The Pros and Cons of Full-time Freelancing
As is the case with any decision you make in life, there are Pros and Cons to freelancing. Whether you’re freelancing full-time or part-time, it’s good to have an idea of what to expect so that you can prepare yourself for the freelancing lifestyle.
⁃ Flexible Schedule: One of the best parts of working as a freelancer is being able to decide your own schedule. Some freelancing gigs require you to travel or go into an office, but more and more projects can be accomplished from home. If you’re more productive early in the morning, you can wake up at 5am, work for 8 hours, and finish by 1pm with the rest of the day ahead of you. Visa versa, if you’re a night owl, you can knock out projects late at night while everyone’s sleeping and avoid all the distracting texts and emails that can throw off your working momentum. The standard 9am-5pm schedule doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s no need to stick with it as a freelancer. You can determine your own schedule and live life how you want to.
⁃ Choose Your Projects/Clients: As your own employer, you get to choose which clients you do and don’t want to work with. When you’re just starting out with your freelancing career, you’ll most likely have to take projects that aren’t ideal, in order to build your portfolio. However, as your portfolio gets stronger and you develop a larger client base, you can start to pick and choose the projects that you want to work on. It’s said that when you’re doing the things you love you’ll never work a day in your life. As you become more established in your field, you’ll begin to attract clients that will offer to pay you for work that you love to do. No more menial tasks or boring assignments, just fun projects that you enjoy doing.
⁃ Always Learning: No matter what field you’re in, learning should always be a priority and a constant effort. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much knowledge you don’t have. There’s no such thing as being done with learning. As a freelancer, you have the unique opportunity to study constantly, especially if you work remotely. With no commute and flexible work hours, you’ll have more time in the day to devote yourself to building skills and learning new abilities. As you do so, you become better at your craft and more marketable to businesses looking to hire freelancers. If you’re looking for a helpful learning/training resource, I recommend checking out Lynda.com. Normally, it costs money to sign up for a subscription, but there’s a good chance that your local library has a partnership with Lynda.com that will let you access their training courses for free. Talk with your local library and see if there’s a way that you can access Lynda.com using your library card number.
⁃ No Salary Cap: Inflation and sky rocketing real estate prices make affordable living difficult. There are a lot of companies who pay their employees well, but there are also a lot that don’t. One of the things I found with the company I used to work at full-time was that no matter how good of a project I did, or how much more efficient I made the company’s processes, I was stuck with the same pay. I could get incremental raises every now and then, but big salaries were only offered to people who had been with the company for several years (and by big, I mean $60,000-$70,000). As a freelancer, I’ve always enjoyed the idea that my pay is tied directly to how hard I’m willing to work. I don’t mind working hard to find new clients and learn new skills; and being rewarded for that is one of the things that attracted me to becoming a full-time freelancer. There’s no limit on how much you can earn when freelancing. Granted, there’s no guaranteed or minimum pay either, but the best rewards come after the hardest challenges. Eliminating a salary cap and setting the sky as your financial limit is a great way to stay motivated, learn new skills and become better at your craft.
⁃ No Designated Workspace: This “pro” mostly applies to remote freelancers, but it’s an attribute of freelancing that is highly attractive. If all you need for your freelance projects are a computer and wi-fi, then you can technically work from anywhere in the world. Thousands of “digital nomads” travel the world every day, experiencing different cultures and locations, all while hitting their deadlines and getting paid. You can work in coffee shops just down the street or on the other side of the planet. Clients usually don’t mind as long as you’re meeting their deadlines.
Now for the cons…
Taxes: Taxes are more complicated as a freelancer than they are as a full-time employee. When working for a corporation, your employer will cover half of your employment tax (15%) while you take care of the other 15%. However, in the case of freelancing, you are your own employer, so instead of paying 15% in taxes, it’s good to plan on paying 30% of your income in taxes. This is one of the reasons that freelancers need to charge higher rates than standard employees. As a freelancer, you need to make sure you’re making enough to still be paying your bills after taxes are collected. There are of course write-offs and tax breaks you can use to help reduce the amount you owe in taxes (i.e. travel expenses, software licenses, utility bills, etc), but make sure you’re meeting with a professional tax advisor to help you understand what you can and can’t write-off. Because taxes are more complicated as a freelancer, working with a tax advisor tends to be more expensive than if you were just to have a W-2 at the end of the year. However, I personally feel that the expense is worth it. I’ve tried doing my taxes before as a freelancer and it was a nightmare both in how much time it took to try and understand/submit everything, and the looming paranoia I had that I did something wrong and the IRS was going to penalize me for it. Being able to hand everything over at the end of the year for my tax advisor to take care of has been a huge relief. I put together everything in a document throughout the year that adds of all my income and write-offs together and makes it easy for my tax professional to review, assess, and submit the needed documents for tax season. If you’re interested, you can download the google sheet here.
Staying Organized: As a freelancer, you are essentially running your own business. As such, there are a lot of things to keep track of: clients, invoices, write-offs, income and more. If you’re a naturally organized person, then it’s probably not a big deal, but to many people it can be challenging. There are free, digital tools like Trello and Evernote to help keep tabs on projects and create to-do lists. Software programs are a great way to have all of your notes in one place without having to worry about losing them. You can also do things the old-fashioned way and write down notes in a physical planner like this one from At-a-Glance that I’ve purchased and used for the last several years (note: this one starts in July. They have another one that starts in January which you can view here if you’re interested). Regardless of how you choose to stay organized, it’s something that you should be actively thinking of if you plan on freelancing.
