Michelle Schroeder-Gardner never thought her family would be living on a boat. She just wanted to pay off her $40,000 in student loan debt.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck,” says Schroeder-Gardner, whose first salary out of college was $40,000/year, despite having an MBA in finance. “I was searching for ways to pay my student loan debt and make more money.”
The financial analyst stumbled across an online magazine that featured personal finance blogs, including stories about the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement, in which people aspire to become financially independent earlier in life. FIRE culture celebrates cutting expenses and seeking out additional sources of income to design the lifestyle you want, which may include flexible or uncommon living arrangements in order to see the world.
“I read the stories of regular people creating financial independence and thought, ‘If other people could do it, why couldn’t I?'” she says. Over the next eight years, Schroeder-Gardner cut living expenses and increased her income through side hustles. One of those strategies was to start a finance blog called Making Sense of Cents, which she established in 2012.
The bootstrapped website helped her pay off her student loans and go on to achieve financial independence at 30 while she and her husband traveled the world in an RV, and, later, a 42-foot sailboat. Her blog now generates $760,000 annually in passive income, and the couple live on the water nine months out of the year.
The finance blogger has advice for anyone who wants to reel in expenses, make money online, and pursue financial independence.
Get Inspired, Then Take Action
Although Schroeder-Gardner liked her analyst job, the salary was barely enough to cover the mortgage on a home she had purchased in 2009 (with her then-boyfriend), their car, her student loans, and everyday living expenses. Schroeder-Gardner spent evenings searching online for ways to pay off her debt and increase her income.
“I started diving into the personal finance community,” says Schroeder-Gardner. “I decided to start my blog so that I could talk about how I wanted to stop living paycheck to paycheck and pay off my student loans.” The struggling analyst liked what she saw with blogging, so she decided to start one of her own to chronicle her financial journey. She started a blog called Making Sense of Cents to document her journey toward financial independence.
Schroeder-Gardner spent six months commenting on other personal finance blogs to bring attention to her knowledge of finance. She wrote guest articles for blogs with a larger audience, with a link to her blog in her bio. She also became active on Pinterest to make more people aware of her blog, and used strategies like display ads and affiliate links to create passive income.
“At this point, I wasn’t planning on turning Making Sense of Cents into a full-time income or anything like that, but I thought it could be a pretty good extra income or side hustle,” she says.
Schroeder-Gardner’s efforts helped her establish a reputation online. Her blog grew to 50,000 monthly readers in less than a year, and created several opportunities to generate additional income.
Test Lots of Side Hustle Ideas
Schroeder-Gardner knew she was onto something when she landed an opportunity to make $100 by reviewing a financial company in a sponsored post on her blog.
“Back then, $100 was a mind-blowing amount of money,” she says. “I had no idea blogs could even make money like this, and I loved my blog, so $100 was super amazing.”
The blogger also found ways to increase her income through other side hustles. She took on work as a freelance writer for various websites, and managed the social media accounts of five other bloggers. Outside of blogging, she found items at garage sales and items from around her house that she could sell on eBay. Her eBay side hustle brought in an extra $5,000 in 2012. She took on work as a contract mystery shopper, making $200 a month. She and her boyfriend even rented out the spare rooms in their home; they charged $400/month per room, and had four roommates from 2009 to 2013.
Schroeder-Gardner says she spent 40 to 50 hours per week growing her side hustles while working 40+ hours at her valuation job. She would often work 100-hour weeks.
Pay Off Debt and Invest Spare Income
Between the blog, the side hustles, having roommates, and her day job, Schroeder-Gardner’s brought in $12,000—$13,000 a month in income throughout the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013. She used this extra income to pay off her $40,000 in student loan debt fully, and decided to quit her job in October of 2013.
“I quit when I was making more money in my business and side hustles than I was making at my job,” she says. “I felt pretty secure because I knew I was making a good monthly income, but I also had just paid off my student loans, so I didn’t have that huge monthly debt hanging over my head anymore, which helped me feel more comfortable.” Schroeder-Gardner and her then-boyfriend Wes (now her husband) celebrated with dinner, but the more significant celebration was that he was also quitting his job to help build Making Sense of Cents.
Most of the revenue from the blog at that time came from affiliate marketing and display advertising. Schroeder-Gardner was paid when links on the blog and social media posts sent visitors and/or sales to partner brands. With over 50,000 readers visiting the blog every month, the clicks added up. She also continued freelance writing and social media management. Altogether, the top-line business revenue in 2013 was $116,519.
With extra income in the picture, Schroeder-Gardner was able to invest. The blogger says she chose to prioritize investing in low-cost, low-risk index funds such as Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index (VTSAX), Vanguard’s Total International Stock Fund (VTIAX), and Vanguard’s Total Bond Index Fund (VBTLX).
Look for ways to cut back on your budget or make more money to widen the gap of excess income. That might include lowering your housing costs, house hacking, cutting back on monthly food costs, and/or finding ways to make passive income.
