Work is work. Sometimes, it’s something you just have to grind through.
A hobby, on the other hand, is a passion. It’s what you daydream about doing while you’re at your full-time job. These days, so many of us are looking for ways to monetize our passions—so much so that it’s emerged as a new pillar of freedom within the American Dream.
Today I interviewed Caroline Powell, an artistic entrepreneur who runs a very interesting side hustle. Guided by a strong will and some unforgettable money memories, Caroline launched her passion project, Punch Color Studio.
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur and don’t know if you have what it takes, this post is for you. At first glance, it looks complicated, but it’s a whole lot simpler when broken down into smaller parts.
Much like her abstract embroideries, Caroline elegantly stitches seemingly unrelated memories to create an intriguing experience. Using bright and bold stories, Caroline invites us to envision our own entrepreneurial paths, one step at a time.
A Drawer Full of Cash
When she received her first dollar, Caroline recalls, “I was young. Too young to even have money or be handling it. I didn’t really know what to do with it.” Her earliest money memories came from her grandparents.
“My grandparents would give us a little money for Christmas and birthdays,” she remembers, “A little gift here and there.” She didn’t know what to do with her money, so she did the only thing that felt right: to put it in her piggy bank.
Year after year, she fed her piggy bank the money she received from her grandparents. Until one year, she found her piggy bank was completely stuffed. As a school-age child, she began stuffing her money in a drawer in her homework desk.
She still did not know what to do with her money. “I saved it for a long time,” she says, “That’s where I probably formed my spending habits.”
With tons more space, she continued to diligently stuff her homework drawer with her dollars. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until one day her mother discovered her savings while cleaning her room. A stash of small bills overflowed from her drawer.
Caroline giggles as she remembers her mother’s shock. “She was like, ‘WHAT IS ALL OF THAT?’” she says.
“It must have seemed like thousands of dollars because I was young, but it probably wasn’t more than a couple hundred.
So what did she do with all that money? Well, she developed her spending habit.
Want Vs. Need: A Lifelong Meditation
“I spent it all in one go,” Caroline laughs, “I remember asking my dad if I could use the money to buy something that I’ve wanted for a long time.”
What was it she wanted for long? And why was she willing to spend all her money at once?
Since her childhood, Caroline has always asked herself the same two questions before every transaction:
“Do you want it? Do you need it?”
Intentional and necessity-based spending has been a lifelong practice for her. Still, she admits, “I honestly still don’t know if I’ve learned that lesson in my adult years.” With every purchase, Caroline strives to maximize the returns on her expenditures.
After taking her time to think it over, Caroline tells us what she spent her stash on. “I bought myself a Barbie Dreamhouse,” she says, “It was amazing.”
Her excitement was contagious. I couldn’t help but add, “And you don’t regret it.” Her Barbie Dreamhouse brought her years of joy and entertainment.
But what did Caroline’s first save-and-spend adventure teach her? “If there’s something that you want and you have the money for it,” she begins, “You have two options: You can save it, or you can spend it.”
And after experiencing the long-term effects of her dollhouse, she wanted to make sure she only bought things that brought her lasting happiness.
I was amazed by Caroline’s early childhood patience and carefulness. She seemed to have an unlimited stream of grandparent-fueled income for the duration of her childhood. So where did her foresight to save and spend wisely come from?
The Sister Gift Tax: A Lesson Only an Older Sibling Can Teach
I found Caroline’s early instinct to save curious. If I’ve learned anything from these Money Memories interviews, it’s that our financial behaviors are learned—they always come from some pivotal moment. I had to find out what Caroline’s moment was.
I implored her. “It never occurred to you to spend it right away. Somehow, it was modeled to you to just hold onto it and to save it. Have you ever thought about where that came from?” I asked.
A smile flashed across Caroline’s face. “I will say there is another little story,” she says.
She began a story about her sister—then in middle school French—taking an immersion field trip to Quebec. Her sister asked Caroline if she wanted her to bring a gift from her trip.
“I wanted a beanie baby,” she says, “And then she made me give her five dollars for my gifts.”
Caroline laughs reminiscing about how she thought this was how gift-giving was supposed to work. Fortunately, Caroline’s sister did bring her back a beanie baby. Looking back, this transaction didn’t count as a gift. But it did serve as a valuable lesson.
Her sister taught her a worthwhile lesson in capitalist economics. She empathetically explains her sister’s perspective. “There’s a sort of level of stinginess. Like I’m going to spend my money how I want it, but if you want something you have to pay for it.”
So she may have been slightly swindled by her better-knowing sister. And unfortunately, she also had to pay for this experience. But this lesson, paired with her Barbie Dreamhouse memory, laid a solid financial foundation that would later support her artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors.
What Does a Frugal Entrepreneur Buy?
I considered all we talked about so far. A desk stowed full of cash, a prized Barbie house, a slightly extortive sister—how do these memories continue to shape Caroline as an entrepreneur today?
Understanding the impermanent nature of money, Caroline maintains a delicate balance along a line that separates her wants from her needs. In an effort to continually strengthen her spending and saving habits, Caroline is highly intentional of all her purchases.
Her financial attitudes are stoic and disciplined. “Definitely the excess things that I want come last,” she says.
Even with her impressive self-control, she confesses to her love of online window shopping. “I have all of this stuff in my shopping cart. It just sits there,” she admits.
