Need a role model? Here’s one for you: a live wire who’s earning 15 to 20 grand a month in the blogging biz. No, that’s not a typo: in February she netted $15,600.72; in January, $17,979.04; in December (“best month ever in my 29 years on earth!”), $22,284.31. Of course, we’re speaking of Crystal Stemberger, proprietor of Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. She established BFS a scant two years ago and quickly turned it into one of the top personal finance sites in the blogosphere. Meanwhile, she was building a blogging empire that included an agency that brings together advertisers with bloggers whose sites fit their products. By July of 2011, she found herself in a position to quit her day job, and seven months later, in February of this year, her husband Len joined her full-time in running the business.
Let’s hear what she has to say for herself…
FaM: You started Budgeting in the Fun Stuff with the express goal of finding a way to get off the treadmill. Had you thought of the ad agency idea at that time, or did you conceive of monetizing your online enterprises in different ways?
Crystal: Well, the real reason I started Budgeting in the Fun Stuff was because of a post at Get Rich Slowly about a lady who made $1 million off a business and then hired a housekeeper and a lawn service. She got jumped by the readers, who were all over her saying she shouldn’t be hiring domestic help, that it wasn’t frugal, and she had no business spending her money that way. I thought, “It’s her money, and she can use it as she wants!” It really made me mad that people would presume to pass judgement on her choice to use the income she had earned. So, I started Budgeting in the Fun Stuff to show you can and should do what you want with your money, as long as you manage it responsibly.
FaM: It certainly has come a long way from that beginning. Did you have any idea that you could build such a successful business from blogging?
Crystal: When I started, I didn’t have a goal in mind. I didn’t know how much you could make with a blog. But then I started getting offers from advertisers, and I discovered that I really like negotiating. Pretty soon Budgeting in the Fun Stuff was making good money.
FaM: You started Crystal for Hire in April 2011.
Crystal: Yes. That April Bucksome Boomer asked me to manage the advertising on her site. She said she dislikes negotiating and asked if I would do it for her. I said yes, and now Mr. BFS and I have have 325 client sites!
FaM: I’m with her—I hate arguing over fees. Bet that’s true of a lot of writers and bloggers: if we were good at marketing, we wouldn’t be sitting in our garrets trying to make a living with our keyboards.
Crystal: I had no idea how many bloggers are introverts. But when you think about it, it’s so obvious that it’s a big duhh! I was the other way around. I talked all the time; that was one reason why I started Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. My friends and family sort of wanted me to shut up about money.
FaM: It seems like a natural, then, as a business.
Crystal: There are other ad agencies for bloggers. I didn’t know until I started doing this. But they don’t do what we do. Instead of providing just an ad person, we work for both sides: we make it easier for the clients because they don’t have to do anything, since we answer all of the e-mails, and at the same time we simplify things for the advertiser. Advertisers’ representatives don’t want to tell you much when you’re the person running the blog. But when they go through us, they’ll negotiate based on the advertiser’s budget. I like the ones who will tell us what their budgets are.
And since I make more if the client makes more, even though we appear to be working both sides of the aisle, I don’t think it’s a conflict.
Sometimes I know when an ad rep is lying. My favorite is when they forget they’ve been working with Mr. BFS or me and will try to work with me for another site and they’ll lie about, say, what their client will pay. As far as I’m concerned, all my bloggers have Stemberger as a last name, and every one of them is a member of my family. You don’t cheat my family members.
FaM: So what does a typical workday at BFS look like?
Crystal: I usually work from 8:00 or 9:00 to 4:00 or 5:00; then it’s back to work from about 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. On average I put in 12 to 15 hours a day Monday through Thursday. Then on Fridays it’s only 6 to 8 hours, and on weekends, another 6 to 8 hours if I can drag myself away. I never stop working. Even seeing things at the movie reminds me of what to do back here. It’s like having a quiet a baby…can’t imagine having kids…having my mind taken over by something else like this would kill me.
FaM: What were you doing before you made your escape?
