The Downsides of Freelancing

For all its freedom and flexibility, freelancing does come with some serious financial downsides.

Being a freelancer comes with a lot of perks. You get to decide your own schedule (which is almost always flexible), how much or how little you want to work, and what kind of projects you want to take on.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that over 55 million Americans have turned to freelance work, either to supplement their income or as their full-time gig, according to numbers from last year’s survey Freelancing in America: 2016 published by Upwork with data collected by independent research firm Edelman Intelligence. That’s 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, and it has climbed by over 2 million freelancers in the past three years.

Women, in particular, are drawn to the flexibility and autonomy offered by freelance work – making up 53 percent of the freelance population – and it’s easy to see why. Unlike the traditional 9-to-5 jobs, freelance work is able to mold to fit a schedule that may involve kids, with minimal impact to earning potential. In fact, freelance work is one of the few fields where women consistently outearn their male counterparts. For many women who freelance, it feels like living the feminist dream.

It certainly felt that way for me, when I started to freelance regularly and soon reached a level where I felt on equal financial footing with my husband, a mechanical engineer in a salaried position. However, when I take a closer look at the numbers, the truth about my freelance earnings are slightly more sobering.

For all its freedom and flexibility, freelancing does come with some serious financial downsides. While you may approach freelance with the idea that your earning potential is unlimited (which is true in a sense), you have to keep in mind that with freelancing, it’s often feast or famine. And even when you are on a hot streak, payment isn’t as easy and prompt as a direct deposit paycheck that comes every two weeks. In fact, a large part of the job entails chasing and tracking payment for work you’ve already done.

Jordan Rosenfeld, a 42-year-old freelance writer from Petaluma, Calif. explains that payment complications are the biggest downside of freelancing for her. “The inconsistent payment, constantly waiting for checks and trying not to panic when money is late, as it often is. I can’t tell you how much I envy my husband who gets paid [on the spot] per patient visit.”

It’s a struggle all freelancers understand. Especially since freelancers work on multiple projects at the same time, keeping on top of when payment is due (which varies widely from one job to the next) and staying on top of late payments becomes a job in and of itself.

Brandy Neal, a 39-year-old freelancer living in Los Angeles, Calif. even says “I often spend more time trying to get paid than I do completing the actual work, which is extremely frustrating.”

Aside from consistent paychecks, there are lots of other benefits that freelancers often miss out on, from employer matching 401(k) programs, medical and dental benefits, to simply not having to worry about taxes. (We seriously hate quarterly taxes). A big freelance paycheck is great until you realize how much of that money doesn’t really belong to you.

My take home pay outweighs my husband’s by about 20 percent, so it makes it easy to feel like I’m earning more. However, that doesn’t take into account that his taxes are already paid, 401(k) retirement savings are taken out, and our health and dental insurance has been paid. Add that to the fact that I have to set aside a full 25 percent of my income for taxes, and my paycheck suddenly doesn’t look quite as impressive as I thought.

Freelance work also doesn’t come with any paid vacation or sick time. While it does have flexibility, taking a day off is often a lot harder than non-freelancers may think. You don’t simply get to skip a day of work because you’re sick and come back to a regular workload the next day. Freelance work piles up quickly and makes it hard to recover from illness, or to plan for time off.

“People imagine [freelance work] is so wonderful because it’s flexible, but they don’t realize how often our work life tries to bleed into our personal lives,” says Alaina Leary, a 24-year old freelance social media manager, editor, and writer from Boston, Mass. She says on a recent four-day trip she found it difficult to shut off from work mode, “not just officially telling clients and editors I’m away, but being completely detached without feeling like I’m failing myself if I take a break.”

Yet for all its downsides, most freelancers will tell you they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’ll adjust to the financial pitfalls in exchange for the freedom – because, in the end, it’s totally worth it.

Join the Discussion

2 Responses to “The Downsides of Freelancing”

  1. Miranda Spencer

    This article rings true! I’d like to ask Gemma what type of freelancing she does, because as a journalist and editor one of the downsides of freelancing is low pay. Rates have been dropping steadily, and if it weren’t for my husband’s salary I am not sure I’d be able to survive on just my freelance income (albeit I live in a relatively expensive area). In fact, I typically combine a part-time W2 job I can do from home with my freelance income. That way, I can rely on a certain amount coming in biweekly, even if I have a “famine” month otherwise. And when I have a good month, it’s gravy.

  2. A Late Boomer

    I’ve been freelancing for about 5 years now (writer, musician) and so far I love it. That first year of navigating the feast-or-famine cycle was a challenge. Now, I pay all my utility bills ahead of time and save like crazy during “feast” times so I can have enough money to cover my nut through winter, when “famine” times invariably roll round again. Living in SW Wyoming, where overhead is low to begin with, helps, too. Now if I could only find affordable health insurance, all would be peachy.