Tools I Use & Recommend (and the Only 3-5 You Need)

Updated September 24, 2019

You do not have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to start a profitable blog or online business. I’ve been blogging since 2004, have started numerous blogs and websites on various topics and I make a full-time income. I have a good idea of what’s needed and what’s not.

Tools I use and recommend for blogging and making money online.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

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Tools I recommend (by type):

Why you shouldn’t spend a lot to start

Expensive courses, coaching, tools, services or mastermind groups are great and might give you a jumpstart, but they are not necessary at the beginning. 

Starting lean gives you freedom to settle into the business model that works for you, and it removes the stress of having to make it work so you don’t lose money.

But don’t I have to “spend money to make money” like everyone says?

It’s very popular advice. A similar piece of advice is “Buy the tools for the business you want to have, not the business you have now.”

I have two thoughts. 

First, did this advice come from someone right before they pitched an expensive course or product? If so, consider it a marketing tactic more than advice. 

Second, I agree with the idea of spending a bit of money to get started. However, I generally disagree with the amount of money or number of tools many say is needed to get started.

How much money and how many tools are really needed to start?

A few hundred dollars (or less) the first year, and no more than five tools.

This is assuming you will use content marketing (information) and not physical products as your business model.

How is that possible?

First, everything hinges on excellent content. Excellent content is easy to produce, nearly for free. If you don’t master excellent content, it doesn’t matter how awesome your email sequences, landing pages, video production or webinars are, they’ll all be fancy masks for an empty foundation.

Second, many of the tools recommended by gurus are ones they’ve chosen after years of fine tuning their process and business model, not the tools they started with.

But wouldn’t they have gotten to where they are faster if they used their preferred tools from the beginning?

Possibly, but not necessarily. 

Every blogger and online business owner I know experiences many of the same things at the beginning: overwhelm, a huge learning curve and, most notably, a period of not knowing quite what they’re doing.

Most of us try a bunch of things before settling into the topic, medium (blog, podcast, video, book) and income streams (affiliate marketing, sponsorships, products, services) that best suit us.

Adding fancy tools and moving parts to the process makes the overwhelm bigger, the learning curve steeper, the runway longer, the costs greater and the stakes higher.

On the other hand, having only a few things to worry about at the beginning makes mastery quicker, pivoting easier and it provides invaluable foundational understanding that can be applied later.

The only 3-5 things you need to get started

Why do I say 3-5? Because some of these things can be combined. First I’ll go over the 5 things. In the next section, I’ll tell you what combination I would choose depending on your situation.

1. Hosting. You need your own website or blog. Don’t give total control of your online business to Facebook or YouTube or someone else. For a website or blog, you need hosting. For beginners on a budget, I recommend Bluehost. Here’s my step-by-step tutorial. For something more robust, I personally pay for and use WP Engine. Cost: $6 to $35 per month.

Note: Bluehost requires a full year’s payment upfront. WP Engine has a monthly payment plan but you’ll get a cheaper rate if you pay for a full year upfront.

2. Domain. You need an address for your website or blog (ex. I use Namecheap to register all my domains. Skip this if you use Bluehost (above) since a domain is included for free with that host. You can also skip this if you register your domain when you sign up for G Suite (#4 below). It’s not free, but the price is about the same as Namecheap and other domain registrars. Cost: Free to $15 per year

3. Email Service Provider (ESP). You’ll want an email list to stay in direct contact with your audience. For this, you can’t use your personal email. You’ll need a company that keeps everything organized and legal. I use Mad Mimi but if I started today, I would choose MailerLite (budget option) or ConvertKit (more robust). Cost: Free to $29 per month

4. Domain email. In order for your emails to land in inboxes and not spam folders, you’ll need a domain email address (ex. [email protected], not [email protected] or [email protected]). G Suite is what I use. Cost: $6 per month

5. Physical address (like a P.O. Box). In order for your emails to be legal, you must include a physical address in every one. I don’t recommend using your home address (privacy!). The smallest post office box works fine. Skip this if you choose ConvertKit as your ESP (see #3) as they allow you to use their address. Cost: Varies by city. I pay $90 per year.

Total cost: $20 to $100 per month.

What tools should YOU choose?

If you look at the list above and still don’t know where to start, here are my suggestions. If you want to:

That’s it! If you start there, you’re good.

If you want to go in depth, read my post How to Start an Online Business: A Budget-Friendly Checklist.

Online courses

I’ve paid for many online courses over the years. I prefer giving a paying customer’s recommendation instead of recommending them after I received them for free.

I have lost money on many because they were not worth promoting as an affiliate (to recoup my money) and risking losing the trust of my readers.

I do not recommend any one course for everyone. Each course has a specific type of person it is most ideal for. If I write an in-depth review, I add a “this course is best for” section.

These are the courses I recommend:

  • Project 24. For beginners who want to make money blogging. It’s my favorite step-by-step course and matches my minimalist-but-powerful style the best.
  • Self Publishing 101. A lot of writers read my blog, many of whom want to make a living writing. I much prefer self publishing over traditional publishing (more control, faster, more income potential) and this course blows me away. Here’s my review.
  • Ads for Authors. A subsequent course to Self Publishing 101 and a good next step.
  • Grow Your Audience. A course about finding your people (i.e. avatar, target audience) on Facebook, but many of the concepts could be applied to social media in general. Here’s my review.

