client list that they were able to become full-time "professionals."

Usually nothing separates the "casual" from the "professional" other than the time dedicated to the trade.  Professionalism and quality will always be an issue, and it generally has nothing to do with how many hours you put in a week.  Some of the busiest full-time "professionals" (with years in the business) stink at what they do.  Likewise, my most pleasant dealings have come from the moonlighter who takes what they do very seriously -- they don't always charge the cheapest rate, either.

Linsey Knerl

Philip Brewer's picture

By "casual" labor, I just meant work where you're neither an employee nor operating a full-fledged small business of your own.  Practically all the possibilities I listed require a significant level of skill, if you're to do a good job, and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

Massage therapy requires a license in 37 states--primarily in an effort to cut down on competition (the main reason for licensing most occupations), but also to cut down on prostitution done under the guise of massage therapy.

I just checked, and Illinois has 15 pages of occupations that require licenses.  If you're working in any of those fields as a full-fledged business with a storefront, there's probably no getting around the licensing requirements.  On the other hand, if you're doing the work casually, it may be worth finding out exactly what you can and can't do without a license.  In some cases, it may be that something as simple as changing what you call yourself will let you avoid the requirement.  In other cases, just not having a storefront and finding work by word-of-mouth rather than running ads, can let you slip under the radar--not forever, but perhaps long enough to get by until the economy recovers.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

Since being laid off in July, my husband has been doing his job, but freelance. There are a LOT of companies out there who have let their creative staff go to reduce costs, then find they've cut too far back to actually do business. Looking at doing your old job, but on your own, is a good bridge to another career. Downside? No benefits, and self-paid insurance is a joke.

Think carefully before jumping into mystery shopping as a way to tide yourself over. is a helpful article.

Guest's picture

As an avid DIY-er, I am convinced that it is the most efficient way to save money while taking care of a home. Too many people these days hand off their repairs to professionals who overcharge for their services, and too few take the time to look into whether or not they could actually perform the repair on their own.

For many, car maintenance is the #1 expenditure that people feel they have little to no control over. But there are so many repairs that average DIY-ers can perform with ease. Replacing brake pads is not nearly as difficult as it sounds, and you can save around $400 by skipping the mechanic.

Household fix-ups and appliance repair can be a hobby, like Brewer mentioned. Who needs to spend 10 bucks on a movie when you can have just as pleasurable of a time fixing your brakes with your son or daughter? You can also help out your repair-wary friends and neighbors by charging a fraction of mechanic prices.

Haynes Manuals have nearly every auto manual available, and are unique because their information comes from teardowns they perform themselves - the manuals are not simply regurgitated dealership repair guides. They're having a sale now 10% off all manuals:

Guest's picture

It's an interesting phenomenon in today's society when people base their judgments of others by what they "do" for a living. It seems that while it's okay to slave away at a dead-end job, it's not okay to do odd jobs here and there on your own time and schedule. It's like it's a lazy habit or something...

I find doing odd jobs to be very rewarding, just because I like a variety in what I do during the day. I also like to meet new people, and have the reward of making new friends that way. I am not an "expert" in a particular area, but I do have skills in many things, such as writing and editing, as well as general labor activities. For example, I built a compost box just about 2 months ago...then a while later, I ripped up carpet for someone else. Not hard, but very satisfying work.

Odd jobs can be fun and rewarding, and it certainly beats having to stay in one boring job, day after day, after day...after get the point.

Thanks for the post!

Philip Brewer's picture

The only problems with casual work are the obvious ones:

  1. It isn't steady (and tends to dry up especially during hard times, just when you need it most).
  2. It doesn't come with things like health insurance or a pension plan.
  3. It doesn't tend to pay as well as a regular job (at least, not a good regular job).

There are the obvious upsides that you mention. So, if you can make it work for you--by living frugally so that you can get by on the lower, less regular pay, and by doing what it takes to provide for your own health and retirement--then go for it. Whether other people are impressed? Not an issue. At least, not for me, anyway.

Guest's picture

I wish I had seen this when I lost my job in October of 2007. I do have a job now which I started in November of 2008 and will go until June 2009. I naively thought that I would be able to find a new job quickly, so I decided to take a couple of months off before even looking and then only looked for my "ideal" job. I did do some of the budgeting things and cut my expenses, but I could have done better. Speaking of making money doing casual jobs...I got into mystery shopping. It doesn't pay much, but it got me out of the house and gave me a purpose, which was important for my morale. I also had several jobs where I got to go out to eat and, at the very least, I was reimbursed for my meal, but other times got a fee on top of that. So, it was free food and I got to go out, which was one of the things I had given up. Grocery stores were another good assignment. The best one paid a fee and reimbursed up to a certain amount to make a purchase. Just one more thing to consider! I am still doing this even while working because it is free meals and free groceries, you just have to put out the money up front and it can take up to six weeks to be reimbursed, so you have to plan ahead.

Guest's picture

Freelance writing is certainly not casual labor. It requires a hefty vocabulary, dedication, and any decent paying writing project will expect at least a B.A. in English. Not everyone can be a writer. I get upset when I see a lot of bloggers mentioning freelance writing as something "anyone can do" because it isn't. As a result, our industry is in shambles because "writers" work for content mills that pay pennies. Unfortunately, there isn't any sort of freelance writing that pays a half-way decent rate anymore. It takes 20 web articles or more to make what one print article would pay. Print magazines are disappearing. My good friend, a web designer, can also attest that web design is not casual labor: it takes talent and skill. These were once lucrative trades that were more than just "side-income". These were our livings. Now, because of all the "would-be" writers accepting $1-$5 articles, I too, must find another profession.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'll repeat what I said a few comments back: "By 'casual' labor, I just meant work where you're neither an employee nor operating a full-fledged small business of your own. Practically all the possibilities I listed require a significant level of skill, if you're to do a good job, and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise."

It's always been true that creative jobs don't pay as well as other kinds of work, because you're competing with people willing to do them for free. Now, thanks to globalization and the internet, employers can find those people anywhere in the world. It's sad, but I don't see anything to be done about it, except to hope that higher quality work continues to earn a premium over lower-quality work.

Guest's picture

Go freelancing! There are plenty of websites out there: Elance, Freelancer, Odesk and many more where you can find work if you are a marketer, programmer, assistant, accountant, writer.