Make more money as a subject matter expert

I spend a lot of time working. I have my day job, first of all. I also have a demanding side hustle in addition to writing here. I've spent most of my working life like this. I like working and learning something new, but the main reason I seek employment is because making more money gives me choices. I can pay off debt, save for home improvement projects or add to our retirement accounts.

As I get older, though, time is more precious to me. Plus, I no longer live in a maintenance-free apartment as a single gal. Now, I have a house to take care of and a great husband to spend time with. And my spare time is getting ready to vanish for years, because within the next three months, our kids come home.

So instead of chasing after every money-making opportunity, I need to make sure I am making enough money to make it – whatever it is – worthwhile. (I realize this should be obvious, but I like learning new things so much that sometimes I forget that earning $4 an hour is not worth it when I have so many other things I need to do.)

I spent a lot of time being the jack-of-all-trades, but when I realized I was a subject matter expert – and I could make money at it! – it was time to focus on the benefits of being a specialist. And it worked. In 2012, my subject matter expert side gig contributed 36 percent of my total income. (Just to compare, my 2011 side income was 20 percent of my total income.) Way more than my previous experience of cleaning houses, selling produce, or writing a column for a tiny newspaper.

You know what? I bet you're in a similar situation, an expert who could leverage his or her experience to command a higher income, too.

But how? Well, obviously, every scenario is different, and I don't know how everyone can make money as subject matter experts in every area of expertise. I did, however, come up with a few ways applicable to most professions. Maybe you can find one that will work for you.

  1. Find “needs” in your field. My brother-in-law owns a spray foam insulation business. After working for a few years in his industry, he recognized a need for a new tool and hired a machinist to make one. He has shipped this tool all over the world, and it provides a nice side income for his family. Not everyone will invent a new tool, but every industry could be run more efficiently. And if you have experience, you know what is lacking.
  2. Teaching. Of course you can teach at a college, whether it's credit classes or the noncredit, fun classes (like knitting and basket weaving). But here's a fresh spin: teaching classes to business owners, classes that will pay off in increased revenue for their companies. The previously mentioned brother-in-law just paid a lot of money for a class that gave him a certification that made him more marketable. I bet the instructor made a lot more money teaching that class than teaching college credit courses, because not just anyone can teach a class on spray foam insulation.
  3. Exams. Many careers require passing an exam at some point. Maybe it's the GRE before graduate school, or the CPA exam, or nursing boards. Can you leverage your expertise to create study materials for prospective students? Can you tutor them? Most organizations that create the tests desperately want test questions written by subject matter experts. And same thing for the companies that create the study materials for these tests. I am trying to recruit a certain type of expert and few people fit. Still fewer are interested, because they have demanding jobs already. And yet, I still need experts to help turn out a superior product.
  4. Re-certification/continuing education. Even after the exams are passed, some careers require continuing education. I am one of 300,000 people in the U.S. who is required to complete 12 continuing education credits each year at a cost of approximately $120. That's a lot of money being made by experts. Can you tap into an opportunity like this in your own field?
  5. Editing/reviewing books. Maybe you're not a writer, but you don't have to be. You can review materials for subject matter accuracy. Someone “checked his jugular for a pulse” in a book I read recently. Not that it matters much, but the pulse is checked from the carotid artery, as it can't be felt from the jugular vein. A medical professional would have caught that inaccuracy. Reviewing textbooks, in my experience, doesn't pay well, but it can open doors for other, better-paying opportunities.
  6. Homeschool curricula. Can you write materials for homeschoolers? Because we're going to be homeschooling our kids until they are more comfortable with English, I've been researching homeschool curricula, and let me tell you, options abound. Someone has to write that stuff. Why not you?

One day, I was quizzing a colleague about his successful textbook. “Was it worth it financially?” I asked. He graciously responded to my nosiness with, “The book sells well, but it's bigger than that. This book opens doors for me.”

He described speaking engagements, opportunities to serve on boards, invitations to contribute to various professional organizations, all because he wrote a book. Each activity raised the perception of his “expert” status, which in turn, sold more books and got him another book deal.

And that, in my opinion, is the value of leveraging your expertise. Acknowledging (and using) your area of expertise is like pushing a snowball down a hill. As you're recognized as an expert, more and more opportunities will come a-knockin'. Soon your snowball gets bigger and bigger, growing without as much effort from you. And I'm guessing the bigger snowball comes with a bigger paycheck.

