Tracking Freelance Earnings: March Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Tracking Freelance Earnings: March Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Hi! If you’re new to this column: I’m tracking my freelance income every month and sharing it with all of you.

This is my third year of public income tracking, and my first year sharing my income with The Write Life.

It’s time to look at March’s numbers:

Completed Pieces: 90

Work Billed: $5,128.00

Earnings Received: $5,539.41

March’s income is just over my $5,000/month goal, and is significantly higher than what I was earning at this time last year. In March 2014, I billed $3,583.39 for 119 pieces. Now, I’m earning a lot more for a smaller workload.

Here are a few more quick stats for you: I wrote just over 65,000 words this month, and my average earnings per piece comes to $56.98. My highest per-piece earning is still $300, and my lowest is still $50.

Tracking my hours during the workday

This month, my earnings received were higher than my earnings billed, due in part to all the long hours I put in at the beginning of the year so I could take a vacation. In March, I earned over $5,000 without the extra work or the long hours, thanks to that new client I picked up at the end of January.

How many hours do I work every day? In general, I work from about 9 a.m. to about 7 p.m., which gives me a 50-hour workweek. I often stop in the early afternoon on Friday, but make up the hours on Sunday night writing pieces that’ll run at the beginning of the next week.

A 50-hour workweek sounds like a lot, so I decided to spend one week in March time-tracking my hours to see how I was actually spending my time. I used Toggl, which I recommend. Here’s what I learned:

On an average workday, I spend between four and five hours writing. On Monday, March 16, for example, it took me four hours and 45 minutes to write five pieces totaling 3,600 words.

I also spend between one and two hours doing administrative work. This includes emails, checking in with editors, sending invoices and scheduling my upcoming workload. I expected to learn that I was spending much more time “doing email” because it feels like email is never-ending, but it turns out to be only a small part of my workday.

I spend two hours every day reading the Internet. In fact, the first hour of my workday — before I write anything, and before I tackle any but the most important emails — is spent reading other websites and catching up on the latest news and ideas. I read a wide variety of sites, from Business Insider to The Atlantic to The Toast and Buzzfeed. I consider this work essential to my career as a writer, because it keeps me informed and teaches me what other publications and readers find interesting.

Social media work is sprinkled throughout the workday, and I did not track it separately. In many ways, having a quick conversation with someone on Twitter or Facebook is analogous to having a quick chat with a person who stopped by your desk. I often do a quick social media pass between tasks, in that I’ll finish writing a piece and then check Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr before starting the next item on my to-do list.

With a 30-minute break for lunch, it’s easy to see how this can add up to a nine or 10-hour workday. Do I want to make my workdays shorter? Sure, but it isn’t a priority right now. I feel comfortable managing the work that I have, and very happy that I am increasing my earnings.

Creating a savings plan for estimated taxes

April is a big tax month for freelancers, since year-end taxes and first quarter estimated taxes are both due on April 15. Last month, I learned that significantly increasing my earnings over the past year — remember, I was only billing $3,500 last March — meant owing a lot more in 2014 taxes than my accountant (CPA) and I had previously estimated. $5,443 more, to be exact.

So I asked my CPA what I could do to make better estimations for 2015. Following his recommendations, I’ve decided to set aside a flat 20 percent of my earnings for taxes. This means that if my earnings continue to grow, I’ll be able to adjust my estimated tax payments accordingly and won’t get stuck with another big tax bill at the end of the year.

I live in Washington State, which means I do not pay state income tax, and it also means that my 20 percent savings plan may be a little different from what you’ll need to save for your own estimated taxes. Talk to your own CPA to find out what’s right for you, and ask your CPA how you can plan ahead for income variations throughout the year.

It looks like April will be pretty similar to March, work-wise. I have a slate of great clients and a bunch of work already scheduled — and I’ve definitely hit the goal I set at the beginning of this year of earning at least $5,000 per month. So now I’m wondering: How long should I ride this wave before setting myself a new goal?

How many hours a day do you spend writing? And how much money do you set aside as a freelancer for your estimated taxes?

Want to learn how Nicole has come this far in her freelance career? Check out her past income reports for The Write Life:

Filed Under: Freelancing
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  • Tara says:

    Hi Nicole,

    For reporting purposes, can you tell me if monthly income is based on what is billed or what is received?



    • Nicole says:

      I include both my work billed and earnings received in this column. If you’re writing a piece and have questions, email me and I’ll be happy to answer. Thanks!

