This 31-year-old earns $120,000 a year from his TikTok side hustle
This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
Jay Wey is a man of many talents. The 31-year-old is not only a former point guard who played professional basketball in Taiwan, but also a successful start-up founder working to build his company's U.S. business.
Most people, however, are likely to know him from his time spent moonlighting as a content creator on TikTok — a hobby that has built him a loyal audience of more than 1.7 million followers in just over a year.
Wey considers himself an entrepreneur first and foremost, but his social media success pays the bills. He has landed a number of lucrative brand partnerships that earn him and his wife Sharon, who makes cameos in his videos, around $120,000 per year.
Wey's TikTok account took off last year after he created a series of videos poking fun at himself and his frugality. He's used to being called cheap by his friends and has taken to wearing it as a badge of honor.
"There's negativity around the word 'cheap'," he tells CNBC Make It. "But 'cheap' to me has always meant [being] smart with your money and not buying things that are unnecessary."
"I've never been one to buy name-brand stuff. Whatever works, just works," he adds. "I'm not willing to spend a premium for just a logo."
Wey isn't taking a salary from his company. Instead, he receives compensation in the form of equity. And because his start-up pays for his health care and Tesla payments while he's in the U.S. on the company's behalf, he and his wife have been able to minimize their expenses.
From professional basketball to start-up founder
Growing up, Wey had his sights set on being a different kind of star entirely.
Wey started playing basketball competitively when he was 12, eventually playing on his high school's nationally ranked team. In college, he played Division II basketball at the University of San Diego as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to the University of San Francisco to finish out his collegiate career playing Division I.
After graduating from college in 2012, Wey wasn't ready to jump "into the real world," so he signed a contract to play basketball professionally in Taiwan. However, he says the experience was "not as glamorous" as he had been expecting.
Unlike the NBA, where players earn multimillion-dollar salaries, Wey earned between $2,000 and $3,000 a month as a rookie. Over time, the low pay and grueling practices began to wear him down, and in 2016 he decided to retire.
Wey's next move was to start a company, something he says was always on his mind as a kid growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley. In 2016, he co-founded a wireless technology start-up in Taiwan.
By 2020, Wey and his co-founders wanted to expand the business overseas but felt that American salaries were too high to hire there. Their solution was to send Wey, who leads business development, to the U.S. instead.
That's how, in early 2020, Wey found himself moving back in with his mom in the same home he lived in as a high-schooler.
"We're very blessed that my mom lets me live here rent-free," he says. "She's a great landlord."
Unlike other 31-year-olds who may be itching to get away from their parents, Wey is happy to share a roof with his mom.
"In Asian culture, it's so common for kids to live with their moms and dads," Wey says.
"It's not … mooching off them," he explains. "We want to take care of our parents. If I ever do end up upgrading to the next house, I'm still gonna take my mom with me."
Finding accidental fame on social media
As a self-proclaimed social media skeptic — he says he hasn't used Facebook in over a decade — Wey would never even have created an account on TikTok had it not been for a road trip he took with his now-wife in the summer of 2020.
The pair were making the eight-hour drive from northern California to Las Vegas for a weekend getaway when Sharon suggested they document their trip by making videos on TikTok. Wey was initially hesitant, but eventually agreed when Sharon insisted that "no one will ever see them."
TikTok's algorithm had other plans.
"We started recording funny videos, and that same day, or the day after, we saw people viewing them," Wey says. "I was like, 'What's going on? You said people weren't gonna watch this.'"
The reception was positive, and Wey decided to keep making funny videos, partially fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a comedian. By December, his account had 5,000 followers.
It picked up even more steam when he released a series of tongue-in-cheek videos about "cheap hacks" that his onscreen persona employed to save money, such as picking up hitchhikers when his car is running low on gas so that he has someone to help him push.
Soon enough, offers began coming in to monetize his content. His first deal was with a night vision camera company that offered him $600 to make a sponsored video. "We were just in shock," he says. "Like, wow, people actually paid us money to make creative videos?"
Less than a year later, Wey has more than 1.7 million followers on TikTok. He has also expanded to Instagram, where he has nearly 600,000 followers, and Snapchat, where he has 89,000 followers. Sharon guest stars in many of Wey's videos, but leaves the writing and editing to her husband.
