The Con’s Of Freelancing

Recently I wrote a two-part post entitled “How To Bid Out A Project” (Part 1 and Part 2). One of the first things I mentioned was that, to cover expenses, a freelancer needs to charge much more per hour than he/she would normally make as a salaried employee. There has been some discussion of my article on another website, and someone apparently misunderstood my comments to mean that freelancing is a great way to get rich quick.

I can assure you, it is not.

That got me thinking, there are probably a lot of misconceptions about freelancing out there. So I’ve decided to list a few of the pro’s and con’s of freelancing, straight from the horses mouth. I’ve been freelancing for over ten years, so I know of what I speak.

I don’t want to start positive and then end on a negative note, so I’ll cover the “con’s” first. Tomorrow I’ll touch on some of the “pro’s”. If this post is a bit of a downer to read, I don’t mean it to be. I enjoy freelancing very much! In my view the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. But I want to paint a fair and honest picture for anyone who may be considering freelancing as a career.

Con #1: Job Insecurity. For most freelancers, every project is temporary. You are perpetually unemployed in the sense that you are always looking for more work. You may be pulling all-nighters one week and twiddling your thumbs the next. There is no guarantee that you will have any work to do after your current project is over. This leads to…

Con #2: Financial Stress. As a freelancer your income can fluxuate wildly from month to month, and your checking account balance can go up and down like a roller-coaster. Clients are often slow to pay (you may not see a check until several weeks after the project is finished), yet the bills keep coming with military efficiency. I once went two months without a paycheck and then had three large checks show up in my mailbox all on the same day.

To help keep things a little more manageable, I have two checking accounts: one for my business and one for my personal life. I deposit all my client payments into the business account, and then twice a month I pay myself a “salary” from the business account into the personal account.

There are also a lot of extra expenses that come with freelancing. Besides spending money on advertising, computer equipment, and art supplies, you are also responsible for your health insurance, retirement fund, and other benefits. There’s no such thing as a paid vacation. And self-employed people usually get hit a lot harder around tax time.

Early in my career I lied awake many a night worrying about my financial situation and asking myself, “What on earth am I doing?”. To be honest, that still happens occasionally but far less often.

Con #3: Loneliness. Freelancing is a solitary existence. I work alone all day, every day. If I get a big project with a really tight deadline, I may even go two or three days without ever stepping outside. Being an introvert I don’t mind all that much, especially since it means I can work with few interruptions. But it does get to me after a while. I often listen to the radio, TV, iTunes, podcasts, DVD commentaries, etc. just to hear other human voices in the background while I’m working. I also try to attend as many professional events and parties as I can just to get a taste of being connected to the outside world.

Con #4: Anxiety. As a freelancer you live in a constant tension. You are either anxious because there is not enough work to pay the bills, or you are anxious because there is too much work and you don’t know how you can possibly get it all done in time to meet the deadlines. Rarely do you find yourself in a comfortable medium.

My friend and fellow freelancer Tom Richmond has observed that no matter how busy you get, there is always the nagging worry that the project you are currently working on could be your last. If your plate is full and another client calls with a project, the temptation is to say “yes” and then try to somehow squeeze it in to your schedule even if it means little sleep and no social life for several days. This is a problem I constantly struggle with (just ask my friends and family who are sick of hearing how busy I am).

Con #5: Time Management Issues. A freelancer has to be good at time management. One of the worst thing you can ever do is blow a deadline. With the freedom of working at home comes the temptation to indulge in distractions. The internet (blogs, YouTube, etc.), email, books, magazines, TV shows, video games, phone calls from friends, interruptions from family members…they can all be like little termites eating into your workday. Procrastination is a freelancers worst enemy.

Con #6: Fuzzy Boundaries. Most freelancers work at home, which blurs the lines between your career and your personal life. My studio is just a few steps down the hall, so I never truly feel like I’ve left work and come home. There’s no separation.

Because I set my own hours, friends and relatives often assume that I can make myself available anytime they need me. And of course, because of the loneliness factor the temptation to get out of the house can be a powerful one. Over the years I’ve had to work hard to try and establish boundaries for when I can and can’t be interrupted.

If you just read this short list, you might get the impression that freelancing is a lousy way to make a living. Personally I’ve found the opposite to be true. Of course freelancing is not for everyone, but there are a lot of positives that can far outweigh the negatives. I’ll dance, skip, and sing through those tomorrow.

[EDIT: A few days after writing this post I stumbled upon a nifty article: 8 Common Misconceptions About Freelancers.]