More about...Career, Side Hustles

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Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
7 years ago

I am hunting for a side right now. I am hunting for my special talent or skill but I am having trouble finding anything and may end up working at a fast food joint.

I know I must be good at something but I don’t know what it is. My goal is to earn 10% of my income this year with my side and put all of it on my debt.

Do you want fries with that?

Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
7 years ago

Jane – what are you passionate about? Often times the things that you enjoy and the things you are good at coincide. Do you like to crochet? Are you great with children? Do you play an instrument?

All of these “hobbies” can be turned into income if you think creatively.

Good Luck!

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

I’d considered adjunct teaching in the past (but it pays pennies and can be rather unfulfilling…), but hadn’t ever considered teaching classes to business owners. That’s definitely interesting and worth thinking about.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

The colleges and universities in my area offer one day professional development workshops and are often looking for people with certain expertise to teach them. The pay is good and it’s a small time commitment compared to teaching a whole course.

I’m not sure if it’s the same in the U.S., but these workshops are offered through the “continuing education” or “professional development” departments. Might be a good place to start 🙂

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

It’s nice to see a post advocating people leverage their expertise to earn a decent wage! It drives me crazy when PF blogs advocate in one post people should negotiate their salaries to get what they’re worth and then in another post suggest people chase really low paying freelance gigs. I think we need to ask ourselves “is this really worth it?” Sometimes the answer has less to do with money than other goals like experience and networking. Sometimes the opportunities aren’t worth it and there are better things we could be doing. IMHO, being mindful about good value when… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

Small side gigs ($100-$500) come my way on a semi-regular basis without me having to hustle because of my expertise. My colleagues who do hustle often get 10K kinds of consulting or expert witness jobs. Leveraging expertise is definitely a way to money.

This is a great article on a book by Cal Newport about the benefits of specialization: http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/10/cal-newports-so-good-they-cant-ignore.html

Derek
Derek
7 years ago

Great post Lisa. I enjoy my Personal Finance side hustle. It is proving to be lucrative; plus, it’s fun! Great write-up.

AMW
AMW
7 years ago

I own a business (a custom bakery) and started teaching as an off shoot of that and did that as as side gig for 6 years. Then I realized that the teaching was a better leverage of my hours for dollars, my energy, and it gave me a better life balance. I am now in the process of slowly replacing production with teaching and hope to phase out the bakery part of my income within the next two years.

Divyesh Dave
Divyesh Dave
7 years ago

This article has many good points. Being in IT, I have my own blog and frequently use it for marketing purposes. My expertise is in a specialized field which adds value to my blog

Erika
Erika
7 years ago

I’m a freelance writer, and one of the companies I work with frequently hires subject matter experts (SMEs, we call them “smees”) for me to interview about healthcare and pharma issues. I’m sure they make upwards of $100/hour. If you’ve got good knowledge, finding the right match for you as an SME could be a great gig.

CandiO
CandiO
7 years ago
Reply to  Erika

Oh like tell me more, some of us healthcare SMEs would love to know how to get into that!

Crystal
Crystal
7 years ago

Great point! I’ve also realized that being seen as an expert in a certain field will lead to way more opportunities for me than being a jack of all trades. My side hustles that make the most have something to do with blogging now. Babysitting and petsitting are way on the back burner…

adult student
adult student
7 years ago

This is funny because it just shows me how much academics often don’t follow that advice. 1) Teaching is the lowest compensated part of the job – people who only teach, i.e. adjuncts and instructors, often don’t make a living wage, or make half or less compare to what tenure track professors make. “Research” is the thing that gets you paid a decent salary, so teaching is undervalued in the market: many people either care about it deeply and sacrifice potential for greater pay or advancement in order to spend extra hours preparing, advising, and otherwise being a great teacher,… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago
Reply to  adult student

I always get paid to review and edit books. Usually only $300-$500, but it still isn’t nothing.

Beth
Beth
7 years ago
Reply to  adult student

About #1 – I think Lisa made the important distinction that it’s teachers to business owners who make the serious money. Academics, not so much. My husband has contemplated teaching at a university (not full-time, but maybe one class a semester), but it’s really not worth it, money-wise, except to say “I did it.”

