How to Survive on the Gig Economy

While I was in between jobs I decided to see how much I could make on the gig economy. Partially out of curiosity and partially out of necessity, I wanted to see if I could survive.

Here's what I did, how much I made on each endeavor, and what I learned along the way.

Ridesharing - My first experience was driving for Lyft. I didn't have access to a car at the time, so I enrolled in their rental program which allows you to drive for Lyft even if you don't own a car. It was an easy process to become a driver and to rent the car. It ended up being around $252/week (yes, a week!), but they had three tiers of incentives that allowed me to earn around $180 of that back if I gave enough rides.

My first week yielded a good payout but was ultimately not sustainable. It took me three days of driving just to pay off the car, and then I had four days left to make any profit. Once you take into account gas and taxes (Lyft doesn't take out taxes), the profit margin was not very big. I enjoyed the conversations with passengers (and the tips!) and found the Lyft app easy and fun to navigate. I found out how to use filtered rides to get back home when I ended up far away and I took advantage of peak times and bonuses. It almost became like a game.

However, the wear and tear on my body took a toll and the wait times in between rides definitely got to me. After a couple weeks of renting, I realized I could buy a new car for a lot less and that's exactly what I did. Instead of $252/week, I paid $323/mo. This helped me mentally to know I wasn't spending three days a week just to pay off my car. Having a new car also provided a better experience for my passengers.

Lyft became my go to hustle. I averaged $20-25/hr. I could choose to do it whenever I had free time. Sometimes I'd turn on the meter on my way home from the gym or after visiting a friend out in the suburbs. Driving so much in the city wears on vehicles, especially in a city like Chicago with all its potholes, but it's not a bad way to make some fast and easy cash (when there's no virus keeping everyone inside!).

Total made from Lyft: $500-1500/week

Cargo - While I was catching a Lyft ride I learned about Cargo, a company that provides a snack box for Uber and Lyft drivers to use to make extra money while driving. The best part was it was free. They sent me a display box with samples from different food and snack companies that passengers could get for free or at an affordable cost. They had financial incentives for the number of free samples you gave out and a percentage on any sales made. Using Cargo I was able to make an additional $40/week. They also sent us boxes and boxes of inventory that we were able to sample for free each day. Unfortunately, the company was not able to make enough money and they have stopped this service. Now they are paying drivers to display ads on top of their car. I didn't want to put anything on the top of my car so I decided not to do this, but if you don't mind having random advertisements on top of your car you can make some decent money just by driving where you normally go. The Cargo ads only work with Uber.

Total Cargo Earnings: $600

Airbnb - One of the most lucrative endeavors on the gig economy has been Airbnb. My wife and I live on the first floor of a two flat that has a separate basement entrance. We decided to move our stuff in our basement and Airbnb our first floor. We weren't sure if people would want to stay in our neighborhood which is a more economically depressed area, so we set the price lower at first. We needed to get some quick stays so we could build up positive reviews. Within 36 hours of our posting, we had over 6 bookings. We began to average 8-10 stays a month.

Since we have a dog and a nice fenced in yard, we decided to promote our place as a dog friendly option for couples and families. Because we have three bedrooms, we ended up booking a lot of 3-4 people stays. We added a cleaning fee to add to our revenue and we did the cleaning ourselves in between guests. We used a lot of the Cargo inventory for welcome snacks and sample bathroom products.

Fairly soon, we had racked up enough five star reviews to earn the coveted "Super Host" designation. We have only had one really negative experience in which any damage was done to our house, and after filing a claim, Airbnb promptly reimbursed us the funds. It has been a great experience for us and a steady source of income. If you don't have a separate space to list, you can also list a room. You have the opportunity to reject any guest that you don't feel comfortable with and require verification of their ID.

We have been impressed with how Airbnb resolves issues and operates their business. During Covid-19 there were a lot of cancellations which created a financial burden for a lot of hosts. They designated $250 million to pay a portion of any cancelled bookings during the pandemic. We are currently renting our first floor to a former Airbnb guest that decided to stay long term which has provided a consistent source of income.

Total Airbnb: $1000-1500/mo

Ibotta: There are a lot of new apps that allow you to earn money doing things you are already doing. Ibotta is one of those. The app allows you to earn money back when you are grocery shopping. Just check the offers in the app before or during your grocery shopping and submit your receipts. You can receive your earnings in cash through PayPal or in gift cards to Amazon or other retailers. They have incentives when you sign up or get friends to sign up so the earnings add up.

