Finance Friday: How We Write About Side Gigs

Good weekend, readers! Today I’m going to talk about side gigs. If you read financial blogs and forums at all, you’ve seen this phrase. The gist of discussion tends to go like this: lower your expenses as you will in order to better your savings rate (or whatever), but at some point you can’t (or won’t) lower any more. At that point, assuming you want a better savings rate or more money for your ferret farm or whatever it is you’re up to, you need to increase your income. Get a side gig–a second job, generally less intensive than the first. But how we frame the concept of side gigs carries class and sex assumptions that need unpacking.

The Gig Economy

In America, we increasingly have a “gig economy” wherein people freelance for work. This has occurred for a couple of reasons.  One, because of lack of choice, and two, because the nature of the work people want to do can necessitate that kind of self-employment. (Plug for universal health care to make self-employment and gig living easier goes here–it would be infinitely easier to be working gig-style or as an entrepreneur if you didn’t have to worry about medical expenses, dammit). The phrase “side gig” can be related to this economic situation. It is not necessarily reflective of broader, more long-lasting trends in America’s employment and economics scene, however. Greater complexities are missing, and their absence is troubling.

Class

One piece that is missing in many discussions of side gigs is that the concept itself assume a middle-class status. It assumes you have a primary gig, the one that pays you reasonably well and likely gives you health benefits, maybe a retirement plan of some kind, paid sick days and the like. It negates the fact that for many people, two jobs was a way of life, with poverty the consequence of missing either. Plenty of people for decades have worked two jobs to make ends meet; neither of those jobs would be side gigs, neither secondary to the other. They’re necessities.

This assumption of middle class status-shades a lot of finance blog writing, including mine, but I want to own it. I know I’m often making that assumption. I fully understand there’s a difference between side gig for added savings and a person working two jobs to put food on the table, and that the latter are often trapped in jobs that don’t come with benefits or decent hours. America loves to point fingers at those people, laying responsibility for their situations to poor choices when the reality is nearly always far more complicated. In any case, while I get why we talk about side gigs (I have a badass one, myself), we need to at least be cognizant that two gigs is the norm for a lot of folks.

Sex

Another issue with the way we conceptualize side gigs is sex. Here are my thoughts, generally malformed and in need of work:

Women chronically earn less than men. The wage gap persists. If we talk about pursuing side gigs as a way of rounding out the primary gig, are we abandoning to some extent the real problem–that primary gigs don’t often pay enough, particularly for women? That there are penalties for time to raise kids, but that putting them in day care can cost the mother’s near-entire salary (which is one reason why moms tend to stay home more than dads–it’s the patriarchy reinforcing financial traditions that then reinforces social ones).

Here’s a fun link, btw: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/upshot/the-gender-pay-gap-is-largely-because-of-motherhood.html

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but there’s something there I can’t yet put my finger on.

So, Anyway

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there is a lot of baggage with the concept of the side gig. It comes with assumptions about class, and I think what I’m leaning towards is that it comes with assumptions of (masculine) gender. What are your thoughts? Should we modify our conversations about side gigs, and if so, how? What are our assumptions and our own baggage in these conversations?

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10 thoughts on “Finance Friday: How We Write About Side Gigs

  1. You articulated many of the thoughts I have on side-gigs that I haven’t been able to find the words for!

    When I was younger, both of my parents worked multiple jobs. That wasn’t side-gigs, that was needing more than one job per adult to pay the bills and raise a house full of wild kids, while trying to give us a leg up.

    I’ve also seen many, many articles on “seemingly lucrative” side gigs like Ub*r or Lyft driving that end up with little profit on behalf of the driver/worker.

    That said, I know women that are creating a valuable income stream while working full time outside the home OR while being a SAHM parent that use sites like Task rabbit and Fiverr and love it.

    So here’s where I land (for now). The big societal problems of income inequality (across class and gender/race) MUST be addressed. That’s a massive topic, so I won’t go deeper here.

    And, we have to be skeptical of “side gigs” – in fact, I’d suggest a re-definition, where side-gig is acknowledged to be a small, rarely profitable endeavor that one spends time on b/c they have the luxury to do so. (My blog – which makes zero income, qualifies, for ex.)

    Finally, we should celebrate those “flexible income streams” separately from side-gigs. (Not sure if that’s the right name.) A flexible income stream provides the worker with choice on how and where to apply their skills, and does so at a fair living wage. Some Customer Service jobs apply; people can do them from home and they occasionally pay well. Some TaskRabbit-type jobs apply; you set your wage and advertise in a cost-effective manner via the platform.

    I’d like to reflect on this more…thank you for the thoughtful post.

    1. I’m so glad this made sense to you, and I really appreciate what your’e saying here. I had a whole paragraph on SAHMs when I was a kid and Tupperware/Avon, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

      I think we get stuck, too, in considering only flexible income streams from sites like TaskRabbit–my whatever we’re calling it is my own business, the second I’ve begun, and is (shockingly–I’m totally floored) doing really well. It’s making me actual money because I don’t owe it to anyone else (ie, Lyft) and it has practically no overhead. It might be a true side gig–it’s a gig-economy type job where I’m selling my time and skills, and it’s secondary to my primary occupation.

      So, in any case, I think you’re right in that we have a language problem, and so many things to consider. Thanks for responding!

  2. Ah. Very interesting. I like your train of thought here. I’ll also own that much of the personal finance conversation come from a narrow perspective. In addition to your excellent points, I’ll add a few of my own on this subject.

