How Working for Free Has Paid Off

March 31, 2014

type on macbook

If you read a lot of personal finance blogs, you’re probably familiar with the term “side hustle”. A side hustle is simply a way to make extra money outside of your regular 9-5 job. Most personal finance bloggers consider their sites their side hustles; they write, build a following, put up ads and/or sponsored content, get paid to guest post, etc. And there are a few bloggers who bring in some serious dough. (I’m talking thousands of dollars each month – you go, friends!)

I can’t really explain why, but I’ve never seen Blonde on a Budget as my side hustle. In fact, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve made exactly $0 from this site. Call me crazy, silly or stupid, but I just can’t talk myself into putting ads up. When I was still paying down my debt, I hated the idea of anyone coming here and seeing an ad for a credit card or any other financial product that I didn’t use personally. “I can’t be a hypocrite!” Once I hit 100,000 pageviews/month, I started to question that decision – especially when some of my best blogging friends told me how much I could be making – but I have yet to change my stance.

So, this site isn’t my side hustle; if anything is, my side hustle would be the posts I contribute to other sites. But here’s another secret: I don’t really make any money doing that either. I’ve been blogging since October 2010 and, in all of that time, I’ve only earned about $1,000 from a few freelance posts. You must think I’m nuts now, right? It’s ok – sometimes, I do too (again, mostly when I see how much money my best blogging friends are making). But I’ve always cared more about the opportunities and experiences that could come my way… and, in my opinion, some of the work I’ve done for free has paid off exponentially. Here’s how:

I Completed an Unpaid Internship That Was Priceless

In 2011, I applied for and was offered an unpaid internship with LearnVest’s editorial team. Unpaid internships are a hot topic in Canada right now but, truthfully, I was never bothered by the $0 paycheque. Back then, LearnVest was a personal finance site for women. (I swear, I probably would’ve paid them to play a part in what they were doing.) Nothing about the job was particularly glamorous. For the most part, I was just filling in spreadsheets, updating old blog posts with new links, categories and tags, managing Twitter and writing new posts. But seeing my name as an author on the site filled me with pride, and the editors I worked with helped me become a better writer. I learned how to write and stick to a style guide, maintain an editorial calendar and explain financial concepts in simplest terms – all of which I do on a daily basis now, as the Managing Editor at Of course, I know that not everyone can afford to accept opportunities like this – the only reason I could is because I was already working full-time, and completing my internship assignments on nights/weekends. But I don’t think I could’ve been as successful in my career at, without the experience I got during my internship at LearnVest.

I Decided to Only Write for Sites I Was Passionate About

Since starting my blog in 2010, I have accepted and declined a number of freelance writing opportunities. My first writing job was actually for my current employer’s biggest competitor, which is kind of funny to think about, especially because it’s the only one that offered me some steady side income for a few months. After that, I stopped caring about the money, and decided I only wanted to write for sites I was passionate about – even if they couldn’t pay me. The second writing job I accepted was my unpaid internship at LearnVest. At the same time, I wrote a few posts (for free) for a career website for women, which had a content syndication agreement with Forbes. After that, I wrote a handful of guest posts for other blogs, projects and startups I loved. Eventually, all of this led to a conversation with Gail Vaz-Oxlade about writing on her Other Voices blog. And, more recently, I have been invited to contribute on both The Huffington Post Canada and The Globe and Mail. I can’t specifically say that doing so much writing for free led to each of these opportunities, but I do think that only writing for sites I was passionate about (despite the small paycheques) helped me strengthen my voice, and build my writing portfolio and brand.

I Took the Career Route (Not the Freelance Route)

For a little over a year, I was working full-time in the BC Public Service, going to school basically full-time (or so it felt like), interning at LearnVest and writing this blog. As you can imagine, I lost a lot of sleep! There were times when I wanted to quit school, quit LearnVest, stop writing my own blog, etc. but only because I had way too much on my plate. Instead of quitting, I wrote about how I was learning to manage my time, while finishing school and still working on projects I was passionate about. I didn’t realize it back then, but there were a couple of readers out there who were following my journey – and one of them eventually offered me my current job at Having been with the company for a little over 18 months now, I’ve since had the opportunity to ask my boss why she liked my blog and wanted to hire me. Her answer: She saw that I could manage multiple projects with multiple deadlines, obviously wanted to learn new things, and she loved that she never found any spelling mistakes in my posts. (Apparently, it’s as easy as that, friends!) Of course, I had been trying to build up my writing portfolio, but I wasn’t conscious of the fact that my blog was a portfolio in itself – until that job offer came through.