Chasing Invoices: I fortunately do not have any horror stories about chasing invoices (*knocks on wood*) but it’s a reality that many freelancers have to worry about. Throughout the course of your freelance career you will encounter everything from amazing clients who love your work and pay you immediately, to nightmare clients who are never happy with your services and either refuse to pay on time or at all (I recommend dropping nightmare clients ASAP. They’re not worth the headaches). As a freelancer, you’re responsible for making sure you get paid. You should be sending out a contract before the start of every project to ensure that you’ve covered your bases and laid everything out in writing in case the client decides to be difficult. I recommend setting up milestones for projects, especially high-paying ones that require a lot of work, to make sure you’re getting paid for the work that you’re completing. An example of a milestone would be to have a percentage of the project paid up front before starting, as a down payment to know that the client is serious about paying for your services. You can also have smaller milestones along the way, like having another percentage of the project paid when a 1st draft is delivered, or you’ve finished a section of the project. As a motion designer, I set up just 2 milestones for my projects to keep things simple: the first milestone is a 50% down payment before I start the project. This way I know the client is committed to the project and I can get an idea of how long it takes for them to send over payments. The second milestone is the final 50% payment that’s due BEFORE I deliver the client’s approved video. I keep a watermark on all my work that’s sent to the client until the final payment is received, to reduce the risk of the client running off with my work before paying.
Finding Clients: Growing a network of clients takes time, and is something I recommend doing before making the jump to full-time freelancing. Marketing and finding clients are things that always needs to be top-of-mind as a freelancer if you want to have a steady cash-flow. There are websites like Upwork.com, Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com where freelancers can list their services and anyone in the world can hire them. These services can be attractive to people just starting to freelance, since it provides an opportunity to develop a portfolio with several different clients. These freelance service websites, however, aren’t the best when it comes to pay. Upwork, for example, takes a cut from every dollar freelancers earn from clients, using the following format:
- $0-$500 : Upwork takes 20% of every dollar
- $500-$10,000: Upwork takes 10% of every dollar
- $10,000+ : Upwork takes 5% of every dollar
These amounts reset for every client, meaning that unless you have clients who plan to hire you long-term, most of the time 10-20% of your paycheck will go to Upwork and 30% of what remains after that will go to taxes. (i.e. If you earn $500 from a client, $100 goes to Upwork and $120 should be set aside for taxes, leaving you with $280)
When it comes to these platforms, there are a few clients who are willing to pay your worth and compensate you for the lost 5-20%, but they’re rare. Most clients on these platforms are looking to get projects done for as cheap as possible, and you should spend time finding clients who are more concerned about the quality of your work than the price of your services. You should focus your efforts on networking events and meeting agencies/people in person to build a client base that’s happy to pay what your services are worth.
Difficult to Separate Work and Personal Life: As a freelancer, you have the unique opportunity to work from anywhere and to set your own schedule. As such, it can be difficult to set boundaries between your work life and your personal life. There are no regulations or guidelines that say you work from 9am-6pm. There is no physical office or official closing time. No matter what time or day it is, there’s always some aspect of your freelance business that can be worked on. You can strengthen your portfolio, learn new skills to become more valuable to your clients, finish up projects, network, etc. It’s important that you set aside personal time for things you love that aren’t work related. Setting boundaries for when you are and aren’t working may take some time, but it’s important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle that lets you enjoy the best parts of freelancing.
No Health Insurance or 401k: When you work as a full-time employee for a corporation, you are provided health insurance and a matching 401k. When you become your own employer as a freelancer, you have to take care of both of these yourself. Health insurance rates vary, depending on where you live, but usually pricing fluctuates between expensive and very expensive. Make sure you do your research to know which health insurance program is best for you and your budget. As for establishing a retirement fund, there are several different options to go with, but it’s important that you start this as soon as possible so that you can have enough funds stashed away when it comes time to retire. Retirement is a long-term game, and something that should planned as early as possible in life. You don’t have to be a freelancer to start building extra funds for retirement. I set up my Roth IRA as a 21-year-old college student, even before I knew what freelancing was and am still contributing to it today. I’m not a financial expert, so I can’t give you detailed advice, but Dave Ramsey has a great reputation as a finance guru if you’re looking for someone to help you learn about finances in general. I’ve learned a lot from his website and podcasts, and recommend checking into some of the free advice he gives over at daveramsey.com
Why the Long List?
I’m sure you’re wondering why the cons list is bigger than the pros. The truth about full-time freelancing is that it can be difficult. But the most attractive aspect of freelancing is not that there aren’t any challenges (because that’s definitely not the case), but that you have the freedom to do what you love, work where you want, and get paid what you deserve. As a freelancer, you’re almost guaranteed to run into obstacles and feel discouraged from time to time, but ultimately, I think the rewards outshine the hardships. Having the ability to travel the world at a whim or spend time with family and friends is priceless. Work is supposed to be a means to an end, but often times we get so caught up in the rat race that work becomes our sole focus and takes up all of our time. Freelancing allows you to take back control of your valuable time and spend it how you want. It’s an opportunity to get paid while enjoying life.