How to Start a Blog When You Are On a Budget
So you’ve decided to start a blog and become a blogger…a professional blogger. Good for you! It’s a fast-growing community of awesome people who are driven to live life on their own terms. Blogging success stories are shared in every popular media. Bloggers are replacing traditional celebrities in many endorsement deals. These “bloggers” are now known as “digital influencers.” They have the power to make or break upcoming brands with their reviews. They are also teachers, mentors, coaches, and employers. They are the new face of the digital world.
And you want to join the club.
But if you are looking for someone to tell you how to start a blog for free and make money, my friend, it’s not happening. Because professional blogging is a business and no business can be started without at least a token investment.
But worry not. Even if you don’t have the huge budget to invest in the business of professional blogging, it’s fine.
That’s the beauty of most online businesses. You can create a blog easily for as little or as much as you can afford. Really!
You can start a blog today by paying less than $100 a year! Of course, you can scale up when you can afford to do so. No hurry.
In this post, I am sharing the absolute essential tools you need to start your blogging business even if you are on a budget. Remember, these are all things that your business NEEDS, not WANTS.
However, keeping in mind that some of you may be better able to afford paid products, I am also listing some paid products that I truly believe in.
How to Start a Blog on a Budget
Disclaimer: All links prefixed with an asterisk (*) are affiliate links. Any purchase you make by clicking these links will earn me a small commission but will not cost you anything extra. For more details, please read my Disclosure Policy.
If you want to start a blog, the first thing you absolutely need to invest in is a domain name.
What’s a domain? That’s the address of your website. Yes, your blogging business needs a website. Your “blog” will be a component of your website. This will be the place you will direct potential clients to when you meet them. This will be the place search engines will list on their result pages.
Now, look–you can start a free blog on WordPress.com or Blogger. In fact, if you are absolutely new to the blogging world, I encourage you to do just that. Create a free blog and work on it for 30 days. By the end of the month, if you feel you can keep up with the consistent content creation, go ahead and move your blog to a self-hosted site (more about this in the next section).
But, once you come up with a name for your blog, buy that domain right away. Because those things sell like hotcakes. Your chosen name may not be available after 30 days. *Buying your domain name should be priority #1.
Here are some options to buy your domain name:
- GoDaddy: They are one of the most popular domain registrars in the world. GoDaddy’s registration process is simple and takes literally 5 minutes. Additionally, most available domain names come pretty cheaply for the first year. Subsequent years will typically cost a lot more than the first year. This website, malamagotra.com, is registered with GoDaddy until 2020.
- *SiteGround: Another popular domain registrar, *SiteGround is better known for their hosting packages (more on that in a minute). If you buy their hosting package, you can register your domain for free. I cannot talk about their domain registration process because I haven’t done it personally. However, I have gone through their web hosting process and customer services, and trust me, *SiteGround is worth their weight in gold.
- Namecheap: In the last few months, I have seen Namecheap come up in several discussions. Turns out, their offers are truly cheap. You can buy certain domains for as little as 80 cents…a year! Typically the “.com” extensions are costlier (~$10) than the uncommon extensions, such as .website, .ca, etc ($0.8, $1.88, etc). Again, I do not have any personal experience with Namecheap but you can give them a try.
Bonus Tip: Before making the payment, search Google (or Groupon) for valid promo codes to get additional discounts.
Most domain registrars also offer hosting packages for your website files. So, at the time of purchasing your domain name, you can choose to purchase the hosting package from the same company as well.
It may sound reasonable to keep buy the domain name and the hosting package from the same company. However, it’s in your own interest to keep your domain registrar and hosting company separate. This is because if for some reason you decide to change your host company (most likely to be slow site speed or bad customer service), you will most likely want to move your domain too. Then, it’s like setting up your website from the scratch all over again with the new companies. Instead, if you register your domain with one company, you just need to change the name servers (hosting company) details. Here’s a good post that explains why it may be better to go with two separate companies.
