‘Passive’ income requires ‘active’ involvement!

Published: August 1, 2015 at 9:17 am

Last Updated on

After reading well-spun yarn like ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, many start talking about the importance of financial independence and passive income. There is no free lunch in the universe and there is no such thing called ‘passive’ income. A look at some well-known passive income ‘streams’ and what it takes to make them count.

Income from rental property

If you are earning rental income from ancestral property which you naturally inherited (without litigation etc.) then it is sheer luck. It is perhaps passive, but it unplanned. So does not count.

If you have purchased a property in the hope of generating income, would it count as passive?

If the property was purchased with a loan, then until it is closed out, there is nothing passive about the rental income. After the loan is closed, assuming regular tenants are available, the income is passive. So passive that the rental yield after (or before) taxes and adjusted for inflation will steadily remain close to zero.

The real cost of generating such passive income will be felt only years later, when the landlord does not want to sell the property and leave it as an estate to heirs.

Income from talent

You have a special talent (eg. writing, photography, baking) which is not (directly) involved in your day job. Perhaps you can derive an income from it, ‘on the side’? Would it count as passive?

Unless you are a J. K Rowling or an Uderzo, or Stan Lee, you cannot hope to generate continuous income from work done in the past.  Perhaps you might have a large stack of unpublished material which could be gradually monetized. Those are lucky accidents.  Does not count.

You need to work your talent continuously in order to derive regular income.

Income from blogging

Many people start a blog to make money. Which is like putting the cart before the horse. To make money from a blog, one needs to find a suitable niche (popularity is irrelevant. In fact rare niches are better). The blogger must have expertise in that niche(which is often ignored) , must blog frequently, be mindful of search engine optimization techniques, site speed, answer comments etcetera. Most important of all, the blogger must have the enthusiasm to churn out regular content.

Assuming all of the above is a given, there are many ways to generate income from a blog.

Google Adsense Big brother google has an ad program where readers will have to click on the ads for the blogger to generate money. This July,freefincal crossed 1.5L monthly page views(not spectacular, but decent). Suppose only 1% of those readers click on the ads (which typically point to ‘best’ stocks, mutual funds, term plan etc.) and if each click pays about 0.1- 0.25 USD, the monthly earning will be about 150-375 USD or about Rs. 10,000- 24,000.

If you are thinking, ‘that is not bad’, please recognize the effort it takes each month to make that much. If I took a break from blogging for  a month, the income could drop significantly. If you think ‘that is not enough’, imagine the effort it will take to improve earnings. If you are thinking one can earn ‘passive’ income by setting up a website or a blog, think again. It may be possible for some niches and by some people. They are exceptions. but most people would struggle.

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Hosting ads Once your blogs Alexa rank heads close to the 1,00,000 mark, advertisers will request you to host ads for a fee.  I don’t know about the rates (I always say no), but I do know that, they will not renew their contract if the traffic reduces.

Therefore, a site constantly updated with topical content is crucial for ad revenue.  While writing such content, if there is a drop in quality, there could be a drop in readership!

Affiliate links This is the new menace. Affiliate links are everywhere. If not done right, it is a sure shot way to drive away the audience. Manish Chauhan recently learned it the hard way. Very few people can manage to sound professional while earning from affiliate links, which will take quite a bit of effort for such income to be significant. If you think, all you need to do is to write a ‘review’ with an affiliate link is that needs to be done, think again. Very few people can pull that off.

Also, many do not realize that successful website owners or bloggers make a big chunk of money from offline activities. The website only serves for lead generation (more on this later).


Income from financial instruments

I do not wish to discuss avenues like an income ladder (with FDs) or annuities which are used to generate passive income in retirement. That is a deliberate effort on out part to generate income from a corpus.

What about dividends from stocks, is that passive? Not really. You cannot close your eyes on the health of the underlying business. You may need to make tactical calls wrt  those holdings. So don’t think it is all that passive.

Passive income cannot provide you inflation protected income in retirement.

Income from network marketing

I could not believe how many Indian bloggers list this (MLM) as a valid passive income idea.  Recipe for disaster.

Passive income is a misnomer!

Let us face it, there is no such thing as passive income unless we are lucky or extremely talent so that our work will stand the test of time.  Standard ways or generating income are anything but passive. Call it a supplemental income if you will, but let us please not call it passive.

