7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going Freelance Full-Time

Doing your own taxes can be tough

When I was in journalism school most of my classmates dreamed of scoring a full-time newspaper job, something that was quickly becoming rare. I, however, dreamed of freelancing, choosing my projects and controlling when and where I worked.

After graduation, I freelanced a bit while traveling. It felt like living the dream. When I returned to the U.S., I got an office job working for a newspaper, but I was pining for my freelance days. My daughter was born a year later and I made the decision to freelance rather than returning to the office.

This time I wasn’t freelancing to support my travel — I was now working to provide for my family. That brought on a whole new level of stress. Now that I’ve been freelancing full-time for three years I realize how little I knew when I jumped in, so I spoke with a few fellow freelancers about the lessons they wish they knew before going full-time freelance. Here’s what they said.

Get Used To Inconsistency

You can be the best most reliable freelancer in the world, completing projects on time and staying on top of invoicing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean your clients will pay on time.

“It’s important when you’re looking at your monthly income to expect that one-quarter to one-third of your clients will not pay you on time,” says Michelle Threadgould, 30, a freelancer from Oakland, Calif.

I’ve learned to never count on a payment until it is in my account. Even clients who pay quickly can misplace an invoice or get behind, resulting in costly delays to you. Ideally, freelancers will have savings to cover any shortfall in payments received.

There’s a Lot of Unpaid Work

Figuring out what to charge hourly may seem easy: Divide the amount you want to make by the number of hours you’re working. However, freelancing involves a lot of work that falls outside billable hours.

“If you’ve got 100 unread emails, you eat that time weeding through clients, potential clients, rejected pitches, changes from editors, follow-ups on late invoices, and other things,” says Dori Zinn, 31, a freelancer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s hard enough doing the actual work, but the non-paid work is just as time-consuming.”

When you’re calculating your target rate, keep in mind that you’ll probably spend as much time updating your website and managing social media as you will working on paid projects. If you’re working 40 hours a week, you’re probably only billing for 20 of them.

You’re Running a Business

When I first started freelancing I didn’t think of myself as a business owner. But over time, as I started to act more like a CEO, I began to look more professional and, in turn, attract better clients.

Liana Lozada, 31, a freelancer from Miami, Fla. set up her business before taking the plunge into freelancing full-time. She made contracts, asked clients to pay deposits, and hired a lawyer and an accountant. All those things allowed her to be in control of her business.

“It gives me the security to say no and stand up for myself when I feel I’m being used,” she says.

Satta Sarmah Hightower, 32, a Boston, Mass.-based freelancer, says that extra work makes freelancing harder than any other job.

“Doing the actual work, and being responsible for all the backend support and infrastructure a traditional job provides (health care, insurance, bookkeeping, paying your own taxes, business development, etc.) is really the most taxing part of freelancing,” she says.

Speaking of “Taxing”

If you start talking taxes with anyone who freelances full-time you’re sure to hear a groan. Many people find that staying on top of taxes is one of the hardest, and most important, parts of freelancing.

Freelancers have to be disciplined enough to consistently tuck away up to 20 percent of each paycheck to pay taxes, including self-employment tax of 15.3 percent, which covers Social Security and Medicare taxes that most employees have automatically deducted from their paychecks.

Many freelancers pay quarterly estimated taxes to the IRS in order to avoid fees and reduce their burden at tax time. If it’s your first year freelancing you probably don’t have to worry about this, but it’s important to keep in mind. (The Freelancer’s Union has a great guide to quarterly taxes).

It’s Tough to Be Your Own Boss

When you’re the boss it can be easy to forget that you still need to develop your skills in order to move ahead in business. Kim Magaraci, 26, learned that after becoming overwhelmed when her freelance work quickly took off. Her main client ultimately decided to end their contract.

“She told me what I already knew: that I needed to develop the discipline it takes to work remotely all the time, to speak up when I’m overwhelmed, and to work on improving my skills as much as I was using them,” she says. Now Magaraci dedicates time to gaining new skills that in an office environment might come through training and colleague interactions. “When you’re on your own it’s up to you,” she notes.

You’ll Still Need Childcare

Many women want to freelance in order to have more flexibility in their schedules in order to save on childcare costs. While that’s definitely a possibility, people who are freelancing full-time will still need childcare. Trying to balancing caring for little ones full-time and starting a freelancing business is the quickest path to burnout.

“I wish I would have known in the beginning that childcare… was still an investment in a future career,” says Chaunie Brusie, 30, a mom of four who teaches freelance writing classes. “I refused to pay a sitter unless I made that money back and that was a lot of wasted time… I tell moms now to think of it as an early investment, just like any other business that requires some capital to get going.”

It’s Super Satisfying

Freelancing is really hard, and not everyone will find that the extra work is worth it. For me, however, freelancing has been an amazing asset. Although I still need childcare, I have more flexibility to spend time with my child and take unexpected days off if she is sick.

I’ve been able to travel without taking time off work and even spent four months in Australia so my daughter could visit her grandparents. The best aspect, however, is knowing that I am designing my own career.