Okay, with that out of the way, I recommend *SiteGround as your hosting partner. Their hosting packages are reasonably priced and offer great features. Buy their *StartUp plan, which is targeted at new website owners and is priced at $3.95 per month. But more importantly, their customer service is excellent. And that is important for someone who is just starting out and overwhelmed with 10 other things they have learned. And most likely, they are not tech-savvy either.
As mentioned, almost all domain registrars provide hosting packages. Beside *SiteGround, the following are also popular hosting companies:
Special mention for Squarespace, which is a relatively new kid on the block. Squarespace offers very professional-looking website designs but comes with a subscription fee that is almost priced double of *SiteGround.
Irrespective of which domain registrar and host you choose, make sure you are signing up for these additional services either from your domain registrar or your domain host:
- SSL: Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, is a standard security protocol to ensure that any data transmitted between the server and browser is encrypted for security. In simpler terms, no third-party can intercept and read your data. Let’s not discuss the NSA and the CIA here 😉
Another reason SSL is important for your website is that Google has decided to downrank or eliminate the websites without an SSL certificate from their search result pages. Not showing up on world’s #1 search engine is bound to hurt your business.
- Domain privacy: Check this! Unless you pay to protect your personal information on the web, it’s up for sale and public consumption. Don’t believe me? Search my website on WhoIs. You will find information about my host partner, domain, and website. But you won’t find my address and phone number because I have paid to protect those details. *I suggest you do too!
So, you have your domain name and self-hosting package. It’s time to build your website/blog.
But first, you need to choose a blogging platform (technically a content management system or CMS).
At this point, if you are confused about domain, host, and blogging platform, here is the example I like the best: the host server is the building you want to reside in; the domain name is the unique address of that building; the blogging platform is how you decorate your apartment in that building.
The options are aplenty, but WordPress is one of the most popular blogging platform in the world—around 19,500,000 websites on the entire web use WordPress.
Hosting sites, such as *SiteGround make it really easy for you to install WordPress–in fact, it’s a “one-click installation.” Awesome, right?
At any point, if you get stuck, just chat up one of *SiteGround’s amazing customer care team and they will help you out instantly.
The other common blogging platform you can give a try is Blogger. Google owns this platform. As expected with Google products, a positive user experience is their top priority. Blogger interface is very intuitive and comes with a variety of themes and customization options. Sadly, it is not as robust as a self-hosted WordPress website–as essential for an upcoming or established business.
Squarespace is also a good complete package solution should you choose to go with them.
However, WordPress trumps the aforementioned options because it’s just much more robust than all of them put together. With WordPress, you can select among thousands of free and paid themes and plugins (see next two sections for details).
A theme is a pre-designed visual template for your website. It is what gives your website its unique look.
After you set up your blogging platform (hopefully WordPress), you will see a default theme that comes with every new blog installation.
Now, it’s time to find a free or paid theme that reflects your brand vision and matches your sense of aesthetics.
Here’s the thing: beauty is a trap and themes are nothing but beautification of your website. As a new blogger and website owner, it’s very likely you will spend hours trying to get the “just right” look for your website.
Find a good free theme and focus on building your content repository. That’s all you need to do when you start a new blog.
Here are three free themes that I think can work wonderfully for your new website/blog.
- Sydney: This is a great business theme and looks very professional. It can give any paid theme a run for their money. I gave it a try but found that it requires some time to set it up like their demo page. And time is something a preschooler mom lacks. So, I switched to Total.
- Total: This is the theme I have used for the longest time. Truth be told, there is a lot you can do even with the free version of this theme but right now, my focus is on content building. I am not bothered whether I can create clickable image boxes on my homepage (something the paid version offers). As I grow my blog and start offering products and services, I will need to do that but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
- Elementor: This is not exactly a theme but a page builder that works with most pre-installed themes. It helps you create customized visual layouts for your posts and pages. This plugin can give any professional page builder a run for their money!
