Grab a coffee with your favorite freelancer writer, and before your latte’s gone, chances are she’ll have mentioned her roller coaster income — whether to humblebrag on a particularly lucrative month or lament a particularly paltry one.
Because, as someone who’s been doing it full time for almost two and a half years now, let me tell you: when it’s good, freelance income is really good…and when it’s bad, it’s nonexistent.
Of course, this same bipolar income scheme applies to lots of folks besides freelance writers, from those who work in the travel-season-dependent hospitality industry to independent contractors in other industries.
But all these folks do share something in common: the need to figure out how to hoard some of those acorns in the times of plenty to withstand the inevitable slumps.
Although I can’t speak for bartenders or landscapers, I can offer some of the lessons I’ve learned over my two years of supporting myself as a full-time freelance writer. Here’s how to get ahead of the lean times so you can fully enjoy the fruitful ones.
1. Don’t spend everything you’ve got
Although it’s easy to siphon off every single dollar as soon as you’ve got it, that strategy will leave you with nothing when the bad months come. (That is, nothing but a weeks-long stress headache.)
Make putting money into your savings account one of the top items on your monthly budget, not something you do with whatever’s left over as an afterthought.
We’ve all got bills to pay, of course, and sometimes it’s a struggle just to make ends meet. But as a freelancer with a variable income, when you do have any kind of disposable income, it’s imperative you pay yourself first. Savings should come before things like restaurant meals, bar outings, or even Netflix and fitness classes.
Yes, it’s important to live your life — but as a freelancer with up-and-down income, it’s even more important to ensure you can do that whole eating thing first.
2. Prioritize creating an emergency fund
Which leads me to my second suggestion — which I offer with the caveat that, although I have about four years’ experience writing in the personal finance space, I am not a financial professional.
There’s a longstanding chicken-or-egg-type question in personal finance regarding which should take precedence: paying down debt or creating an emergency fund.
While having a cushion is critical, interest acts as an anchor, keeping you from meeting your savings goals…which is why different financial experts sometimes disagree on which objective should be your priority.
But as a freelancer, I recommend prioritizing the emergency fund, even if you’ve got sky-high student loans or even high-interest revolving credit card debt. It’s not ideal to spend more money in interest than you have to, of course…but again, if you have a low-income month, you’ll probably be happier to have money to buy groceries than a $0 balance on your Visa.
3. Find easy ways to save
Given that the first two items on this list are basically the same, fairly obvious, injunction (“save money!”), you may be wondering how, exactly, you’re going to meet those savings goals on a freelancer’s up-and-down salary. After all, you’ve got to keep a roof over your head, and electricity and running water are pretty great, too.
Fortunately, there are some fairly painless ways to save up a significant nest egg without feeling like you’re living in a convent.
Take, for instance, you grocery bill. The USDA calculates average grocery costs on a monthly basis, and taking one look at that wide range is super revealing. In February of 2019, a single female in the 19-to-50 age bracket might spend as little as $165.90 or as much as $329.80 per month on home dining. That high number is almost double the low one!
That’s a ton of wiggle room — and you don’t have to subsist solely on Cup-o-Noodles to be closer to the bottom of the spectrum. Shop sales, clip coupons, use rebate apps like Ibotta, and strategize your go-to store by figuring out which one carries your staples the cheapest. (You can spend an afternoon figuring that out using a price worksheet like this one.)
You can also look into automatic savings apps, like Digit, which stow away tiny increments of cash into a separate, invisible account, helping you save without even realizing it. Usually, these apps do charge a small fee for their services, but $3 a month is a worthy investment if you struggle to save unaided.
4. Don’t forget about Uncle Sam
As an independent contractor, you’re responsible for paying your own taxes. (Hey, it can’t all be sleeping late and wearing yoga pants all day.)
And although you do get to make lots of nice business deductions, if you’re not careful about saving up a separate stash for Uncle Sam, you could be facing a total meltdown come April.
Along with state and federal income tax, you’re also subject to a 15.3% self-employment tax — the freelance equivalent of the Medicare and social security contributions usually split between you and your employer. And depending on where you live, you might be subject to even more surprises…like I was when I learned about gross receipts taxes only after relocating to New Mexico. (Sigh.)
If you’re already just barely keeping afloat, facing down a four-figure bill from the IRS is going to be even less fun than it sounds like. So be sure to set aside about 30-35% of your income into a separate account as you earn it. Yes, that’s on top of the savings we mentioned above. Sorry!
5. Keep abreast of new opportunities, even when you’re swimming in work
It’s a lovely feeling to have a full slate of work for the month, to know that you’ve got enough coming in to cover your bills and maybe even some fun extras.
But short of a contractual freelance position (and sometimes even then), nothing is guaranteed.
So it’s important to keep looking for opportunities, even when you don’t actually need them.
Along with helping you find replacement gigs if one of yours goes south, searching for new opportunities can be a great way to increase your freelance income. You might trade that eight-cents-per-word client for one who pays 15 — or even find a remote staff position, if you’re into that kind of commitment.
Not sure where to look? Don’t worry, we’ve got that part covered. That way, you can focus on the important stuff: your hustle. (Along with the sources covered in that post, we also highly recommend Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter. She basically spends hours raking Twitter for all the best pitch calls so you don’t have to, which is totally worth the $3 per month she’s asking.)
Now what are you waiting for? Get writing — and saving!
Photo via Andranik Hakobyan / Shutterstock