More than one in four American workers in every generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, is freelancing, according to the sixth annual “Freelancing in America” study from Upwork and Freelancers Union. But that doesn’t mean that every freelancer—57 million in the U.S., according to the report—worked for themselves full-time.
If you’d like to make freelancing your “real” job, you’ve probably given some thought to whether you can make it work financially. Can you make enough money freelancing, or are you better off staying an employee?
To decide whether to make the leap, ask yourself these questions first.
Is There a Market for Your Services?
We all have friends who’ve embarked on side hustles only to discover that their hobby isn’t necessarily meant to be a career. Often, this is because there just isn’t a market for their passion; or because the market is oversaturated to the point where it’s impossible to make a living.
If you’re going to freelance full-time, you obviously want to figure out whether there’s a demand for your services before you quit your day job. The best way to do that is to get your feet wet while you’re still working full-time (or while you have a part-time job or other income streams to sustain you).
Freelancing while you’re working is also helpful in building up an emergency fund—something that every freelancer needs.
What Does Your Financial Situation Look Like?
Ideally, you’re going into your new career with some savings to tide you over until you start earning (and until clients start paying you, which can take some time). But beyond that, it’s important to have a good idea of your monthly budget before you begin.
What are you looking at in terms of startup costs to get your freelance business off the ground? What are your living expenses right now? Are there expenses you can trim in order to economize while you’re building your business?
Does Freelancing Pay Enough?
Let’s assume that you’re going into freelancing from a full-time job in the same field. Setting your rate should be easy, right? If you’re hourly, it’s just your hourly rate. If you’re salaried, just take your weekly or biweekly paycheck and divide it up by the hours worked.
Well, not quite. If you’re coming from an environment where your employer paid for things like health insurance, retirement benefits, sick time, and so on, you also have to calculate the approximate worth of those contributions. Some employers offer total compensation statements on an annual basis that include the value of these benefits. Failing that, you may be able to figure out an approximate number from your pay stub.
You should also take into account self-employment tax, which covers the Social Security and Medicare contributions that would otherwise be paid by an employer.
However, even after you’ve figured all that out, you still won’t necessarily know how much you can earn from freelancing. Why? Because your rate isn’t based on your salary history or an employer’s assessment of your skills. It’s based on what the market will bear. Depending on what you do, that might be considerably more (or sadly, less) than what you were making before.
To get an idea of what you should be charging, put social media to work for you.
Look for networking groups geared toward your industry and focus. Most will include some frank discussions about rates, and some will even provide a rate sheet with ranges.
Are You Organized (or Willing to Get Organized)?
One of the biggest mistakes new freelancers make is not having a system. When you work for yourself, you’re responsible for keeping track of the work you’ve done, billing for your efforts, and paying taxes on your earnings. If you’re not willing to deal with these less-than-glamorous aspects of freelancing, you might be better off sticking with your full-time job.
If you’re someone who’s uncomfortable with math, don’t let the idea of billing/collecting/paying scare you away. There are lots of free personal finance packages out there to help you stay on top of things. Plus, you might discover that it’s incredibly satisfying to keep track of money that you made pursuing your dreams.
Just make sure that you keep taxes in mind. Freelancers and other contract workers must pay their taxes quarterly, instead of once a year, and they’re also responsible for self-employment tax. Plan on budgeting 25% to 30% of your earnings for taxes.
Can You Manage Your Time?
For some people, freelancing full-time isn't a realistic option. They need the routine of an office schedule to be productive. If you could comfortably sleep until noon and aren’t good at meeting deadlines, being a freelancer might not be the career path for you. It’s important to understand what you need to be successful.
There’s no shame in needing the discipline of an employer-employee relationship. Some people like their schedules planned out. Others enjoy seeing their coworkers every day, or find valuable mentors in their bosses, or just want to get out of the house and into grown-up clothes. Those are all excellent reasons to work for someone else.
If, however, you prefer to work independently even when you have a full-time job and you’re a self-starter who doesn’t need a lot of supervision, freelancing might be the perfect fit for you.
Can You Be Flexible?
Freelancing is always changing. Rates go up and down, clients appear and disappear, industry trends take over and then fade. Change is an exciting aspect of freelancing. You’ll never be bored. But it can also be scary, even if you’re someone who usually rolls with the punches.
The most successful freelancers aren’t just hardworking and creative. They are also flexible and resilient. If you can adapt, you can survive and even thrive in this challenging career.