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20 Businesses You Can Start on the Cheap

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo
Senior Finance Writer

You don't need a ton of cash to get a business up and running. Opportunities abound to become a business owner with less than $500. Here's a look at 20 of them.

Whether you want to be your own boss or just to shore up some extra cash, there are several cheap businesses you can start with little in the way of money. Sure, you may not become the next Facebook or Apple overnight with just a business idea and $500 or less, but there are plenty of opportunities to launch a small business on the cheap.

"The tools and technology available today make it really easy to get a new business up and running quickly and affordably, even with as little as a few hundred dollars," Meghan Stabler, vice president of global product marketing at BigCommerce, told business.com. "It's important to remember that starting a business with little cash does not also mean you jump in recklessly – every  entrepreneur should take a measured approach to selling and invest the time upfront to understand their market and their consumer."

How to find a business to start

Business opportunities abound, even if you only have $500 or less, but before you make the leap, you have to ensure you have a sound business idea. That doesn't mean you need a 20-page business plan, but you should have a passion or interest in the enterprise you're starting. It's the reason so many people become business owners.

You should also do your research about the industry, the market, the potential for growth and the initial investment needed. If you plan to start an online business, Stabler said, you need to find a niche or need in the market and start there. If you try to ride a trend, you'll face a crowded market, and demand for the product could quickly fizzle. It's also important to understand the shopping habits of your customers and what makes them want your products or services over a rival. Finally, Stabler said to know your "four P's" – price, product, placement and promotion.

Now that you know the rules of engagement for taking a small business idea to the next level, here's a list of 20 businesses you can start with an initial investment of $500 or less.

20 businesses you can start with $500 or less

1. Online seller

Whether you want to sell apparel, collectibles, or whatever, you can easily get up and running online on the cheap. Marketplaces like Amazon and eBay will let you sell your products for a cut of the sale, while e-commerce platforms charge you a low monthly fee to hawk products over the internet.

It doesn't take too much money to purchase your initial inventory. You can buy bulk items online or at a local discount store, or tap the inventory you have at home. The idea is to sell the products for more than you purchase them, taking into account any marketplace or e-commerce platform fees.  

2. Virtual educator/trainer

One of the cheapest ways to start a business is to provide your own services if you have a talent or skill. Melissa Schneider, vice president of product marketing at GoDaddy, pointed to a chef in Nashville, Tennessee, who was laid off during the pandemic. He used his love and knowledge of cooking to start offering online cooking classes. The startup cost wasn't too much, amounting to a computer and internet connection.

"He was able to sell his service in a completely different way," Schneider said.

3. Dropshipper

Cash-strapped would-be business owners can start a dropshipping business. With this business model, you build a storefront or use an e-commerce platform, but you don't hold the inventory. The products are shipped directly from the manufacturer after a customer makes a purchase from your online store. To get a store up and running using this method, all you need to pay for is the domain subscription and the fees associated with using an e-commerce or dropshipping platform.

"The beauty of the dropshipping model is you don't have to actually manufacture any products to get started," Stabler said. "Rather, you partner with a manufacturer that makes your products and ships them directly to your customers, freeing you up to focus on the fun part: the marketing and customer experience."

4. Social media marketer

Social media has become a powerful tool to get the word out. If you are social media savvy, there are tons of businesses looking for your expertise to help them develop marketing strategies, set up and post on their social media accounts, and increase their number of followers and thus sales. Knowledge, not money, is the key to getting this low-cost business up and running.

5. Freelance writer or editor

If you have a knack for editing and/or writing, you can turn your expertise into a small business. With the proliferation of online content and social media, there are tons of opportunities to get paid for writing and editing. It takes little money to get up and running, but you will have to prove your worth to clients. [Read related article: 4 Things to Know Before Becoming a Freelance Writer]

6. Sales consultant

Whether you want to sell makeup or cookware, there are many low-cost businesses you can start by selling products for companies. Take the skincare company Rodan + Fields as an example: It costs just $45 to start selling the products. Avon charges you $5, while Beachbody costs $39.95 for the initial investment and then $15 a month.

