Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.
I always wanted to try freelancing. But when I had a solid staff job, with my name and title on my cubicle and paychecks beamed into my bank account every two weeks, it seemed so impractical to dive off into … well, what exactly? An endless, solitary wallow toward hazy prospects and questionable financial security? I was afraid of what shape I’d take without the scaffolding of full-time employment; I pictured myself like a popsicle that, removed from its mold, could melt into a sad, worthless puddle. Oh, and money. I didn’t have much in the way of savings, or even know what I could earn as a freelancer. I needed a plan.
So I asked around, found out how other freelancers make ends meet, and realized it wasn’t so unattainable after all. The tip that’s served me best: Find one or two consistent “backup” gigs that can cover your bills. (One of my friends takes copy-editing jobs when times are lean, for instance.) This work doesn’t need to be glamorous; it just needs to be stable enough so that you’re not freaking out about rent. From there, you can take on more exciting projects as they come up, and you’ll have wiggle room to turn down stuff that doesn’t interest you.
Below, five other successful freelancers share their own advice for managing money when you become your own boss.
1. Set aside time every week for bookkeeping.
The best advice I ever got was to put aside 30 to 60 minutes once a week to update all my paperwork — invoices, receipts, overdue payments, business expenses. I try to do it every Monday morning, which is usually a slow time anyway. Otherwise, it builds up and then becomes overwhelming. I make it as appealing as possible by getting myself a coffee, sitting down someplace comfortable, and making it as easy as I can.
I tried Quickbooks, but five years into freelancing, I’ve found that the system that works best for me is an old-school spreadsheet in Google docs. I enter the project, any related expenses, the rates we agreed upon, the date I invoiced, and the date I expect to be paid. And finally: A lot of clients pay by sending a check, but if I ask for direct deposit, I usually get paid faster. Most clients won’t offer this but are happy to do it if you request it. It’s a lot more efficient than waiting for a check in the mail. —Lindsay Brown, freelance photographer
2. Have some savings before you start, and don’t freak out if it takes a while for work (and money) to come in.
It might take you 6 to 12 months to settle into freelancing, just like any other new job. If you started a salaried job in an office, you would get paid while you took lunches with your co-workers and got set up. But when you’re a freelancer, you don’t. All the networking and contact-making and learning the ropes is on you. I have seen a lot of people feel frustrated with that launching period, so they quit before they can cruise. My advice is to create a good financial cushion for yourself before you go freelance, and then commit to it for at least a year, just like you would in any other job. If you’re good, you’ll probably be so overwhelmed with work by that time that you’ll feel silly for ever worrying about it at all. —Amy Odell, freelance writer and author
3. Set a firm rate, and be mindful of dry spells.
When I was laid off from my full-time job, I was devastated and a little scared. I had never freelanced before and had no idea how to go about it. I reached out to several freelancer friends and one wrote me a thoughtful note with lots of advice. The three points I highlighted were: (1) Most gigs come from friends and past co-workers — you just have to put out the word that you’re freelancing and then wait a little bit. (2) Don’t stress if something doesn’t happen right away. One week might be quiet and you won’t hear about anything and then the next week your inbox will fill up. (3) When you negotiate your day rate, be firm. The worst thing that can happen (and it probably will) is that a recruiter will come back with a counteroffer. It was comforting to know that other talented people in my industry need to remind themselves of these things — not just me.
Another important tip is that in times of plenty, save, save, save. It seems simple, but it’s hard to turn down a splurge when Friday hits and you’re feeling flush. Still, there’s always a chance that come Monday, the company you’re freelancing for might not need you for the 40 hours you planned to work that week. Also, be mindful of your industry’s dry spells. In the summer, advertising agencies are more relaxed and there isn’t as much work to do. It helps to squirrel away that money during the winter and not blow it on an impromptu trip to Miami in March when it’s 30 degrees in New York. I typically try to save at least half of what I make after taxes, and that formula has worked so far. —Brittany Vogel, freelance graphic designer
4. Don’t let anyone mess with your paychecks.
A lot of freelancers let that 30-day payment deadline turn into 120 days, but the moment a month goes by and I don’t get a check, I’ll do a follow-up. If day 45 rolls around, I will send a demand letter. I was taken advantage of by big companies when I first moved to New York and didn’t know any better. When that happens, it not only hurts me; it also sets a precedent for when that company works with the next freelancer. —Victoria Stevens, freelance photographer
5. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money — or save it.
A couple of years ago, I started renting a studio space with friends. Initially, it was stressful because it cost a few hundred dollars a month. But ultimately, it helped me make more money because it gave me a place to focus, shoot, take meetings, and make contacts that generated more jobs.
At this point in my career, I have a pretty steady cash flow that has allowed me to hire a bookkeeper. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It costs about $300 a month, but it basically pays for itself. My time is worth money, and now I can spend it working instead of dealing with paperwork. I also have an accountant who works specifically with artists, and he has saved me a lot of money in taxes and helped me set up a retirement fund. I wish I could have afforded these things when I was struggling and waitressing and living on my credit cards, which I did for about ten years. But it can take a lot of time to get the point where you’re able to pay for help. Until then, you just need to be as organized as possible. —Meredith Jenks, freelance photographer
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions every week about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org