Now, none of this should be taken as advice: I’m not telling you to work for free! In fact, most people will tell you that you should never work for free. However, I do think it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of every opportunity that comes your way. Of course, I think my time is important; it’s our most valuable resource. But with certain writing opportunities, I placed more importance on the experience and the networking (i.e. learning new things, and working with people I respect and/or for sites I am passionate about). From the day I applied to work at LearnVest, I knew I wanted to gain experience in another field so, in the long-term, I could make some career moves that would never be possible in the provincial government. Basically, right from the start, I’d misunderstood the meaning of the term “side hustle”! But when it comes to your career, some experiences are worth more than a paycheque. (And eventually, the paycheques do come.)

Have you ever worked on something for free? What were the benefits of doing so?

Flickr: jakecaptive

  • Alicia @ Financial Diffraction March 31, 2014 at 5:24 am

    This was a dilemma that I have been mulling over a lot lately. I would love the money from monetizing my site, but I am not willing to put in the extra effort, or the questionable content (like payday loans in the sidebar when I’m trying to crush my debt) to make it happen.

    My site wasn’t meant to be about making money… It was supposed to be about holding me accountable while getting rid of debt. I got lost a little bit when I did see sites making decent chunks of change. But the only money I’ve made on my site was from my ING referral key. I’ve brought myself to the mindset that I am using it for accountability, and as an enjoyable, cathartic hobby.

    I write for free in other places as well… but how could I turn down a chance to write on Gail’s site? I’ve been dreaming about that since she started the Other Voices section in 2012. It’s an awesome thing to be able to do. And who knows… maybe my site will one day get me another awesome opportunity. Just be willing :)

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      Even though your site wasn’t started with the intention to turn it into a moneymaker, that doesn’t mean you can’t monetize one day. You can pick and choose which ads you put up on the site, to some degree… there’s just more money in putting up the finance-related ones. Anyway, keep enjoying it for what it currently is – a cathartic hobby. I’ll continue to do the same. :)

  • Rob March 31, 2014 at 5:34 am

    Yes Cait, years ago when I was part of a mass layoff by a former employer and unemployed for 7 months I worked for free, volunteering my time to a charity organization for the hearing impaired. It had nothing to do with my chosen field (computer systems development) but it allowed me to network, do stuff that provided value to others, and otherwise keep me visible and active. It never led to my subsequent IT employment but I would still strongly recommend volunteering to those who want to make a difference in people’s lives.

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      Volunteering is a fantastic way to gain experience and network, as well as add a little good karma to your life!

  • Travis @debtchronicles March 31, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Getting yourself “out there” and noticed can certainly lead to some great opportunities. Some of the most time consuming things I’ve done – guest posting, interviews, etc have been free, and complete pains in the behind, but they have opened up doors to unbelievable opportunities. Sometimes you have to knock on a lot of doors, though….. :)

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Ain’t that the truth, friend!

  • kathleen March 31, 2014 at 5:48 am

    I have a very similar post going up today, Cait! I definitely started writing because I saw how much money was out there to be made, but, like you, I’ve found that being paid to write feels a heck of a lot better than accepting sponsored content.

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Where’s the post!? I want to read it. :)

  • Kali @ Common Sense Millennial March 31, 2014 at 6:05 am

    I LOVE this post, Cait! Working for free, especially when you’re trying to get your name out there and establish your reputation as someone who is all-around awesome, is an incredibly valuable use of your time – even if it doesn’t pay off in cash. It’s an investment that will provide a return down the road.

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      Great way of putting it, Kali. Thanks!

  • Taylor March 31, 2014 at 6:42 am

    Hi Cait,

    Love this! I’ve been working for free a LOT and it’s provided me some valuable networking experiences. That’s ridiculously awesome that someone saw your passion and hired your from the long hours you were putting in… congrats!

    I totally agree with you on only writing for sites you’re passionate about. While looking for paid work I considered writing for a luxury rental service… after soul searching I just didn’t feel comfortable writing for some extravagant blog when I’m a believer in frugality.

    I love LearnVest and you inspired me to head on over there and apply for an internship with them. Wish me luck :)

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      So much luck!

  • Emily March 31, 2014 at 6:44 am

    I found your blog through an article you wrote on LearnVest, and now I check in almost daily for my blog fill! Another example of how your unpaid internship paid off — increased readership! Keep up the great work, you’re one of my favorite bloggers!