7. DIY crafts and treats

If the pandemic taught us anything, it's that Americans are resourceful and innovative. Scores of people took advantage of the pandemic by starting businesses selling crafts, food and desserts, and other items that proved popular. The only costs were for materials. Facebook has been a successful place to market these products locally.

8. Lawn care

The equipment is the biggest outlay for starting a lawn care business, and if you start small, you'll only need a lawn mower and leaf blower. Depending on where you live, this might be a seasonal business, but one that can easily expand. Besides the equipment, all you need are flyers and a Facebook page.

9. Pool cleaning and maintenance

Another seasonal business that doesn't require high startup costs is a pool cleaning and maintenance service. You can start small and expand as your customer base grows.

10. Repair service

People are spending more time than ever in their homes and, as a result, are more focused on home improvement projects. If you have skills in this area, it's easy to become a repair person without a lot of capital.

11. Pet sitter/walker

This business costs nothing more than the costs associated with marketing – and you need to have a lot of patience and a love of pets. It's another one of those enterprises that can easily expand with little overhead.

12. Virtual assistant

Business owners need help with everyday tasks, from organizing the books to responding to customer emails. As a virtual assistant, you'll perform all these tasks from the comfort of your home, and you can take on multiple clients. All it takes is a computer and internet connection to start a virtual assistant business.

13. Delivery/errand runner

In the same vein as a dog-walking service, a delivery- or errand-running business doesn't require a lot of upfront cash. You'll just need to print out some flyers, get business cards, and promote your service on social media and other online channels. Demand for errand runners has risen during the pandemic. With people sheltering in place, many of them are hiring others to venture out and run their errands for them.

14. Tutor

Are you a math expert? Do you play an instrument, or have great computer skills? Then you can become a tutor, and all it costs is your knowledge. You can conduct tutoring sessions in person or virtually, charging by the hour or half-hour. Your level of experience and client base will determine how much you can charge for your services.

15. Consultant

Businesses need advice, but not all of them want to hire a full-time employee to get it. That is where consultants come in. Use your background and expertise to find the areas where you would bring the most value. That may be marketing, accounting, engineering, information technology or any other skill set you can find demand for.

If you provide good service at a reasonable cost, your reputation will grow, allowing you to expand your business. To get up and running, you'll need a website or social media presence and the ability to network.

16. Professional organizer

People looking to declutter often turn to a professional organizer for help. Customers pay around $80 to $140 an hour and more than $1,000 for an entire home. The overhead costs to become a professional organizer are very little at the onset: You just have to invest in training and education, create a website, and land your initial customers.

17. Translator

If you are fluent in another language, you can easily launch a translation service. There is demand from the medical, legal, publishing and small business communities for people who can translate information into English. A freelance translation business won't cost you anything in startup expenses and can easily expand as your customer base grows.

18. Mobile public notary

Certain documents require approval from a public notary, including wills, loan paperwork, power of attorney, property deeds and other court papers. A mobile public notary visits clients at their homes or places of business.

Depending on where you live, it can cost $50 to $150 a year to become a public notary. Some states require training courses in addition to those fees. Volume is the key to making money as a public notary: You can charge anywhere from 25 cents to $20 a document.

19. Laundry service

If you have a home washer or dryer or access to a laundromat, you could offer washing, drying, ironing, and pickup and delivery services to people in your community. Before you get started, figure out if you will use your own equipment or bring it to the laundromat. After that, the only costs are detergent and laundry bags or baskets.

20. Cleaning service

Americans are busy, and the last thing many of them want to do at the end of a week is clean their home or apartment. That is where a cleaning service comes in. According to FreshBooks, the average cost to clean a home is $90 to $150, depending on the size of the property. Launching a cleaning service won't break the bank; all you need is a good vacuum, cleaning supplies and a positive attitude.

Image Credit: trumzz / Getty Images
Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo
business.com Staff
See Donna Fuscaldo's Profile
A lifetime New Yorker, I am a veteran finance and business journalist that has contributed to several national media outlets including Forbes, Investopedia, and Bankrate.com. I have spent my career providing consumers and business owners with advice and guidance to help them navigate the world of finance. As a senior finance writer, I report on all aspects of finance from managing cash flow to choosing the best accounting software.