You don’t need passive income!

All I need for financial independence is a large enough nest egg from which I will generate inflation-protected income

If I have to worry about maintaining a passive income source when I financial free, I am not really free!

Yes, we could all use  a supplemental income. It requires effort and I willing to put in that effort to hasten my financial independence. After I am independent,  such supplement income and the effort associated should be optional.

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About the Author M Pattabiraman author of freefincal.comM. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the author and owner of freefincal.com.  He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras since Aug 2006. Pattu” as he is popularly known, has co-authored two print-books, You can be rich too with goal based investing (CNBC TV18) and Gamechanger and seven other free e-books on various topics of money management.  He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India” an organisation to promote unbiased, commission-free investment advice. Pattu publishes unbiased, promotion-free research, analysis and holistic money management advice. Freefincal serves more than one million readers a year (2.5 million page views) with numbers based analysis on topical issues and has more than a 100 free calculators on different aspects of insurance and investment analysis. He conducts free money management sessions for corporates  and associations(see details below). Previous engagements include World Bank, RBI, BHEL, Asian Paints, TamilNadu Investors Association etc. Contact information: freefincal {at} Gmail {dot} com (sponsored posts or paid collaborations will not be entertained)
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  1. Ideas, Taste and Opinion differ

    With all due respect I disagree with the above post. Yes you need to monitor the property or stocks but it takes much less time than your day to day work. I have to spend a maximum of a two to four weeks in the whole year in monitoring the anuual statements or finding a new tenant. The rest of the year I am free. Someone( managing the business in case of stock)/something (in case of the property) else is working for me. So it is obviously passive income. There is always a difference between human capital and Financial capital. In passive income money works for me.

  2. The effort associated with creating significant dividend income cannot be discounted. Can't be built overnight. Once that effort is put it, I agree with what you say, but very few people pull that off.

  3. You are spot on as usual. Many of us confuse supplemental income generating efforts with passive income generating efforts and in the process cause more harm than benefit.

    Thank you for clearly explaining this.

  4. True that nothing is passive. But degree of activity differs. And it depends on how smart you are (talking about niche skills) or how greedy you are (earn much much more than you spend) or your mentality (doing a job with a regular income vs. an irregular income from blogging, dividends etc). There is indeed nothing called free lunch unless you inherit a large sum and put it in a FD.

  5. best passive incomes methods in my perspective are
    1>hostel where each tenant in charged on per head count. location is important.
    2>car parking space. we can smile everytime a new car comes into market or , while you see a benz with a scratch mark. those people will pay anything for a well thought of parking space.

    every thousand rupee earned in a slave who works 24×7 without any complaint until it gives an 100 rs at year end. build an army of 1000s note and learn to live under 10 rs note.

  6. I had attended your session in Bangalore and recent one also with Uma Ji. I got lot of value from it. Thanks , Pattu.
    Now, I would like to share something about passive income which rings so true to me than 2 years ago , when I first read it. I still follow this guy’s blog ( Steve ) and got lot of value. I hope you do too…
    “If your motivation for passive income is escape, you’ll most likely fail. Passive income is fuel to expand what you’re already doing. Trying to add fuel to what you don’t want is a recipe for self-sabotage. You will give up before you get very far.
    if you’re willing to do work you dislike in exchange for pay, you’re going to take that same wonky mindset with you as you pursue passive income. But this mindset isn’t effective. It causes you to hold back, wallow in low standards, do work you feel is undignified, and give much less than your best effort. That isn’t good enough for effective weight training, and it isn’t good enough for generating passive income either… unless you only desire a mere trickle of results.

    Passive income is a side effect of providing passive value.
    Passive income is expansion, not escape. “

  7. There are agricultural income that is almost passive – one great example is cashew nut. Traditionally, you don’t manure it, water it, you don’t pluck it, it falls down for you 🙂 You just need to pick and separate the cashew from the fruit(some active effort) and go sell it. Coffee is another example, but not so great as cashew, you don’t water it, but you do manure it before rains, and prune the leaves, and in Jan/Feb, you pluck it and dry it and sell it off. Not really that passive I agree. But you can manage even if you have another real job. Both doesn’t need active engagement like many other.

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