    Why is does a “gig” have to be a “side gig?” Isn’t there enough evidence out there to prove that the concept of job security is no longer a good enough reason to have one “main gig.” At my age, I doubt I’ll ever be an “employee” ever again. I prefer to think of my career (and revenue streams) as a spiderweb with threads stretching out in many directions.

    I also would argue that there are worse things than having to pay for your own healthcare coverage and benefits. Is it harder? Yes. It does requires more self-discipline. (Trust me, I’m STILL struggling with paying my own taxes and filling a retirement account.)

    Lastly, promoting “side gigs” as such seems to belittle those of us who make a career out of freelance opportunities. Many throw it around like it’s easy to do. It’s not. And on behalf of all those of us not only working multiple jobs for multiple bosses WHILE constantly looking for new jobs, I invite you “main jobbers” try it and then call it a “side gig.”

    Huh. I had no idea I had so many opinions on this topic. You obviously hit a vein! Geez. I need to take a walk to calm down!

    Great questions. I’d encourage you to explore this one.

    1. Lots of good points! I’m very lucky with my main job, but my husband is like you–a spiderweb of work, all of which is important and valuable both financially and in terms of who he is. So I hear you.

      As for health insurance, if all other so-called First World countries can do it, we can too. Our health system is the most expensive in the world with some of the least-spectacular outcomes, and rarely does a day go by that I don’t see someone using GoFundMe to fill the gap between what their insurance covers and what they need to pay. It just seems ludicrous to me. Our quality of life would be so much better if people didn’t have to worry so much about it, and use the ER when they don’t have it. I agree, it can be done–I’m blessed with employer-sponsored health care, but I’ve got friends who freelance and buy their own. I’m just of the mind that as a society, we can do better.

      Enjoy your walk!

  3. As a Canadian, some of these things don’t apply to me – we have health care, though some provinces need to pay a monthly fee for it (BC is $40 a month I think?). It doesn’t cover prescription drugs, the dentist, the optometrist, private rooms, etc. but there are health coverage plans to help with those that don’t break the bank. I’d love to do a breakdown on the cost vs. benefit of not having insurance vs. having third-party insurance in Canada. Parental leave is also protected, though those laws vary somewhat depending where you live…

    My professional career is a “gig”-based career. We typically work 6- to 8-week contracts with a company, are unemployed for the between time, and work another contract. I’m preparing for contracts that’ll fill 10/12 months for me when I’m more established. A lot of people bow out of the field because of the temperamental nature of contract work though; almost no one knows what they’ll be doing next season, and there’s virtually no job security. A lot of people I work with have a side-income for the down-times… I wonder if that would be a better way to phrase ‘side-gig’s’? The blogs I read though, are very good for acknowledging the inherent privilege in opting for frugality as a means for early retirement / a safety net, as opposed to being force into frugality, which I think too many people are forced to do : /

    I think both the States and Canada have a long way to go in terms of wage equality… but I think it’s going to be an inevitability. It might take a while yet, but I hope to see equality like that in 20 years.

    And you’re completely correct in the fact that there’s a difference between people who are working jobs to put food on the table, and those working jobs so that they can supplement their savings.

    1. I’ve had long convos with my Canadian friends about health care–they marvel at how awful our system is as compared to yours. What you get by virtue of just being Canadian and what rates you pay for what you pay for floors the Americans in the group.

      Thanks for sharing your story–I like “side income” as an option.
      J.

  4. This is so true! I know so many people that work multiple jobs to afford to survive in London and even other parts of the UK. There is a difference between working multiple jobs and ‘Side gigs’ though. Jobs are either freelance work or ones where you have a boss but even with freelance you still have clients which is very similar to having a boss. ‘Side gigs’ generally means you’re getting smaller bits of income from lots of sources.

    I’ve just finished University and I’m currently trying to get a job – but with a potential recession hanging over the UK’s head I feel that these things people refer to as ‘Side Hussles’ or ‘Side Gigs’ could become our only income source.

    I think these income streams are really empowering because it’s income you are in control of, no one can fire you and you are your own boss. So they shouldn’t be belittled by using the word side.

    1. Super good point about the potential for empowerment, tho I suspect Ub*r doesn’t really qualify there, or some of the more mundane and exploitative side gigs.

  5. “If we talk about pursuing side gigs as a way of rounding out the primary gig, are we abandoning to some extent the real problem–that primary gigs don’t often pay enough, particularly for women?”

    This is such a great question. I’m based in DC where women make 86% of what men do based on median annual earnings. This is above the national average but still a very real disparity.

    The wage gap impacts all areas of our financial lives, too. If you’re trying to pay off your student loans like I am, a lower wage means you’ll be paying more in interest for a longer period of time.

    I have a performance review coming up in a month or so and went to a salary negotiation workshop in preparation. Side gigs can provide supplemental income but are NOT a solution to the wage gap.

    1. Thanks, Emily– I’m wondering how much worse it looks when we look at it vs child care costs, too. I think I”m going to set up a survey for another essay, see how child care and women’s earnings correlate.

      The AAUW did some work a few years back on how the wage gap worsens for college-completing women over time. Good for you for attending a salary negotiation workshop. In my field, there are no merit raises–it’s good and bad. We all get the same raise, but we all likely start in different places. That information is kept largely confidential, tho.

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