Do you want to make money while you sleep? If you believe the swarms of promoters on TikTok or YouTube, it is easy to make boatloads of passive income through a side hustle. Scrolling social-media feeds, it seems like everyone is making money by renting out property, day-trading, or dropshipping. You’ll start making hundreds or even thousands of dollars a week by taking just a few simple steps, they claim. They rope in followers with screenshots showing sales growing dramatically and the message: “If I did it, so can you!”
With the cost of living soaring, making thousands of dollars in your sleep sounds like a golden ticket to anyone looking for a leg up. Passive income — residual earnings that require a bit of upfront investment but little or no continued work — promises to make this a reality.
And some of the dollar amounts passive-income influencers are touting in their posts are eye-popping. One creator claimed to be making enough money after a couple of months to quit his job and sell digital products on Etsy full time. Another woman claimed to make $1,000 a week with the same strategy. One video on side hustles, with over 15 million views, claimed “making $10,000+ a month is not that hard.”
These financial influencers are drawing in a lot of young people: A recent survey found that 34% of Gen Z consumers obtain financial advice from TikTok and 33% from YouTube, while only 24% of this age group seek advice from financial advisors. The hashtag #passiveincome has 2.3 billion views on TikTok, while #sidehustle has 11.4 billion. But there is a dark side to these side-hustle hucksters: When they flaunt their passive-income-funded lifestyles, they fail to give viewers a full picture of the risks involved in the business, spreading dubious financial advice to millions of people just so they can sell their next e-book or online course.
How to get rich quick
The internet can make things look easier than they are, and many of the creators who brag about the “simple steps” to financial freedom are failing to explain the real challenges of the money-making tactics they promote.
One popular way to accumulate passive income among influencers is to build a mini empire of short-term rental properties that can then be leveraged for profit. But some of these entrepreneurs don’t even own the property they are renting out. In what’s known as Airbnb arbitrage, hosts rent property from a landlord, then turn around and rent the property out to guests on Airbnb. This tactic is cheaper than buying property, while supposedly allowing you to make a significant profit each month. The trouble is influencers are quick to gloss over the challenges of the market, the difficulty in finding a rental property that allows this, and the changing regulatory landscape that could leave you stuck paying rent on a property you can no longer use — not to mention the well-documented negative effects of a proliferation of Airbnbs on the strapped housing market.
Even when the stakes are somewhat lower, passive-income influencers fail to give viewers the full picture. Take dropshipping, another popular money-making scheme among influencers. A hopeful entrepreneur lists a bunch of products — from phone accessories to massagers — on an e-commerce platform like eBay, Depop, or a custom Shopify website. But the dropshippers never actually see or handle the products they sell; instead, they order the product from a wholesale company or manufacturer that ships the products directly to the customer. The dropshipper makes money by pocketing the difference between the wholesale costs of the product and what the buyer pays. They only have to choose the range of products, create a website, and market the product to buyers.
“There was a huge flood to the dropshipping market during the COVID-19 lockdowns,” Daniel Frampton, a financial advisor at Acumen Financial Partnership, told me. “Online order volume was at an all-time high,” Frampton said, and influencers started touting dropshipping “at a buoyant time.” But Frampton explained that most dropshippers quit when the reality of the business hits.
“They realize that the best products have saturated the market, shipments from China can take upwards of 12 weeks, and advertising can cost thousands, with no guarantee of a return on investment,” he said.
Financial influencers are also quick to gloss over the costs that go into maintaining a dropshipping business. Most dropshippers use Shopify, whose basic plan costs $29 a month. According to the business YouTuber Dan Vas, it costs $20 to $50 a year to buy a website domain, around $50 a day to run marketing or Facebook ads, and $10 to $50 a month for website add-ons like reviews and FAQs. If you want to promote your product, even doing it on the cheap, you’re looking at spending at least $1,000 in your first month. Things like product photography and product samples can drive initial costs up further.
Another popular dropshipping method among influencers is selling digital products on sites like Etsy. Using tools like Microsoft Word, Photoshop, or Canva, anyone can create digital products such as printable wall art, planners, or resume templates. Once your products have been created, you simply open a shop on Etsy, upload the digital files, and as people pay to download these templates, the money should, in theory, make itself.
While this method cuts out some of the upfront costs, making money on digital products is still incredibly difficult. All of these markets are saturated with thousands of sellers, and unless you get lucky or invest a lot of money in promoting your products, it’s unlikely you’ll get the sales that will allow you to quit your job and live the passive-income dream .
“Often dropshipping is profitable due to volume of sales on a thin profit margin,” Frampton told me, adding that unless you put down a substantial investment, your profits won’t be worth the time spent creating the product. “The lucky few that have become successful often supplement their income by training others how to get into the dropshipping business.”
