6 Moves Every First Year Freelancer Should Make

By Emily Guy Birken on 30 October 2017 0 comments

When I started my freelance career seven years ago, I honestly had very little idea of what I was doing. I made some seriously painful mistakes that affected everything from my bottom line to my stress level to my relationships with some of my clients. (See also: The 5 Biggest Mistakes Freelancers Make)

But even though self-employment mistakes are common, they're not inevitable. You can make the transition to self-employment much smoother and easier to handle if you commit to doing the following things in your first year as your own boss. Not only will you lay down the good habits and policies you'll need throughout your new career in self-employment, but these moves can also help your career start off with a bang. (See also: Day Job or Freelance: Which Is Right for You?)

1. Set aside 30 to 35 percent of every paycheck for taxes

One of the double-edged swords of working for yourself is the fact that your paychecks will generally not have any taxes withheld. While it feels pretty good to have the full amount of money you earned coming directly to you, it can really mess up your finances if you don't plan ahead for taxes.

Many of the newly self-employed can get themselves into trouble by assuming they'll pay their quarterly estimated tax bills with whatever funds they have received as of the quarterly estimated tax due date. But Uncle Sam doesn't care if you have a slow work spell or are waiting on some payments that are not quickly forthcoming from a client — he wants you to pay the taxes you owe on time. (See also: Avoid IRS Penalties With This Simple Estimated Payment Strategy)

You can bypass the quarterly stress of finding the necessary funds to pay your tax bill by specifically setting aside 30 to 35 percent of every check you receive. This does take a depressingly large bite out of your paychecks, but it gives you the peace of mind to know that you will be able to cover your estimated tax payments. In addition, by putting this money into a savings account, you can earn a little interest — which already puts you financially ahead of folks who have their taxes withheld.

If your diligent savings of 30 to 35 percent of each paycheck means you have more money than you need for taxes in your first year of self-employment, then you can always use the leftover money to reinvest in your business or smooth over any lean months in your second year of self-employment. (See also: 7 Things I Learned About Money After I Went Freelance)

2. Hire an accountant

Speaking of taxes, they are going to get more complex now that you have begun working for yourself. While it is certainly possible for you to complete your taxes all by yourself as you've done in the past, the money you spend on an accountant for your self-employment taxes can both save you time and lower your stress. (See also: 5 Free Accounting Tools for Freelancers)

Asking for referrals from trusted colleagues or small business owners can be the best way to find the right accountant or tax professional for your needs. Don't let this important part of self-employment go on the back burner. Having an accountant throughout your first year of self-employment can help you to accurately pay your quarterly estimated taxes on time, and take advantage of deductions and other tax benefits that you might otherwise miss.

3. Determine your payment floor

During my first year as a freelancer, an educational company contracted me to write lesson plans for English teachers. I had been working as an English teacher before my freelancing career, and I loved that this company was committed to using humor in all of its resources. I thought it was a perfect fit, and I quoted them a price per lesson plan that felt reasonable for my expertise (and comedic chops). They offered me a fifth of what I asked for. Since I was worried that I wouldn't be able to actually make a living as a freelancer, I took the job.

It was a huge mistake.

Here's why: The amount of work that I put into each lesson plan meant I was earning less than minimum wage for my hours of toil. It took me months to get through the initial contract of 10 lesson plans, in part because I knew how little I was making and it was difficult to prioritize this client over those who paid more for less work.

Even though the company loved my work, we parted ways after I finished the first round of lesson plans. They were just as happy to get a quicker and less-funny turnaround from another freelancer who did not have my expertise. I was glad to no longer be working so hard for a company that did not financially value my contributions.

After this experience, I learned to figure out my payment floor — the least amount of money my time was worth. Once I knew my payment floor, it became much easier to recognize which jobs were worth my time, and which jobs would leave me feeling overworked and resentful. Knowing your payment floor may seem premature in your first year of self-employment since you feel like you are hustling just to capture enough clients to keep the lights on. But you are better off holding out for clients who value you, rather than taking any job, no matter how low the pay.

4. Build free time into your schedule

There are a couple of common scheduling traps that can trip up the newly self-employed:

  • Working all the time. Since you are now completely in control of your schedule and your career, and since you presumably love what you do, it can be very easy to throw yourself into your work 24/7.

  • The planning fallacy. Even after seven years as a freelancer, I still underestimate how long it will take me to complete a project, because it never occurs to me that my kids might get sick, my internet might go out, my research might uncover more complex issues than I anticipated, or that I might be struck down by an unexpected nap after eating too many carbs for lunch.

  • Lack of discipline. For some newly self-employed individuals, it can be difficult to stick to self-imposed (or even client-imposed) deadlines if you don't have a boss to keep you honest. It's a lot harder to succeed in self-employment if you have trouble sticking to a work schedule.

All three of these scheduling mistakes can be helped by building free time into your schedule. Forcing yourself to take time off from your otherwise nonstop work will prevent burnout and allow you to be far more productive. Having a free afternoon built into each week has helped me to improve my on-time percentage, because it leaves some slack for when life happens and I'm not able to finish things according to my pie-in-the-sky planning assumptions. And anyone who struggles with self-discipline will generally have an easier time forcing themselves to work if they know that there is free time coming. (See also: Self-Employed? Tips for Taking Time Off Without Trauma)

5. Capture excess income in a savings account

When you are self-employed, there will be some months when several paychecks or client payments come in all at once. This can feel pretty great, especially if you can thank your own hustle for making it rain, but it's important to be disciplined about this kind of excess income and put it in a savings account. That's because you are likely to have a low-income month sooner or later, and that excess income can be the difference between you being able to pay your bills as usual and you having to go grocery shopping with couch cushion change. (See also: The SEP-IRA Is How the Self-Employed Do Retirement Like a BOSS)

During your fat-paycheck months, you should not only set aside the 30 to 35 percent you put away for your taxes, but you should also put whatever additional excess income you can afford into a "rainy day" savings account. This account is where you will go to get the money you need to keep everything running smoothly during any lean months. And like your taxes savings account, if you don't end up needing to dip into this rainy day savings account, that means you will have money already set aside that you can potentially invest back into your business. (See also: How to Budget Consistently Without a Steady Paycheck)

6. Insist on clear contracts

Everyone who has ventured into self-employment has at least one story about being stiffed out of payment from a client. For instance, in my first year of freelancing, I was hired to write for a startup parenting website. I wrote several articles for the site, but I was only paid for one of the half dozen pieces I provided them. (See also: 8 Ways Freelancers Can Make Sure They Get Paid on Time)

The client was in the wrong for not paying me — but I also made a mistake in accepting work from them without a contract. Our arrangement was based on nothing more than email exchanges and a phone call. We did not have a contract that spelled out our legal expectations of each other, which meant it would have been very difficult for me to pursue the client for the money they owed me.

In addition, contracts are also helpful for defining the scope of a project and specifying the details of a termination fee. A contract that outlines the specific timeline and deliverables will protect you from having to revisit the same project over and over again for no extra money if your client insists on more edits or revisions or a larger scope than you expected. Similarly, if your client decides to end your project, having a contract that specifies the termination fee you'll receive under such circumstances will protect you from having wasted your time.

Welcome to self-employment!

You can set yourself up for self-employment success in your very first year as your own boss. Planning ahead for everything from taxes to lean months to time management to contractual disputes will help you create a self-employment career that you'll love for years to come. (See also: Freelancing: A Beginner's Guide to Doing It Right)

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