Other tools

You don’t absolutely need the following tools to start. Add more tools only as you go. The ones below I personally use (unless noted).

WP Rocket – A plugin that has sped up my site considerably. Highly recommended, especially since site speed is a crucial factor in search results.

Codeable – If you need a developer for WordPress help.

Namecheap – I register all my domains here.

Shopify – What I would use if I sold a tangible product. They do offer a free trial. Check out these examples of Shopify stores.

Podia – What I would use if I had a membership site or online course.

Email marketing

ConvertKit – The option I would use if I started today.

MailerLite – The option I would use today if I was on a budget.

Mad Mimi – This is the email service provider I use to send the Useletter®. Their customer service is great and Mad Mimi is easy to use.


Ulysses – This distraction-free writing tool is simpler than Scrivener (below) and of the two, has become my first choice. It’s for Mac only.

Scrivener – This is writing software that makes blog posts, books, ebooks or other writing projects a lovely experience.

Social Media

I usually post manually on social media.

Buffer – I have used Buffer in the past to schedule my posts on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

IFTTT – I use IFTTT to create “recipes” to automate tasks between two apps. For example, I’ve connected my Google Calendar to my Facebook Page which makes it a breeze to set up recurring posts to Facebook via my calendar.


ScreenFlow – This is a lovely application for screencasting and video editing on a Mac.

Screencast-O-Matic – Another screencasting tool I’ve used in the past. I opted for the upgraded version which eliminates their watermark, among other things.


Pocket – Whenever I want to read something, but I don’t have time at the moment, I save it to Pocket where I can read it later.

Feedly – I read a lot of blogs mostly by way of RSS. I use Feedly as my one-stop feed reader.

My Income Streams

My post How to Make Money Blogging explains how bloggers make money online. Below are the main ways I personally make money.

ProductsSendOwl makes it easy to sell digital products.

  • Tell Your Time – My ebook which has brought in steady income since I published it in October 2010. I explain why I opted to self publish in my series Why I Turned Down a Book Deal. If you’re interested in writing your own ebook, check out my post How to Write an Ebook.
  • Other digital products – From time to time I’ve offered other digital products like the Knowtbook and Shortcut the Toolkit, my companion guide to the 2017 Genius Blogger’s Toolkit.

Affiliate Marketing – As an affiliate marketer, I get paid a commission for promoting products and services. Nearly all of the products and services I share are ones I have bought & used myself. You might be interested in my post Affiliate Marketing: The Ultimate (Free) Guide.

Amazon – I sell my ebook via Amazon but I’m also a part of their “Associates” (i.e. affiliate) program which pays a commission on books and any other Amazon products people purchase via my links. My Living Books List is another place I utilize Amazon.

AdSense -While I’m not using display ads currently, I have made decent money with AdSense in the past. Google has made setting up ads on your site quite easy. Just sign up, create your ad(s) and stick the code in your sidebar (or wherever you want it to show up) and you’re done.

Coaching & Consulting – My queue is closed at this time, but this has been a good income earner as well.
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Keeping Track of Money

Here’s how to set yourself up to make money online.

Capital One Spark Business Checking – This is what I use for business banking.

Budget – We use the envelope system for budgeting and this is the best solution we’ve found to keep track of our envelopes.

Wave Apps – This free online accounting software is very user friendly. I started using it in 2017 and is an alternative to Budget mentioned above.

CPA on Fire – We hired Josh Bauerle in 2016 to help with our taxes once they got to be a bit more complicated than we could handle on our own. He’s done our taxes every year since!

TurboTax – We used to file our own taxes online. There’s a free version for basic tax forms. We paid for the upgraded version to include my business income.

PayPal – I use Merchant Services for invoicing clients.
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The Bootstrap VA – This ebook lays out the steps to becoming a virtual assistant. It is very well done and extremely useful. I wrote about it more in my post How to Become a Virtual Assistant.

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Website and Blog Design

Astra – A free WordPress theme with tons of options. 

GeneratePress – Another free WordPress theme I can recommend.

Genesis Theme Framework – I used free WordPress themes for many years. In 2011 I bought Genesis and have been extremely happy with it. Here’s a post about it.

Canva – Great for creating graphics. There’s a web version and a mobile version. I create most of my graphics in Canva.

Gimp – Free image-editing software similar to Photoshop. It’s an excellent choice if you want something a little more robust than online editors and cheaper than Photoshop.
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Web Browsers

Google Chrome – In my opinion, Google Chrome is the best browser available for free. It’s fast and easy to use. I would rank Safari second (for Mac), Firefox third and Internet Explorer? Well, if you’re using IE, let’s just say I highly recommend you switch to another browser as fast as you can. Oh I do not like IE.
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Mobile Apps I Like

I have an iPhone. Other than the usual apps, these are some I find especially handy.

iCatcher! – This is by far the best podcast player app I’ve used, and I’ve tried a lot.

Drafts – It takes a bit of time to hook things up, but once you do, it’s a lovely one-stop app that allows you to record bits of information and then send it to wherever you need it to go, like Evernote, email, text, etc.

Voxer – It’s like texting, but talking instead. I can leave a message and the other member(s) of the chat can pick up the message when they have time. My mastermind group uses it to communicate.

Scannable – Integrates with Evernote and allows me to scan documents and send them to Evernote.

Where to next?

Check out my Contents page for my tips and tutorials.