I think of this as a "how to keep yourself afloat while you look for opportunities" article. It's not a get-rich-quick story. For that, go here--or else check out my colleague Jeff Haden's recent article.

Maybe you're a recent college graduate (congrats!), or you've been laid off (sorry!). Maybe you simply don't like your job, and you want to make a fast switch. Or else, maybe you're okay today--but you want a little bit of reassurance that if things ever fall apart completely, you'll survive financially.

As it happens, the strategy we'll discuss below is mainly about the same key issue from my two free e-books--The Big Free Book of Success and How to Raise Successful Kids--which you can download here and here. (I hope you will!)

TL:DR: The strategy is based on exploiting the gig economy to give you a "lifeboat career" while you restructure your life to do whatever it is you really want to do professionally. I used a version of this about a decade ago when I was making a career change, although I think it's probably simpler to implement now.

Most importantly, it works--and it means never having to take a crappy, full-time job working for someone else, just because you need a little bit of money. There are a few things to keep in mind before we examine it:

  1. The goal is to make $40,000 to $50,000 a year. That's roughly the median U.S. household income. It's intended to keep you afloat and give you breathing room, not to maintain a long-term, luxurious lifestyle. Of course, many people will be able to stretch the ideas here and make considerably more.
  2. It can't be allowed to dominate your life. I hope that while you're following this, you'll be looking for a "real" opportunity. To do that, you need time. So it's important that you not have to spend all your time working to paddle your "lifeboat."
  3. It's not designed to avoid all work. This isn't a "passive income" strategy. You do need to put in hours. Fortunately, they're flexible, and you can control how many hours, based on your income needs. There are also benefits to having to work, as it will make your job-searching and opportunity testing activities seem like parts of a larger project.
  4. It has to start giving you cash immediately. There are a lot of ways to make a lot more than $40,000 a year on a part-time effort--but they take more time. Just to rattle off a few: you could drop ship, build up a big affiliate empire; heck, you could write for a great place like Inc.com. However, we're not talking about those, because the goal here is to get cash in your pocket immediately.

With that said, let's explore how you can use the gig economy to make enough money to live, while not "living your whole life just to work." You'll adapt the ideas below to your skills, interests, and needs, but you can use this as a start. Also, maybe you have other constructive suggestions that would be helpful to people in a similar situation. Please suggest them in the comments below.

I calculate you could pretty easily make about $40,000 (at least) with the following gig economy strategy, while freeing a majority of your hours for the pursuit of the "real opportunities" you hope to find.

1. AirBnb

We'll start here because it's not quite obvious. Do you live in a place where people ever want to visit? If so, can you find a way to rent out some portion of your living space on AirBnb or similar sites?

This isn't without costs or time commitment, but it can be like found money if you're eager. At a minimum, by sectioning off a small bedroom in your living space, and providing access to a clean, equipped bathroom, you can likely charge at least $75 a night in most metro areas; often much more. (I'm not including this in the revenue calculation below, but this blog about being an AirBnb host in Atlanta is worth reading; the writer claims to gross $2,276 per month.)

Revenue calculation: Let's call this $7,800 annually, assuming you charge $75 per night, and you have guests on average, two nights per week.

2. Uber & Lyft

Truthfully, I could almost have just written a five-word article here: "Drive for Uber or Lyft." However, we want variety, and once again, we don't want any part of this to overwhelm your life. So, check out the ride-sharing services.

Take this seriously, and sources suggest you can net about $19 per hour. (I recommend this blog: I Drive With Uber, which breaks down the experiences of an aspiring actor who drives for Uber in Los Angeles.) You'll need access to a fairly late model, four-door car--but there are even ways around that.

Yes, this job might put a cramp in your weekend plans (Friday and Saturday nights are often big earning opportunities), but it also means you're not working some dead-end, part-time job during the week, when you should be networking, interviewing, and pursing big opportunities.

Revenue calculation: $19,760 (20 hours per week at $19 per hour).

3. Postmates/TaskRabbit/Zaarly

Maybe you don't have a car. Maybe you don't want to drive. But maybe you've got a bike, or you can navigate public transportation. Hey, maybe you have a special skill, like being able to put IKEA furniture together quickly, or being able to walk five dogs at the same time.

Regardless, chances are you can start getting gigs pretty quickly on one of these physical services sites (we'll cover virtual services below).

Revenue calculation: $6,240, assuming two two-hour jobs per week, plus a total of two hours commuting, at a $30 hourly rate. You'd probably do more of this if Uber and Lyft aren't for you.

4. Craigslist/Ebay arbitrage

This was one of my specialties a decade ago. The key here is simply to find undervalued assets on sites like Craigslist or Ebay--or sometimes at physical yard sales and the like--and then buy and resell them (usually right back on Craigslist and eBay). It's easier than you might think, because sellers often don't care what they get for an item (they just want it gone), or because they don't use appealing photos or good marketing copy.

My biggest personal coup? Buying an old Volvo for $500 in cash, driving it all over Washington, D.C. for a year, and then selling it for almost $2,000. Also, here's a 14-year-old girl who cleared $500 a month with this strategy (remember, she's in school full-time), and saved enough to buy her parents a house.

Revenue calculation: $7,800 (three items per week at $50 average profit per item).

5. Freelancing

None of the previous opportunities require any special skills (well, maybe assembling furniture). But chances are you do have special skills and abilities, and you can very likely pick up consulting and freelance work. Here, we're talking opportunities from Fiverr on the low end to higher-priced places like HourlyNerd.

The key here is never to devalue what you know and understand. Got a business degree and experience in marketing? Can you build and maintain a WordPress website? You'll make money. Heck, are you a recent college graduate who can guide a graying GenXer through how to use Snapchat? You'll make money.

Revenue calculation: This will vary considerably based on your skills and time commitment. But it doesn't matter, because even without including it, we've already broken the $40,000 barrier--$41,600 to be exact.

So there you go: A fairly simply way to earn about $40,000. Will you have to hustle? Yes. Will you have to put in the time? Of course. It's not all the money in the world, but it's certainly better than nothing--and more than a lot of people in this country make at full-time jobs.

Even while pursuing several of the strategies on this list at the same time, you should be able to keep your total lifeboat career work time below 30 hours per week. For most of this, you won't waste time on commuting, either. Just make sure you spend a lot of the rest of your time pursuing your ultimate goals.

What do you think? I'd like to hear from you in the comments, especially if you have other constructive ideas to share.

Published on: May 26, 2016
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.