  • Marty_Fett says:

    Nicole, great job meeting your goals. I’ve been experiencing writers block, but had a break through this past Monday with a heart-felt poem. God spoke, I wrote. I’m typing the first time now in months due to hand surgery. I’ve never been published, except for our writers group yearly booklet which I have submitted two years; five poems and one short story. I’m fourteen chapters into a memoir of my mothers life, and four chapters into my own memoir, the later the result of a class I just finished.
    I believe the goal setting is important, I have nothing in place at this time, your daily goals have produced an income that is motivating me to investigate Freelance opportunities.
    Thank you. Marty

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks! The Write Life is a great place to learn about freelance opportunities, so I hope you find some resources here that help lead you towards good jobs. Your writing experience and publication history is already a fantastic start!

  • Tracy L says:

    Great job on meeting your goal Nicole! I find this blog so very interesting and appreciate your openness. We can all learn from each other, and since most of us don’t have co-workers, this is a great platform to share and exchange information.

  • Charlotte says:

    This is great! I have a few more I can send your way if you are interested.

  • BJ says:

    Impressive! Though I am having difficulty getting started. How do you go about finding freelance work?

    • Nicole says:

      This is a really big question. What kind of freelance work are you looking for? What skills and expertise do you bring with you? What connections do you already have in the writing world? There’s a lot to look at before I can give you a useful answer.

      In many ways it is like finding any other kind of job: you look for a company or publication that needs writers, and then you apply or pitch. But there are some specific ways I could be more helpful if I knew about the type of work you were looking for and your current experience level. Thanks!

  • Erin Cohen says:

    I write in office for about 4 hours a day and then at my home office for outside clients for another 2-3 depending on my workload. I have just taken on a new client and I’m about to kick one that doesn’t pay me nearly enough, so I’m going to have to really restructure how I go about my work during the day. However, I’m excited to have the flexibility in my life to write for blogs, films, and news outlets without having to show up to a cube every day. It means I can go to Australia whenever I want (to visit family and friends) without seeking approval from a boss. I love my write life!

  • Mary Scott says:

    Hi Nicole,
    I also wanted to say how impressive your productivity is; five articles in under five hours. I’ve been writing for 15 years and never clocked that speed. What’s your secret? Had you completed your source interviews and/or research already? How much of your day is spent on those tasks?

    • Nicole says:

      About half of what I write is research-lite. I recently did a piece for SparkLife about my first crush, for example. Being able to do those kind of pieces, or short pop-culture reaction pieces, is one of the reasons why I have such a high productivity rate.

  • Dorit Sasson says:

    This is impressive and thank you for sharing, Nicole! My problem is that as I need to juggle part time freelancing with a part time teaching job and that means making sure I have a consistent stream of part-time clients. This is very hard to manage as I am having a hard time finding clients. What does one do? How does one find a steady stream of clients?

    • Nicole says:

      One client at a time. As cliche as that sounds, getting one good client helps you connect with more clients—first because you get a steady byline that potential clients will see, and second because your good client will start referring you to other clients!

      Getting one good, steady client is really the first step.

  • Gina says:

    Nicole, you’re a machine! Thanks for breaking things down and giving us insight into your writing business. Great work:-)

  • Daryl says:

    Congrats on pulling in more than you billed Nicole! One step closer to your dream apartment! 🙂 With cupboards and everything!

  • Laurie says:

    Nicole, I am terribly impressed with your productivity (number of articles) and the sheer number of words you are creating! You are sure beating me out on that score! I’m also impressed with your willingness to be open about your income.

    Just one note on that — writers need to remember that 15% of net income (after business deductions) goes toward self-employment tax (SS.Medicare) on top of federal and state. (You are lucky to have no state tax — I was from WA and miss that!)

    Also, if a writer is married and their spouse’s income pushes them up into a higher tax bracket, all income from the second earner is in that higher bracket. That bumps my own self-employment income into the 25% tax bracket (just federal) so with that, plus state, plus self-employment tax, taxes eat half my income! OUCH. Thank goodness for office in the home deductions! And it makes me realize how crucial it is to earn more per article.

    I worry about the hours you’re putting in, so even if your tax rate is lower, I think with your savvy you could do better yourself by earning the same income but with fewer hours/article sales, by working for higher paying markets. Print magazines pay an average of .25 to .50 per word, with some paying $1 per word.

