Getting Serious About Side Jobs

Think about this for a minute. In 2016, 42.4 million Americans owed $1.3 trillion in federal student loans. As a result, the U.S. homeownership rate fell to its lowest level in more than 50 years.

Whether we like it or not, debt is a big part of our lives, and it comes at an extraodinary cost to students and their families. So much so that many young adults can’t get by with just one job anymore. Side jobs are quickly becoming the norm and the only way that people can shake themselves from the shackles of debt.

But what are all these side jobs? And how much do they pay? There’s no shortage of advice online for millennials. “Start a blog, fill out online surveys, sell your calligraphy skills, sell your photographs…” the list goes on. Many are a waste of time, but some are actually helping people pay off their student loans, save for a home or raise a family.

Would you consider doing any of these?

1. Become a plasma donor: According to – an educational website from the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association – plasma donations help treat people with rare, chronic diseases so that they can live healthier and more fulfilling lives. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows up to two plasma donations within a seven-day period, you can make as much as $400 a month by donating plasma. The process is similar to giving blood except that once your blood is drawn, the plasma is separated from your blood and then the red blood cells are returned to your body. Average visits take about 90 minutes, and there are more than 450 donation centers in the U.S. and Europe. You do have to be in good health and at least 110 pounds in order to donate.

2. Participate in clinical trials: Another way to make money on the side and help other people is by participating in medical research studies, also known as clinical trials. Clinical trials help researchers find better ways to treat, prevent, and understand human disease. Although payment varies from study to study, clinical trials typically pay generously. For example, clinical trials offered by the company Covance pay from hundreds of dollars to several thousand. Other paid clinical trials can be found at,, on Craigslist job boards, or on the websites of local research centers, such as Johns Hopkins or Biofortis Clinical Research. Before agreeing to participate in any studies, make sure you know all of the risk factors involved, including potential side effects.

3. Participate in focus group sessions: Just as medical researchers trial new treatments, marketers pay people for their opinions on the products and services they use (or don’t use) every day. This helps them improve those products and services, thereby improving their business. And marketers pay well for people’s opinions. Focus Pointe Global – a marketing research company with 18 research facilities across the U.S. – pays between $45 and $250 per study. Savitz Research Solutions, located in 16 major cities, pays between $50 and $300. Other marketing research companies that pay cash include Fieldwork, Probe Research Incorporated, and MindSwarms. Since competition for studies can be fierce, it’s a good idea to sign up with several marketing research companies in order to increase your chances of participating and getting paid.

4. Become a pet sitter: For dog and cat lovers, pet-sitting is a natural and enjoyably way to earn cash on the side, especially if you can care for more than one pet at a time. In The Simple Dollar, personal finance blogger Holly Johnson writes that part-time pet sitters at (defined as those who watch two or three dogs for two weeks out of the month) earn an average of $1,000 per month. Best of all, the service lets pet sitters determine their own rates and keep 80% of their earnings. Similar services include DogVacay, Fetch! Pet Care, and Dogs Go Walking.

5. Become a rideshare driver: If you have a car, consider driving for a ridesharing company, such as Uber or Lyft, to make extra cash. Although your earnings will depend on where and how often you drive, Uber states on its website that on average, drivers in Los Angeles and Chicago make more than $600 per week and drivers in San Francisco and Boston make more than $700 per week. And you don’t necessarily have to drive full-time to earn a lot of cash. On its website, Lyft states that some of its drivers make more than $800 just driving on Friday nights and weekends. In addition, U.S. News and World Report cited an analysis from Princeton University which found that Uber drivers who drove between one to 15 hours per week averaged more than $16.00 per hour. Many ridesharing companies also offer new driver bonuses upon sign-up.

6. Become a multi-tasker (literally): Yet another way to capitalize on the “sharing economy” or “gig economy” is by becoming a tasker for companies such as TaskRabbit, Gigwalk, or Handy. In a recent interview with Fast Company—which named TaskRabbit one of the most innovative companies of 2017—CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot said that TaskRabbit workers earn an average of $35 per hour, or nearly five times the federal minimum wage. Taskers choose their own tasks, and there are more than 40 categories listed on TaskRabbit’s website, including shopping, yard work, and arts and crafts.