Free themes are great but may not give you hundreds of features that a paid theme will. So, if you feel you need a lot more control on your website, go with a paid theme. But remember, the key to staying within budget is to purchase your NEEDS, not WANTS. And you don’t NEED a paid theme until your business has grown to revenue-generating state.
As of September 2019, I am using *Elegant Themes with Divi builder. This combination has allowed me to create a professional-looking website for a fraction of website developer’s hiring cost. I am happy to recommend *Divi to others. It’s a wonderful, clean theme + builder with scores of customization options.
Here are some theme marketplaces and recommended paid themes you can consider:
So, now you have your blog/website almost set up. Now it’s time to add some widgets or plugins as WordPress calls them.
Plugins allow you to add additional features to your website/blog, such as a content calendar, legal disclaimers, email collection form, etc.
Note for this section: Those on platforms other than WordPress, please do your own research to find options. Due to my lack of experience with other platforms, I am unable to suggest a resource of similar authority.
When you start a new blog, it’s natural to get carried away and install any and all plugins that promise to boost your profile and reach. However, the downside of installing too many plugins is that it will slow down your website tremendously. Did you know any website that takes more than 3 seconds to load fully is considered a slow website by the Google Gods?
Here’s a list of just the essentials plugins that will keep your new blog or website in good shape.
- Antispam: Spammers are no longer limited only to your Inbox; they are ready to infest your website too. Most bloggers who start a new website or blog do not know they will be bombarded by spam bots within hours of setting up their blog. These will typically come in the form of incoherent comments on your blog posts. If you are wondering why spam bots are let loose, it’s to leave links on your website, which in turn boosts the owners’ page rank (learn more about SEO techniques, including backlinking, in this post). To block these spammers out, install a free antispam plugin, such as Akismet. From my experience, Akismet is a fantastic antispam plugin that is on point 99.99% of the time.
- SEO: Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is your secret sauce to finding loyal subscribers. People who find you on SEO are more likely to stick around because they came seeking your content intentionally. They are not random visitors from Facebook promotion thread who are interacting just because they have to as part of the promo thread rule. Therefore, do everything you can to boost your SEO (sign up to receive the Boost Your SEO Juice Cheat Sheet). Make SEO your #1 priority–not FB, not Pinterest–SEO is your long-haul partner. Following are your top 3 options:
- Yoast SEO: This is a fantastic and probably the most popular free SEO plugin. It comes with pre-defined text fields, which you need to populate for SEO purposes. Additionally, it offers suggestions on things you can do to make your content more SEO-friendly.
Yoast SEO comes with a paid version too, which allows you to optimize for long-tail keywords, enable redirects if you change your blog or post URL, etc. But really the free version is good enough.
- All-in-one SEO: This is another popular free SEO plugin with features similar to Yoast.
- Squirrly: You guys, I recently installed this plugin and I LOVE IT. It is, by far, the most robust SEO boosting plugin I have come across. It’s jam-packed with additional features, such as weekly website audits and reports, suggested copyright-free images, etc. Do give it a try!
- Yoast SEO: This is a fantastic and probably the most popular free SEO plugin. It comes with pre-defined text fields, which you need to populate for SEO purposes. Additionally, it offers suggestions on things you can do to make your content more SEO-friendly.
- Social sharing: You can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape–that’s social media for a blogger/business owner.
- *Social Warfare: This plugin allows you to customize the share buttons so they are consistent with your brand style and colors. You can also choose from some pre-designed button styles. Plus the cool feature of having a floating set of buttons that moves with your readers’ scroll direction. This ensures your readers don’t need to search for the share buttons if they want to share. I used the free *Social Warfare plugin for about a month before upgrading to the pro version ($29 annually) because it’s just so bloody good! Here’s a look at the features of the pro version over the free version.
- Sumo: Another diamond in the dirt, Sumo also offers a free and a paid plan with features similar to that of *Social Warfare. But Sumo does more. It’s a hybrid between a social sharing plugin (like *Social Warfare) and an email service provider (like *MailerLite). Yes, Sumo allows you to create landing pages and build an email list. The only downside to Sumo is that it slows the website down to a great deal. I have seen a difference of up to 3 seconds full load with and without Sumo. On the internet, 3 seconds is a big deal!
