Make Money, No Money – Build Your Skills

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People want to earn more cash with little up-front costs. Make money with no money. Who doesn’t want that? The problem: that’s not the way it works. Or, rather, it isn’t that simple.

While there are side hustles you can start with no money — or very little — down, these things require other important components of the money-making equation: time and skills. It takes time to make money. Rather, it takes time to build skills. And it is those skills that people are willing to pay you for.

And really, it’s that you use those skills to create solutions to problems. Ultimately, it is those solutions that people are willing to pay you for.

The question to ask is really this: what skills are you willing to invest the time it takes to learn? And, if you want your work to align very closely with the sorts of changes you want to affect in the world, you may also ask: what kind of problems do I want to solve?

Spending Less vs Earning More

Learning skills to increase your income takes time and energy.

Before you put your energy into making more money, I recommend an exercise in cutting out as much unnecessary spending as possible. Building a habit of spending less money now increases your ability to save and invest money far more than simply having a higher income.

In addition to spending less money, consider the amount of time you spend on things that have very little return on time invested. While I think everyone should take time to relax and enjoy their life, if you want to earn more money, and you put the majority of your “free time” into activities that don’t have a chance of improving your ability to make money over time, you need to rethink how serious you are about earning more.

Be the Solution

Your ability to make money, whether working online, in an office, or, if Elon Musk has his way, on Mars, comes down to one thing: the amount of value you and your services provide to others.

People have problems and they pay for solutions. You want to be the solution. The bigger the problem you solve for people, the more value you provide and the more money you will make.

Rarity of a skill increases its demand and, therefore, its value. If you want to make more money, you have to build marketable skills in a field where there is a demand.

a hundred dollar bill puzzle being put together

Sustained Effort

There is no easy path to making money, especially when we accurately replace the words “making money” with “adding value”. There is only one path, and that is doing the hard things consistently over time.

Working in a fast food restaurant is not any easier than learning a skill like programming. It isn’t. It’s just that programming skills solve higher-level problems that are more valuable in the market. Either way, you will be putting in sustained effort over time. If different paths require the same amount of energy as input, you should, as much as possible, choose the path with better expected results.

I’ve worked in restaurants. It requires a lot of physical and mental energy to work in a fast-paced, over-heated environment while on your feet all day keeping track of multiple items that need attention at any given time. If that is your career, you’re putting that effort in day after day. That’s a lot of energy and physical wear with very limited earning potential. Fast-food workers are clearly offering a valuable service, and work in that environment teaches valuable skills like building a system for efficiency, dealing with coworkers, working under stress (as if that’s a good thing), and interacting with customers.

The issue I see is that working in a restaurant is a high-effort job that offers low pay right now but with limited growth over time. Also, your ability to do the job and earn is very bound by your physical location and your time. As a low-level restaurant employee, your ability to make money depends 100 percent on you being physically present and putting your energy and time into your work.

We want to be building skills that, on the other hand, take a lot of up front effort (high-effort now) that, similar to every skill set, pay little initially but offer increasingly high pay over time. Yes, there is a lot of work to put in. And that is why they are more valuable.

Self Education

I like this quote from Louis L’Amour: “All education is self-education.”

Every skill you currently have is a skill you put effort into learning — whether consciously or unconsciously. Maybe you don’t remember teaching yourself to read, but you absolutely did. Sure, a parent or teacher helped you, but you put in the vast majority of the effort. Your ability to read is the result of sustained effort over time. You don’t think about reading, you just do it. But in the beginning, you couldn’t even read the word ‘the’ without “sounding it out”.

When it comes to learning a new skill or improving a skill you have, you may feel like quitting — or never starting — because your time is limited. Maybe you “only” have an hour a day to invest. While spending an hour a day on a skill is far less than it requires to become a master in your field any time soon, one hour a day is far more than most are spending consistently.

Forget innate ability. Sustained effort over time is the only way to build skills.

Ultralearning by Scott Young provides amazing tips on how to master skills quickly.

Education Sources

In certain fields, education is very important. If you’re trying to make money starting with very little money, you probably aren’t approaching the problem with an Ivy League degree.

We’re talking about skills that have great earning potential with or without a degree. From my experience, there are two types of education you can pursue that required little or no money: 1. free classroom-style teaching and 2. paid skill courses.

If you’re looking to increase your knowledge of the fundamentals of your field, you may want to look into free sources like Khan Academy or Coursera. I have taken free courses with Coursera, but there are also paid courses and plans (which I have not used).

For paid courses, I have primarily used Udemy to learn about things like piano, screenwriting, real estate, and mostly programming. Overall, I’ve been very happy with the prices I’ve paid for courses versus the value I have gotten out of them. Just check out the reviews and research the teacher to see if you can find any of their other free content before deciding if you like their teaching style.

Another site that comes up when researching online education is Skillshare. I have no personal experience using their platform, but it looks like they place a larger emphasis on the skills categorized more traditionally as “creative” — animation, graphic design, and photography. Probably because I have pursued a more technical programming education, Skillshare hasn’t been on my radar. But it might be helpful to you.

Do research into the field you’re in or want to be in and find reputable courses that will help you learn the skills you want or need. You can absolutely earn a higher income with relatively low up-front costs provided that you’re willing to invest the time.

I lost my job in January 2019. I used Udemy to improve my skills during the 5 months it took to find my next job. I share more about that experience and the mindset shift it caused for me in How I Plan to Save $25,000 in 2020.

Actively Build Your Skills

Remember that access to education is only a small part of your success. You must be an active participant in your education. Learn every day, and build something — even the smallest piece of a project — with the knowledge you gain. My programming abilities went up a huge amount when I spent around 5 hours a day for two months — I was unemployed — using Udemy and a subscription to Frontend Masters. Once I got my next job, I canceled my subscription only because I was no longer using it nearly enough to justify an ongoing subscription. When it’s time for me to build my skills, their courses are on the top of my list. Until then, I’m investing those dollars.

If you want to make money with no money, your best bet is to invest in yourself by spending the time to build skills that are in high-demand. Learning marketable skills allows you to solve big problems and earn a higher pay. This is how you make money starting with very little.

If you can build the habit of spending less money now, when you eventually earn more, you will be able to save an increasingly high percentage of your net income. And, if it’s your goal, you give yourself a much better chance of reaching financial freedom and retiring early.

Related: Financial Freedom by Grant Sabatier

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  1. Hi Lyle – We fully agree with the points you are making in the article. We are on the category of people who do not believe in “get rich quick” schemes. To earn money, one would have to invest (either capital, time, effort and skills) as well as manage his/her own spend. Thank you for this insightful article.

    • Thank you for reading! I like that you include ‘effort’ in your list. The time is going to pass either way. All we can do is choose to put in the effort to make good use of it, or not.

  2. Hey Lyle,
    The best investment is indeed one in your own education, but sticking to a plan when you do. You need a goal and make sure that every course you take, gets you closer to that goal. Because when you are looking at courses on Udemy, for instance, it is all so easy to fall for the ‘others also bought’ trap. Shiny baubles that lead you to study things that you don’t really need or would not be in your core skillset.
    And don’t just keep looking for more courses but act on what you know. Get hands-on right away!
    Nice article! Very interesting indeed.

    • Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about taking action. The sooner you start “doing”, the better. Learning is great, but skills only develop where knowledge turns into action.

      I once had a coworker who told me that, instead of trying to learn something, he was only ever interested in accomplishing something. The learning was just necessary to reach his goals. I like that mindset.

      Best of luck with your site. I like your writing a lot. As a novice pianist, I’m getting a lot out of your articles.

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