Total Ibotta earnings: $220

GetUpside: Here's an app that let's you get cash back on gas and select restaurants. The app let's you compare gas prices and get directions to the best option. You can earn 5% to 25% back on restaurants like Burger King, Popeyes, Boston Market, etc. so long as you pay with credit card, not cash (I forgot this a couple times). You can only redeem what you earn in gift cards but the savings add up. I was able to buy a brand new pair of running shoes with my gift cards.

Total Getupside earnings: $66.40

Focus Groups - This is one of the most fun side hustles. I have done two focus groups, one for an online hotel search engine and one for a focus group on grass fed beef. The first focus group was in person at a building downtown that had two way mirrors where you could be observed as you gave feedback on commercials and advertisements for their product. The second was done all in an app called DScout that allowed me to share my opinions through surveys and video blogs. It takes a little time on the front end to qualify for focus groups, but it's a fun way to earn some money and share your thoughts. My partner and I did a focus group for couples and earned $125 each. Focus Groups are not offered as consistently, but they pay well.

Total Focus group earnings: $425

Door Dash - It was easy to sign up for Door Dash. Within a couple days I received my red bag and a Mastercard that I could use when I picked up orders from restaurants. The app was confusing to figure out at first. It didn't seem as intuitive as Lyft or other apps I've used. For each order there were multiple steps that had to be checked off as you go. They also give you expected times for delivery that are not always realistic. I did like the feature that allows you to set the time length that you have (say you only have an hour to dash). I only did three Door Dash deliveries because I encountered lots of problems and didn't really make a lot for the effort. Once, I got an order downtown at a McDonalds in a food court that did not have free parking and it was difficult to get to. Then, I had to deliver to Trump Tower where I had to talk the valet into letting me leave my car unattended while I went up to the 54th floor. People usually tip you when they put it in the order so it was nice to have those guaranteed tips, but I only averaged $13/hr so it wasn't worth it for me.

Total Door Dash earnings: $13 (wah, wah)

Offer Up: This is an app similar to Ebay or Craigslist where you post things you want to sell or get rid of and buyers can message you with offers. You have the option to offering shipping or just make arrangements for pickup in person. It was an easy app to navigate and I posted items within minutes. It was a great way to make money on things around the house that we would have given away to a thrift store anyway, and buyers come to you which makes it really convenient. We sold an extra bike rack that no longer fit our car, a work desk we didn't have room for, and some musical instruments I no longer used. The downside, I had several people ask if items were still available but never followed up which was frustrating, but it doesn't take too long to figure out the serious offers. Offer Up takes a portion when you ship through the app so I preferred setting up pickups in person. If you don't feel comfortable giving someone your home address you can meet in a parking lot or public place.

Total Offer Up: $215

Rover: this is one of the more popular dog walking/boarding apps that provides a great way to make some extra money if you like animals. It was easy to setup a profile and get approved. They encourage you to set your prices low until you can positive reviews. I didn't get a lot of traction with this because I wasn't willing to set my price as low as they recommended. I had one meet and greet for a possible dog walking gig but ultimately decided that this wasn't the best use of my time. Unless you have capacity to board multiple dogs at your house, then I found Airbnb to be a more lucrative option.

Total Earnings: $0.

Takeaways from the Gig Economy:

• It's possible to survive on the gig economy. I was able to make some decent money to cover my basic bills and provide a safety net in between jobs.

• Gig jobs provide flexibility and the ability to make money quick and whenever you have time in your schedule.

• But they aren't always sustainable. Driving 10 hours a day is rough on the body and mind. There were weeks I couldn't move at all at the end of the day. Driving Lyft would not be sustainable for people with chronic pain or physical limitations.

• Gig jobs are great supplemental income or side hustles, but harder to make into a fulltime paying job. Even after getting a new job I occasionally filtered Lyft rides to and from my work to cover gas and make some extra money on the side. I have also continued using many of the apps I tried out to earn extra money for things I want or need.

• Gig jobs are affected by a crisis like Covid so gig workers are definitely vulnerable. Some companies like Airbnb have created funds to support their hosts during the economic downturn and encouraged them to try hosting virtual experiences. Lyft has also setup a fund for drivers who contract the virus.

Bottom line: I have gained an even greater appreciation for those who are forced to survive on the gig economy and hope more can be done to provide security for workers in the gig economy (ie., $15 minimum wage, health insurance, etc) since corporations are literally making millions off their backs.

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