- Jetpack: This plugin is a multi-utility one. With this one plugin, you can add social share buttons, see analytics data, image optimization, additional themes, downtime monitoring, auto-publish to social media, etc. Jetpack is a fantastic starter plugin but you know what they say about the master of all trades…
- Image optimization: Images play an integral role in a website. They not only add visual relief but are meant to complement or supplement the text-based content. However, images can quickly slow your site down and eat into your web space.
The following plugins help reduce the size of image files (compress) on your website, thus saving you web space and speeding up your website. The difference can be up to 70% in most cases.
- WPSmush: A very basic image optimization plugin, WPSmush is a very unobtrusive plugin that goes about doing its job in the background. WPSmush saves you a lot of time by processing the images on a bulk basis, i.e., it optimizes images as you upload them and can even compress several images together in the background while you go about your blogging business. And yes, do not be worried about the loss of image quality because WPSmush compresses but doesn’t compromise (the quality, i.e.).
- ShortPixel: This free plugin offers a free and a paid version. I installed the free version, which allows you to compress 100 images every month. However, at the time of install, I had about 143 images on my website so the plugin stopped processing after it reached the limit of 100. However, three months have since passed and by default, I should have been able to compress 300 more images. But I haven’t been able to compress any additional images. I would like to believe it’s some kind of a glitch with my website because I have heard really great reviews of this plugin.
If you want your readers to contact you, they can either email you or they can submit their query in a contact form. Both these contact details should be included in your Contact, About, Services/Work with Me page(s), etc.
Contact Form 7 is a simple form-based plugin that collects your readers’ Name, Email, and Query/Suggestion.
Remember though that any emails collected through these type of contact forms or emails can NOT be tallied toward your email list. It’s illegal because the reader has shared their email ID to contact you. To join your email list, the readers need to express written interest and intent for doing so.
Therefore, Contact Form 7 allows you to add an acceptance checkbox for any condition, including joining your email list. If you reader checks that box, you can manually add that person to your email list.
Email, Sign up Forms, & Lead Magnets
Your email subscriber list is the biggest asset of your business. It allows you to be in touch with your existing and potential clients and that’s what makes money.
You can use Sumo or Contact Form to collect emails but you cannot email your subscribers using personal email services, such as GMail, Yahoo, and whatever other services are out there. That’s illegal.
For marketing emails, you need to sign up for services created especially for marketing.
The good news is that there are plenty of options to choose from. Some services even provide free services until you reach a certain number of subscribers. Others charge a monthly fee right from the beginning.
For a new blogger on a budget, I highly recommend *MailerLite.
So, what I am saying is, even if you are on a budget, don’t sign up with Mailchimp. Or do it, but at your own risk. There are many bloggers who use Mailchimp and seem happy using it but I do NOT recommend them.
- *MailerLite: After the Mailchimp debacle, I found *MailerLite. It offered a free account but up to 1,000 subscribers. I thought to myself, “Well, 1,000 is a big number. Even though I am losing out on 1,000 more free subscribers–compared to Mailchimp–I should give this a try.” You guys, from the moment I started using *MailerLite, I wanted to cry tears of happiness. It was soooooooooooo easy to use and I could create pretty opt-ins. But more importantly, *MailerLite was offering the automation feature even for a free account (at that time, Mailchimp automation was a paid service). Automation helps create a process that sends out prewritten emails to all new subscribers, or to subscribers who complete a certain task and sets of the “trigger.” *MailerLite also allows you to create beautiful landing pages and sign up forms and most features that paid services offer. For all new bloggers and future business owners, I recommend *MailerLite with my eyes closed.
