“And Alex here is a professional travel blogger!”
I cringe hearing the words come out of my travel companion’s mouth, and immediately starting looking for an escape route from the moving vehicle I’m currently riding in.
The questions start firing from all directions. So you’re able to support yourself with that? Who pays for that? Yes, I have hobbies too. Knitting is nice. The last one isn’t technically a question, but I do get a lot of “that’s so cute that you think blogging is job!” kind of comments, which bother me a lot less than they used to now that I’m more confident in my career path.
I get it — the idea of earning money blogging is baffling, bizarre, or downright looney tunes to most people. It’s not that I’m opposed to talking about business, it’s just that, well, I’ve been doing it five years and it’s still hard even for me to explain. So basically if I met you on the road in the last half decade and I told you I was a graphic designer, an online translator, a virtual parakeet trainer or some other convoluted lie in attempt to avoid talking about how I make money online, I’m only vaguely sorry.
Well, here’s my 3,000 word attempt at lifting the curtain a bit on how I make blogging work for me. A lot of people have monetized their blogs better and faster than I did, but the only story I can tell is my own.
Read next: Ask Me Anything Blogging Edition
I considered the first and second years of my blog a poorly paid internship with myself – and thankfully I had the hard-earned savings and frugal lifestyle to float it! The audience and influence needs to come before the money will.
In my third and fourth years of blogging I felt like I’d reached the point where I’d built an audience I was proud of and there was a community here that I adored and that trusted me, but I didn’t know how to leverage that in a way to really comfortably support myself. In my fifth year of blogging, I made huge strides in figuring that out.
I feel like I hit a really important moment in blogging that was pretty much luck – my blog reached a peak of audience and engagement right around a time big brands were waking up to the possibilities of working with bloggers. I’m starting to be proactive about pitching brands and being more selective than ever about those than pitch me, and getting every closer to my ultimate goal of working with a highly curated, very small number of sponsors that share my love of travel and storytelling.
How Much I Make
I’m pretty much an open book on most topics, but I still feel a little wary of putting my line item income on the internet (though I admire and respect bloggers who do!), partially because I’m terrified of being audited and partially because money can cause weirdness in real life relationships, but I will tell you that in the past year, on my worst month I grossed a little over $2,000 and in my best month I grossed a little over $8,000. That wouldn’t be a bad paycheck for an employee to take home, though as a business owner I have a lot of expenses to pay off before I can write a check to my most dedicated employee — me!
This past year was a breakout one for me in making money through blogging. While as usual my income varied greatly from month to month, I overall increased my income from year four by 61% and turned a tidy net profit even after paying off my numerous business expenses and taking a splurge-y trip to Brazil.
My income has increased every year since I started blogging (good thing, since I grossed just $5,680 in my fledgling first twelve months!) and I turned net profits in both year three and year five, and expect to do so in year six as well.
Originally I planned to do a breakdown of how I spend my working hours to go along with this post, since interestingly where the bulk of my times goes doesn’t always correspond to where I make the bulk of my money, but I’ve decided that topic is worthy of its own post someday. So stay tuned!
How I Make Money Blogging
It is wild to look back and see how things have changed over half a decade in terms of the pieces that make up this pie chart. For example, a similar chart for my first two years of blogging would have just had three slices: side gigs, paid links and affiliates. It wasn’t until year three that branded content opened up for me, and ambassadorships in year four. And it wasn’t until year five that I smartened up with display ads! It will be interesting to see how this continues to shift over time.
Branded Content: Branded content makes up the bulk of my income. Why would a brand want to advertise on a travel blog? Great bloggers have a hard-earned rapport with their audiences, and there’s a mutual respect, relationship, loyalty and conversation between blogger and reader that doesn’t really exist when someone is flipping through a travel magazine or muting television commercials. The audience reach might be smaller but the level of trust is sky high — something I never forget or take advantage of.
I always disclose branded content, both because the FTC tells me to and because I believe it’s the right thing to do. Here’s what branded content consist of for me:
— Branded Blog Posts: This is content that I write, paid for and brought to you by a sponsor. Ideally it’s a product or service I’ve already been using and loving for years, though sometimes I’m introduced to new brands that I get excited about. Here are some examples of branded content I wrote in the last year with Capital One Venture card, KAYAK, Overnite, and Abbot Global.
— Paid Travel Campaigns: For a lot of people, this is the dream – not just traveling “for free” but also getting paid to do it (personally I don’t consider something I have to work in exchange for to be free, but I know that’s how a lot of casual observers might view unpaid press trips). Sometimes these campaigns are with a destination – like my trip with Visit Florida – and sometimes they are with a hotel brand or chain – like my trip in Thailand with Radisson Blu or my trip to Bermuda with the Hamilton Princess. These trips can be very fun but they are work; there’s definitely no room for spontaneity or sleeping in. You’re there to be a professional and promote the destination. They are not vacations, though they are spectacularly cool business trips.