What do you think? Have side jobs helped you get out of debt, or save for a home? Are there any side jobs that you would add to this list?

Personal Finance Shouldn’t Be Scary

Last month, I received one of the best compliments (to date) on my blog: “I love your blog. It makes money less scary, and I appreciate that.”

While this person’s comment made me feel all warm and tingly, the reality of her compliment also struck me. For the majority of us, personal finance is scary!

And it isn’t our fault. It’s 2017, and college curriculum STILL doesn’t include classes on investing, saving for retirement, taxes… the list goes on. It’s no wonder that one in three Americans has nothing saved yet for retirement, or that nearly 75% of millennials has less than $10,000 saved, according to a survey from It’s a big, national problem, yet it wouldn’t exist at all if colleges and/or the government would make a few simple changes (see more on how the government could help here).

Unsurprisingly, once you get to know personal finance, an interesting thing starts to happen: It becomes a lot less scary! And even liberating.

So how can we familiarize ourselves with personal finance so that it’s not as daunting? Fortunately – thanks to the internet and technology – there are a lot of free online tools and resources that can help us out.

Below are some of my personal favorites:

  1. Retirement calculators: If you’re wondering how much to save for retirement, this is a fantastic calculator. All you have to do is plug in your age, desired retirement age, the amount you’ve saved so far, your current income, and the percentage rate at which you’re saving. In just a few clicks, it does the math for you and tells you whether you’re “falling short” or “on the right track.” Keep in mind though that most online retirement calculators assume annual stock market returns of 6% or higher. In reality, the stock market may only return an average of 4% for the next 20+ years (more on that here).

2. Mortgage calculators: If you’re thinking about buying a home or investment property, online mortgage calculators can help you estimate how much you can afford. However, as the CFPB reports, many online mortgage calculators only calculate your principal and interest payment – leaving out important costs like property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, property mortgage insurance (if you’re putting less than 20% down), and condo/HOA fees (if applicable). As many of you know – particularly if you live in Illinois or another state saddled with debt – property taxes can sometimes amount to a double mortgage. For this reason, I really like the Trulia Mortgage App as it includes most of these other factors. Click “Advanced options” at the bottom of the app to play around with the property taxes and PMI.

3. Google Alerts: I can’t even tell you how much I’ve learned simply by setting up daily Google Alerts. I set one up for “down payment” about a year ago, and ever since, I’ve been able to easily monitor the latest news, trends, and developments about home down payments. If I hadn’t, I would never have known about companies offering to help people with their down payments in exchange for a stake in their property, or the idea to create tax-free savings accounts for down payments (like 529 plans for college). Although neither of these initiatives has impacted me, it’s great to know about these developments and keep an eye on them. If there’s something you want to learn more about – such as a company you’re investing in – I highly recommend setting up a Google Alert (or three).

4. Twitter lists: Since time is money, in addition to Google Alerts, Twitter lists are a great way to quickly and easily monitor personal finance news and tips (although it does require you to have a Twitter account). Twitter lists allow you to declutter Twitter’s massive newsfeed so that you only see Tweets from the people in your list. I have personal finance and homebuying lists consisting of organizations like Fidelity Investments (@Fidelity), LearnVest (@LearnVest), and Zillow (@Zillow).

5. Investing apps: For those who want to learn how to invest beyond their 401(k) and Roth IRA, apps like Clink allow you to invest with as little as a dollar a day. In addition, they only charge you a dollar per month to manage your account (until you hit $5,000, after which they’ll charge you 0.25% of your annual balance). This is a great way to learn the ropes without suffering any serious financial consequences. (Full disclosure though: I haven’t tried this app yet, so if you give it a shot, let me know what you think!).

What other tools and resources do you find helpful? Is there anything else that you would add to this list?