Even when getting caught up in her imagination, she brings herself back to reality. Before pressing the “Buy Now” button, she says, “I need to think: ‘Do I really need to spend $300 on clothes right now?” And this thought process goes for just about everything she wants to purchase.
In addition to disciplined spending, Caroline highlights the importance of rewarding herself with things she truly loves. “I make sure I have enough leftover at the end of the month. If I do, and there is something that I have really been wanting—a lot of times it’s plants. Plants make me happy.”
Caroline seems to have found a perfect balance for herself. Plants as retail therapy? That’s exactly the kind of purchase she was searching for after her Barbie Dreamhouse conclusion— an experience with a low upfront cost and long-term returns on happiness!
However, when it comes time to buy trendy or big-ticket items, she’s extra cautious. She’s accustomed to mulling over her purchases for weeks at a time. “I did buy the AirPods,” she explains, “I had to think about that for almost a week.”
With Caroline, buying anything is an ordeal. No fee, value item, or add-on goes unnoticed. She laughs as she readies herself to tell another story.
How Far I’ll Go For Three Dollars
“Many years ago,” she began, “I needed a new computer. My friend asked, ‘Which Apple store do you want to go to?’” Her friend was dismayed when Caroline said she wanted to go to the Apple store that was farthest away.
“Is it because you have to pay three dollars to park there?” her friend whined. “You’re about to spend over a thousand dollars on a brand new computer, and you’re worried about three dollars for parking!?” Everyone who knows Caroline knows about the lengths she’ll take to be frugal.
“That’s three dollars I could buy a coffee with!” Caroline protests. She’s aware her habits strike most others as an oddity. “It’s silly, I love it,” she says. I love how comfortable she is with herself and I love how protective she is of her time and money.
As she told this story, I couldn’t help but think of my father, a native-born Cuban. It’s this kind of dollar-saving mentality that made it possible for him to move my family from Cuba, to Russia, and to America. It’s a kind of discipline and value for a dollar that compels people to achieve their goals.
And sure enough, this mentality is what made it possible for her to turn her hobby of needle punching into a successful side hustle.
Punching and Hooking It All Together
Caroline fell in love with needle punching in elementary school. It was a meditative activity; she found herself making piece after piece. But there came a point where she had too many embroideries.
When her friends saw her beautiful textiles piling up in her house, they suggested she sell them. It seemed like an easy way to start her own small business; she had a bunch of inventory.
She was playful and humble when I asked her about tips for starting her own business.
“Full disclosure—I might not really know what I’m doing, but something seems to be working,” she laughs. “I don’t have any professional training in how to run a business.” While a little self-dismissive, her business is thriving.
A quick review of Caroline’s website and Etsy shop will attest to that. Her inventory regularly sells out while receiving an overwhelming amount of positive reviews. What’s more, local businesses love her art so much that they hire Caroline to instruct team-building workshops.
When it comes to pursuing your passion, Caroline is nothing short of encouraging:
“When you feel so passionate about something, there’s not really any way to get around it. You kind of just have to see what happens. See where your feet land. Try it. And know that if it doesn’t work out, it’s nothing that you did, because you know that you gave it your all.
Caroline managed to establish her studio while working a demanding full-time job. If you’re reading this and are looking for your sign to start your passion project, here it is. Fortunately, Caroline has some excellent entrepreneurial tips to share.
How To Be an Entrepreneur
Caroline relates the beauty of being an entrepreneur—anyone can do it. You don’t need to follow any particular or traditional business route. All you need is something you love to do and a strong will. And her life is a beautiful example of just that. Let’s go over some of the expectations Caroline has taught us to break.
- You DON’T need to study business or finance to be an entrepreneur. Caroline earned her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in fiber, weaving, and textiles. All she did was let her love for needle punching flourish and that was enough to get her business off the ground.
- You DON’T need to work in your target industry to be an entrepreneur. Caroline worked in several roles across a variety of industries—from clothing and jewelry retail to graphic design to sales. These careers taught her the ins and outs of small business, as well as the inner workings of enterprise corporations.
- You DON’T need to do everything yourself. Even though she loves to track her saving and spending, Caroline doesn’t let it consume her precious time. Instead, she outsources a lot of her technical and administrative tasks with software. Giving up control in areas like these allows Caroline to focus more on what she does best: create amazing art.
- You DO need to have realistic expectations. Caroline says if you want to become an entrepreneur, there’s one thing you need to keep in mind: “When you start a business, you have to understand that within the first year or so, you might not really be making any money.” Be sure to plan your finances accordingly so you’re not eating instant ramen for the rest of the year.
- You DO need to buy smart. Because Caroline is utilitarian about every business expenditure, she urges fellow starting entrepreneurs to only buy what they need. And if you do buy something that’s not a necessity, make sure it is something that maintains its resale value.
- You DO need to be diligent and organized. Organize and automate as many tasks as you can—especially if you’re working a full-time job in addition to running your passion project. Eliminate distractions. Go to bed early, wake up early. Pick up where you left off from the day before.
And there’s a lot more where this came from! If you loved hearing what Caroline had to say, check out her full interview on the Money Memories podcast [insert link here].
If you want to follow Caroline and support her business, head over to her website at punchcolorstudio.com. You can browse her gorgeous selection of handmade punch needle works, buy a beginner punch needle kit, restock on punch needle supplies, or contact her about scheduling an online or in-person workshop!
You can also visit her Etsy shop at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/punchcolorstudio
Don’t forget to follow her on Instagram: @punchcolorstudio.