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Everyone's heard the phrase 'it takes money to make money,' but I ignored that advice to build my successful freelance business

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  • We've all heard the phrase "it takes money to make money." But in my experience, that wasn't true.
  • I'm a successful full-time freelancer, and I've hardly spent a dime to build my business. Instead, I took on zero-cost side hustles and leaned on my network to get jobs and gigs.
  • I also set up a savings system that works for me to plan for and achieve my money goals.
  • Want to know what a financial planner can do for you? Get Personal Finance Insider's free e-book »

We live in a "monetize everything you can" culture, where a hobby can potentially turn into a million-dollar enterprise. At the very least, your hobby can become a side hustle. And I've found that when you work for yourself, there's a bit of hype — and sometimes pressure — to turn fun endeavors into a money-making empire. 

When I went from being a chronic side hustler to a full-time freelancer, it seemed as if all my colleagues were pouring a significant amount of resources into coaching, courses, and building fancy websites for their businesses. But in my own career, I discovered that you actually don't really need to spend money to make money. To build my personal wealth, here's what I'm doing instead.

I chose side hustles that didn't require a lot of money to get started 

The side hustles I tried — test proctoring, pet sitting, being a Rent-a-Friend, and participating as a background actor for a talk show — required no special skills or fancy equipment. I just had to follow the rules, be respectful and professional, and show up. These different side hustles added up to a few thousand dollars a year, which I put directly into my emergency savings or new car fund. 

When I started picking up writing and proofreading gigs, I was already doing that type of work at my main job and working toward my copyediting certification. So it didn't feel like I was doing a complete 180 to earn more money as a writer. In fact, certain types of work I was doing at my different day jobs — writing marketing copy, proofreading — helped me pick up side work. 

I took up a low-cost passion project 

For a few years, I had a blog about how being frugal could afford you a life of creativity and freedom. While I never really earned any money directly from blogging, it helped me meet many cool, like-minded folks. Plus, I had a space to write what I wanted to write and polish my craft. That blog also provided writing samples to help me land my first paid writing assignments. 

For instance, a friend and reader was also the editor of an online publication for cat parents. Because she was familiar with my blog, she offered me a column on saving money as a cat parent on the website. Besides the time I put into my blog, I only had to pay for web hosting and the domain every year. It ended up costing me about $15 a month.

I leaned on my network

Pretty much every side hustle I landed was through someone I already knew. Whether it was a coworker or a friend, I was always referred to jobs. 

I invested in myself smartly

After I graduated college, I continued my education by interning at a local alternative weekly and taking evening classes at nearby universities and community colleges. Both were a time and money commitment. I made a pact with myself: I had to make back for every dollar I spent on continuing education. I also tried to learn as much as I could on the job by taking on new projects. 

I was fortunate enough to work at a place that subsidized some of my graphic design classes and copyediting. When I finished my copyediting certification, I landed a gig copyediting an independent art magazine. After a few issues, I had earned as much as I had put into those classes.

I created a money system that works for me

I made it easy to save and invest by setting up different savings accounts and auto-saving for my retirement and other money goals, such as an emergency fund, car fund, and vacation fund, and looking for high-yield savings accounts where my cash will grow.

Creating such a system didn't cost me anything. I just had to sit down and come up with a flow that worked for me. I'm all about making it so easy it's foolproof, and building good habits while destroying bad ones. And you can develop good habits around saving by coming up with a structure. 

You don't need to throw down money to boost your income and earning potential. Instead of investing in making yourself seem like a successful side hustler or freelancer, I've found that tapping into your existing resources and community to build trust in your business can really propel you in the right direction.

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