P.S. All of the recommendations above are my own. I don’t get paid to recommend any products or services, and I’ve made zero dollars from this blog 🙂

P.P.S. Cheap Wine and Coffee now has a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest page. For anyone wanting more conversation than the blog allows, I post on Facebook and Twitter daily and hope you’ll join me! 🙂

What It REALLY Takes to Save Up for a Home

NOTE: This article assumes you’re saving up for a 10-20% down payment, which you should absolutely do if you want a lower monthly mortgage and more financial freedom.

I’ve got a bone to pick with lenders, mortgage brokers and other people that preach, “If millennials could just give up their $5 coffees, pack their lunches every day, and drop cable, then they’d have a down payment – it’s that easy!”

WOW. Maybe if it was 1975.

Reporter Alan Heavens from the Philadelphia Inquirer humorously points out the irony in this advice, noting that in LA, you would have to stop drinking 15.2 grande caramel macchiatos daily (for five years) to save up for the average down payment on a median-priced LA home. The same scenario would require 23.5 cups in San Francisco, 8.8 in New York and 4.3 in Chicago.

Obviously no one is buying that much coffee daily, and frankly, I don’t know anyone who buys even one coffee daily.

And while it’s true that giving up expensive daily coffees and packing your lunches are important, those things alone won’t cut it. (Unless you have the ability and patience to save for 10+ years. Or family money).

For the rest of us, hard times call for tough measures. It’s no secret that rents and home prices are rising faster than wages. On top of that, many millennials have massive student loans.

For those of us who want to save more and save faster, here’s what it really takes to save:

1. Get a higher-paying job: This advice won’t be popular (I cringe even as I write it), but unfortunately, it’s today’s reality. Even if you love your job, if your plan is to buy a good home in a good neighborhood with good schools, you can’t afford to live paycheck to paycheck. I loved my first job out of college (and most importantly everyone I worked with), but I wasn’t making any money and I couldn’t save. Looking back, I’m glad I left and even wish I had done it sooner. There’s a reason millennials are known for job-hopping and it’s because it’s the best way to grow your salary. Also, bonus points if you can find a job that offers bonuses (no pun intended). Many experts believe bonuses are the new raises, and nothing helps you save faster than a big chunk of change once a year

2. Get a side job: Journalist Bob Sullivan calls it 21st century moonlighting, while others call it the “gig economy,” “sharing economy” or – my personal favorite – “hustlin’.” With home and rent prices rising faster than wages, and student loans that never seem to shrink, it helps to get ahead by bringing in extra income. Think Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and TaskRabbit.

3. If you’re getting married, save your wedding gifts: (Yes – all of it). It might not sound fun at first, but what better purpose for these funds than your future, dream home? Of course, this assumes that you don’t have to use this money to pay off your wedding. A lot of people do. But if you have the ability, save it. It’s a great way to make home buying more attainable.

4. If there are two of you, live off one salary: Again, this assumes that one person makes enough to support two, which can be challenging in a big city like Chicago. Maurie Backman from CNN says that since Americans are bad savers, “your best bet is to create a budget based on one salary only” so that “you get the flexibility of saving the other salary” and investing it. Great if you have the means; most millennials don’t.

5. Move back in with your parents: Sadly, I’m not kidding. A new analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that for the first time in 130 years, living with parents has become the most common living arrangement for Americans age 18 to 34. And who can blame them? It makes perfect sense at a time when starter homes are practically extinct, and 20% down payments are costing people $60,000 or more. And that’s before closing costs, homeowners insurance, an emergency fund and furniture/appliances.

6. Relocate: For those of us in big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, buying a single-family home seems impossible. But if you can justify leaving your family and friends – ouch – Bob Sullivan notes that there are still places in the U.S. with affordable homes. In this list, he cites 25 places where young adults can find homes for under $200,000. Personally, I have my eye on some homes in Columbia, South Carolina. But since I have an adorable new nephew here in Chicago, it’s mainly just wishful thinking.

Moral of the Story?

Don’t stress out about buying or not buying, and don’t let other people’s judgements get in the way of doing what’s right for you. It takes enormous (almost insurmountable) self-discipline to save up for a home today, and if you’re not willing to switch jobs or move back in with your parents (totally understandable feelings btw), it requires a lot of time, patience and sacrifice.

