Being a student can be pretty tough, financially. The stereotype of broke young people living off garbage food, like two minute noodles and leftover pizza foraged from random campus events, exists for a reason. Rents are high, travel is expensive, and there is no hope that the measly $240 from the student living costs loan will cover it all. The allowance isn’t much better. Most of us spend our evenings waiting tables at a hospo job or spend our precious free days working retail. However, a few monetise their creative skills for student side hustles in the hopes that they can earn some cash doing something they find more fulfilling.
Melissa has been teaching dance for four years now. She danced throughout her high school years, and after a short hiatus, realised that she missed dancing and returned to teach the skill. At first, there were just two classes on her roster, but now Melissa teaches five every week. As for scheduling, Melissa says that the dance studio isn’t very flexible; they have set times for each class, and they are all after school hours. She tailors her uni classes to fit around her teaching schedule. Despite the half-hour commute to and from the studio, which cuts into her already hectic schedule, she truly loves teaching dance and watching her students grow. Melissa says she’s “taught some girls since they were really young, and now they’re almost at the age where they’ve finished all the grades. It’s so sweet to watch that progression.”
Melissa also does coloured pencil pet portraits, which has been less of a smooth journey. When she was in year 11, she saved up her pocket money to buy some nice coloured pencils and began to hone her portrait skills – first starting with people, then moving into animal subjects. In her first year of university she began taking commissions, and in the summer of 2019, she ramped up her marketing efforts. An ad on the Facebook page NZ Made Products (now Chooice) during the first lockdown took her business to the next level. Melissa was suddenly booked for months in advance. Melissa works on portraits at home, on campus, or at cafés, and it’s something she can do while catching up on her favourite podcasts. Still, she has learnt to manage her time carefully. Accepting too many projects at once can interfere with her academic deadlines and other responsibilities.
The biggest downside of the portrait gig, Melissa says, is nitpicky customers. She is happy to make changes but says some clients “expect me to be like a photocopier rather than an artist.” She recently had one particularly frustrating customer who decided, after sending a “glowing email about how [the portrait] was looking so good,” that the piece wasn’t up to her standard. She suddenly changed her tune and became very rude, refusing to pay the full price because one of the cats was based on the wrong reference picture (the customer had sent multiple references of each animal and not specified which she preferred). Despite this, Melissa loves the feeling of seeing her customers happy with their artwork. She has received photographs of her art pieces with their real-life counterparts, and heard heartwarming stories of family members crying when they receive the portraits as gifts.
Melissa’s top tip for student side hustlers is to keep a record of all expenses and save all the receipts so that the costs can be deducted at tax time. She also recommends blocking out time in your schedule so that you don’t spend too much time on your side business and fall behind in study.
Ping got her first taste of tutoring when helping her friends in high school and has been doing it ever since. She says that she never made it to the interview round when she applied to the “traditional” student jobs like retail or hospo because she doesn’t have experience, so tutoring was a better fit. Her tutoring schedule is very flexible to work around her study, especially because a lot of her students are online.
Ping, like Melissa, says that watching her students develop over time is one of the most rewarding parts of the job: “My favourite thing is when students go from “oh my gosh, I hate this subject/hate the teacher/I’m here because my parents made me do this” to “wow, I’m not a total disaster at this”. Reflecting on her time tutoring, Ping recounted one of her most entertaining tutoring moments: “My ESOL student in China used English to tell me about what Chinese poems he’s been learning in his Chinese class. The poems were about a guy swooning about his dream girl, and our discussion went on a tangent about ideal partners and how to be a good relationship partner ourselves. Completely unplanned, utterly impressive, and absolutely hilarious.”
Ping says that the most frustrating part of the job is when parents aren’t communicative. Because most of her students are children and young teens, she relies on the parents to relay messages, so a communication roadblock can cause big issues with her students’ learning.
Despite enjoying her tutoring work, Ping says that she wishes someone had told her to look for job openings in the industry you want to get a job in. Otherwise, job applications after graduation are even more difficult. Relevant experience, as well as connections with potential future colleagues, are invaluable in getting a job in a specific field.
I have had a fair few part-time gigs over the years – your basic retail and customer service jobs, dressing up as a princess, mermaid or fairy to host children’s birthday parties (good money, but not many hours), coaching gymnastics (crap money, but good hours), tutoring, taking on commissions for various textile and craft projects (I once made a poop emoji costume for a Halloween party), and making masks, like every other crafter, during the 2020 lockdowns. I was even a mall Christmas elf last holiday season. I’ve made many mistakes in my years as a serial side hustler. I’ve overcommitted myself, pulled multiple consecutive all-nighters to meet deadlines, undercharged for my labour, and barely broke even on projects I spent hours on. However, I’ve learned a ton, and made a decent chunk of money doing it.
My best decision was hiring an accountant (shoutout to Sam from SH Advisory). It’s something I could theoretically do myself, but the small fee is an easy substitute for all the hours it would take me to wade through receipts, calculate deductions, and spend several hours swearing at MYOB. And I get to support a friend’s small business in the process! I also have a diary that I don’t leave the house without, and schedule everything meticulously – with colour-coding for uni, different work deadlines, personal responsibilities, and even blocked-out time to catch up with friends.
I think the stress of side hustling can be worth it. There is some serious satisfaction that comes from watching your business grow and getting all the experience that comes with running a small business, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Sometimes the stability of having the same work hours and the same paycheck every week is more important than flexible timetables. Of course, there’s no reason you have to stick with one path. A couple of hours on the weekend, stacking boxes on shelves (or whatever mundane activity part-time work demands), can give you the extra room in your budget to invest in your side hustle. Maybe you want to spend it on coloured pencils, like Melissa, or mask-making supplies, like me. Or maybe you want to spend it on hotpot with your friends. Uni is hard. You deserve a treat.
Illustration by Sophie Painter