I Accidentally Became a Freelancer -- and I Love It

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  • I had to leave a job when I moved out of state, so I started freelancing until I found another one, but ended up enjoying it so much that I never stopped.
  • Freelancing can be scary at first, but you can prepare for the move ahead of time by researching and budgeting.
  • Freelancers can tailor their work-life balance and take ownership of and pride in their work.

Sometimes, the best thing for us is the thing we weren't expecting.

The idea of freelancing used to intimidate me. It seemed so unreliable, and frankly scary, to not know what each paycheck was going to look like or where it was going to come from. I'd rather keep my full-time job with its free snacks and paid vacation time, thank you very much. But as it turns out, I'm really well-suited to the freelancing lifestyle, and it's hard for me to think of going back now. I may have started freelancing as a stopgap between jobs, but here's how it turned into something I truly enjoy.

Stepping out on my own

In 2018, my husband and I made the decision to move from California to Wisconsin, and I had to leave a job I loved at a book publisher in San Francisco. We have family in Wisconsin and were already familiar with the area, but I had no job prospects lined up ahead of time, and we had no idea where we were going to live. One of my responsibilities at work had been hiring freelance copy editors and proofreaders for book projects, so I decided to join their ranks and do freelance work during our move until we settled into our new city. My very definite, not-going-to-change plan was to get a full-time job as soon as I could.

Fast forward four years, and here I am, working 40-plus hours a week with no set employer, and it's great. All the benefits people tout about freelancing, like a flexible schedule and being able to accept only the work you're interested in, have been true for me, too. But I've also discovered how rewarding working for myself can be. I was so proud the first time I realized my income was higher as a freelancer than what it was at my previous job. I did that. I built that all up by myself, and I felt like I'd truly earned every dollar. It was a real boost to my confidence to realize I actually could make it on my own.

Building a client base

I was very grateful that I'd been able to interact with a lot of freelancers in my industry before I started doing it myself. It allowed me to gain familiarity with the process from the outside, and that was a tremendous help when I left my job in San Francisco. If you're considering a move to freelance work, I'd suggest doing research ahead of time, and even reaching out to freelancers in your desired field, so you can get an idea of what you can expect.

It also helped that I had contacts at a few publishing companies thanks to my previous job. I let them know when I began freelancing that I was available for work, and that allowed me to have a client base right from the start. That may not be the case for everyone, but if you can do some networking before you take the plunge, you may be able to have work lined up early on.

Budgeting for a fluctuating income

One of the most worrisome aspects of going out on your own is having to depend on an unreliable income. Some months are busier than others, and some jobs pay less than you'd like. I've found the key is to know how to budget so you're not caught unprepared during a down period.

It took me a good six months to figure out what I could expect to make on average. Once I had that number, I started basing my budget around what a slow month's income looked like. That way, I knew that I could live comfortably on the lower end of my pay, but would likely bring in more that I could add to my savings account.

I also made it a point to put aside a certain amount to pay my taxes each quarter. I didn't realize at first that freelancers pay taxes quarterly, but thankfully I had enough set aside that first year to pay that bill. From then on, I started budgeting for that ahead of time, so I knew I wouldn't have to dip into my emergency fund to pay my taxes every few months.

I also want to acknowledge that I was very lucky that my husband was able to keep his full-time job when we moved, and that meant I had access to health insurance through his company. That was a major relief knowing I would be covered if I got sick (not to mention that we had a stable source of income in our household). If you're planning to go freelance, make sure you have a plan for health insurance before you switch, and budget for that cost, if necessary, so that you'll be protected if an emergency strikes.

A happy work-life balance

Switching to freelancing was a big move for me, and if you had asked me back then, I would have sworn it would just be for a few months. But after four years of lunch breaks at the beach, traveling when I want to, and working on a broad range of incredibly interesting topics for some wonderful companies, I'm feeling very content with the decision. It was scary at times, and it took effort to build up to a full schedule of reliable work, but it's been a rewarding move that I'm grateful I made.

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