6 Ways To Improve Your Crappy Salary And Your Career At The Same Time

Working an entry-level job, or just waiting for that raise? Here are some ways to side-gig that can boost your income and your career simultaneously.

6 Ways To Improve Your Crappy Salary And Your Career At The Same Time
[Photo: Flickr user Dan Lacher]

I grossed a whopping $23,244 my first year out of college–a starting salary that might be manageable in some cities but proved pretty tight in New York. Needless to say, side hustling quickly became a necessary way of life for me in order to supplement my meager income. But while I found I could make decent money babysitting and slinging lattes, it soon became important to find side gigs that benefited my career, too, instead of just my bank account. Here are six ways you can do the same.


1. Build A Side Hustle On The Back Of Your Work Skills

The easiest, and most natural, option for padding a crappy salary is to leverage the skills you’re already developing in the office.

David Carlson, a 29-year-old Minneapolis-based finance manager, supplemented his early job as a staff accountant with a side gig as a spreadsheet consultant, improving financing and operation spreadsheets for small businesses. “My spreadsheet side hustle perfectly complemented my full-time job as an accountant,” says Carlson. “Having advanced technical skills is one of the ways you can differentiate yourself in finance and accounting.”

That’s true in various fields, though; anytime you pick up a specialized skill in your day job–from copywriting to proofreading to web design–you can usually deploy it on a freelance basis, too.

Related: How I Managed To Save Money On A $25,000 Salary In New York City

2. Ask Your Employer About Non-Competes

You might not be able to base a freelance operation around exactly the same work you do at your 9-to-5, though. Developing a side gig that complements your day job may be a dream scenario for you, but not necessarily for your employer. That’s why many organizations add “non-compete clauses” to their work contracts, which restrict employees from taking their talents outside the office. Even “at-will” employees, who work without formal contracts, may face company-wide policies that impose the same limits. So if you know you’ll likely be facing a less-than-generous salary, ask about any non-competes before accepting an offer.


I created my site, Broke Millennial, in 2013 while working in public relations. Fortunately, my agency at the time confirmed that it had no issues with my site or with freelance writing in general, since those created no conflicts of interest. Then I interviewed for a job at a different agency. My freelance financial writing is what drew them to me in the first place, but it proved to be a deal breaker as a prospective employee. When the offer came in, the hiring manager told me that not only would I have to cease all freelance writing, but I’d have to shutter my blog as well. I turned down the job.

Eventually, my side hustle did lead me to a new job, as the brand manager for a fintech startup. The new employer allowed me to keep freelancing, which helped develop my network, and in turn helped the company grow and gain exposure.

3. Pitch An Overtime Project That Lets You Prove What You Can Do

You may not even need to leave your office in order to pad that aggravatingly low salary of yours. Sometimes it just comes down to knowing which opportunities exist inside your own organization. Ask your boss about the ins and outs of your company’s protocol on overtime, and then pitch yourself for additional projects.

Don’t worry if they’re outside your department, either–in fact, looking for “stretch” assignments that take you outside your job description can help you move ahead in the company. Not only will you pick up some much-needed extra money this way, but you’ll also be able to demonstrate your ability to level up in your career and get promoted.

Related: How To Create Your Own Opportunities At Work


4. Pick Up A Customer Service Job (But Not Just Any)

Never discount the value of working in customer service–focused jobs while you’re working on developing your skill set in another field. Seasonal work (think Santa’s elves at the mall) and part-time jobs can not only help with your monthly budget fluctuations, but they also sharpen your emotional intelligence, customer interaction skills, and even managerial duties. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to work a gig that requires less mental exertion than your day job. (Just be wary of commission-based gigs like selling knives door-to-door.)

Cato Johnson, a 31-year-old Arizona-based consumer finance attorney, works as a bartender on the weekends. “Most people assume attorneys are making a six-figure salary straight out of law school,” says Johnson. “Sometimes that’s the case, but it hasn’t been for me.”

Johnson, who has knocked $86,000 in student loans down to $5,000 in four years, puts nearly $2,000 a month toward his loans and maxes out his 401(k) contributions, which, after living expenses, leaves minimal discretionary income. Enter his part-time bartending gig.

“I wanted my side hustle to be something that I enjoyed, rather than merely being a second job,” says Johnson. “Being a bartender and dealing with people face-to-face has definitely forced me to brush up on my people skills, which can come in handy when dealing with clients, coworkers, executives, and other attorneys,” explains Johnson. And since recruiters and hiring managers say that emotional intelligence and other people-based skills are becoming ever more valuable, finding a side job that lets you brush them up isn’t a bad idea.

5. Volunteer In Exchange For Free Classes

Like many a 20-something New Yorker, I’ve paid for improv classes. But I met one woman in one of those class who told me about a loophole she’d discovered. She offered to handle social media and basic administrative work for the founders of the troupe in exchange for free classes. Improv training isn’t just for the comedic or theatrically inclined; MBA programs and major companies now offer improv-based workshops to help people improve their public speaking and listening skills, which always come in handy in the workplace.


Offering to volunteer in exchange for classes can work well in a variety of places, including in the fitness world. Sometimes there are even formal programs based around this type of trade-off. Modo Yoga, in Brooklyn, offers free yoga to “financially challenged” members of its community who are willing to work in its Energy Exchange program.

6. Barter Your Skills, Then Convert Leads Into Freelance Clients

Bartering is the pinnacle of hustle moves, especially for people who are just starting out and might not feel comfortable selling their services on the side right away. Just think: What do you need, and what can you provide in exchange for what others need?

For example, I work with a personal trainer who knows I work in personal finance. My trainer is struggling to get her financial life together, so she’s interested in bartering her services (training) with me, in exchange for help developing and implementing a financial plan. I realize that deciding to work with her may not convert into a long-term paid relationship for me, but she can recommend me to people in her network.

And in addition to leading directly toward paying clients, bartering gives you another great opportunity that can benefit your career: the chance to develop the skill of negotiating–which couldn’t be more critical for improving your crappy salary in the long-term.

Erin Lowry is a personal finance expert, speaker, and the author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together, an essential roadmap for going from flat-broke to financial badass.