So You Want to be a Freelancer: Five Reasons to Reconsider

I’ve been working entirely as a freelancer since we returned from our trip in October 2009. Nice, right?

Well, actually, until recently, I wasn’t entirely sure freelancing was the life for me.  To be honest, the first 1.5 years of my freelancing career were a bit rocky. I was underemployed to put it optimistically, and I actually missed a fair few things about office life. However, in the past couple of months, I’ve decided that freelancing is indeed what I want to do. It didn’t hurt that my hard work finally began to pay off with contracts and freelance work, but it was a stint back in the office as a contract worker and a subsequent offer for a full time job that made me realize I am actually right where I want to be (or at least on the right path).

What I have learned since starting out as a freelancer, however, is that freelancing is not quite the peaches and cream that you imagine it will be when you sit in a cubicle daydreaming. It has plenty of positives, believe me, but it has its share of negatives as well. So, for those of you considering making a jump into the murky depths of freelancing, let me try to talk you out of it. Here are five reasons why you  might want to reconsider.

(If they don’t make you change your mind, tune back in next week for reasons why freelancing is indeed the bee’s knees and then a subsequent post with tips on how to make the leap to full time freelancer.)

1. It can be lonely.
As a freelancer, it’s generally you, your desk, and your computer (or whatever it is you work on). Sure, you can take your work anywhere you want—to the back porch hammock, the coffee shop down the street, or a beach on the Carolina coast. There might be other people around in those places, but let’s face it, the guy working on his novel at the coffee shop probably isn’t looking to be interrupted by some dude he doesn’t know. As a freelancer you don’t have a coworker who you can commiserate with about a project or convince to go on a coffee break with you. There’s no cubicle wall to peer over, no office to pop in on. And while you might be free to go for a beer at 2:30 in the afternoon, your office-dwelling friends probably aren’t, and really, afternoon drinking by yourself is cause for concern. As a freelancer, you need to be either really, really good at alone time or have a pool of freelance friends to drink with mid-afternoon.

2. The work can be inconsistent.
As a freelancer, the best type of work is that in which you’re guaranteed a certain number of hours of work per week. Unfortunately, those gigs are few and far between. Instead, what you tend to find is a lot of project-based work, which basically translates to a couple of days or a couple of weeks of intense work and then a good few weeks of no work from that particular client. Ideally, when one client’s work dries up, another client’s work kicks in, but in reality, what seems to most happen, is that all your clients need all your time all at once. And because each client is your boss and because you want to keep your boss happy, you can’t really call a meeting and say you’re overwhelmed and ask for a bit of help with the workload. (This is especially true as a newbie, when you’re taking all the work you can get and don’t yet have the luxury of being selective.) In the end, this means you’ll have some weeks where you’re working ten hours a day every day of the week, weekends included, and some weeks where you’re lucky to work one full day. Your only constant is irregularity, so if you thrive on a schedule and routine, you might want to reconsider. Every day is a brand new game in the freelance world.

3. And thus the pay can be inconsistent.

When I worked in an office, #2 was true for me there as well. Some weeks I had a ton to do; other weeks I spent most of my time reading blogs. The thing is—and this is a big thing so pay attention—with an office job they pay you even if you don’t do a damn thing all day. As a freelancer, that’s not the case. You only get paid for the hours you actually work. Which means some weeks you might be pulling in the big bucks, and some weeks you  might not get paid at all. If you live hand-to-mouth, this is a not a good thing. It’s also a hard thing for budget keepers, because you never really know how much you’re going to make. Also, as a freelancer, you’re going to have to chase money more often than you’d like. Not all clients are good at paying on time. There’s no direct deposit every two weeks. There’s a check here and a check there, here a check, there a check, definitely not everywhere a check. Give some good hard thought to your comfort level with this kind of financial uncertainty before telling your boss you’re no longer interested in receiving a check from him.