— App and Product Reviews: I also take on a select number of travel related app and product reviews every year. Here’s an example of a product review and an app review I did this year. This is a relatively small category, making up just 4% of the 38% branded content represents.
— Sponsored Social Media Posts: Because my social media following is kind of the weakest link when it comes to my marketable audiences, standalone social media campaigns or posts that are not part of a larger project are incredibly rare for me. I do have a decent Instagram following and so get a lot of offers for collaborations there, but I’m super picky about what I post on that platform and so haven’t really been bothered with monetizing it.
Ambassadorships: If doing a branded content campaign is going steady, signing an ambassador deal is moving in together. These are long-term, next-level partnerships with brands I really love and really have great relationships with, in which I’m paid a flat annual fee in exchange for embodying the brand. At the moment I work as an ambassador for two brands, Viator and PADI — click the links to read my announcement post for each.
Affiliates: This is one of my favorite income sources because it is passive, meaning I can earn it while I’m sleeping. When I’m writing a post and I include a product or service that I use, I often include an affiliate tracking link to that product. If you buy one, I receive a commission — at no cost to you! Considering I’m pretty much just adding a slightly longer link to a product I would have written about and linked to anyway, it’s low-hassle to both blogger and reader. The amounts I earn per product can be really low, but this blog received over three million pageviews last year — so it does add up.
Display Ads: This was a new category for me this year, and one I’m only beginning to tap the potential of. See the network ads in my sidebar and footer? I make money from those, another amazing source of passive income once they are set up and running. And see the Featured Blogger banners in my sidebar? I earn money from those, too — though they require a not insignificant outlay of time on my and my assistant’s part each month.
Paid Links: Once upon a time, selling SEO backlinks bankrolled many a travel blogger’s lifestyle. Basically, back in ye olden days of blogging, a company would contact you asking to add a link to an old post or to your sidebar or to publish a “guest post” that is hidden on the server of your site but that readers never actually see, with the goal of raising the search engine rankings of the site the paid link was pointing to. While I was never as successful or dependent on paid links as some bloggers were, it was my primary mode of monetization in my early years.
Have no idea what I’m talking about with this one? Me neither, but this is a good place to go to start understanding it. Or don’t bother, because honestly, this income category is risky — it can put you in the hot seat with Google — and also becoming more and more rare due to constant algorithm updates aimed at eradicating it. Many big bloggers pride themselves on no longer selling links, but I admit I occasionally still do. I don’t seek it out anymore and I assume it will naturally fade out over time, which I’m fine with. Google’s major algorithm change that rocked the boat in terms of this being a stable income category was the best thing that ever happened to me — it scared me senseless and forced me to get smart and throw eggs in other baskets pronto.
Side Gigs: Over the past year I continued to shed my side hustles in favor of turning my laser-like focus onto all things Wanderland. I used to spend a lot of time on graphic design projects, freelance writing, and photography work. These days my time is just so consumed by other more profitable ventures that I have let those go in all but the most enticing cases, like when I sold a photo to National Geographic last year! That said, side gigs — especially design and writing — really floated me through the early years when I wasn’t making much in Wanderland, so I’m ever grateful to them.
. . .
There are also a few categories that don’t currently exist in my chart but that I hope will someday.
My Own Products: I have an ebook that I’ve been wanting to publish for years. With WordPress as my witness, I will add this category to the income chart next year!
My Own Trips: Recently, some bloggers have begun running their own tours and trips. I’m not sure that’s the perfect fit for me, but I have started to fantasize about running retreats focused around my passions in some of my favorite destinations. This is very much in the daydream stage.
Speaking Gigs: I’ve recently shared my first forays into public speaking, all of which were unpaid gigs other than having my expenses covered. While it totally terrifies me, I’d love to continue pursuing this as a personal challenge and someday, a potential income source.
How I Spend Money Blogging
You absolutely can start a blog for free, and if you’re doing it as a hobby there’s no reason not to — but you have to spend money to make money and as my income has grown, so too have my expenses. Reinvesting in my business and outsourcing aspects of it that I’m not well suited for have been two major aspects of getting me to where I am today.
So how much do I spend? It varies wildly as some of these are monthly expenses, some are annual, and some are big occasional investments (like a major site redesign or signing up for a course). In general, my business expenses range from the mid three figures to the low four figures per month.
Taxes: Self-employment taxes are brutal.
