10 Ways to Make Money at Home

Sound like a matchbook-cover come-on? It's not. Thousands of enterprising women are finding ways to make this dream a reality.

Earning a living while staying home may sound too good to be true. Yet home-based businesses are a growing trend and one that is particularly appealing to mothers with young children. Some women put in as little as ten hours a week, working while their kids are asleep or in school. Others log more hours than a full-time employee-but they decide which hours. As one at-home entrepreneur says, "I don't wear panty hose, waste time commuting, or miss my kids' school activities."

Here, ten of the most popular and lucrative possibilities for making money at home.

1. Consulting

Typical start-up costs: $0 to $500

Potential earnings: $20 to $50 an hour

Anyone with an expertise can become a consultant. Deborah Whittemore worked in the computer business before becoming a mother four years ago. Now she is a home-based computer consultant for a corporation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "They give me as much work as I can handle," she says. By scheduling meetings at times when her husband is home, Whittemore needs very little outside child care.

2. Child Care

Typical start-up costs: $500 to $1,500

Potential earnings: $100 to $150 per child per week

Many mothers find it convenient to care for other children along with their own. Although state laws seldom apply to day care for only one or two kids, it's important to contact the Department of Social Services about local regulations. When Frances Reid began offering day care in her New Windsor, New York, home seven years ago, she received a $500 start-up grant from the state. To obtain state registration, she was required to take a series of "very useful" short courses on such topics as first aid, nutrition, and safety. Because her house was already childproof, it required few modifications.

With four kids of her own, ranging in age from 2 to 9, Reid takes care of only two other children. "We'll never get rich from day care," she acknowledges, "but it allows me to be at home and to create a good environment for my kids."

3. Telecommuting

Typical start-up costs: $0, employer supplies

Potential earnings: Same salary as regular employee

Thanks to computers and fax machines (not to mention telephones), a growing number of women perform their regular salaried jobs at home. Terri Davis, a legal secretary, planned to resign after her first child was born nine years ago. Instead, her boss made her an offer she couldn't refuse: to continue working from home. "I think I work more efficiently at home," Davis says, "despite having a playpen next to my desk."

4. Arts & Crafts

Typical start-up costs: $100 to $1,000

Potential earnings: Varies widely according to the item and quantity produced

Whether they've studied art formally or simply have a knack for crafts, creative women often have an ideal home business at their fingertips. From ceramics to rugs, dolls to needlepoint, jewelry to dried-flower arrangements, handmade objects can be sold at galleries, gift shops, and craft shows. Leanna Leithauser Lesley, of Birmingham, Alabama, works on assignment. Lesley, who has three daughters, began specializing in art for children's rooms when her whimsical painting of animals for a friend's baby produced dozens of requests for similar works. Her fee: $900 for a three-foot-square painting or drawing.

5. Teaching

Typical start-up costs: $0 to $500

Potential earnings: $20 to $50 an hour (more with large classes)

Almost anything you know or do well can be taught to others for a fee. It might be a hobby (tennis, aerobics), a musical instrument (piano, guitar), or a career skill (computers). One Denver mother teaches yoga classes in her basement recreation room for $10 per student per class. Others teach at schools, churches, or community centers in the evening or on Saturdays.

Mothers with teaching backgrounds are often in demand as tutors. Fran Besmer, a mother of six from Kent, Connecticut, spends up to ten hours a week tutoring high-school students who've been suspended. "Working one-on-one with a student makes me feel I'm really making a difference," says Besmer.

6. Cooking & Baking

Typical start-up costs: $500 to $2,000

Potential earnings: $100 to $1,000 a week*

Gifted home cooks have a long tradition of adding to their family income by packaging favorite dishes for sale. Today they find buyers for their jams, salsas, and other specialty items through local markets, mail-order catalogs, and the Internet. Expert bakers often earn money by making cakes for weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions.

A more recent (and profitable) option: meal preparation for busy couples. According to David MacKay, director of the United States Personal Chef Association, more than 3,000 women have become personal chefs since 1992. Lisa Miner, of Laconia, New Hampshire, spends two days a week (while her 5-year-old is in preschool) traveling to different houses, preparing and freezing ten days' worth of customized dinners for her clients, who reheat them as needed. Her fee for a family of four: $385, including the food. Miner spends another day a week shopping, planning menus, and doing paperwork. "I get four full days with my son," she says, "and I earn more than I did as a full-time dental office administrator."

*Regulations concerning cooking at home vary from city to city, so check with your local Department of Health before launching such a business.

7. Sales

Typical start-up costs: $1,000

Potential earnings: Unlimited once business is established

Single mom Lisa Claydon had solid experience and good contacts when she launched her home-based marketing firm in Alexandria, Virginia, six years ago. She now has two employees, who also work from home, and earns more than she did as a salaried employee.

