This 33-year-old mom makes $760,000 a year in passive income—and lives on a sailboat: 'I work just 10 hours a week'

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner quit her job in 2013 to work on her blog Making Sense of Cents full-time.
Photo: Sydney Hampton Photography

When I created my money and lifestyle blog Making Sense of Cents in 2011, I had no idea what I was doing.

I was a 22-year-old financial analyst making $40,000 a year and struggling to pay off my student loans. But my debt was actually a large part of why I started blogging — I wanted to track and share the progress of my financial goals.

Eleven years later, Making Sense has grown beyond my wildest dreams. Over the last five years, I've grossed an average of $760,000 per year in passive income by providing advice on how to start investing, which financial products to use, and how to tackle other money decisions.

My husband and I have reached financial independence, and we've saved enough to retire whenever we want. This has allowed me to live my ideal lifestyle: I work just 10 hours a week and travel full-time on our sailboat. I am regularly out snorkeling, exploring and hiking.

Best of all, we have plenty of time to spend with our six-month-old daughter.

Michelle's passive income allows her and her family to live and travel full-time on their sailboat, where they have limited access to internet.
Photo: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

How I started my financial blog

Making Sense began as a hobby, but about six months into writing, my friend connected me with a company that wanted me to write a sponsored post for them. They paid me $100 to reach my 50,000 monthly site visitors.

After that, I started studying other bloggers who made money off their blogs. I posted more frequently and set up display advertisements on my website. I also continued writing sponsored posts by reaching out to brands that I saw other bloggers working with.

In just two years, I was earning around $5,000 to $10,000 per month — more than what I was making at my day job. Once I fully paid off my student loans in 2013, I decided to quit my job and blog full-time.

For the first few years, I focused on the blogging element of my business and published new posts almost every day. I posted guest articles on my friends' blogs, too.

Then I doubled down on my social media presence. Now I have 110,000 followers on Facebook, where I post multiple times a day, and 161,000 followers on Pinterest, where I post about twice a week. I also have over 130,000 email subscribers.

Over the years, I've leveraged my audience to create several passive income streams. And in 2016, I launched my first blogging course. Today, I write and publish blogs just once or twice a week, and I have earned over $4,000,000 gross revenue in the last five years.

Working only 10 hours per week has allowed Michelle to spend more time in nature with her family.
Photo: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

How I make $760,000 a year in passive income

Making passive income from a blog doesn't mean that you never have to work. You are always going to have to manage the accounting side of your business, maintain your website, and create fresh content. But you can do a lot of work upfront and earn money for years with little maintenance.

I have three main passive income drivers: affiliate marketing, course sales and display advertising.

Affiliate marketing commissions make up about 50% of my revenue. I'm paid when I direct traffic or sales to partner brands through links on my blog — including on posts that were created months or years ago and are still discoverable via Google, my social media channels, and my blog.

About 20% of my revenue comes from course sales. I have two blogging courses that I sell to my blog audience and email subscribers: Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing and Making Sense of Sponsored Posts.

I created my first course on Teachable and did all of the planning, writing and recording work. I commissioned the graphic design elements to freelancers.

I sell Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing for $197 and Making Sense of Sponsored Posts for $159, both cost much less than what my competitors charge. Nonetheless, I have earned over $1,000,000 over the years from these two courses.

I also make passive income through display advertising commissions through Adthrive. I'm paid when readers see or click an auto-generated ad on my blog.

My top tips for earning passive income

I'm always trying to increase my passive income. On top of blogging, my husband and I invest in both individual stocks and investment accounts to add our retirement fund.

Since I live and travel on a sailboat, there's not always reliable internet. So without passive income drivers, my family and I wouldn't be able to enjoy this wonderful nomadic lifestyle.

Michelle and her husband travel full-time on their sailboat with their daughter.
Photo: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Here are my top tips for creating content that can help you earn passive income:

1. Write like you talk.

On Making Sense, I discuss financial topics using language that's easy to read and understand. People walk away feeling like they've learned something instead of feeling patronized or confused. This makes them more likely to return or to share my blog with their friends.

Make sure your social media language is engaging and personable, too. A good trick is to write as if you're casually talking to a friend over coffee.

2. Diversify your income streams.

Affiliate marketing, display advertising and digital product sales are some of your best bets for making passive income.

Diversifying your income streams allows you to not be reliant on just one way of making money or just one of your traffic sources. Instead, you will have balanced income streams to mitigate risk.

3. Post consistently.

While your old blogs can earn you income for years down the line, it's still a good idea to keep generating fresh content. This helps you attract new readers or followers while also maintaining your loyal ones (who don't want to see the same stuff over and over).

4. Be as helpful as possible.

The goal is to make people want to come back to your blog. You want them to trust you enough to buy a course or affiliated product that you recommended.

Ask readers what they want to read more of or what questions they have. Conduct your own research on what's trending for fresh ideas. Include actionable tips that they can use right away. And lastly, only promote and sell products that you personally believe in.

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner is the founder of Making Sense of Cents, where she helps readers make smart decisions about how to earn, save, spend and invest. She paid off nearly $40,000 in student loan debt in just seven months and now travels full-time with her family on sailboat. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.

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