Freelance Milestone

I hit a freelance milestone this month. For the first time, I didn’t have to pay myself.

It’s not that I haven’t been making money; I never would have made the transition to freelance work if I didn’t think I could make enough money to support myself. But the money comes less often (generally once a month) and longer after the work has been performed than in a traditional workplace (I get paid anywhere from two weeks to 45 days after completing a project, as opposed to the lovely regularity of biweekly paychecks). In the first couple months, the money had not yet caught up with the work I’d completed, so I’d had to give myself advances in the amount of invoices I’d submitted. When the money came through for real, I put it into my savings account to replace the advance I’d given, so that my savings account stayed level. But this is the first month that I won’t be giving myself an advance, and it feels lovely.

Still, I think it’s absolutely imperative to have a savings account set up if you’re going to make the transition to freelance work. The amount in the account can vary, but it should be enough to get you through at least two months without any work at all. Some other money-related tips for making the transition to freelance work:

  • Perhaps this goes without saying, but don’t quit your “day job” before you have steady freelance clients lined up. You should have at least one that has regular work for regular pay, but it’s better if you have two. And you should have several ideas for other clients you could pursue. (I left my job after having two regular clients lined up. Now I have three, and my application out about a half-dozen other places.)
  • Start doing freelance work before you leave your full-time job. Not only does this give you a feel for how much work you can expect to get, but it lets you build up the necessary savings account. When I started moonlighting as a freelancer, I pretended the income I earned that way didn’t exist. I used my full-time job income for all my expenses, and all freelance income went straight into savings.
  • Create a chart of estimated expenses per month to get a baseline for how much you have to earn per month as a freelancer. And for at least a few months before making the transition, track your actual expenses per month so you have a real, not just theoretical, sense of how much money you really need to live on.
  • Figure in additional expenses you didn’t have when you weren’t a freelancer, such as increases in your health insurance price and having to pay for all the materials you need to do your work yourself.
  • Remember that you have to pay taxes. If you can afford to, remove 25 – 33% of each check you receive and put it in your savings account for when you have to pay it out in taxes. If you can’t afford to make that kind of cut to every check (and to be honest, I can’t right now), place unexpected money into your savings account–an extra job you didn’t expect to get, an article sold or prize money won, last year’s tax refund, etc. And continue to put money in your savings account every month, even if it’s just $25.
  • Track all your work-related expenses; you could lose a lot of money if you don’t enter them as deductions at year’s end.
  • Likewise, track your income every month. This will help you for reporting come tax time, but it will also give you an idea of what an average month’s pay is, since freelancing doesn’t provide the kind of guaranteed, regular income a job for an employer does. Cross-reference the income you’re making with the number you need to survive month-to-month; and any time you make more than you need, put it into savings.
  • Decide whether it’s more important to have a reliable income or to be in a work situation that fits you well. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll take a pay-cut when transitioning to freelance work, at least in the beginning, so be prepared for that–and prioritize accordingly.

I’m still a “newbie” at this, but this is what I’ve learned so far. I’d love to hear what others who have been at this longer have learned.