The secret way to make money
While the current side hustles themselves may produce uncertain profits, for many influencers the real money is made selling the dream of financial freedom to others. By building an audience and making a little bit of money, these entrepreneurs can then use social media to sell courses that promise to teach people how to get rich through passive income. They can also leverage their platforms by making sponsored posts, advertising for the likes of Squarespace, SoFi, and Credit Karma. And in many cases this road can be much more lucrative than an influencers’ original side hustle. A recent study by the financial-services company CMC Markets found that some of TikTok’s most popular financial influencers were making upward of $1,000 for a one-minute post. With just two sponsored posts per week, the top-five influencers could be pulling in between $275,000 and $750,000 a year, Forbes has reported.
And while these influencers get rich selling the dream of easy money, in most cases the risks associated with the passive-income tactics they promote are hidden or barely referenced.
Videos on the TikTok account @sarafinance, which has 730,000 followers, regularly rack up millions of views, offering advice for “teens who want to get rich.” She’s currently selling a dropshipping business course on her website for $500, and a stock market course for $200, which she promises to show the exact strategy she used to turn $500 into $230,000 in two years. In a tab found at the bottom of her site, there is a disclaimer that reads: “Information provided on the website and in these videos is for general information only and should not be taken as professional advice.” Testimonials from students saying they made $10,000 in their first month include the disclaimer: “Please understand the student results displayed on our site are not typical. We are not implying you’ll duplicate them, or do anything for that matter. The average person who buys any ‘how to’ information gets little to no results.”
Biaheza, another popular creator with 240,000 followers on TikTok and over a million subscribers on YouTube, sells a dropshipping course for $294, notably with no free trial or refund policy. The course promises to show how, at 18 years old, he went from nothing to making $100,000 a month. In tiny text at the bottom of his website, a disclaimer reads: “You recognize and agree that I have made no implications, warranties, promises, suggestions, projections, representations or guarantees whatsoever to you about future sales or results, or that you will earn any money.”
Neither sara finance or Biaheza responded to a request for comment.
While these creators are quick to fall back on disclaimers, the small asides pale in comparison to the eye-popping graphics and enthusiastic sales pitches they use to lure in potential customers. And while these social-media stars promise to share their secrets or impart wisdom to their fans, most influencers don’t have business degrees or other professional credentials. The real trick isn’t building some passive-income empire, it’s making just enough initial cash to sell audiences on a “getting rich is easy” dream.
There are real financial risks for people following the advice of these side-hustle hucksters. A new report by Paxful, which assessed 1,212 posts from personal-finance influencers on TikTok, found that one in seven posts contained misleading advice. Cryptocurrency influencers have recently been under the microscope, offering bad investment advice in exchange for padding their income with referral links, undisclosed ads, and online courses. Airbnb hosts are facing a tougher market as more cities crack down on short-term rentals, charging new fees for operating Airbnbs and cutting back on how many are allowed. While there isn’t hard data available, by some estimates, only 10% of dropshipping businesses succeed.
“No one regulates them. That is my biggest issue, and the consumer doesn’t understand the difference,” Rebecca Robertson, a financial advisor, told me. “There are some influencers who could be giving people a good education to make better financial decisions, but many of them are selling a lifestyle.”
Robertson said that passive-income is a “bit of a fallacy” to begin with. “I don’t believe in anything being passive,” Robertson said. “There is no magic wand to it.”
It should come as no surprise that young people are flocking to get-rich-quick schemes. Inflation is at a 40-year high, the risks of a recession are rising, and the “American dream” seems further out of reach than ever. More than half of millennials and Gen Zers expect to add to their already-high debt loads in the next six months, according to a LendingTree survey. But while dropshipping or selling digital prints on Etsy may earn you some money, achieving financial freedom isn’t a quick online course away. Making money as an entrepreneur takes hard work, skill, and a bit of luck — but that message doesn’t sell as well. What does sell is the new American dream of making money in your sleep — and side-hustle promoters are more than happy to keep selling it.
“Passive income works best when it is consistent, reliable, easy to manage, and low volatility,” Frampton told me. Instead of trying to make money in a cutthroat online marketplace or taking on massive debt to try and build an Airbnb empire, Frampton said most people can get on better financial footing by simply investing in the basics: stocks, bonds, and ETFs. It may not be sexy, but for most people it’s the best way to make money passively.
“The old ways are the best ways,” Frampton said. “This may not be the most cutting-edge and fashionable way to build a passive income, but for the vast majority of people, it could be the most attainable.”
Eve Upton-Clark is a feature writer covering culture and society.