Millennial Money

This 27-year-old American Sign Language interpreter and TikTok creator makes $60,000 a year

How an American Sign Language interpreter & TikTok creator spends his money

This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.

Jon Urquhart's childhood home wasn't typical. It was modified to enhance accessibility for his deafblind father, including a doorbell with flashing lights, a video phone and a TTY, which is a telecommunication device for those who are deaf.

As a small child growing up in Foxborough, Mass., just outside of Boston, Urquhart didn't realize his house was different. "I thought that's just how houses were built. I thought everyone had a deaf parent," he tells CNBC Make It.

But in elementary school, he became more aware of the difference between his home life and others. Urquhart was afraid to invite classmates over because he worried they'd make fun of the modifications in his home. "I didn't want someone coming to my house because kids are bullies," he says. "We're all embarrassed of our parents when we're younger, but my embarrassment stemmed from this feeling of protectiveness." 

Jon Urquhart, 27, lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Urquhart learned American Sign Language, or ASL, as a child, and acted as an interpreter and sighted guide for his father. He realized at a young age that "the world is not fully accessible to everyone."

"I grew up having to advocate and fight for accessibility without even knowing that other kids didn't have to do this," he says.

This experience inspired Urquhart to center his career around ASL. He became a full-time ASL interpreter in 2016 after graduating from Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina.

Jon Urquhart makes $60,000 a year through three streams of income.
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Today, the 27-year-old Boston resident earns about $60,000 a year. In addition to his full-time gig as an ASL interpreter for the state government, which pays about $4,000 a month pre-tax, he also brings in $700 to $1,000 a month through his Patreon business, where he hires deaf professionals to teach ASL classes, and $200 to $300 a month monetizing his content as a TikTok creator.

Urquhart didn't always dream of being a business owner or pursuing side hustles, but "I always had the mindset that I want to be able to provide for my family more than my family could provide for me," he says.

Urquhart currently feels "pretty comfortable" with his income level, he says. "I have enough money to buy food, I have enough money to pay my bills, and I have enough money to keep storing away my savings."

Building a career around American Sign Language 

Urquhart advocates for the deaf community in all aspects of his work, including in his Patreon business providing ASL classes and TikTok side hustle, which was an unexpected source of income for him. 

When he first downloaded TikTok in January, he just wanted "to see what it was like," he says. Most of the other users seemed to post dancing videos, but Urquhart was inspired to take a different approach. He decided to start posting about having a deafblind father.

Jon Urquhart's first TikTok

"I posted, just to test the waters, and it got 12,000 views and 3,000 likes within like three hours," he says of his first TikTok. Today, it has over 219,000 views. "I was like, Wait a minute, people actually like this." 

TikTok did not pay users for their content when Urquhart joined, but he thought there could be a possibility to make money off the app in the future.

His prediction was correct: In July, TikTok announced plans to create a $2 billion TikTok Creator Fund, which provides users with regular payments for posting content on the platform. Urquhart met the requirements for the program, and as a result, is able to make $200 to $300 a month from the app, based on his content views. 

Urquhart currently has about 263,000 followers on TikTok, and despite the drama surrounding the app, he hopes to continue to grow his TikTok platform.

Jon Urquhart earns $200 to $300 a month from his TikTok.
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The extra cash is not the most rewarding part of TikTok for Urquhart — instead, it's the messages he receives from his followers and viewers saying how his content helped them or inspired them, he says.

"I expose my followers to American Sign Language, deaf culture, my background, growing up with a deaf parent — things that the typical person wouldn't know about unless they watched my videos," he says.

Urquhart also started a petition to urge TikTok to include automated captions to make the platform more accessible for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have auditory processing disorders, he says. The petition currently has over 9,000 signatures.

If I wasn't doing interpreting or anything with American Sign Language, I would feel a little part of me was missing, because that is a part of my background, who I am, how I grew up.
Jon Urquhart
American Sign Language interpreter

Going forward, Urquhart hopes to continue to keep ASL at the center of his career. "If I wasn't doing interpreting or anything with American Sign Language, I would feel a little part of me was missing," he says, "because that is a part of my background, who I am, how I grew up."