Travel Expenses: Someone has to pay for the travel that results in the content I produce here, and more often than not, that person is me! I do take the occasional press trip, but as I broke down by the numbers in this post, I turn down the majority of those I’m offered. I’m really passionate about maintaining my independence as a traveler and so this category will always remain high.
Education and Networking: This is a really crucial category and consists of courses, ebooks, and attending workshops and conferences. I’m lucky that my undergraduate degree in communication design from Pratt included classes in photography, coding, and writing, but I didn’t let my education stop there. I’ve also invested in a continuing education Travel Writing course at New York University, an enrollment in Travel Blog Success (which is on sale now, learn more at the bottom of this post!), and attending various travel shows and conferences. In the past year my expenses were covered as a speaker at the conferences I attended, but prior to that I frequently paid out of pocket to attend both diving and travel conferences.
Developer and Designer Services: I have a developer on call who handles all crisis of coding and an amazing design team who I regularly hire to spruce the place up around here.
Hosting, Domain Name, and Newsletter Services: I register my domain name with Bluehost, who I hosted my site with when I first started out as well — these days, I keep my site on a semi-private server. I also pay a monthly fee for a subscription service to send out weekly newsletters and automatic post emails.
Premium Plugins, Fonts, and Tools: I regularly invest in buying fonts, plugins and tools that help me create graphics, run this site and my social media channels more effectively. Before I invested in a custom site design with the designers listed above, I purchased premium site themes through Elegant Themes.
Data Backup and Equipment Upgrades: Hardware, software, and cloud services. Cameras, camera cleaning, a laptop, laptop repairs, lens upgrades, backup hard drives, data backup syncing services… the list goes on and the prices go up. You can find a full outline of my photography and electronics gear on my obsessions page.
Social Media Marketing: At the moment this mainly consists of boosting posts on Facebook, though I’ve also begun experimenting with promoted pins on Pinterest. I have also considered advertising in the sidebar of other prominent blogs like I offer myself with my Featured Blogger program.
Assistants: Currently I employ two part time assistants, my social media manager to whom I pay a flat monthly rate, and an administrative assistant who helps answer business emails and to whom I pay an hourly rate. I was all about outsourcing this year and had three other people I experimented with hiring for temporary administrative, site update, and writing projects.
I actually hope to look for a more full-time personal assistant when I return to Thailand, because it is a place where I can afford to be the best paying employer on the island and printing a document takes approximately 17 hours. I’ll keep you posted!
Management Firm: One of my big shifts this year was to working with a management firm who decided to experiment with representing bloggers. They both handle inquiries I receive and proactively pitch on my behalf, and take a percentage off the top of whatever deals they negotiate on my behalf. As talking money has always made me stammer, it’s been a huge weight off me to hand off the business handling to someone else. I’m excited about the work they’ve found me so far and can’t wait to continue working together going forward.
. . .
And some categories I need to add as soon as possible. All three are on my to-do list to complete by the end of next month:
Health Insurance: As of January 1st, I don’t have it! Considering I spend the bulk of the year out of the country I’m tempted to just get travel insurance and pay the penalty on my taxes, but considering how financially ruinous it would be to fall seriously ill or injured inside the US I should probably invest in at least a basic plan.
Business Registration: Small business licensing, here I come.
Retirement: As I don’t have an employer to set up a 401K for me, I need to take my retirement savings into my own hands.
I get a lot of questions about when I hit certain milestones in blogging, especially in traffic and income. Hence this timeline. A few things to note — while my income has overall steadily increased over the years, it hasn’t been a straight upward path to financial stability. Just because I hit the $3,000 mark in income for the first time doesn’t mean that I made that much the following month (in fact, I made half!) But here’s a little peek at how I got where I am today.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line? I make enough to live the life I want to live. As of this year, I could even support moving back to a modest life in New York if I so wished. It hasn’t been easy to reach this point of relative financial stability and I’m sure my future will toss me many more adventures in staring down a quickly draining bank account at some point, so I’m doing my best to live simplistically and be as financially responsible as I’ve always been.
Read next: Ten Ways I Afford to Travel The World
I’ve traded the stability and safety net of following a more traditional career path for the freedom and adventure of forging my own, and in spite of the wrong turns and the bad business choices and the sleepless nights fretting over funds, overall it has been an amazing experience. I can’t wait to see where the next five years take me.
Any questions? Fire away in the comments!
Ready to Start Earning?
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Click here to receive 35% off all TBS memberships — potentially saving hundreds of dollars — no code needed! Specialty courses like Videography for Travel Bloggers, which I reviewed here, are also discounted. Sale ends Friday at 11:59 PM EST. Please note that I’m a proud affiliate of the program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. See you in the forums!
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