When I worked in management consulting, one of my responsibilities was to help my company figure out ways to make money while we slept. As a consulting business, our revenue stream came from selling the hours of the people who worked at our company. But to grow our margins, we knew we had to scale our time. This is where I first learned about passive income — the Holy Grail of the business world.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I think a lot about how to direct my active streams of income into passive income opportunities. Here are some things I’ve learned about active and passive income in my wealth-building journey.
What Is Active Income?
Active income is earned by trading your time for money. Most people at the beginning of their careers are focused solely on earning active income to make a living.
What Is Passive Income?
Passive income is earned from income-producing assets. Someone who has passive income is not trading their time for money. Instead, the assets they own produce income without much involvement from the owner of the asset.
With the rise of financial influencers and the FIRE movement, finding ways to earn passive income has become a popular topic in the personal finance community.
Is Any Income Truly ‘Passive’?
The idea of earning truly passive income sounds amazing, right? But what’s often not discussed about passive income is that unless you inherit passive income-producing assets, creating passive income streams actually requires a substantial amount of active work.
Famous American entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk has gone as far as to say that truly passive income doesn’t exist outside of passive public market investing and rental income.
I tend to agree with Gary that the term ‘passive’ income is something of a misnomer. Creating passive income is never truly passive; there is no free lunch when it comes to financial mobility!
But thinking of income in active and passive terms might nonetheless have some benefits for those who are assessing their current financial status and crafting their wealth-building strategy. For that reason, I’ll break down the broad differences between active and passive income streams, as well as the most prominent ways to generate active or passive income.
Pros & Cons of Active Income
- Allows you to develop a specific skill or expertise consistently
- May provide social interaction and camaraderie associated with a traditional worksite
- Trades time for money
- Takes time away from doing other things
- Cannot scale income potential beyond time constraints
- Can be taxed at high rates
Pros & Cons of Passive Income
- Generates money while sleeping, vacationing, etc.
- Frees up more time for recreational activities
- Subject to potential tax deductions
- Scales income potential beyond time constraints
- Does not require physical presence at a work site
- Often requires you to create active income first
- Usually harder to create than active income
Types of Active Income
Salary and Wages
The most basic and obvious form of active income is the salary that you earn from a typical job. A salary is a fixed amount received for working a regular schedule like 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. While a salary is a consistent form of active income, it can be taken away at a moment’s notice due to layoffs or downsizing. Most people earn their living from this type of income.
Bonuses and Commissions
Bonuses and commissions are other forms of active income. This type of income is not fixed and can vary dramatically based on the type of work performed. Many jobs can have a bonus or commission element added to a base salary, while other jobs can be 100% commission based.
Real estate agents, commercial real estate sales professionals, and other types of salespeople tend to fall into this income category. 100% commission-based jobs tend to have higher earning potential compared to salaried positions. However, they are also highly competitive, and their profitability is subject to ups and downs based on the economy, seasonality, and other factors.
Consulting and Freelancing
Freelancing and consulting fees are other types of active income that can either make up 100% of one’s income or serve as a side hustle. Those with valuable skills in high demand are often able to build side businesses, selling their time for specific short-term projects or long-term contracts. As of August 2021, there are 57 million freelancers working in the U.S., with 10 million more considering freelancing.
Looking ahead, more and more businesses are noting they’re willing to hire freelancers to support their mission, growth, and revenue.
Being a freelancer or consultant requires an entrepreneurial spirit, as this type of work can be very inconsistent and requires building a strong brand/reputation. Some of the most popular types of freelance work include graphic design, software development, copywriting, and photography.
Equity compensation is a type of bonus that is given out at public or private companies to senior individuals or particularly valuable employees. Different types of equity compensation include straight shares, stock options, and Restricted Stock Units (RSUs).
It’s not uncommon for equity compensation to make up most of an individual’s income. For example, in 2020, 85% of an average CEO’s income was stock-related compensation.
Buying and selling certain types of assets, like stocks and real estate, can generate capital gains if the asset’s sale price was higher than its original purchase price. For example, you might buy shares in a company while its stock price is low and then sell those shares later after the stock’s price has increased. The difference between the price you paid and the price you sold at is a capital gain.
Generating capital gains as a means of consistent income requires a significant amount of work, expertise, and risk-taking. Capital gains also have different tax treatments depending on how and when they are generated.
