The freelance life: hustle or die!

By Caitlin Kelly

My story in July 2014 Cosmo!
My story in July 2014 Cosmo!

A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.

How do we know? Our new report we’re releasing today, “How to Live the Freelance Life — Lessons from 1,000 Independents (PDF)” surveyed more than 1,100 freelancers nationwide about their work, money, lifestyle, and values.

The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.

The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.

With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.

Here’s a useful 11-point checklist for those hoping to try the freelance life, by writer Laura Shin.

One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.

The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.

But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!

We only get what we  negotiate.

I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:

— My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.

— I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)

— I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.

It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.

The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow  — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.

Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)

Here’s a powerful and depressing story from The Wall Street Journal (aka capitalism’s cheerleader) about why Americans are unhappy with work/life balance — as they have so little of it!

And another story about why so many employers are choosing to hire freelancers.

Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.

And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!

This New York Times piece — about how much freelance writers really make —  got a lot of traction:

That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”

I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.

And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.

But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.

And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.

Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.

I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.

I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.

But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.

Would you prefer to be freelance?

Or do you like working for someone more?

Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!
Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!


23 thoughts on “The freelance life: hustle or die!

  1. Personally I’d prefer to write fiction full-time (which I guess would be its own form of freelance), but until then I think I’d prefer a full-time position somewhere, especially if it allowed me to write or do something that interested me. Still, if I can get publications here and there and they paid, I wouldn’t mind doing some freelancing.

  2. Oh, joy! Another reason to buy Cosmo… I only buy it for the articles (like the guys always say!), of course.

    Congratulations- (although does that imply a “gift” as opposed to work that is recognizing hard effort? You know what I mean…)

    “Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.”

    Truer words were never spoken. I am by nature not *not* a salesperson, but I found this to be so true while I was alone in Baku. You either promote what you can do for others, or perish. Fate sat me down and taught me this hard lesson that continues to prove true today in the tough Washington DC markets.

    Thanks for your sage advice and wisdom that you work so hard to share with us. If I could take every course you offer, it would be an investment well made.

    1. I get tired of people thinking they’ll “take up” writing at some point. They will be competing with people like me who have been selling HARD for decades. Freelancing — no matter the skill you have — is always a sales game. If no one is buying, you are not going to eat! I always tell students to remember that they are a business FIRST and a writer second. Many of them don’t like it but the ones who understand that are the ones who survive, or thrive.

      I hope you’ll take some more classes! 🙂

      1. Yep. Like “Dubya” taking up painting when he left the White House. .. it implies a nice hobby, not a skill you’re depending on to sustain yourself. (Good thing he had a cushy pension plan! ) 😉

    1. The freedom is addictive, for sure. But you have to be ferociously disciplined about managing your money and your time, as no one hands you anything. I prefer that autonomy to someone thinking they have “given” me a job. I’m sufficiently Marxist that I am aware I have sold them my labor instead.

  3. i think that you have what it takes – the smarts, the drive, the know-how, the experience, the talent, and many could not do the same. you are a very motivated and skilled person, and still it is an ongoing struggle, i imagine i would flounder, but the level of freedom sounds wonderful.

    1. Thanks for the kind words…:-)

      It’s still only 50% of my last salary (2006) and $25K LESS/yr than I made — easily, FT freelance — in 2000. Life was a lot cheaper then! Producing (only) journalism freelance has become a seriously difficult endeavor. So I am now looking much harder at other non-profits as another place to try and do more paid story-telling, and got a great lead today — from a fellow journalist already working with one. I am very grateful to have picked up an additional reliable income stream with teaching at two NYC colleges this fall as well.

      Freedom does sound seductive and wonderful. But when you are anxious every day about where the next check is coming from…not so much, really.

  4. Since I focus on writing stories and books versus articles, I’m not sure I qualify as a freelancer. I do understand the need to hustle, though. It’s competitive out there. And, no–I won’t be giving up my day job anytime soon because it’s what pays the bills!

  5. One thing I’ve learned is no writing on spec. If I included writing samples that closely relates to the topic that should be sufficient. I did that twice and wasted two days writing for nothing. And shame on me because *I am a Marxist* and should have known better that I was giving up my precious time and labor for squat.

    1. Raises fist in solidarity…:-)

      I really really wish more people really understood the power we can have if we develop good skills and negotiate decent pay for them. Bottom-feeding is a disaster.

      The only spec writing I’ve done (and very very very rarely) is stuff like the NYT Modern Love (of course rejected!). My bills won’t wait.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  6. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more….Well, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more…I try so hard to be just who I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them..

  7. The flexibility of freelancing does sound appealing, but I really enjoy the atmosphere of being around others in an office. Then again I have lovely colleagues and a good boss, not to mention a fun working environment, so maybe I’m lucky!

  8. I’m glad you wrote this. I appreciate that you’ve been so forthright about your work as a freelancer, as it has really caused me to reconsider some of my own ideas about work/my job, specifically how I seem to be holding on to this magical idea that if I can just find the perfect setup all my work stresses will just float away, when the reality is that it’s a matter of trading one set of work stresses in for a different set of stresses, and the question becomes, which stresses would I rather have.

    The idea of freelancing – of setting my own hours and being my own boss – still appeals to me a bit but not as much as it did before.

    1. It’s so different for each person!

      Some people — those making twice my income — may enjoy freelancing a lot more than I now do…because the constant scramble isn’t. The work is not difficult per se but I get really tired of selling myself day after day after day after day…when half the people, after discovering their rates, end up not even paying enough to make it worth it!

      I know your job is stressful. All jobs are stressful. It’s how much of what kind you can bear.

  9. euniklen

    Thanks for the mention here. It was a difficult decision leaving my job and go freelance. I am enjoying every bit of it especially now that I am a mom. 🙂

    1. I suspect it is a difficult decision, especially the first time (when it is so unknown) and if all your friends and family have traditional jobs with paychecks. One you know a lot of other freelancers, it feels normal! 🙂

  10. Pingback: The Myth of Being a Successful Freelancer  - Employee or Independent Contractor?

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