It was a little over a year ago that I started considering writing a blog. I’d stumbled across some income reports on Pinterest and fell in love with the idea of working for myself, by myself, on a creative project that was ongoing and would help people. At the time I was deeply unhappy with what I was doing and desperate to find something that would still allow me to stay at home with my kids but make a living wage.
I spent six months reading everything I could about getting started blogging. And one thing was clear; I was going to have to incur startup fees. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere without paying for my own hosting, and that there were a few tools that would make growing a new blog easier.
Now, I am famously frugal. You might even call me cheap. And at the time, I was broke – I quit that job that was making me miserable and my family was down to one income. Things were tight.
Like, keep-you-up-at-night tight.
I knew this was something I really wanted to do… and I also knew I didn’t want to go the cheapest route. The third thing I knew, was I didn’t want to pay for it out of pocket.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you buy from my link I might make a small commission. This does not affect the price you pay. See the full affiliate disclosure here
So I formulated a plan.
The Mission: Start a blog – for free – without skimping on startup costs.
On a side note, if you’re totally new to the idea of starting a blog, you’re probably wondering – if the goal is to start a blog for free, why go with paid options? You can start a blog for free on a number of free blogging sites, like wordpress.com or blogger.
The short answer is, those platforms are fine if all you want to do is write content and maybe have a few people read it here and there. If you just want to share your passion for your favourite band with the world, or keep a diary online, then sure! Go for it. But if you’re looking to blog as a business – or even just hoping to be able to make a couple dollars off of it someday – you need to own your site.
This means you’ll need to pay for web hosting (think of it as renting space on the internet) so that no one is in control of your blog except for you.
When you write on free blogging platforms, the content you create isn’t yours. You can hold copyright, sure, but at any time Blogger or Tumblr or wherever can decide they’re shutting you down and delete it all.
Additionally, most ad networks, affiliate networks, and sponsors won’t work with you unless you own your website. It’s just not professional. This is going to make earning money from your blog really, really hard – if not impossible.
So I knew I needed to pay for hosting.
And then, just to make things harder on myself, I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go with the cheapest options just because they were the cheapest.
A lot of “start a blog” guides like to tell you that you can start blogging for “as little as $X a month”. Technically, that’s true… but also technically, it’s not. The cost DOES work out to a small amount per month, but to get started you have to pay for a year or more upfront. Oof.
Add to that, I’m Canadian, and our exchange rate wasn’t the greatest. So “this small fee per month” actually worked out to about a $400 CAD upfront investment. It wasn’t as cheap as people were saying.
I’m not saying this to rip on other bloggers, I swear. But I’m here to be transparent about my own journey.
Seeing the upfront cost, it was pretty tempting to go with the cheapest option I could find, but after doing some research, I wasn’t convinced it was the best way to start out. I’m not super tech savvy, and I knew I wouldn’t want to deal with switching hosts in a year or two. I wanted to start out with a host that I could stay with as I grew.
Ultimately, I decided to go with Siteground. They weren’t the cheapest, but they were still very affordable. They came highly recommended by bloggers that I trusted, and their live chat customer service person was very patient with all of my questions even though I wasn’t a customer yet. I got an exact quote for how much I needed to come up with and started tracking my efforts. ( It’s been over a year since I started my blog, and I’m still very happy with Siteground – and the customer service chat is still my best friend when I get myself into a mess! )
For the purposes of starting a blog for free, I treated my PayPal like a separate bank account.
My thought process was, if I can earn money that goes directly into my PayPal account, then use that balance to pay for my start up costs, I haven’t taken a penny out of my family’s budget to pay for anything and I’ve started my blog for free. Luckily I already had some favourite resources that I used regularly (and still use!) to earn free PayPal credit.
Survey Junkie has to go on the top of this list because it’s always surprising to me that people haven’t heard of them. Of all the survey sites I’ve tried, this one is my favourite. I’d been a member since way back in 2009, and dusted off my account to see if I still had the points I’d accumulated back then – and I did! I had almost $30 worth of points just sitting there. This was super easy money as I’d already earned it – years ago, in fact. But even if those points hadn’t been in my account, I would have still jumped back in and taken some surveys. Survey Junkie is free to join, quick to earn, and they pay out in PayPal credit in a reasonable amount of time. You can open your Survey Junkie account by clicking here.
Swagbucks is very similar to Survey Junkie in that you earn points taking surveys and get payout in PayPal credit – but Swagbucks has WAY more than surveys. Watching videos, using the search engine, playing live trivia, even cash back on shopping and monthly competitions among members can all earn you points. Swagbucks also has a slew of mobile apps that you can watch videos and answer surveys through, so you can be earning points while waiting in line at the bank, on a long phone call, or just let them run while you clean the house!
I’ve been using Swagbucks since I was a broke college student trying to earn gift cards, so it was the first place I turned to on my mission to start a blog for free. They didn’t disappoint – with the video apps especially, it’s really easy to earn points almost entirely passively. I just let them run while I do something else, checking in every few minutes to see if I need to close an ad or to pick a different playlist. It adds up pretty quickly, so I kept on it every day to keep my momentum going.