- ConvertKit: This is one of the favorite email services of most bloggers these days. I had the opportunity to use it for two months free of cost because of a promo they were running. I found that the setup process was a little advanced for an absolute beginner but once you are set up, ConvertKit is a breeze. They offer very advanced features, such as tagging your subscribers according to their current place in the blogging journey, or any roadmap for that matter. You can dive deep into getting to know your subscribers with ConvertKit. *MailerLite also provides this “tagging” feature but it’s very limited. The reason I didn’t jump on the ConvertKit bandwagon was that I wasn’t ready to pay for this service yet. My email list is not very long (300 odd) at the moment and I have open rates in the high 40s. I think I can live with *MailerLite for several more months. When the time comes, I will have to decide whether I want to upgrade to *MailerLite’s paid plan or switch completely to ConvertKit.
- *Interact: I spoke about using Contact Form to collect email IDs but also mentioned that you need to have a special checkbox to ensure people who contact you also want to join your email list. The other way to collect subscribers is offering your readers a free resource–known as a lead magnet–and asking them for their email IDs in exchange. Typically, you would create a short PDF document with exclusive tips or a cheat sheet as your lead magnet. But another fantastic and more engaging way to collect emails is to have them take a quiz. The quiz is tied to an actionable blog post or list of action items and to see that list, the reader gives you her email ID. If you’d like to create your own quizzes, give *Interact a try. They offer a fantastic quiz builder that is intuitive and easy to use. Their help center is a gold mine to equip you with product tutorials as well as done-for-you quizzes that you simply need to embed on your website.
- Freebie delivery: If you choose to create a digital, downloadable lead magnet, you need a way to deliver it. The easiest way to do this is to upload your free resource on Dropbox or Amazon Web Services (AWS) and then provide the link to the file in your email created on *MailerLite or your chosen service provider. These are all free options you can use when you start a new blog.
The beauty of blogging is that you can create content and graphic for free and sell it for a profit. This is why so many people love the online business–the investment is just a fraction of what a physical product business or even a service requires.
As a blogger, you can write your content directly into your blogging platform’s Authorware. But, if you work from multiple places (home, coffee shop, park, traveling etc.) and need access to your content at all times, Google is always there to rescue you.
Use Google Docs to write your content or create your lead magnet; use Google Slides to create your webinar presentations or more visual lead magnets; use Google Sheets to track your blog growth or expenses; and use Google Forms to survey your readers.
All four resources sync across all your devices and can even be used “offline,” that is when you have no or poor internet connection.
Images not only add to the aesthetics of your website but when used intentionally, they can be fantastic supplementary and/or complementary resources for your blog. However, good images and illustrations come at a cost.
Enter free stock images.
Stock images refer to generic images that are available to the public for free or paid use. Earlier, stock images were usually low quality or were badly composed. But nowadays, you can find very high-quality, professional-style images for free.
To get these images you don’t have to pay (but you can get even better images or a bundle for a few bucks and you own them forever).
I use the following two websites to download fantastic, copyright-free images…for free.
If you want your graphics to be customized and personal, but more importantly free of copyright hassles, consider using your own photos. You could either click your own photos (free, free, free!!) or you could hire someone to do this for you (may get pricey!). YouTube is full of tutorials on how to take your own professional-looking photos.
Once you have source images, you may want to edit those or compose a new image by combining other graphics or text elements to your existing photos. Use Canva for free image editing. Canva offers a lot of features to create or customize your blog graphics or social media graphics. It’s a lot for a free resource. However, if you upgrade to a paid plan or choose a service like PicMonkey (also paid), you get a lot more control to create even better graphics.
Social Media Schedulers
You don’t need schedulers to see your social media grow. It takes a little more time and effort to see growth without the schedulers but social media schedulers are examples of NEED vs. WANT.
I do not use any free or paid schedulers. That is to say, I don’t schedule anything on social media. I put aside 15 minutes every morning to live post on Pinterest, Facebook, StumbleUpon, and Twitter. Then throughout the day, I pin and tweet three more times–each time pinning 3 pins or tweeting three posts of which 1 is my own. That’s it!