Barbara
Barbara
7 years ago

I agree with CandiO that I’d love to hear more SME especially for RNs. I’ve long considered reviewing or abstracting professional textbooks as proof reading is a large part of my current job but haven’t made the serious effort that I need to.

Bridget
Bridget
7 years ago

This is so true. You have to make sure your information is getting out there so people will see it. When people constantly see your work, the more people will follow you.

Darnell Jackson
Darnell Jackson
7 years ago

Excellent practical tips I have to add this page to my favorites.

One of the best techniques I have found is to share experiences with people as they develop.

If you are a painter show the the results of your latest projects, eventually people’s interest grow as they see what you are doing and think about what you could do for them.

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

I’ve been on the expert track my whole life. So most of what’s written here seems kind of natural to me.

But becoming an expert isn’t easy. I had to pay my dues accruing a couple of advanced degrees. But at the end of all that dues paying I’ve got a job that pays well and that I enjoy working at.

Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate
Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate
7 years ago

Thanks for the info! I have been thinking about tutoring for a while now and you’ve provided me with some much needed motivation!

As a graduate student, you can earn money by demonstrating in undergrad lab sessions, marking exam questions, exam invigilating, reviewing and marking coursework and being experimented on!

Paul
Paul
7 years ago

My current full-time position is as an SME. It’s not my job title, but I am almost always introduced to clients/customers as an SME. In my previous position, my employer did not take advantage of my knowledge and I hated my job. I started looking for a new job within 3-4 months of starting. About 5 months into my job search, I found my current position. When I read the job description, my first thoughts were that the company was looking for me, or someone very much like me. My military background gave me some very unique qualifications and experiences,… Read more »

Will
Will
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul

You mentioned subject matter expert and having been in the military. I was just wandering what I could do with my experience and skills from the military. I was in human resources, executive support officer and military equal opportunity officer. Currently in law enforcement as an investigator.

Mike Collins
Mike Collins
7 years ago

Depending on your field and the company you work for, there may be certifications that you can earn which will automatically boost your salary by a couple of percentage points. Even better is when your company will reimburse you for the training materials, study guides, and exam fees required to earn the certification.

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
7 years ago

About 4 years ago, within a couple of weeks of joining LinkedIn, a $2500 SME opportunity came my way through a connection with an ex sorority sister of mine. It was pretty awesome for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that’s about how much my pay had been cut through the furlough we were having at my main job at the time!

Kelly@Financial-Lessons
7 years ago

Good ideas! Creating exam study guides, materials or offering tutoring for people who will be taking an exam to further their career is a really good idea. I feel like this would be beneficial for someone to lend their expertise and help others, and I’m sure there is a big market for these types of things.

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
7 years ago

Your chances of “building a name” are far better when you’re a specialist. People are much more apt to refer you to someone else when you solve a specific problem for them. When I had a truck, I became known as someone willing to help when people move.

It’s a different conversation, of course, how long those “friendships” last. But there’s no doubt that specializing in a specific solution builds references and reputation much faster than just being a jack (or jill) of all trades…

Marie
Marie
7 years ago

As an editor, I cringe to see you suggest that random people try to edit books. Publishing companies have a list of vetted professionals for fact checking, so if you truly are an expert, contact them to obtain a freelance position. For the sake of the written word, please don’t just start shilling yourself as an expert to any author you meet.

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
7 years ago
Reply to  Marie

You’re right: Random people shouldn’t be writing. But I am talking about experts here.
But anyway, thanks for sharing a publishing perspective.

Timothy Mobley
Timothy Mobley
7 years ago

Without a doubt everyone can use their skills/knowledge creatively to earn some extra side income. The question is how readily available are these opportunities.

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
7 years ago
Reply to  Timothy Mobley

My argument is that there are more opportunities (or, more lucrative opportunities) for people who are subject matter experts. Their experience is valuable and isn’t a common commodity. (See Paul’s comment above.)

tony
tony
7 years ago

I like what I read and agree with it but how do u become a subject matter expert

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
7 years ago
Reply to  tony

Working in a field for years is the easiest way. Then you really know the needs of the customers, employers, and employees. That knowledge can help you see more opportunities.

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