Being your own boss can be exciting. The master of your own destiny. The captain of your own ship. But it can also be incredibly stressful. Here are 10 things I wish someone had told me before I became a freelance journalist.
Before I embarked on my career in public relations and communications, I was a journalist. For seven of those years, I was a self-employed freelancer writing for the likes of Fairfax (now known as 9 Newspapers), Bauer Media, and Next Media.
This was back in the heyday of magazine and newspaper publishing, when there were three times as many magazines in circulation as there are today, and online newspapers were still niche enough to not need paywalls.
It was a blast while it lasted, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I learnt a lot of lessons the hard way, and there are plenty of things that I would do differently if I could go back. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Figure out if you can afford to be self-employed.
If it’s a choice between going it alone and working “for the man”, you should sit down and figure out how much you need to earn in order to pay your everyday expenses, save money for particular goals, and also to have some additional money on the side for a rainy day. Once you know that number, figure out whether you can legitimately earn that much with your chosen freelance profession.
2. Run it like it’s a real business.
Because that’s exactly what it is! Invest in some bookkeeping or accounting software, or even just a simple system in Excel, but you need to have a system in place to track your incomings and outgoings, as well as understand your financial position now and in the future. The state of your finances shouldn’t be a guessing game.
3. Have separate bank accounts for invoice payments, personal transactions, and tax.
This would’ve saved me a lot of sleepless nights if I’d just done it from the get-go. I fell into the bad habit of thinking all of the money that came into my account was my money, but it wasn’t. Some of that money belonged to the government in the form of income tax, and when they came calling for it, I wasn’t able to pay it as I’d spent it all!
4. Have an emergency fund good for at least three months of living expenses.
The crappy thing about being self-employed is that you’re not guaranteed work, nor are you paid on a regular basis. This means your income can vary wildly from month to month, and the actual days you get paid can be unpredictable. I recall cycles of $350 one month, nothing for two months, and then $10,000 the next month! Even so-called “regular gigs” can disappear without a moment’s notice. I had a great thing going with one magazine where I wrote up their weekly gadgets column for more than three years. Then one day they told me they were going to take it in-house, and that was that! A $1,500 hole in my monthly income gone in a single ‘Dear John’ email!
5. Pay yourself superannuation.
One of my biggest regrets from my self-employed days was that I didn’t pay myself any superannuation. The truth is that I didn’t even know I needed to do this myself. I didn’t understand what superannuation was or how it worked, and this means I know have a huge hole in my retirement savings and I’m way behind where I should be for my age. If I could go back, I would consolidate all of my super funds (again, something I had no idea about at the time) into a single fund that made it easy to make regular top-ups – and then I would set this up as a direct debit every month. FairVine Super makes this extremely easy, and it has additional savings tools like RoundUps and FairRewards that enable you to contribute more money to your super with minimal impact on your everyday budget.
6. Keep receipts of everything!
You’ll thank yourself come tax time and not needing to run around like a headless chook trying to find receipts. Running a business means you’re able to claim a whole variety of work-related expenses, but you can’t claim them without the requisite documentation. That includes for things like computers, stationery, software, educational materials and public transport. Even things like car expenses, home office expenses, electricity, internet, and mobile phone bills are all claimable.
“One of my biggest regrets from my self-employed days was that I didn’t pay myself any superannuation.”
7. Put yourself out there.
Find all of the relevant mailing lists, platforms, social media groups and discussion forums for your industry, and make yourself known. These platforms typically post job opportunities, and you’ll also be able to connect with your peers – which can be nice if you’re working from home and don’t come into contact with anyone else during the day. You’d be surprised at how often people post leads about work they can’t do themselves.
8. Get yourself a dedicated space for working.
Ideally, this is a different room in the house, as being able to separate from your personal life physically as well as mentally is important. I couldn’t do this when I was freelancing, as the places I lived in didn’t have a separate room or study. Working in the living room or kitchen meant there was no separation between my personal life and work life, so it was difficult for me to relax during my downtime. If I were to go back, I would seriously consider renting a hot desk at one of the many co-working facilities in the city.
9. Set ground rules with family members about how and when they can engage with you while you’re working from home.
Most likely they haven’t been self-employed themselves, and hence don’t understand that being there at home physically doesn’t mean you’re accessible. It’s easy for them – they’ve left their workplace and have come home to relax, but you’re not necessarily in the same boat. You’ll also need to make it clear that you can’t do the housework or cook dinner or any other household errands just because you’re at home. Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often this can be misunderstood. Trust me – getting this out into the open up-front will save a lot of arguments later!
10. Give yourself time off.
Don’t fall into the trap (as I did) of reducing all of the time you have available to dollars and cents. I recall several weekends when an editor would contact me on a Friday afternoon for a last-minute feature story that was due on the Monday. I would think to myself: hmm, I could “waste” the weekend probably doing nothing, or I could make an easy two thousand bucks writing this story. Framed that way, I would always choose the latter, but I failed to value my own need for down-time, and didn’t factor in the strain this would put on my personal relationships. When all of your time is potentially for sale, it’s tempting to undervalue your down-time, but it’s important to prioritise this for the sake of your own mental well being.