Top Five Tips for Freelancers

Honestly, when people tell me they want to work freelance as a writer, designer, or miscellaneous other, I quiver. I am you in the future, I think, and it’s not an easy road. Freelancing is a hustle, no way around it. I am constantly updating my client load, always reworking my portfolio, my website, my pay structure, I have been on deadline every single day for the past four years. I work freelance because I need the flexibility in my schedule *need* being the operative word here. The greatest misconception about freelancing or contract work is the idea that all negatives are outweighed by the freedom to work whenever or wherever you want.

In some sense this is true. I have odd hours, because I work with clients in drastically different time zones–not because I’d rather sleep ’till 9am. I can work from anywhere with a strong internet connection, but my productivity slides depending on where I am. If you think freelance is an easy way out of the standard 9-5 though, you’d be wrong. There is something really comforting about getting the same paycheck every two weeks, that you will never get with freelancing. If, though, you’re like me and stubborn above any reasonable degree, and think that freelancing is your kinda gig here are the tips I wish I knew earlier.

Never Negotiate Against Yourself

Just like any other job interview, when you’re meeting with potential clients it is deadly to be unprepared–particularly when it pertains to money. Whether you charge hourly, per project, or a tiered payment structure you need to have those details sorted out before your meeting. Look up comparable rates for your type of work and experience, and stick with your number. When asked for your hourly, do not hesitate. There are plenty of people who want to undermine your value in this industry without your help. If you waver, they will immediately question whether or not you’re worth it.

And here’s a dirty secret about money: the client you’re interviewing knows exactly how much they have to spend on your work. So whether you negotiate down your hourly (don’t do this), or quote a shorter amount of time to get the work done, you will still end up within their parameters. If your hourly is too high, you’ll get a sense of this pretty quickly, because you’ll stop landing clients. There’s a sweet spot, between too little and too much. This takes time to learn, and it’s somewhat instinctual. You’ll know when you’re on the mark.

Retainer Agreements Are Your Best Friend

The worst part about freelancing is the uncertainty. There are weeks when I’m working 60+ hours, followed by weeks I’m working 10 hours. The inconsistency can be hard to budget for, which is why you should always consider adding a retainer agreement to your contract. Basically, this states that you will work a minimum of x hours per month, at a rate of x dollars per hour. If you go over that amount you charge your regular hourly, but contractually you can never drop below that threshold. If you do less work than your monthly retainer, the cost is considered a reservation on your time.

Don’t Let Your Taxes Screw You

You’re a contract employee, which means you have to withhold your own taxes. There are a million resources online that can help you calculate exactly how much you should be taking out of each paycheck, but my pro tip is this: create a separate bank account just for your taxes, and whatever you do, do not touch this money. It’s really tempting to treat that as a rainy day fund, but tax season is always sooner than you think.

If you’re making a genuine salary, you should also consider switching to quarterly taxes. That means you pay twice a year instead of one lump sum at the end of the year. It can also help with budgeting, and if you save more than you needed you can end up getting a pseudo return. On the tax note, always make sure you’re as above-board as possible. Not only does this make you look more professional, but it helps with filing down the line. When you sign a new client you should have your contract and W9 ready to go.

Find A Place Where You Can Get Serious Work Done

Yes you can work from anywhere, but it won’t take you long to realize that your quality of work depends on where you work. If you need a closed door office, it may be worth budgeting for a desk at a co-working space. Be rigid in guarding your work time, even if your hours are slightly off the typical 9-5, be sure to have a distinct eight hour day to get work completed.

Know what conditions correspond to your highest level of productivity and keep it consistent on a daily basis. Your work will suffer if you’re continually popping around coffee shops, or working from bed, or on the road.

Always Be Learning

This is basically just a tip for life, but it’s something to remember if you’re just starting out as a freelancer. There are thousands of people just like you, scraping by on six-month stints as editors, writers, and creative directors, if you stagnate in your skills, you will fall behind. Learn some skills that can help you differentiate yourself from the crowd. Take crash courses like photoshop, HTML, or SEO. It is always nice to have a robust toolbox of talents related to your industry.

Aside from this, find yourself a freelance friend. Someone who’s come before you and has figured things out a titch. My most valuable advice has come from my friend who started his company two years before me. Some of his tips are obvious, others more profound, but all of them I failed to think of myself.

Let me know your top tips by commenting below.


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