With more and more people across a wide variety of fields opting to go into business for themselves, it’s become apparent that the Age of the Freelancer is upon us. Currently, there are 53 million people in the US doing freelance work, making up 34% of the national workforce.
It is a tempting lifestyle compared to the 9 to 5 grind: freelancers can set their own hours, spend days on the couch in their pyjamas and still call it work, chase the projects they want to do, and be their own boss.
However, this freedom comes with its own complications, like long stretches of time without a single pay check (despite working all the time), having to actively seek out freelance contracts, an under-socialized work environment, having to set your own rates, and, not the least of all worries, the dreaded tax season.
Luckily, these are not impossible drawbacks: you can get better at it all. Here’s how.
Find a Stable Gig
A really appealing aspect to freelancing is being able to carve out a niche for yourself and be able to get paid to do your own passion projects. However, these projects can be few and far between or not pay well, especially for freelancers just starting out. By finding one or two stable clients, freelancers can ensure they’re getting a regular paycheck coming in while picking up new and necessary skills in their field. Just having stable gig or two will allow you to spend more time looking for the real, life-validating contracts.
Find a System That Works for You
You might work better on a wooden chair in a dedicated home office with your makeup on; or perhaps you start your workday in the late afternoon and power through until well past midnight, with papers sprawled across the living room floor. Maybe you inhabit a co-working space and replicate a 9 - 5 structure.
In freelancing, you can decide what works for you and what doesn’t - but it’s extremely important to find out what your peak hours are and which work structure brings out the best results from you. Finding a work system also applies to taking the time to figure out how you conduct your work: some people find it satisfying to make To Do lists with a pen and paper; others use Evernote. Some set alarms to schedule every minute of the way while others employ a website blocker to avoid all nonessential internet rabbit-holes. There are tons of available apps to help freelancers organize their time, systemize e-mails and manage projects - it’s up to you to find out what helps you be the most productive you can be.
Know Your Rates
Negotiating pay is an intractable part of a freelancer’s career. After all, you’re the boss now! If you feel like you deserve a raise, then you can give yourself a raise. Every few years, you may find that your expenses have increased, or that your experience simply deserves higher compensation. Or perhaps you’re starting out, and you don’t know what to charge for services.
Here is often where freelancers find that their talents are being undercut or taken advantage of. To find out what you should be charging, track your time and work, find which tasks take up the most amount of time, and adjust your list-prices accordingly. To help set your hourly rate, use an online rate calculator.
Biggest thing you should work out with yourself is you should know what you're worth. Think to yourself, I'm worth $100/hr (or want to be making $100/hr). You shouldn't start that high. When I personally started, I charged clients $10/hr. Over the years and the more stable I have become I have consistently raised my rates. I recommend that you do the same as well. I'm now well above where I originally wanted to be.
Plan Your Finances
Sometimes in freelancing, you just don’t know when you’re going to be out of work for a month’s time, or when a client is going to take their sweet time getting you a big paycheck you were banking on. It’s always important to plan ahead as much as you can: always have an idea of how much money you’re going to make every month, try to keep enough savings to be able to tide you over for when you need it, and track your invoices and clients on a spreadsheet so you don’t forget who still owes you money.
Organize Your Paperwork
Trust me, this will come in handy during tax season. You don’t want to be staring at a jumble of unorganized receipts, a folder of poorly labeled invoices (“Did I file this April of last year or this year?”), or, worse, missing documents, especially when the filing deadline is looming. Or worse - being hit with an enormous tax bill and owing back taxes you didn’t account for.
During the year, keep track of exactly what you can write off as a freelancer and save every receipt that applies - it helps to take photos of receipts and store them in a cloud in case you lose the physical copies. Clearly label your invoices and put them in a folder (don’t forget to back up everything!). And make sure you’re prepared for your tax bill by setting aside a portion - around 30% to be safe - of every paycheck that doesn’t get taxed. And, most importantly, get an accountant. Though it seems like just another expense, an accountant can make sense of tax confusion, and help save you money and time.
Get Outside & Find a Community
One of the drawbacks of living the freelance life is that, most of the time, you miss out on the colleague camaraderie found at offices. It can be extremely isolating work, and though it’s nice to be able to skip the commute and work in yoga pants, it’s suddenly much less fun when you’ve realized that you haven’t been outside in five days because your work-life balance has fused into a singular entity simply called Work. The most important thing a freelancer can do to keep themselves sane is going outside and engaging with the world, especially in the form of physical exercise - it could mean a long walk at lunch, a daily yoga class, or even just a step out to the neighborhood café.
And you can still find some semblance of the office camaraderie by knowing other freelancers who work in similar fields - though your anecdotes will be different, you’ll still get the shoptalk and the support network to make your work feel less isolating.
Note from Freelancer: John Rampton will be speaking at SydStart 2015, Australia's biggest startup conference! Pre-release tickets are now available for a limited time. Head over to SydStart.com now and secure your spot!