The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to pay off debt and build your finances faster? Look to the side hustle.

Businessman moving with skateboard (iStock)

Congratulations, you’re a college grad!

Go ahead, crack open Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” and allow yourself to daydream a bit about all the great things you’ll do now that you’re finally done with school.

Okay, now let’s come back to reality and get to the bad news: More likely than not, you have a pile of student loan debt. This is affecting more grads every year, so if you find yourself in such a situation, you’re not alone.

Although cutting expenses is one way to free up cash to pay off student loans, you can only cut back so much. That’s why I recommend focusing on increasing income through side hustles.

A side hustle is any way in which you make income beyond your 9-to-5. It can be anything from freelance writing to delivering pizzas to selling things on Etsy.

The practice has exploded in popularity over the past few years as people look to reach their financial goals faster and technology has made it easier than ever to find and start a side hustle.

You aren’t always going to be able to increase your 9-to-5 income, but side hustles allow you to be unconstrained by what your day job is willing to pay you. They put you in control of how much you make.

Side hustle options

Side hustles can be split into two broad categories:

There are “quick money” side hustles, which provide income right away and are generally predictable — taking a job as a server on weeknights or working retail over the weekend.

Another type is what I call “long-tail” side hustles. These typically do not provide any meaningful income at first and require a longer ramping-up period. (Some may never provide any income at all — for example, a small-business side hustle that doesn’t pan out — but they’re sometimes worth the risk anyway.) Working a long-tail side hustle could look like running a photography or marketing consulting business, or developing a product to sell on Amazon.

Two more keys to differentiating side hustles are knowing whether they require your physical presence and whether you can work on your own schedule.

For example, you can usually work a blogging, graphic design or social-media management side hustle whenever you want, whether it’s in the early morning, on your lunch break or late at night. If you tutor or give music lessons, though, you need to accommodate your client’s preferred time and be physically present.

Regardless of what type of side hustle you decide to pursue, there are an unlimited number of options to choose from.

Finding the best side hustle for you

The first question I typically ask people thinking about starting a side hustle is, “Do you need to increase your income ASAP?” If that’s the case, something that gives you immediate and consistent extra income is ideal. Later on, you may be able to switch to a hustle that requires more time to get off the ground.

To start brainstorming for a side hustle, think about your skill set. In my case, I was already knee-deep in spreadsheets at my corporate job, so helping small businesses with their spreadsheets was an obvious opportunity that aligned with my skills.

It’s also really important that you choose a side hustle you enjoy. You don’t have to love it, but if you’re doing it on top of a 9-to-5 job, you should at least like it a little bit. If you hate it, you won’t stick with it.

Make sure your side hustle aligns with your current financial needs, lifestyle, interests and skills.

How to side-hustle better

It’s not uncommon for people to react to the idea of side hustles with, “Who’s got time for that?” But there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people working side hustles every day. They made time for them.

There are a number of things you can do to side-hustle better, but it really comes down to managing your time properly and setting your priorities.

I can’t stress time management enough. My suggestion is to schedule specific hours to work on your side hustle each week. This will force you to make time for it and will make saying “no” to things a little easier.

Ask yourself what you can sacrifice from your schedule to make room for a side hustle. Just as important, ask yourself what you are not willing to sacrifice. For a period after college, my wife worked Saturdays on top of her full-time job, but never on Sundays. Sunday was a designated free day she kept open. She wasn't willing to compromise on that.

The unexpected upside

Besides offering extra income that will allow you to pay off debt and achieve your other financial goals more quickly, side hustles offer another, unexpected upside.

I work full-time in corporate finance, but I’ve also had the privilege of consulting with Fortune 500 companies on content marketing. That would not have been possible if I hadn’t started a blogging side hustle five years ago and learned extensively about content marketing in that time.

My point is this: You never know where a side hustle will take you. I’ve seen many people start one that eventually led to a career change or became their full-time job.

So as you head out into the working world, consider giving your income a boost by starting a side hustle. It just might change your life.

Carlson is the author of "Hustle Away Debt" and the founder of the millennial personal finance blog Young Adult Money.

More from The Washington Post:

‘How can I make more?’ and other questions you didn’t know to ask about work and money

How this millennial saved $1 million by age 30

Millennials may need to double how much they save for retirement

Do you need a financial adviser?