In December 2012, when Michelle Schroeder-Gardner graduated with an MBA, she had $38,000 in student loan debt.
She got a job as a financial analyst earning $50,000 a year (plus bonuses of about $12,500 annually), but she set a goal of paying off her debt within six months.
Though it took her one extra month, paying off a huge amount of debt in a short period of time set her on a path of financial over-achievement.
Since then, she has increased her income each year.
In 2013, excluding her salary from her full-time job, which she quit that year, she earned $117,000.
In 2014, that increased to $164,000.
In 2015, her earnings jumped to $321,000.
And last year, she made just shy of $1 million — $979,000, to be exact.
Plus, the 27-year-old is a digital nomad. She and her husband live in an RV, chasing 70-degree weather (they were in Arizona when we spoke in late January) and enjoying the views of a slew of national parks including Colorado National Monument, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Arches, Moab, and others.
Her ticket out of debt and into financial freedom has been her blog, Making Sense of Cents, where she offers tips on saving and making money — and publishes income reports.
Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of the Making Sense of Cents blog and her husband, Wesley Gardner (Courtesy of Michelle Schroeder-Gardner)
It also doesn’t hurt that she is naturally frugal. “Even though I make $100,000 a month, I’ll still wear my favorite shirt even if it has a hole in it,” she says.
But the biggest reason for her success may be her internal drive.
“I’ve always been super competitive,” she says. “I would always win at a board game or jump rope the most, little things like that, and people would often joke, Michelle’s going to be president one day, or Michelle’s going to be a millionaire one day, because I was always so competitive, determined, and independent.” Her friends and family also thought she would be successful because she always helped others with their problems.
“Growing up, I was always super determined, so I don’t think anyone was surprised with how successful my blog was,” she says. “It was always expected of me — that I’d do something pretty out of the norm.”
Here’s how she paid off her debt and grew her income so quickly
How did you pay off your student loans so quickly?
Six months before I graduated, I received a letter stating how much I would owe every month when I graduated. It was going to be $500 a month or so. I don’t remember the number, but it was a number I felt was way too high for my income. I decided I didn’t want it hanging over my head for the rest of my life, so I figured I would try to pay it off as quickly as I could so I didn’t have to worry about it 10 years from now. I figured a little bit of pain now would be worthwhile later.
So in addition to being a financial analyst, I also did a bunch of side jobs. Altogether, I was working 100 hours a week. My side jobs consisted of taking surveys, mystery shopping, doing staff writing, doing research phone calls for companies and other things.
As soon as I earned any extra money, I put it toward my student loan debt so it wouldn’t be sitting in my bank account and I wouldn’t be thinking of other ways to spend it.
What were your expenses during this time?
My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and I had bought a house when we were 20, and our mortgage was less than $1,000, but I had other regular expenses like transportation, groceries, etc. We also had combined our finances, so it helped that we shared our bills.
When did the blog start coming into the picture?
I had actually started my blog in August 2011, before I graduated with my finance MBA. I got the idea one day when I was reading Cosmo and they had an article featuring the personal finance site Daily Worth. I started reading that website and I became super-interested in personal finance blogs.
I started my blog as a hobby. I didn’t start it thinking I’d make an income from it. Six months later, I made my first $100 from my blog when a blogger friend who was already profiting from her blog connected me with an advertiser. I didn’t even know blogs could make money.
Until then, my blog had genuinely just been fun for me. But once I realized I could make money, it boosted my motivation. I sought out deals and wanted to see if companies wanted to sponsor my blog. Also, companies would approach me. When my blog had been just a hobby, they would approach me, but I would ignore all those emails. Once I realized I could make money from my blog, I took them more seriously and gave them my rates. At that time, I charged $100 for a sponsored post on my blog or $150 for an advertisement on my sidebar. I also made a little bit on Google Adsense and affiliate income, where I was promoting other companies’ products, and if one of my readers bought through me, the company would pay me.
My advertisers were mainly financial companies like coupon websites and cell phone apps and other services that helped people save money. At that time, it wasn’t so much banks, but I do have bank advertisers now and I charge them much more than that of course.
I also started looking for opportunities writing for other bloggers and immersing myself into the blogging community.
How much did you earn from the blog to begin with?
In the beginning, in May of 2012, I earned $500. And by December 2012, I was up to $5,700 that month. The month I paid off my student loans, July of 2013, I earned $11,000 that month.
How exactly does the blog bring in money?
Now, I’m making money in much different ways from just a few years ago. Before I was making money from sponsored posts and by writing for other blogs, and now the majority is through affiliate marketing — $50,000 a month is from that, and that’s the bulk of my income. There are 15-20 companies I actively promote on my social media and blog platform.
The other big revenue stream is my affiliate marketing course, in which I teach other bloggers how to create affiliate income. In November 2016, that accounted for $38,000 of my income. I created that because I had so many bloggers email me asking them to teach them how to increase their affiliate marketing earnings. Now it’s more a form of passive income, since I already created the source and people just purchase it and all the instructions and lessons are already done.