Embrace Location Independence
Michelle and Wes had often talked about how much they wanted to travel. Since their income sources were now entirely online, the couple decided to put their house on the market and explore digital nomadism, a work lifestyle that allows you to see the world while still generating an income.
“We wanted to fully immerse ourselves in the full-time travel lifestyle,” she says. “We didn’t feel super tied to our house, we [had] owned it for about five years, and selling it was another way to save money.”
Wes was interested in RV life after they sold the home, but Michelle wanted comfort. They compromised, bought a Class B-plus RV for $70,000 using savings, and used a loan to cover the rest. Building an online business means you need good WiFi, so Schroeder-Gardner ensured they stayed at campgrounds, camped on public land, and had a Verizon hotspot when necessary to run the business remotely. The business continued to grow, and the revenue in 2014 was $163,929 from Making Sense of Cents and freelancing.
The couple eventually found their rhythm, and 2015 was a good year, with business revenue being $320,888. Schroeder-Gardner turned in a notice to all her freelancing clients and stopped offering client services altogether. She went all-in on the blog as the way the couple made money.
Diversify Your Income Streams
Schroeder-Gardner knew it would be wise to diversify the business’ revenue, so she got into selling information products. She created her first online course in 2016. Online courses are notorious for being high profit with low effort, but they require proven expertise to fly.
With her firsthand knowledge of blogging, advertising, and affiliate marketing, she launched a course called Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing. She charged $197 for the course. The course launch was a huge success, and business revenue more than tripled to $979,321 in 2016.
Schroeder-Gardner cemented her monetization strategy, and used 2017 to focus on building her audience. She did 100 podcast interviews, grew her Facebook page to 80,000 followers, built her email list to 70,000 subscribers, and grew blog traffic to an average of 500,000 visitors a month. Business revenue in 2017 was $1,536,732 — Schroeder-Gardner’s first million-dollar year.
“2017 was a huge year for me and my business,” she says. “Not only that, but I also traveled full-time and went on many hikes and bike rides. It was a great year where I finally started to manage a good work-life balance.”
From Campervan To Catamaran
Michelle and Wes did RV life for about three years. In 2018, one of Wes’ friends, who had a sailboat delivery company, invited him along to sail from France to Croatia — about 3000 nautical miles. Wes was hooked after taking the trip, and the couple decided to trade an RV for sailboat life. They did a lot of research, bought a 42-foot sailing Catamaran, and vowed to continue building the business from the sea.
“We wanted to try something new,” says Schroeder-Gardner. “We had done RV life for about three and a half years, and we thought a life of sailing sounded fun.”
Even though the couple didn’t start their financial independence journey with a traditional FIRE number, they achieved their goal of financial independence in 2018. The pair had enough cash, investments, and passive income to where work was now optional, and could retire early.
Michelle and Wes have done sailboat life since 2018, sailing to Exumas, Eleuthera, Berry Islands, Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic, Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico, Key West, Florida, and Annapolis, Maryland. In 2021, they bought a cabin in Colorado to spend three months on land during Hurricane season, as they now travel with their seven-month old baby. They still live on their sailboat (with their baby) nine months out of the year.
Prioritize Your Boundaries
Up until 2019, Schroeder-Gardner had published income reports, sharing the financials behind her journey and the lessons learned along the way. One thing she did not expect was the extra attention and requests for money sharing her income would bring.
People saw how much money Making Sense of Cents was making and would ask for money frequently. Michelle and Wes also had a scary incident in which someone tracked them down at an RV park and confronted them, asking for money. After that, Schroeder-Gardner decided to stop sharing the specifics of what she was making. She also prioritized optimizing the business to where she could work less.
“I spend ten hours a week working,” she says. “I write posts, make Pinterest graphics, and evaluate affiliate and sponsorship offers. I publish one blog post a week, and my team consists of an editor and my sister as my virtual assistant.” Schroeder-Gardner says her part-time employees each work about ten hours a month, which is mostly spent editing articles, doing social media marketing, monitoring Facebook groups, and providing admin support.
When it comes to Making Sense Of Cents’ income streams, affiliate marketing commissions are 50% of the revenue, 20% comes from course sales, 5% comes from display advertising, and 25% comes from sponsorships. The Schroeder-Gardners’ online income streams have made millions, and they now own a paid-off sailboat valued at $750,000, a paid-off campervan valued at $150,000, and a cabin valued at one million dollars.
Schroeder-Gardner’s Advice to Achieve FIRE
The successful blogger says that, when it comes to FIRE and pursuing financial freedom, it’s important to get clear on your why.
“What’s your reasoning, and what do you envision yourself doing once you reach FIRE?” she says. “Then, figure out how much money you’ll need to get there. See how you can cut back on your budget or make more money. That might include lowering your housing costs, house hacking, cutting back on your monthly food costs, and finding ways to make passive income. You can do this with a plan, hard work, and being consistent.”
Design the lifestyle you want, even if it means continuing to work. You might end up loving it so much you don’t want to retire; that’s the plan for the Schroeder-Gardner family.
“I plan to continue what I’m doing.”