For the first few months of my freelance career, I said yes to everything. I was desperate to impress clients, establish a name for myself, and earn something resembling a living wage. I didn’t know that saying “no” is important to a freelancer’s bottom line, so I packed my schedule with low-paying assignments, working like crazy for minimal return.
I now realistically evaluate how much work will go into a project, discuss the fee if necessary, and consider whether any one-offs could lead to regular assignments. Other lessons I learned the hard way: How to write a solid invoice, the details of negotiation, and how financial planning works when your income is uncertain.
After years as a staff writer and editor, freelancing was a rude awakening — both financially and in terms of time management. I focus better at night, but it took me weeks to feel comfortable breaking away from the 9-to-6 routine my office jobs required. Plus, going from a big in-office team to working alone in my apartment was lonely at first. It’s been a bumpy few months, and there were several times when I thought I’d made a huge mistake. But I’ve now hit my stride, and freelancing has taught me many lessons about running a small business and managing my finances.
Budgeting Differently, And Keeping Track Of Everything
Most freelancers, myself included, don’t have the luxury of receiving a single paycheck every two weeks with taxes already deducted. I currently have about six regular clients, and anywhere from one to seven one-off projects a month. Some clients pay me by check, others by direct deposit, Paypal, or cash. Some pay within 30 days, others within 90, and some require months of chasing. In short, I need to keep immaculate records.
Other freelancers and digital nomads recommended software like Trello, Asana, and Completo, but after some trial and error I committed to a simple Google Spreadsheet. I track every filed invoice along with dates, the contact’s name, what the invoice was for, and whether I’ve been paid or not. Color-coding helps me see what’s outstanding, and my ever-growing spreadsheet allows me to predict my monthly income. I use the same system to log pitches, active work, and completed work.
Paying taxes as a freelancer is a headache, so I consulted my husband’s tax professional. Getting a grip on estimated taxes, as well as learning which expenses would be deductible, helped me budget smarter. I put a percentage of my income aside for quarterly tax payments, and keep solid records on tax-deductible items like business-related travel and home office expenses. I have mapped out my income for the next couple of months based solely on signed contracts, meaning that additional earnings will be a welcome bonus I can drop straight into savings. And I’m hopeful that I can make my budget work through any dry spells in the future by relying on that savings cushion.
A New System For Measuring Worth
At my salaried office jobs, I used mental gymnastics to justify things like online shopping or dining out. I would calculate how many work hours it would take me to earn the dollar amount of the item or experience in question. A coat that cost eight work hours? Not worth it. A dinner worth two work hours? Much more reasonable.
But pricing my services by the hour actually put me at a disadvantage when I began to freelance. Considering how much a project is worth overall, versus how long it would take to complete, has boosted my income — and made it much easier to explain my rates to clients.
If a client balks at my requested fee, I encourage them not to think of me solely as a writer for hourly hire. I’ll pull relevant examples of past work to send over, then explain how I research and report each project. I also discuss how I emulate a brand’s voice and values, again with examples. Putting my work into context makes it easier to negotiate a higher fee.
Knowing my work’s value also makes it easier to decline certain opportunities. For example, if I’m working with an editor for the first time, I will typically agree to write a short article on spec (meaning there’s no guarantee I’ll get paid; I write the whole story and they pay for it if they like it). This is a show of good faith on both sides, and a chance for me to impress a new potential client. But it’s not in my best interests to write on spec for an editor I have successfully worked with before, or to do any extensive reporting without a signed contract that includes a kill fee stipulation (that I’ll still get paid a certain amount even if the story doesn’t get published). Sometimes, the best thing for my bottom line is simply to walk away.
Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate
I always want my clients to be pleased with my work, so I aim to be pleasant, communicative, and flexible. But that doesn’t mean being a pushover. I will politely negotiate deadlines when necessary, ensuring that I have enough time for each project. Earlier this year, an editor gave me just two weeks to file a heavily reported, 3,000-word feature. I was so excited to work on a longer piece that I didn’t push back, and the article suffered because of it. I couldn’t get interviews with my ideal sources in time, research was rushed, and I knew I could have filed a much better piece if given an extra week or two. Now I make sure to gauge a client’s expectations within a certain timeline, and request more time depending on their asks.
Then there’s the fee negotiations. When I worked in an office, I only ever discussed my salary during annual performance reviews. But freelancing means talking about money multiple times a week, so you quickly learn to be upfront. If an editor is interested in your idea, and you’d like to work with them, chances are you’ll reach a satisfactory agreement. If you can’t, there’s always a professional and respectful way to table the conversation, like offering to come back to them when their budget has increased or you have developed other skills they are looking for.
Establishing a freelance writing career requires a lot of scrambling and uncertainty, which are two things I previously avoided at all costs. But it jolted me out of complacency and forced me to become much smarter about my time and money– and a better worker all around.
Nina Bahadur is a writer and editor based in New York City.