My third biggest source of income from my blog is advertising. In those instances, maybe I partner with a bank and they ask me to advertise a certain service or product that they are currently selling. Or I participate in a Twitter chat with the company, or they do some kind of advertisement on my social media platforms.
Why did your income roughly triple from 2015 to 2016?
In 2015, I decided to stop doing all my freelancing. I stopped doing virtual assisting and decided to focus entirely on my blogging business. I was nervous to get rid of all my clients, but I realized I truly loved blogging myself and not blogging for others.
By focusing on my business, I was finally able to find ways to diversify my income, improve my blog, increase my traffic, and come up with extra ideas for my blog, such as the course, which now accounts for a big chunk of my income — 20%-30%.
I also was able to focus on affiliate marketing and improving my traffic, which directly relates to making more money blogging as well. It only took me a few months after I dropped all those clients to start seeing the jump in my income.
I was making $12,000-$15,000 monthly when I decided I was going to focus just on my own business, then I made a jump to the $20,000-$30,000 range, and it just kept going to $40,000, then $50,000, to where I am now at $100,000.
How has your changing income changed your lifestyle?
As a full-time blogger I have a flexible schedule and am my own boss and now travel full-time. My husband, who used to be a new car salesman, quit his day job at the same time I quit mine — in October 2013 when I was making $10,000 a month from the blog — and now works on the blog too. At the time, we were making more from our day jobs put together than from the blog, but we knew we could live off our blog if we did it full-time.
The main lifestyle change is that we live in an RV, are location-independent and work wherever we can. We sold our house in Missouri in July 2015 and now we work from wherever.
Why did you start living in an RV?
My husband has always wanted to live in an RV, and he spent a long time convincing me to live in an RV. There’s always a joke in the RV community that there’s always one person who wants to do it and then the other person has to spend years convincing the other person to do it. That’s pretty much how it was.
But I stepped into an RV one day — we just decided to look at one — and I loved being in it. So we decided to give RVing a shot. It was just going to be a weekend thing to see family or do short weekend or week trips, but we came to love it and never went home. We would be gone for a month or two at a time, so we just decided to turn the RV thing into a full-time venture and haven’t looked back since.
How big was your house?
We had a finished basement, and so if you count that, 2,500 square feet. If you don’t, it was 1,200 square feet with three bedrooms.
How big is the RV?
It’s 400 square feet if you include all the slides being out.
Did you have to get rid of a lot of stuff?
Yes, the Salvation Army came and took a bunch of stuff, and we rented a dumpster to collect broken appliances and junk and we had neighbors come and just take whatever they wanted for free. We kept clothing and photo albums.
How does living in an RV make your finances different from other people’s?
It doesn’t really change. Our RV cost more than our house, but RVing can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be — just like with a normal home. There are cheap RVs, and there are RVs worth millions of dollars. It’s comparable to living in a home, but I have a different view all the time. There are free places to stay, but we mainly choose private campgrounds or state parks that cost money.
We usually stay in one place for a month. We like to follow the weather, so we like to stay in a forever 70-degree weather area, and we like to follow activities we like such as riding our bikes outside and going for a hike, so 70-degree weather is what we’re looking for all year long.
How has all this newfound wealth changed you?
I’m not as stressed about money as I was just a few years ago. But I’m just as frugal as before. It’s not below me to use a coupon. I just don’t like to be wasteful. If there’s a way to save money, I’m not going to waste time to find ways to save money, but if a money saver is there, I’ll go for it.
How has your wealth changed your relationships?
It really hasn’t changed them too much. We’re often told that people are surprised we’re the same and that you would expect people making $100,000 a month to not be as nice or down to earth. But many of our friends still call us down-to-earth.
How was money handled when you were growing up and what habits or attitudes did you carry into adulthood?
My mom wasn’t super good with money, but my dad was better, so I learned what to do from him. He taught me how to live within my budget and also how to use a credit card correctly. A lot of people think credit cards are the root of all evil, but you can use them to build your credit score and you can earn rewards points with them.
I’m still very frugal. I don’t pay for any form of TV, I don’t have cable, Netflix, Hulu or anything like that. We haven’t spent any money on TV since February 2015 to save money and also to not spend as much time watching TV. I feel like there’s plenty of things to watch on local channels. If I had any more channels, I’d be in front of the TV all day long.
How much time do you spend on your blog?
Between 40 and 60 hours a week. I work longer hours when I’m trying to get far ahead in my blog content. I currently do three blog posts a week.
Do you have help?
I do have an editor who edits my site and a tech person to make sure my site is always up and live and no one is hacking it.
What do you do with your extra income?
We invest a lot in Vanguard funds and are saving for retirement one day. By next year, we should have plenty of money to retire early if we chose too. But I still love blogging, so I don’t see that ending anytime soon.
For the next few years, we plan on RVing here and in Canada, and then afterward sailing full-time and go to other countries. I’d have to find ways to manage my internet access. But we do know many bloggers who blog full-time and sail, so it’s not impossible.