Crystal: I was a custom forms programmer at a car dealership software company; I was the one who told who told the computer where to put your name address & all that stuff on the forms that you have printed up during a car deal. Half of it was customer service, and half of it was advanced data entry, and it paid about $35,000 a year.
FaM: When did you realize Mr. BFS could join you in the business? And what was he doing before?
Crystal: We only had that idea about the end of November.
I was getting overwhelmed with 130 or 140 clients. Because I was working 100 hrs a week, I started talking about hiring someone. One day he woke up and said “Could you hire me”? He was a school librarian, so he had the record-keeping experience. He took over the record-keeping and that relieved me of two hours a day, right off the bat. He was doing that after work. When we realized I made $15,000 a month over the previous quarter, we decided it would be worth having him work full-time on the business. Before it took off, we’d only been making $5,000 a month combined from our day jobs.
Now we’re partners. He does the record-keeping and answers clients’ ad e-mails; I do the group ad campaigns and hand-holding. The two aspects of the business reinforce each other. It’s been amazing; it worked much better than I ever imagined. We separated our tasks so we wouldn’t be stepping on each others’ toes—we really don’t even have to talk to each other if we don’t want to.
FaM: How are you planning to deal with Google’s embargo of sites that publish paid links? I understand you recently ran into a rough spot over that.
Crystal: At least 20 of my bigger clients were hit; suddenly their Page Ranks dropped from 4 to 0 or from 3 to 2. It was a difficult time, because it coincided with my grandmother’s passing. This is the first week where things were going along normally. Then our new dog went nuts, but that’s another story.
I think people are overreacting. Not that many advertisers are changing their ways. Because of all the panic and because people tend to succumb to groupthink, I won’t know the consequences of this until the end of April. That will tell us if we hit the $10,000 level. We have to hit $10,000 a month to cover taxes ($3,500), basic savings ($3,000), and our normal expenses ($3,500); we target $15,000 to pay down the mortgage even faster and start saving for a new home.
FaM: Do you think this policy can be challenged effectively? It seems like constraint of commerce…possibly bloggers will get together for a class-action suit someday?
Crystal: No, I don’t think it can be challenged well because it only affects Google Page Rank.
My way of challenging it is to say screw Page Rank; let’s look at other ways to assess sites. I’m pushing MozRank and domain authority, other good metrics. I’ve sold ads on just domain authority alone. You and I have huge domain authority, for example; that can’t be taken away by Google. I want to give Google less credit. Clients with big PageRanks, 3 or 4, will still get the majority of ads, but others will do OK, too. Things will balance out.
FaM: What do you see for the future?
Crystal: I’m going to focus on quality clients. My goal now is not to expand, but to find our core group and stick with that. I started it as a one-on-one thing; I like my customer service and my business model. I think further expansion would take away from that.
Group campaigns are about 10 to 50 people, and I only do a few of those a month. One goal is to teach clients that they must forward the e-mails and letters from advertisers to us. The big money is to be made when people contact you and then we negotiate the best terms. Group deals are just icing.
In our personal lives, we’re already looking at a new house, since prices are so low right now. We can get a 3,500-square-foot house for $180,000! We’re looking for four bedrooms and a big gaming room. Sadly we do not have basements in Houston. Recently we learned that mortgagers don’t want to lend to business entrepreneurs—the “self-employed”—until they can see two entire years of steady income. So if we’re to buy a house before then, we’ll have to pay in cash.
Overall, we’re keeping cash on hand; we could live off our savings for six to nine months. We have $20,000 saved for hard times and $30,000 for the house payoff or for the down payment so far on the new house.
It was time for Crystal to get back to work, so I offered my thanks and let her off the phone.
One thing that our conversation makes clear: quitting the day job is not necessarily a way to work fewer hours. When you’re your own boss, you have the toughest boss in the world. But if you can work smart and you’re willing to work hard, you can make a living in the blogosphere—and then some.
Disclaimer: Crystal serves as Funny about Money’s ad agent.