    Yes, the process takes longer — crafting a query, waiting for a response, then getting a contract for an article, writing it, then payment (preferably on acceptance, not on publication). But one of my recent articles sold for 80 cents a word ($1100 for a 1400 word article), plus paid $300 more for photos. Imagine selling 5 to 10 articles a month instead of 90. Some do require research (while online articles can be written quickly, off-the-cuff ) but you can reuse your research for additional articles.

    10 cents a word was low even back in 1988 when I first started selling to magazines, and it seems that must be close to what you’re getting for some of your articles. Writer’s Market books list many publications with much higher rates. Plus you can sell first rights only to a magazine, meaning you still own the material. That means you can resell the same article repeatedly, (in a way turning each article into passive income too) plus use it again in your own book material.

    That all said, you have DEFINITELY motivated me to get crackin’ with my own production level!

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks! I have a CPA to help me with my tax deductions, and the 20% was his recommendation.

      And yeah, figuring out the higher markets is definitely a long-term goal. Right now I am really happy with my clients and the work I’m doing, so it makes sense to stay here for a while, especially since many of my client relationships are less than a year old. Building up relationships can lead to referrals, etc. down the line.

    • Lisa Rowan says:

      I’ll jump in with a few cents here: I’m working on moving my freelance work into the fewer posts/higher pay model, but it takes a LOT of time to get there. My own experience has shown it’s just like climbing a ladder: this mid-sized outlet that pays $250 for 1200 words wants to see some proof that I’ve written for $100/post outlets. The $350/1200 wants wants to see my $250 post run before they assign something. But, as you mentioned, landing those higher-paying pitches, going through research and multiple editing rounds, etc. – that takes time – and sometimes even longer to get paid.

      In short: a writer can’t rely on building up those high-profile clips if they want to pay the bills that are coming in now. But being able to show solid relationships and a great set of clips down the line is also valuable for long-term growth.

  • Congrats on hitting your goal! $5000 a month is awesome!

    Personally, though, I could never commit to spending that much time working. I’m a part-time freelancer working from home with my baby. I average 15 – 20 hour workweeks, and I’d say only 10 – 12 of those hours are spent writing. The rest is email, admin, research, connecting with sources, etc. I’m consistently hitting more than $2000/month.

    I’d love to earn more, but even if I didn’t have the baby, I’d never be ok with working 50 hours a week. That defeats the point of freelancing for me since the main appeal, as far as I’m concerned, is the freedom of working for yourself. (I’m a lenient “boss” who likes taking lots of vacations, 3-day weekends, and midday breaks.) Since I’m at capacity with writing work but would still like to increase my earnings, my current focus is on creating passive income and monetizing my blog.

    Thanks for sharing the income reports! It’s always good to see what other freelancers are doing.

    • Nicole says:

      $2000/month for 20 hour workweeks is great! That’s roughly what I’m earning, just I put in more hours. Right? 🙂

      Also, passive income is awesome.

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks for sharing these reports, Nicole!! They are so helpful!

    I currently work between 3-5 hours per day. Today, for example, I worked from 9-11am, picked up my girls from daycare, got them down for a nap and worked again from 12:30-1:30. I wrote three articles during that time plus did emails and some stuff on social media. I might write one more article tonight, but it’s not due for a week so there’s no rush 🙂

    Right now, I consider myself a part-time freelancer. My income has been hovering around $1200 the past few months but this month will be closer to $2800!! (A record for me!!) My goal for now is to make $2500-$3000 per month…I don’t know if I could make more than that since I have two little ones at home with me most of the time.

    Awesome job with surpassing your goal of $5K a month!! I say ride it out until a great opportunity comes your way! 🙂

    – Sarah

  • Nicole, thanks for sharing this information. I appreciate your transparency, as it helps me to imagine myself freelancing full-time. This scenario is similar to what I imagined my workload might be like, and I’m excited to give it a try. Currently I am a landscape designer working from my home office, so my time is divided. I spend a lot of time studying freelancing and learning from various sites. Thanks for validating that time spent reading is work, too. I think we do need to keep abreast of what is out there, as well as find inspiration. Social media is important, too, as it is a form of networking. Here’s to setting new goals!

    • Nicole says:

      Writers absolutely need to read. Knowing what’s going on in the world nearly always influences what I write.

      And yay for setting goals!

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