Photo by Alexander Mils
I’ve always been excited by income streams.
It started with a lemonade stand I set up with my sister, Jill, on the bluff across the street from our house when we were eight and ten. We sold plastic cups of Kool-Aide to the multitudes of joggers and beach-goers who used that bluff every day.
And we made $100. In 1981.
We were rich!
Then our mother found out that our dad let us go to the bluff alone to sell lemonade to strangers and lost her mind. We weren’t allowed to do it again.
Later, Dad took us with him to conventions where he’d set up a booth to sell baseball cards. We’d bring a roll of paper towels and bottle of Windex — and make a killing cleaning glass cases for people and fetching lunch for venders who were alone in their booths and couldn’t leave their goods.
I think I was a born an entrepreneur.
But it wasn’t until I found myself a single mother with a little boy who couldn’t go to day care (he was finally diagnosed with autism at age 13) that I really found my stride as an income stream dowser.
What is an Income Stream, anyway?
It’s simple. An income stream is just what it sounds like — money (or, possibly, something you need that you’d otherwise pay money for) flowing toward you.
When I talk to people about this topic, I always start with asking them to really think about every single stream of income they have coming in right now. Every one.
Most people have more than one. Not everyone, of course, but in my experience, most do. And it changes over time.
When I was in my early-20s, my income streams looked like this:
- Child support
- Food stamps
- Overnight babysitting for graveyard-shift workers
- Selling vintage clothes on eBay
- Freelance writing
Today, in my late-40s, my income streams are a lot different. They include things like:
- Selling indie-published books
- Ninja Writers membership programs
- Writing and teaching courses
- My Etsy shop (I mostly sell handmade notebooks)
- Affiliate sales
- My husband’s income
- Room and board
Understanding how I got from one set of income streams to the other is a little bit like one of that word games where you have to get from ‘Start’ to ‘Finish’ by changing one letter at a time.
It took a lot of time. It took a whole lot of effort. But I’ve managed to shift the ways that I support my family away from things like babysitting and food stamps and toward exactly the kind of work I wanted to do.
Creative, interesting work that aligns with the things that matter to me.
Multiple Income Streams
I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. And there have been times when writing provided the bulk of my income.
When I was a journalist.
When I sold a book and for a minute could stop all my other work and just be a writer.
When I was a copywriter.
But for the most part, the reason I’ve been able to be a writer and give so much time and effort to that pursuit, is because I’ve mastered the skill of managing multiple income streams.
There are six core types of income streams:
Gigs: This is work-when-you-want to. You usually work for or in conjunction with a company (Uber, Airbnb, etc.) and get paid when you choose to participate. Working as a substitute teacher falls into this category, if your district hires you and then lets you choose when to work. So do content mills that allow you to log in and choose a story to write, if you want to.
Creating: This is making things to sell, often in an online store like Etsy or eBay. You can also sell your creations in a brick-and-morter shop or at markets. Most writing falls into this category — including traditional publishing, self-publishing, and blogging.
Selling: Selling is buying manufactured things and re-selling them for a profit. This could mean anything from finding vintage items at a thrift store to buying a wholesale lot of something to resell. Picking — going to garage sales and thrift stores to pick the things that are worth fixing up for resale — falls into this category.
Teaching: Pretty self-explanitory. You have skills. We all do. And there are people out there who want to learn what you know. They’ll pay you to teach it to them. Teaching goes beyond being hired by a school district to teach in a classroom. Writing how-to books or blog posts, creating tutorial videos, online courses, teaching at your local community center, tutoring — all fall into this category.
Service: Service income streams involve doing something for someone else that either they don’t know how or don’t want to do. Things like shoveling snow, writing resumes, or offering in-home daycare. Freelance writing falls into this category.
Filling Needs: This can fit into pretty much any of the other five core types. Just look around your community (in person and online) and see where there’s a gap you can fill. For instance, my little town has no dog groomer willing to groom large dogs. That’s an income stream just waiting to happen for someone. Writing content for local businesses falls into this category.