My favourite feature on Swagbucks is the bonus points – if you hit a certain goal every day, you get bonus points that go up based on how many days you get in a row! If you get the whole month, then you’ll get the bonus points for hitting your goal each individual day, plus points for a one week, two week, and one month stretch. The bonus points are a super easy way to bump your overall total WAY up, so if you’re consistent on the site, you can really hit a goal fast. Swagbucks accounted for over 30% of my paypal credit by the time I was ready to pay!
Another site similar to Swagbucks, but newer, that I also used is KeepRewarding. They have many of the same offers as Swagbucks, but some different ones too. The site isn’t as streamlined as Swagbucks but they offer higher rewards on some things so it’s definitely worth being on both!
Ebay was really helpful when I was trying to bulk up my paypal account. I knew I didn’t want to mess around with shipping heavy items, as I’m in Canada and can’t compete with the low shipping prices from the U.S. What I did was buy a few packs of game cards – at about $8 a pack – and sell the individual cards for $2 to $18 a pop. You’re not going to get rich doing this, but it was a quick and easy way to make a few extra dollars. And they paid out directly into PayPal, which was a high priority for me! The cards fit in a standard envelope and only took one stamp to ship, so it was as hassle-free as possible.
If you’re in the U.S., Poshmark and Mercari might be similar avenues to destash things you don’t need anymore and bring in a little extra! These two aren’t available in Canada yet, but I’ve heard very good things about them.
If you’ve read my extreme couponing guide, you know I’m a BIG fan of rebate apps. While normally when I cash out my earnings I funnel them back into our grocery budget, while I was working towards starting a blog for free, I squirreled those away instead. Checkout 51 gives you the option to pay out in PayPal credit instead of waiting for a cheque to arrive by mail, so that’s what I did.
Checkout 51 and Caddle both work in the same way: When you buy an item that’s listed on the app, you can scan in your receipt and get rewarded a cash rebate for that item.
Both apps have a cash out minimum of $20, meaning you can’t cash out until you have at least $20 in credit built up – but don’t worry, it adds up fast when you’re checking the new offers every week! I have a friend who is a couponing powerhouse and she receives $50+ from Checkout 51 alone every month.
Caddle often has fewer offers than Checkout 51, but Caddle has a special place in my heart because they offer quick (10-second) surveys you can answer for anywhere from five to twenty cents at a time. These really help build up your account quickly to get you to cashout fast! Caddle is currently only available in Canada, but I’m sure they’ll expand into other countries soon.
Ebates is great, because it functions the same way as my rebate apps above, but instead of grocery shopping, it’s EVERYTHING shopping! You earn cash back from shopping online at almost every major retailer. The best part of Ebates, though, is that it can be almost completely passive. You can install their browser extension that just lives it’s best life as a little button at the top of your browser window, and when you’re checking out from a website they offer cash back on, it will ask you if you want to activate Ebates. No messing around with scanning receipts for redemption – you just click once, and your account will be credited with your cash back.
I came pretty late to the Ebates train, and let me tell you, I regret it. I don’t do a ton of shopping online, but if I had started using Ebates years ago when I first heard of it, I would probably have been able to pay for whatever I wanted (you know, like start a blog for free?!) with JUST my Ebates account. #regret.
You can open your Ebates account here. By signing up using my link, you’ll also get a BONUS $10 cash back added to your account if you make your first $25 or up purchase within 30 days!
The Second Step – Free Versions of Paid Products
I didn’t want this to take forever.
I was eager and excited to get started blogging, and while I knew I wanted to start with quality options (hence choosing Siteground as my host), I also didn’t want to have to wait for any longer than I had to in order to get started. I wanted to buy my hosting as soon as my PayPal account hit that magic number, and get going right away.
In this case, free trials came to the rescue!
All of the reading I had done suggested that Pinterest was about to become my new best friend as a new blogger. And that Tailwind was the single best tool around for automating Pinterest, freeing up a LOT of time each day in order to work on other, bloggier, things.
Luckily, Tailwind offers a generous free trial of up to 100 free pins (scheduled and published to your Pinterest account) and/or 30 free Instagram posts scheduled. There’s no time limit either, so you can use them all up upfront, or take your time and space them out (although if you’re a beginner blogger, I’d recommend stretching them out for a bit so you can get a feel for how Pinterest works manually first!)
Additionally, if you use up all your free trial pins and decide NOT to buy the Tailwind membership, your account doesn’t go to waste – Tailwind Tribes are a forever-free feature that allow you to share your pins with other bloggers in your niche and find pins that will relate well to your audience. I found this to be invaluable as a brand-new blogger, and I still use Tribes on a regular basis.
You can start your own Tailwind free trial (and get started with Tribes as well!) here.
Another thing I wanted to set up right away, but not pay for right away, was a mailing list platform. Luckily, I had a couple of options available to me here.
First, I went with Mailchimp. Mailchimp is an email marketing service that you can start with for free, for up to 2,000 subscribers, and then upgrade to their paid plans for unlimited subscribers and more features.
I didn’t hate Mailchimp, but it wasn’t the right fit for me. I didn’t find it as user-friendly as I was hoping, so I’m currently in the process of making the switch to Mailerlite.
Mailerlite is also free to start, up to 1,000 subscribers. Although I’ll have to upgrade to the paid plan sooner than with Mailchimp, the costs are lower, and they offer a sliding-scale payment based on the number of subscribers you have. I’ll be doing a full post later on about why I switched to Mailerlite!
You can sign up for your free Mailerlite account here!