Too much work or not enough? How to manage the boom or bust side of freelance life

I have been working as a freelance writer down here in Devon for almost five years now. Long enough for me to understand but not necessarily appreciate the feast or famine side of freelance work life. Being unsure of how much money I am going to earn each month makes for a lifestyle that is interesting, in every possible sense of the word. I will confess to having moments of worry when work doesn’t come in as regularly as I would like it to. I will also confess to having feelings of mild panic when I have a list of writing jobs that includes a number higher than five. Here are my five top tips for managing the boom or bust side of freelance life.

  1. Understand your ‘minimum earn’ amount

This one is going to require a bit of maths and may take you a couple of freelance months to work out but it is well worth doing. Look at your monthly outgoings and any incomings from other areas, then calculate how much you need to earn each month. This is a ‘survival rate’ so don’t include luxuries. That way you will appreciate it even more when you earn beyond your ‘minimum earn’ amount each month. I can tell you from experience, the first month you double that amount will be an exciting one.

2. Keep a record of month to month earnings

It is important for all kinds of reasons to keep a close eye on your earnings. Taking a strategic look at how earnings change from month to month and year to year can really help you understand any regular earning patterns. I know, for example, that my clients don’t send much work my way in December. Initially this was a worry but these days I make efforts to earn extra during the autumn (and enjoy a peaceful run up to Christmas).

3. Keep a ‘don’t panic fund’ in a separate bank account

When you first start out as a freelancer saving may well seem impossible. As your portfolio grows however, you will be able to squirrel away small amounts of money and slowly build up your ‘don’t panic fund’. For me this is enough money to last for two months without work. I have never had two months without freelance work but I did live to regret my actions the year I blew my ‘don’t panic fund’ on flights to New Zealand.

4. Use any ‘spare’ time wisely

Lack of work can mean time on your hands but by using this time wisely you can ease the mental pressure of worrying about your income. When I find a gap in work I use the time to:

  • Work on my marketing strategy (website, social media, networking etc)
  • Expand to new horizons (contacts, article pitches, conferences etc)
  • Get some expert business advice (business counselling, financial advice, web skills etc)
  • Find ways to save money in my day-to-day life (batch cooking, my vegetable patch, up-cycling etc)

5. Have fun doing something you love

When the work isn’t flowing my way and I know that I have done all of the things above, I celebrate being a freelance worker by getting outside and enjoying myself. The outdoors is where I feel the most creative and we writers all need a shot of creativity from time to time.

Working for yourself can be scary at times but planning for both the expected and the unexpected can make a real difference to how you handle those leaner and busier times. With a bit of discipline and the right attitude, it is possible to celebrate both the days with too much work and those with not quite enough. After all, being your own boss is worth its weight in gold and, as my mum said to me when I first started by own business, ‘You can always eat baked beans!’

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