Here’s a worksheet to help you figure out how these income stream types work for you. Once you understand the six core types of income streams, it’s easy to see how to fit together. And you start to see them — everywhere.
The Key is the Mindset
You’ll notice that I’m not talking here about income streams that are only about writing.
I get it. You want to be a writer. (Me, too.) You want to make money with your writing. But the truth is that there aren’t any income streams that I know of that are directly related to writing that are likely to produce much of an income super quickly.
And short of being an on-staff writer (say at a newspaper or creating content for a single company), it’s relatively rare for a writer to earn enough from one income stream with enough stability to not need others.
Freelancing or getting hired by a content mill are the fastest ways of creating direct income from writing that I know of. The work of blogging and self-publishing can happen quickly, but it takes time to build an audience and an income.
So — what if we change the way we think about it?
A long time ago, I adopted the idea that everything — everything — I did to earn money was part of my writing business.
I was sometimes a writer who contracted my time to a school district to provide teacher-aide service.
Or a writer who contracted my time to an addiction-treatment company to provide drug court treatment services.
Sometimes I was a writer who sold vintage clothes on Etsy or babysat for people who worked an over-night shift.
But I was always a writer first. Self-employed, even when I had a job where I was required to show up at a specific time if I wanted to keep that job. It was my choice to do that work and also my choice to work at creating an income stream to replace one that I didn’t want to continue.
Income streams are everywhere, once you know how to spot them.
I see them — everywhere. I don’t implement them all, of course. I’m already so busy, I barely have time to breath. But learning how to spot them has meant that I get to feel pretty confident that I’ll be financially okay, no matter what.
I have an underlying layer of stability, because my ability to support myself and my family doesn’t ever depend on just one source. I feel like I need to knock on wood right now. But still — I always know how to make a little extra money if I need to.
And? Over the last couple of decades, I’ve cultivated a life where all of my income streams are aligned to my purpose. Somehow, I’ve built a life for myself where all of my work involves writing or teaching or making things.
I don’t like the term side hustle very much.
I use it sometimes, because everyone knows what it means. But I think it implies a sort of sliminess that I wish it didn’t. Hustle doesn’t have to mean trying to get something for nothing or lying to people to get their money.
Hustle can also mean that you’ve got a work ethic that keeps you going, even when you’d rather stop. (Even when other people would have stopped.)
I see income streams everywhere, because I’ve trained myself to.
That happened when I was a single mom with a kid who couldn’t go to daycare. It happened because I’m an entrepreneur’s daughter and he handed me the start-up capital for a lemonade stand on the beach.
It’s almost a party trick. Give me a few minutes— talk to me about what you’re good at, what you know how to do, where you live, what’s happening in your life — and I’ll come up with an income stream or two for you.
There’s nothing wrong with a day job.
I think this is the thing that surprises people the most when I talk to them about income streams. I’m not anti-day-job. Not even a little bit.
Getting hired to work for someone else is just another income stream.
And it’s, by far, one of the most stable and reliable. If someone tells me that they need to increase their income right now, or the consequences will be dire — I know they want me to offer them some magic bean that will make their writing fill that gap.
But my advice is pretty much always the same: Go get a job.
If you’re in a place where things are unstable, what you need first is stability. So if you’re afraid you won’t make your rent, if you’re choosing between groceries and the power bill, whatever — start applying for jobs.
Just like a lawyer isn’t only a lawyer when they’re talking to a judge and a doctor isn’t only a doctor when they’re treating a patient, you’re not only a writer when you’re actively typing. You’re still a writer if you have a day job.
You’re just a writer with a relatively steady income stream.
You don’t have to work that day job forever, if you don’t want to. Just like the guy who traded a paper clip for a house — you can trade one income stream for another until you find yourself in a place you really want to be.