Wey's success on TikTok has landed him deals with big names, including eBay and Ford. Wey prefers to take on work on a case-by-case basis, and has rejected numerous offers from brands who want him to create series for them. For him, "that million-dollar idea is usually only applicable once."
"Because we have full-time jobs and we live such a simple life, we have the luxury to kind of pick and choose who we want to work with," Wey says. "We don't have the pressure to try to put out content for the sake of putting out content, or do brand deals for the sake of doing brand deals."
Wey only takes on one to three brand deals each month, despite having offers for more. He has similarly rejected offers from a number of agents and agencies. In his view, losing 10% to 30% of a payment to an agent for negotiating a deal isn't worth it.
The amount he earns each month varies depending on how many jobs he decides to take on, but he averages a monthly income of about $10,000.
Despite having millions of followers on social media, Wey considers making videos to be a side hustle. Monday to Friday, his focus is fully on his start-up, with his days beginning early in the morning and sometimes going late into the night because of the time difference with Taiwan.
"Being at a start-up is a complete grind, so I leave this type of social media stuff to the weekend on my free time," he says.
Everything Wey spends in a month
Here's how Wey budgeted his money in October 2021.
- Cryptocurrency: $5,000 worth of bitcoin and ether
- Savings: $2,000
- Dining out: $900
- Car insurance: $266
- Groceries: $250
- Utilities: $233 for the household's electric and internet bills
- Phone bill: $120 for both his and his wife's phones
- Subscriptions: $70 for Spotify and Wey's gym membership
Wey covers all of the living expenses for himself and his wife. Sharon has a full-time, salaried job and sends a large portion of her income to family members back in Taiwan.
In addition to living rent-free in the house his mom has owned since he was in high school, Wey has very few expenses. He takes care of the utility payments at his house — his mom already paid off the mortgage — and spends around $250 a month on shared groceries as well.
He says that he "can't remember" the last time he bought clothing, and mostly wears the team-branded clothes he received as a college athlete. Recently, his old basketball team manager at USF reached out after spotting him on social media to give him more shirts and outerwear.
Though he could charge his Tesla at home, Wey drives to a free charging station a mile from his home to fill his battery. Because the process can take as long as 12 hours, he likes to put his scooter in the trunk and ride back home in the meantime.
Wey also keeps a chart of the local electricity rates posted on the refrigerator, in the garage and above the dryer so that everyone in the house knows when to avoid using energy-intensive appliances or charging their devices.
Food is one thing he is willing to pay for, and he spends around $900 a month dining out and ordering delivery. Some meals are as inexpensive as a $15 trip to In-N-Out with Sharon, while he occasionally splurges $60 on a nicer dinner.
"We're not frugal about dining out," he says. "Every time we want to go to a restaurant or try some new place, we just go."
Wey is a big believer in cryptocurrencies, and has opted to put most of his earnings into bitcoin and ether rather than traditional investment vehicles. He buys roughly $5,000 worth of crypto each month and puts another $2,000 into a normal savings account.
Financial experts typically recommend diversifying your investing portfolio and only allotting a small percentage to crypto, if any.
"The reason why I don't invest in other traditional options, or more conservative options, is I think I've just been brainwashed by the community here in Silicon Valley," he says. "I think I'm under the influence of these peers of mine who say crypto is going to take off. And to be honest, it has had some healthy returns, so I'm not complaining."
He says he is in crypto for the "long term" and plans to "leave it there for 10 years."
Wey isn't leaving his day job any time soon, but that doesn't mean he hasn't given any thought to his future in entertainment. Currently, he is in the process of building up his YouTube channel and eventually hopes to branch out into more long-form comedy.
"I think the only goal we're trying to do is just stay true to our unique sense of humor and push out content that our followers enjoy," he says. "We're not too entrapped in trying to grow. Whatever happens organically is great."
He also has a new challenge coming down the pike in the first half of 2022: fatherhood. Wey hasn't yet figured out how welcoming a new baby to his household will affect his "cheap" habits, but he has approached the next stage of his life with his signature sense of humor.
"We decided to have this baby because we wanted a new character in our content," he jokes. "And the cheapest way was just to make your own."
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