Did I forget to tell you that social media is my highest source of traffic, especially Pinterest (57%) and Facebook (36%)? That said, my business goal this year is to optimize my posts fully such that they rank on first of the result pages. Here’s what I am doing to push my rank up.
However, if you would like to schedule (remember you still need to put aside time to schedule too), here are some free or trial options that you can upgrade to paid options.
- Buffer allows free scheduling up to 10 posts per account at any given time
- Tailwind offers free trial up to 100 pins and 30 Instagram posts
- Board Booster offers a free trial for 10 days and up to 500 pins
- Hootsuite offers a free trial for 30 days with all paid features
- Facebook native scheduler
Know that the field you have chosen to be your profession is constantly evolving. As a savvy business owner, you need to be on top of things. You have to be aware of what the latest trends are and what strategies are working.
Lucky for you, bloggers are giving away a lot of information for free in exchange for your email ID (remember lead magnets?) Just keep your eyes open and sign up for the best free courses, weekly podcasts, Facebook groups, and webinars hosted by gurus who have proven results.
Here are a few free courses/resources, which in my opinion are as good as any paid courses in the market.
- Simple Pin podcast by Kate Ahl
- Marie TV by Marie Forleo
- byRegina by Regina Anaejionu
- Start a Mom Blog by Suzi Whitford
- Women Winning Online by Jen Snyder
- Elite Blog Academy by Ruth Soukup
- Email Questions Answered by Kirsten Oliphant – Edit: This group has been archived. But Kirsten runs another group that is also fantastic with a broad subject platter. Join Create If Writing.
Now, you can find all the information online for free but that takes time. Alternatively, invest in quality courses that are affordable and provide a ton of value. I have personally bought these courses and found immense value in them.
- *Blog by Number by Suzi Whitford: This is a great resource for a beginner blogger. The course is packed with information–blog set up, image creation, lead magnet creation, finding subscribers, etc.
- *List by Number by Suzi Whitford: If you want to get serious about building your email list, buy *List by Number. Suzi details the process in great detail. While she bases the content on ConvertKit, the learning can be applied to any email platform.
- *Find Your Tribe Online by Jen Snyder: While Suzi’s course, *Blog by Number, is geared primarily toward a beginner, Jen’s course targets those who are past the set-up stage. *Find Your Tribe Online will help you find and connect with your ideal niche audience. Jen gives you information on hundreds of Pinterest Groups, Facebook Groups, and guest blogging opportunities you can leverage to “find your tribe online.” She even gives you email scripts you can send to the group and blog owners to help you join.
- *Fantastic Freebies by Jen Snyder: You know how important it is to grow your email list. As discussed earlier, offering free lead magnets to your readers in a great way of building your email list. *Fantastic Freebies helps you create high-value lead magnets that have a higher chance of converting. Honestly, you will find an overview of this information in *Blog by Number, *List by Number, as well as *Find Your Tribe Online, but *Fantastic Freebies goes a lot deeper because that’s the focus of the course.
- *Blogging to Win by Allison Lindstrom: This course is an extraordinarily detailed course for bloggers at all levels–beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Yes, this is a tiered course and you get to choose the depth of information you require for your own needs. What sets *Blogging to Win’s apart from Suzi’s and Jen’s courses is that it’s very clearly a course for professional blogging. Blogging to Win Intermediate package starts with articulating your blog vision, goals, business plan, etc. much before diving into blog set up, lead magnets, etc.
- Paid conferences: Good conferences are pricier than most courses but allow you to not only learn from the best but also allow you the opportunity and privilege to meet other bloggers, business owners, and mentors in person. Popular blogging conferences include BlogHer, FinCon, and Mom 2.0.
To recover the cost or to pay for paid options, monetize your blog. Be sure to invest 100% of your earnings back into the business until you start earning an ROI of 100%.
Now you know how to start and run a blog on a budget. There is no denying you will eventually need to start investing in your business to see big number growth, save while and where you can. You can do it!
Okay, I am winded now!
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