For years, I thought freelancing and financial stability were wholly incompatible.
Only recently have I learned that not only can freelancers find stability, but also that they must. There is no boss to proffer constancy, no HR department to steady the ground beneath our feet; we must find security within ourselves. Fortunately, I’ve been freelancing for six years, and I’ve got a few tricks to share. All gleaned via trial and error. I’m no wiser than anyone else; I’ve simply failed more times.
Routines, Routines, Routines
First, stick to a routine. You don’t have to do this 100% of the time—one of the most appealing parts of freelancing is if you don’t have a lot of work, you can (and should) take Wednesday afternoons off. Indeed, the entire premise of MoviePass was “freelancers don’t make a lot of money and need something to do Wednesdays at 2.” To be fair, MoviePass failed—but both of those facts are correct. Eighty percent of freelancers choose freelancing in order to have more independence, so I don’t want to recommend too much rigidity.
Still, I support routines. I’m only able to maintain any sense of stability if I remind myself I’m adaptable. You cannot control the amount of work you have, but you can control your own schedule. During light periods in my early years, I’d eschew productivity when I didn’t have a contract. But I became stressed that I would forget how to stick to a schedule, that I would become accustomed to only three hours of daily work.
As such, I recommend trying to work approximately the same number of hours every week, no matter how much work you have. I’m an enormous fan of taking breaks (some might call me the Swiftie of Vacations), but I’d recommend planning those in advance, rather than simply taking time off when work is slow. Don’t overdo it, of course—on easy weeks, you can work the low-end of your normal schedule, or take on tasks unrelated to your careers. (Did you know refrigerator coils needed to be vacuumed!?). Still, keeping your days structured makes it easier to fall back into a productive rhythm when you have a larger project.
Stabilize The Rest Of Your Life
I also encourage freelancers to stabilize other parts of their lives, if they can. My most difficult working months have been when I’m in an unstable relationship, too. When I had a full-time job, I could tolerate the uncertainty of a man who only texted me after 1 am. Actually, now that I think about it, those are the most predictable types. Anyway, now that I’ve felt the cost of professional instability for years, I’ve changed my view on relationships. I’d rather be alone than permanently wonder if a breakup is imminent. Relationships are just one example, but choose one part of your life to stabilize—whether it be a housing situation, an exercise plan, a hobby.
I recommend thinking about stability in shorter time horizons. The greatest cost of professional instability is mental (well, that’s easy for me to say, as I have not yet tried to retire). As a freelancer, you won’t find that one gig you know will last a decade. Sure, something might end up lasting a decade. For example, for the last 14 years, I’ve fed my aunt’s fish twice a year, but it’s not really enough to buy a house with.
Instead, maybe think about stability in terms of knowing what you’ll be doing for the next several months. For me, this is enough time that I can find brief periods of sanity—and who among us can ever claim more than that? Of course, the job I think will last three months may only last one, but what this strategy offers is periods of time in which I believe I have stability. There’s no such thing as true stability, but I can use the times in which I think my feet are planted to recover from turbulence.
Have A Plan B
As a freelancer, I find it helpful to daydream about my backup plan. In my opinion, rock bottom for freelancers is watching The Office and wondering what Dwight’s health insurance deductible is. Still, it’s happened to me—and honestly, I think it helps. I’ve heard great artists discourage developing a plan b because it lowers the stakes, but for me, it eases my anxiety. I’m not committed to being a freelancer for the rest of my life, and I let myself imagine full-time jobs I might enjoy. It gives me a sense of stability to know that if I needed to, I could be satisfied with another type of career.
This is the most annoying advice of all time, but to the best of your ability, I recommend saving money. Your parents probably tell you to put money in a retirement account, and you should, but that money is very difficult to get back (I would know; it’s the reason I’ve never seen Taylor Swift live). Instead—or in addition—try to save a few month’s of living expenses in cash. In my experience, it takes about a month from someone expressing an interest in hiring me for that money to hit my bank account—which is a much shorter turnaround than full-time jobs. However, that’s a best-case scenario; 74% of freelancers reported not being paid on time at some point in 2022, so having a cushion is never a bad idea. If you save money and continuously source new clients, you may feel a bit steadier.
Above all, I find stability in the reminder that I won’t have stability anyway. There’s really no such thing as predictability in 2023. The planet could explode at any moment! On the bright side, if that happens, I’ll be glad I took risks and never bothered to invest my fish-feeding cash.