The High Cost of Freelancing

Devon Campbell | Frontend & Python Thinkful alum | Portfolio

My life has completely changed since I decided to stop looking for a full-time job to go the freelance route just under a year ago. The timing was perfect. I had recently gotten full custody of my daughter. She came to live with me full-time. Because of this flexibility, I was able to be there for her and help her make the adjustment. I was able to be there for my wife while she recovered from foot surgery. I was home throughout the day while we had some repairs done on our house.

The flexibility of freelancing manifests in smaller ways too. I can go to the store during the day and pick up something we’ll need in the evening. I’ll be able to chaperone my daughter’s first field trip in the 4th grade this Friday. I’m home when UPS comes by with a delivery.

I’ve only been freelancing for about a year, but I already don’t think I could go back. It’s not just the flexibility. I hate being told what to do. I’m not inflexible or unreasonable, but I like to practice those things on my terms. Surely 13 years of public education and then some post-secondary education on top of that do not culminate in depending on other people to think for you all day every day.This sort of lifestyle not only gives me flexibility, but it helps me satisfy my sense of self. I’m a person who makes my own path. Freelancing lets me be that person all day every day.

It’s easy to find the benefits of freelancing, but, as with any lifestyle change, it also has significant costs. Countless articles and posts recount the advantages. This post serves as the reality check: here’s how much you’re going to have to pay to get there.

If you’re like me, you’ll naively assume you’re going to start freelancing, and people will show up with work for you to do. When you’re done with those jobs, more people will be there waiting for you. You’ll simply need to keep practicing your craft and the rest will take care of itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. More likely, you’re going to be practicing your craft 30-40% of your working day and making the business work for the rest.

You’ll need to be an accountant. You’ll track all your expenses and what you’re making. You’ll need to get at least marginally familiar with local and federal tax law to determine how it applies to your business. In doing this myself, I learned that my home state of Tennessee taxes web development services. This could have been an extremely expensive mistake to make. You’ll track mileage, save receipts, and fill out tax forms. On some level, all these things are interesting, but none are very fun.

Have any experience with marketing and sales? No? You say you only know how to write code or make cool art and why would you ever need to know anything about marketing? All that is going to change. This is a critical part of your business. Not many of us are lucky enough to have word about us spread magically such that we end up with the perfect amount of work. More likely, you’re going to be figuring out what it takes to find people who need your services and how to convince them to choose you over someone else. If this part doesn’t work, your freelance career won’t last very long.

Time management is another critical skill you’ll need to develop and practice. You probably know something about this, but you may have trouble coping with the fact that you’re working from home most of the time. You could be doing so many other things besides work — some of them productive like cleaning the house or mowing the lawn, others more self-indulgent like sneaking in a few minutes of Diablo 3 on lunch break. Family tends to look at you quite differently too. They’re not going to get you in trouble with the boss if they call at 10am to ask you a favor. They don’t really even understand what you’re doing, so they assume you’re probably just hanging around the house. You have to have the willpower and maybe even a system to combat all these.

It’s tough getting past that initial shock of not being able to do what you probably think of as “work” for eight hours a day. You’ll fight against it. You’ll hate all these other things that interrupt you and pull you away. You will also grow by learning how they work, how everything fits together, and how to run all aspects of the business.

You’re probably going to be doing this alone much of the time. Even though 50 million other people work this way, many of us do it alone. This is the thing I miss most about full-time work even as an introvert. I like being alone and working alone, but I miss the personal development that comes from being around people who are better than me in one way or another. The Internet is full of such people, but it’s a far cry from working with these people everyday toward the same goal. The social connections you would have made with these coworkers are extremely valuable too.

I point out all these downfalls not to dissuade you from trying freelancing. It would be extremely difficult to go back to a full-time position at this point even in spite of the high cost. I do think its important to start freelancing with your eyes open though. The realities of it could easily shock you right back into the cubicle. As long as you understand what it takes and make peace with that, freelancing can let you finally have a professional life on your own terms.