Paula DeVore, a mother of three, began Babyworks, her mail-order firm, with no experience and only a single product--a diaper cover. Now she grosses $400,000 a year selling environmentally sound kids' goods by mail order from her Portland, Oregon, home.

8. Creating New Products

Typical start-up costs: $10,000 to $50,000

Potential earnings: Very little the first year, but unlimited for a line of products that takes off

When enterprising moms can't find suitable products, they don't just complain; they design and produce their own. Paula Vaden, of Black Mountain, North Carolina, got into the manufacturing business when she couldn't find an attractive, practical diaper bag. She designed a line of bags and related products, then arranged for them to be sewn locally and sold nationally through baby stores and catalogs. "I'm still paying off my business loan of $12,000," she admits, "but I enjoy all the hours I spend with my 4-year-old son."

9. Personal Services

Typical start-up costs: $500 to $8,000

Potential earnings: Anywhere from $10 to $50 an hour, depending on the service

As personal chef Lisa Miner discovered, many two-career couples will pay for help with time- and energy-consuming chores such as shopping, party planning, or organizing paperwork. Pet care -- walking, feeding, or boarding pets -- is another service that at-home moms can easily provide.

Debra Cohen, the Hewlett, New York, mother of a 4-year-old, runs a referral service called Home Remedies. Her clients -- homeowners seeking reputable contractors, painters, electricians, and plumbers -- can access her extensive database for free. (Cohen's earnings come from fees and commissions paid by the contractors listed).

10. Clerical Work

Typical start-up costs: $100 to $1,500 (for a computer)

Potential earnings: $7 to $20 an hour

Many small businesses need part-time help with typing, filing, bookkeeping, and similar tasks that almost anyone with a computer can do. Penny Kerkstra, of Allegan, Michigan, began performing secretarial tasks from home when her first child was born nine years ago. Kerkstra found one of her clients when she answered an ad for a part-time secretary, then sold the boss on the advantages of using a home worker (no overhead).

Scam Alert

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) receives more complaints about work-at-home schemes than any other kind. The old scams -- stuffing envelopes, assembling products, selling by mail -- have been joined by more sophisticated computer and Internet schemes.

Ads that promise high income for a few hours' work are usually fraudulent, warn experts at BBB. Beware, too, of any work-at-home offer that requires payment in advance for information. Expensive seminars and training are also suspect, while plans that pay you to recruit others are often illegal. Get all claims and promises (including details on how you'll be paid) in writing, then check with the BBB office in the firm's home city.

Mistakes to Avoid

Sadly, small businesses, whether home-based or not, have a high failure rate. Some classic errors:

  • Inadequate planning. Answer some tough questions before you begin: Is this a temporary source of income or a growing business for the future? How much start-up cash do I need, and where will it come from? How much time and space will the business require? How much help will I need with child care, bookkeeping, and other tasks -- and how much will it cost?
  • Violation of local ordinances. Many home businesses get shut down by authorities because the owners violated zoning laws, had too many visitors, failed to get health and safety inspections, or lacked proper licenses. Ask your city or county clerk about requirements (including sales taxes). Also, find out how to register the name of your business.
  • Poor record keeping. Every business, no matter how tiny, needs complete records of all income, expenses, and customers. The cost of equipment and supplies, plus every stamp, phone call, and car trip in pursuit of earnings, is tax-deductible, as is a portion of your mortgage -- provided you have appropriate records.
  • Unprofessional behavior. Being at home doesn't mean you can relax your professionalism. Some women miss deadlines, get behind on bills, allow children to answer the phone, or fail to demand deposits and signed contracts.
  • Setting prices too low. In their eagerness to acquire customers, many women charge so little that they earn less than minimum wage ($5.15 per hour). Avoid this mistake by researching the cost of similar products and services in your area. For handmade items, set a fair wage for your time, then tack on a profit (typically 50 to 100 percent).
  • Lack of advertising or publicity. Spreading the word about your business doesn't require expensive advertising. An article in a local newspaper can do wonders, as can donating a product or service to a local charity auction.
  • Insufficient insurance. A homeowners' policy seldom covers a home business, so it's crucial to talk to your insurance agent about additional coverage. A rider may be required to insure equipment. If clients or employees come to your house -- or you sell a product that could conceivably lead to a lawsuit -- extra liability insurance is a must.
  • Going it alone. It's hard to succeed in isolation. The Small Business Association (SBA) and other agencies sponsor programs with retired executives who counsel new business owners. The National Association for the Self Employed (800-232-NASE or www.nase.org) offers a variety of services. But the best advice often comes from other women. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Deborah Whittemore organized Business Moms Alliance, a networking and support group that now boasts 30 members.
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