Renting Out Property
Listing your property on sites like Airbnb can help you earn active income. While listing your property for rent may not require a significant investment of time and energy upfront, it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it income source.
Actively managing your listings, communicating with renters, and maintaining your property certainly requires active effort (unless you have a property manager).
Old Goods and Furniture Flipping
I’ve seen lots of people recently on TikTok and Instagram building side businesses by taking old or broken furniture, refurbishing it, and selling it for a profit. If you are handy and have an eye for design, this can be a great way of making active income given the low startup costs.
In addition to making money from selling the furniture, after you’ve built an audience you can sign brand partners and feature their products on your social media pages to generate even more income. Lastly, this type of business is a great way to help recycle old products that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Types of Passive Income
Interest and Dividends
Interest from your savings can be generated from high-yield savings accounts or by investing in CDs or bonds.
Dividends are paid to the shareholders of public companies. Not all companies pay dividends and the amount of dividends paid varies significantly. While earning dividends is passive income, choosing the right investments that generate dividends is a very active and time-consuming process.
In my experience, those looking to earn dividends can typically expect returns of 1–5%.
You can earn passive income from real estate by investing in rental properties, commercial real estate, public real estate investment trusts, or real estate crowdfunding platforms. Income-generating real estate can also provide landlords with tax benefits by deducting depreciation costs, property management expenses, insurance, and other expenses.
But there’s always an active element of real estate investing, no matter what type of real estate you invest in. This includes property management, dealing with tenants, managing relationships with lenders or investors, ensuring upkeep, or simply picking the right real estate projects to invest in. Some forms of real estate investing can become so time consuming that many personal finance experts question if real estate investing can be considered passive at all.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Lending
Peer-to-peer lending has attracted investors looking for an alternative to persistently low interest rates on savings accounts and bond yields. With P2P loans, investors make unsecured personal loans to others and can earn high returns.
While P2P lending has exploded in popularity (check out our review of Prosper), these investments are very risky. The loans are often not secured against collateral, are not FDIC insured, and money invested in P2P lending can be difficult to access in times of economic stress.
Digital Product, Online Course, or Community Development
Creating digital products, courses, or online communities can be one of the best ways to earn passive income if you can package your skills and knowledge and sell it to a group of customers. In today’s digital age, the costs of creating a course, digital product, or community have never been lower, and all you really need is a computer and some creativity.
While there are lots of instances of everyday people earning millions on their digital products, don’t forget that getting to that point likely required a lot of work. Keeping these types of products relevant and up to date after launch also requires time, effort, and attention, not to mention having to market your product and keep up community engagement.
If you are interested in starting something like this up, platforms like Thinkific, Teachable, and Patreon are all options to explore.
YouTube/TikTok Ad Revenue
I became fascinated by the prospect of earning money on YouTube after coming across financial influencer Graham Stephan. Earning money on YouTube or Tik Tok generally comes down to building your channel’s audience and monetizing content through ads or affiliate marketing links. Once your presence meets a critical mass, every video you create has the potential to become an income-generating asset.
On the surface, making money on YouTube seems amazing, but again, it takes a lot of work and dedication to get there. For example, Graham has mentioned having to post videos at least three times a week for several years to get traction. And it often takes audiences of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers to earn any money.
But there’s lots of potential to earn sizable passive income from YouTube after you build an audience. The average YouTuber can make $3 to $5 per 1,000 video views and the top YouTubers can make millions annually.
Passive income can be a great way to earn more while working a regular 9 to 5, or it could fully replace your current stream(s) of active income entirely.
When it comes to building real wealth, however, the discussion around active vs. passive income is more nuanced.
According to a five-year study of 233 wealthy individuals, a common thread between them was that self-made millionaires generated income from multiple sources. 65% of them had three streams of income, 45% had four streams of income, and 29% had five or more streams of income.
These figures suggest that when it comes to building wealth, it’s not just a question of prioritizing passive vs. active income. Rather, it’s about generating multiple streams of income and scaling your time.
Personally, I have four streams of income:
- The income I make from my 9 to 5
- Investment capital gains
- Freelancing work
You can leave it to your own creativity and aspirations to find what constellation of passive and active income streams works best for you. But remember, whether you are looking to create passive or active income, there is no free lunch, and any source of income that ultimately becomes passive will likely start as a highly active pursuit.