Jon Urquhart has over 263,000 followers on TikTok as of September 2020.
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How Urquhart learned the value of money

Growing up, Urquhart's family "didn't have a lot of money," he says. His mother worked as a crossing guard and his father was an engineer, but, "he didn't make much money because a lot of people think, Oh, a deaf and blind engineer. How useful is that?" Urquhart says.

As a result, the family faced a number of financial challenges. They relied on government assistance for food. "We lived on food stamps," he says. "We'd get about $350 a month for me, my mom, my dad and my brother. That's $350 for food for four people."

Growing up, Jon Urquhart and his family relied on food stamps, and at an early age, he learned the importance of saving.
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Watching his parents struggle with money inspired Urquhart to start saving when he was just 8. He put any money he came by in his piggy bank, he says. Throughout his childhood, he often used those savings to buy back-to-school clothes and supplies for himself, since his parents were unable to afford it. He was paying his own cell phone bill in middle school. 

At 12, Urquhart started working random jobs to make extra money. His first job was occasionally helping out his uncle, who was a landscaper. He'd earn $100 a day. "With that $100, I thought I was Mr. Moneybags," he says. In high school, he worked for a local fashion designer, cleaning and sweeping floors.

"I had to really learn how to save my money to make sure that I could support myself and also try and be a kid while doing it," he says.

How he budgets his money

Urquhart and his fiance, Scott, live together in a one-bedroom apartment in Boston. They split the cost of rent and utilities, and "it's lovely," Urquhart says. "The best thing about dating anybody is that everything is 50% off."

Here's a look at how Urquhart spent his money in September 2020. 

Jon Urquhart's estimated monthly spending as of September 2020.
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  • Savings: $1,884
  • Housing: $965 (his share of the rent, including heat and hot water)
  • Business expenses: $810 (covers marketing expenses for his Patreon ASL teaching business and pay for his employees)
  • Insurance: $236 (include health, vision, dental and car)
  • Transportation: $155 (includes his monthly T-Pass, gas and tolls)
  • Food: $130 for groceries ($80) and dining out ($50)
  • Phone: $92
  • Utilities: $84 (covers his share for cable, Wi-Fi and electricity)
  • Subscriptions: $56 (includes Netflix, Hulu, Spotify family, Disney+, Wow Presents and Rolling Stone Magazine)
  • Miscellaneous: $44 (includes laundry and union dues)

Urquhart is able to save about $1,884 each month: He puts $1,500 into his savings account and $384 into his 401(k). As of September 2020, he had about $17,000 in his savings account. "Saving money has always been something fun for me," he says. "I've always loved seeing my bank account grow. And I'm very fortunate that I'm able to do that."

He is also prioritizing paying off debt. He recently paid off $5,000 in credit card debt and has $19,110 remaining in student loan debt. He graduated with around $25,000 in student loans, but felt "so fortunate" in comparison to friends who graduated with "hundreds of thousands" of dollars owed, he says. 

Normally, Urquhart puts $300 a month toward his student loans, but those payments have been deferred through the end of the year due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

Jon Urquhart and his fiance, Scott, are planning their wedding, which was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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The Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted how much Urquhart earns and spends. Before, he traveled frequently for freelance gigs, which earned him an extra $2,000 a month. But these opportunities have halted amid the pandemic. As a result, he's cut down on daily expenses like coffee.

Urquhart received a $1,200 stimulus check in April and was able to get work done on his car that he had been "putting off" due to cost.

The pandemic also shifted Urquhart's wedding plans. He and Scott have been together for four years and engaged for one. "We were planning a wedding, but the whole pandemic threw a wrench in that," he says. "That's on hold for now."

Future goals

In building his Patreon business, Urquhart found he loves being an entrepreneur and hopes to eventually work for himself full-time. 

Currently, he is studying to become a real estate agent and one day hopes to "start investing in real estate to build some passive income for myself," he says.

"I want to be able to not only make money but also pocket away money for the future, because I want to be able to provide for my family."

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