4. Your hourly wage is not nearly as big as it looks.

When you tell people what you charge as a freelancer, you often get looks of amazement, as in “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” And on first examination, it often is. However, if you live in America, you immediately need to knock 15% off that number. That’s how much you have to pay in self-employment taxes to cover the portion of things your employer usually pays for, such as Social Security. Now you have your base pay, from which you will still have to pay income tax (on a self-reported quarterly basis). The self-employment tax is entirely different. Then consider the fact that you’re not getting health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation or sick days, and no employer contributions to a retirement plan. Figure out how much those things are going to cost for you to cover yourself. Divide that out and subtract it from the rate. Then look at the number. It’s not so high now, is it? Now this isn’t to say that freelance pay is bad. It can, in fact, be very, very good, depending on what field you’re in and what clients you find. But when you’re setting your rate, be sure to factor in all the oft-overlooked costs that will be coming out of that money. It’s more than you think.

5. You must constantly look for work.

Job hunting sucks. It’s always a relief to get a job and be able to tuck that resume and reference list away in a drawer and forget about it. If you’re a freelancer, however, you don’t get to do that. Your resume and references should be getting a constant workout. The nature of freelance work is that it is fluid. You never know when work from a client is going to dry up or when a client  might decide it’s easier for them to hire someone in-house to do the work you’ve been doing as a freelancer. To avoid being left high and dry, freelancers must constantly be looking for work, following new leads, making connections, and maintaining relationships with current and previous clients. During both weeks when you have five hours of work and weeks when you have fifty hours of work, you’ve got to keep up the hunt. It’s hard work, and you don’t get paid for it, but you’ll end up not getting paid at all if you don’t do it.

7 thoughts on “So You Want to be a Freelancer: Five Reasons to Reconsider”

  1. You do realize if you go to the bar in the afternoon and take your work, then that negates any cause for concern. In that situation, the bar becomes a mobile office.

    I’d add one point, not as a freelancer, but as someone who runs into the same “it can be lonely” issue as a college instructor. While working from home can be nice, you lose that “coming home” feeling at the end of the day. If I work/write at home all day, that’s the last place I want to be at night. Along the same lines, you lose that home/office divide. My home is my office (except for the crappy cubicle I have at school). My home computer is my work computer. My kitchen is the office kitchen. I spend significant time at home. And it kind of ruins home for me. (I talked to Dad about this recently since he has worked from home forever).

    That might be the reason I’m at the coffee shop right now. Just couldn’t take looking at the same wall today. Maybe I’ll like that wall more tomorrow.

  2. I almost added that one, but I wasn’t finding the words to say what I wanted to say. I think you summed it up well though. I’m usually a homebody, but working at home makes me much more interested in going out. When Jeff gets home every evening, I’m immediately asking him if he wants to go somewhere or do something. He’s ready to veg; I’m ready to get out of the house. Cabin fever of sorts.

  3. The good news is that, as you mentioned, eventually all the hard work and persistence pays off. I used to pitch, pitch, pitch all the time, with few (or sometimes, no) responses. (People think this kind of job is glamorous, but they don’t see the behind the scenes.) And six years after I started as a freelancer, I rarely pitch as I’m given so much work from past employers/publications and can barely keep up working seven days a week to fulfill those assignments as it is. And then you can work your a$$ off for five months straight and take two months off as I’m about to do–I don’t think Corporate America allows for that!

    So there is a pot of gold at the end of a very, very long rainbow.

    That said, it definitely takes a specific type of person. I don’t think this is a career for the masses.

  4. I totally see myself in all the points you make. Freelancing is so hard, true people think it’s the dream job, and to some extent it is, but who is not a freelancer doesn’t really understand the feel of such an unstable financial situation, that some months you have so much work that you think you can’t make it, and some other months you have no work and you spend your time worrying and looking for gigs.
    This being said, I like it, and I don’t miss my albeit short office life 🙂

  5. It may be tough and requires hard work but it can be a very profitable job if you have the skills required and patience in the beginning when you don’t have a portfolio to show to your contractors but once you get the experience you will find out that it is a top earning job. Of course as you said someone cannot expect to be a millionaire and requires hard work to get a decent income

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