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      What a nice thing to say! Thanks, Emily :)

  • Bridget March 31, 2014 at 7:56 am

    I’m of the never-work-for-free camp, but now that I’m trying to get my foot in the door for a new career, I’m wishing there was some opportunity to get some experience even if it’s unpaid =\

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      You’ll get paid… ;)

  • irene szabo March 31, 2014 at 10:27 am

    I am self employed and often work for free. I feel it gathers great Karma and often comes back to me. Robert Kiyosaki recommends that people work for free to gain experience and meet people who might help you down the road. I never have a problem working for free.

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Irene!

  • Cassie March 31, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Other than my own blog, I really can’t say I’ve done much in terms of free writing (or paid writing for that matter, that’s under $200 to date). I have started picking up some volunteer opportunities though. Within the last month I’ve performed an ISO 9001 internal audit at work, and I’m going to be auditing my homeowner association’s finances tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure where that will end up taking me in the long run, but I’m enjoying it at the moment.

    It’s been really enjoyable watching you progress through your blog. You’re completely deserving of every opportunity that has come your way :)

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Thanks, hun. :)

      And how nice to hear you’re volunteering right now! If you’re enjoying it, then it’s worth your time.

  • NZ Muse March 31, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Like most writers, I have had to work for free to build up a portfolio.

    I’m well past that now.

    That said, I LOVE The Billfold and have had nice traffic bumps when I have guested there (and I know they run on a shoestring) so am happy to occasionally do something for them as I really believe in them.

    I definitely ran more sponsored posts last year than I would like (travelling/being busy/outsourcing some advertising) and easy money was hard to turn down. I’ve changed my tack this year.

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      If I was travelling all over the world, I’d probably accept some easy money too. ;)

  • Mackenzie March 31, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Love this post, Cait! I go back and forth about monetizing (I’m still on the free wordpress!), but I enjoy writing and don’t know how I feel about ads on my blog…

    • Cait Flanders April 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      Just do what makes the most sense for you. :)

  • MakintheBacon April 1, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Although ads on blogs are a way of making money, I sometimes find them too distracting and that they make the actual content harder to read. I’ve had my blog for about 1.5 years and have barely made any money off of it. I do like the idea of being paid to write though and am hoping my blog will provide more exposure for me to do so.

  • Jacquelyn April 1, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    What a great post! I agree that working for free can be a great thing. Not only can you gain great experience, but you never know who you will meet. Everything can be a networking opportunity, and free work could led to an amazing job in the future (just like it did for you).

  • Kate@GoodnightDebt April 1, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    The unpaid internship… oh the controversy. In law school, there is a great divide between those who get paid a grand sum for their work and those expected to work for free. There isn’t much in between. Many of the unpaid opportunities are just as competitive as the paid ones. I’m thankful I was in a financial position to take an unpaid position in my field instead of resorting to a paid position that didn’t help me advance my career just to pay the bills. My unpaid credentials have been the ones that impress people and have helped get my foot in the door where I want to be!

    As for blog money, ads can be done tastefully but it is also really easy to cross the line. I don’t like sponsored posts or giveaways, but affiliate links or side banner ads are fine by me. It might be something to play around with. You could always donate the money you make to charity- perhaps a financial literacy group!

    • Cait Flanders April 2, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Kate, that is a BRILLIANT idea! If I ever put ads up in my sidebar, I think I’ll do just that. Thank you :)

  • Mo' Money Mo' Houses April 1, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    I did a lot of volunteer work after I graduated university, but it didn’t really feel like work. It was usually pretty fun and always for some artsy non-profit. Nonetheless it was a great experience.

  • Melanie@Dear Debt April 1, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    I am interested in parlaying my blog into future opportunities. Honestly, I had no idea people could even make money on a blog! Now I am interested in writing and doing things in alignment with my values. I got a request from a payday loan service, and I simply replied that it didn’t feel right, considering I am working my way out of debt, as are most of my readers. I have pretty high standards and would like to continue that way, even when the money is tempting. I am also absolutely shocked at your traffic!!!

  • Leanne April 2, 2014 at 4:24 am

    I’m still in awe at your 100,000 page views per m0nth! I just went over the 1,000 mark last month for the first time and was feeling pretty smug lol x

  • Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet April 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    I think anyone who creates a blog to make money would be sorely disappointed. It’s a lot of work and should really be done you if you love it (luckily I do) but doing it solely for the money would probably just lead to frustration

  • Amanda April 25, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for writing this post. “Working for free” takes many guises (I elbowed my way into communications by volunteering, volunteering and volunteering some more for any cultural institution in Toronto who would have me – until a former boss took a chance on me). And as a freelance writer, I’ve written–and will still write–for free. Judiciously. To reiterate what Cait said, it’s about working on projects or for companies that align with your values and passions. And if you’re lucky, someone will notice your work!