As one reporter put it in “Millennials aren’t buying homes. Good for them:”

“We as a society tend to overvalue homeownership, at least from a financial perspective. Were it not for the psychic and sentimental benefits of homeownership, it’s otherwise hard to imagine financial advisers counseling their clients to dump all their savings into a single, giant, highly illiquid asset.”

I completely agree. Although my husband and I have done #1 – 3, the thought of taking on a mortgage and settling somewhere this early on in our careers freaks us both out. And it should – buying a home is a huge undertaking.

So until you’re ready, relish being mortgage-free. Enjoy having the freedom to move if you want to move. Go at your own pace, and don’t ever let anybody – a broker, real estate agent, relative or friend – convince you otherwise. Sometimes, it pays just to wait.


–P.S. Cheap Wine and Coffee now has a Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest page. For anyone wanting more conversation than the blog allows, I post on Facebook and Twitter daily and hope you’ll join me! 🙂

A 3% Down Payment Sure Does Sound Attractive…

DISCLAIMER: This post is for people (like me), who know absolutely nothing about buying and financing a home.

A 3% down payment sure does sound attractive…. however, think carefully before you leap. Last month, two government-backed mortgage giants, Fannie and Freddie, announced a new loan program targeting first-time home buyers.  Under the program, a buyer could put down as little as 3% for a home. (So in theory, if you wanted to buy a $300,000 home, under this program, you’d only have to put down $9,000 – a down payment that is massively smaller than paying the traditional 20% down payment at $60,000. And yes, the latter takes years to save up for).

Several respectable media outlets covered the news, including the Washington Post, USA Today, AOL and TIME. When I first saw the headlines, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immediately hooked. If the new program is as good as it sounds, why the hell wouldn’t I buy?? Luckily, my parents raised me to be… suspicious.

However, without knowing anything about mortgages, finding the “catch” in the stories referenced above wasn’t easy. Which is a shame, because journalism owes it to the public to be more thorough and objective.  The stories all noted that under the new program, first time buyers would have to pass strict criteria, including good credit scores (620-650+) and completion of a home-buying education program. Easy enough.

But after digging more deeply, I came across this Consumer Affairs article that finally, more clearly identified the “catch.” Reporter Mark Huffman points out:

Because of the small down payments, these loans will also require private mortgage insurance (PMI) or other risk sharing. On a 3% loan, consumers should expect to pay a little over 1% of the loan as premium. In our example of a home costing $130,000 with $3,900 down, PMI would add about $110 to the monthly house payment.

Finally, a better picture of what a small down payment actually means for buyers! Thank you, Mr. Huffman. To make this a more realistic scenario (since $130k homes are rare in Chicago), that means for anyone interested in buying a $300,000 home, PMI could cost $3000 a year or $250 monthly on top of regular mortgage payments. (Note: This is money that is just paid and lost; it goes nowhere). Not to mention that a small down payment significantly drives up the monthly cost of your mortgage.

After digging even further, I found another helpful article that details another reason why first-time home buyers should avoid PMI. In addition to the cost, it talks about the negative tax consequences PMI has for couples who earn more than $110,000 annually together or $55,000 annually separately. Check it out here.

While I don’t want to automatically write off programs that accept small down payments, the moral of the story is to research, research, research! Otherwise, maybe we’d all end up like this individual:

… I was very ignorant when I purchased my 1st house at 25 years old! A combination of empty/mis-leading promises from my mortgage broker and just being so excited to be a homeowner got me into SERIOUS financial trouble!

I have been in my home for almost 5 years and have been paying $500 per month in PMI. I was told it would automatically end after 2 years. My monthly mortgage payments are about $1700 per month with PMI for a little two bedroom townhouse in Hudson, WI.

You can read the rest of this person’s story here, but you get the idea. Although a 3% down payment sounds wonderful on paper, it would take a lot of research and math to figure out if it’s actually worth doing over renting and/or saving for a more traditional down payment.