Let’s talk about freelance finances
When I quit my full time job two years ago while on maternity leave, it was a really uncertain time for me financially. I knew in my gut it was the right thing to do, but I was scared to lose that lifeline to a regular monthly salary. I’d had one for ten years, and to give that up at the same time as having a one year old baby to look after, well I was mildly terrified. It wasn’t just about the money, but also about the security and independence that comes with having a guaranteed income. Until we had our daughter, my partner and I had always kept our finances fairly separate - it’s just the way we liked to do things. We had a joint account for our mortgage, bills and food etc, but our salaries were paid into our own accounts and we kept track of our own personal spending and savings. Suddenly, we were faced with a lot of new discussion about how we were going to manage our finances now that I no longer had an income.
It was a big struggle for me to go from being an independent woman, with independent finances, to being the full time parent of a one year old and having to rely on my partner financially. Of course, my contribution to our family was huge, and me caring for our daughter full time enabled my partner to go out to work and continue his career, but I got so fixated on the idea of me not being able to pay my way anymore. It was a shift that I found hard, to suddenly have to value my contribution in other ways, while I could no longer contribute financially. It took a lot of soul searching about my self worth, and some hard discussions with Gav to help him understand my point of view (it seemed easy to him, because he didn’t see my issue of having to rely on his income) and some hard lessons to learn in allowing myself to lean on someone else in the short term while I worked to build something for the longer term.
It’s hard to leap, to trust yourself, believe in yourself, your business and in things all working out for the better. I think when you start a business, and release yourself from the financial security of full time employment, you have to put a lot of faith in the process. That took me time to learn, after pushing myself through burn out, over working myself and doing anything and everything to earn even another £50. It was short sighted, and wasn’t serving me or my business. I get asked a lot how I make it work, how I earn money and how I manage it now that I am freelance, so I thought I’d share a little about my freelance finances and the reality of running a sustainable creative business.
First, let’s talk about privilege…
I don’t think it’s right to have any conversation about quitting your job, following your dreams or taking any kind of risk financially or career-wise without bringing up the conversation of our own personal financial situations and how we pay the bills. It’s such a personal topic, understandably so, but it is possible to be a little more open about how we support ourselves without needing to publish our accounts on the internet. We have to acknowledge things like our privilege (if we do or don’t have it), the realities of living on our budget (be it high or low) and the costs associated with our lifestyles (do we have kids to support, health care bills to pay etc) before we start to urge other people to “quit your day job” and “follow your dreams” because in reality it’s not always that straightforward. It’s a privilege to be able to choose to leave your job, to build a career and a working life that aligns with your skills and values, and it’s important to note that it’s a privilege not everyone has. Slowing down, speeding up, working smarter not harder, not glorifying the hustle…all terms that come from those of us with the privilege to make choices about how and when we work, how busy we are and what kind of clients we take on.
I’m never going to tell anyone to quit their job, or to tell them what I think they should do in pursuit of their dream life or dream career. We are all so different in our situations, what we want and what we need. What I am going to tell you to do, however, is that if you want to go freelance or start your own business, to dig deep inside yourself and start figuring out what exactly it is that you want and making a plan for how you could make it work. There is a way for all of us, financial support is only one of the things that can make it easier and a little less risky. You’re still going to need hard work, tenacity, imagination, connections and resilience that no amount of money can buy you. Financial stability helps a lot, there’s no denying that, but it isn’t everything.
How we make it work financially
Since I quit my full time job after my maternity leave ended, my partner Gav has taken on full financial responsibility of our household bills. He has a good, secure, well paying job with benefits such as private health insurance that come with working for a large retail corporation. For three years he has covered the mortgage, utilities, grocery and childcare bills for all of us, leaving me free to build a business without pressure or worry. We own our own home, and have done since 2011, so even though we have a sizeable mortgage and bills, it’s typically been lower than the rent paid by many other couples we know who lived in London at the same time as we did. That’s the reality of the UK rental market, that it’s usually cheaper to pay a mortgage each month than it is to pay rent on a similar property.
Our monthly costs are fairly high, but so is our level of financial security. We don’t have a lot of disposable income, and most of what we do have gets saved or invested in improving our home, paying for childcare so I can work and so on. We don’t have expensive holidays, we don’t eat at fancy restaurants and don’t care at all for a lavish lifestyle, but likewise we don’t live on the breadline, can be a little bit loose on the budgets, can take a holiday or two a year and treat ourselves to things and experiences if and when we choose. We have to be careful, but we certainly don’t have to worry either. We have opted to make sensible choices for our future, so we can be free from worry as a family - both Gav and I grew up in working class families that didn’t have a lot of money or financial security, so it’s something we’re constantly grateful for and don’t take that privilege lightly. Both our sets of parents worked extremely hard to provide for their families, and they instilled in us a strong work ethic that mean Gav and I are always prepared for the realities of working hard so you can have more choices.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to earn money, and have done ever since I went on maternity leave. As I mentioned above, I don’t like not being able to financially contribute or have the security of a monthly wage to support myself should anything go wrong. It’s highly unlikely, and I’m very grateful for that, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I haven’t ever worried about what I’d do if I suddenly became a single parent. It was a huge shift for me when I became a mother to have to rely on my partner financially. It took time to adjust, to work out my new role in my head and begin to see us a the team that we were. Working to our strengths. It was because of me looking after our child and our home that my partner was able to go out to work and support us. We were a team, and our earnings were joint, even if the actual payslip wasn’t in my name. I know, of course, that I contribute to our family in so many ways other than financially, but letting go of my monthly wage was still something that was hard for me to reconcile. This expectation on myself means that since the day I went freelance, I have always earned enough to cover all my own business and personal costs - monthly expenses, equipment, travel and so on. I don’t earn a lot, but I run a profitable, sustainable and growing business that can support itself. That has always been very important to me. I didn’t want an expensive hobby, I wanted a viable business. I save as much as I can, and ensure I have a buffer to cover extra expenses or months when I don’t earn anything so I can remain self-sufficient. And now, after two years in business (and three since I had my daughter) I contribute financially to our joint funds again - the same as I did before I went freelance. I have the occasional month where I earn more than my partner (rare but it does happen!) and more often than not I earn the same each month as a freelancer than I did while working my full time job. I manage that alongside being an almost full-time parent, aside from the 8 hours childcare I have each week and occasional shoot days when my partner looks after our daughter.
Additional income streams
For the last 18 months, I have been an Airbnb host to support my main gig as a photographer. As you’ll see from the maths below, it’s hard to make a decent living on photography alone, especially the kind I do and in my early years of business while I have young children at home. Obviously it’s a huge privilege to have an additional room in my home to rent out, but I work hard to manage my Airbnb listing and it takes up a fair bit of my time to do the cleaning, washing and admin required to run it. You can read more about what it’s like being an Airbnb host in this post, but ultimately it generates a good amount of income for myself and my family, it’s something I can do from home while I’m looking after my daughter and it takes the pressure off my business a little.
While there is a lot of chat on the internet about running a creative business, I don’t think there is nearly enough about what it really takes to make it work. I’m always surprised when I discover that many creative business owners I admire reveal (either publicly or privately) that they have additional income streams such as property, support from relatives, a part-time job and so on that brings in extra money to help them continue to run their business. We all have these ‘un-sexy’ parts of our lives that don’t fit the image we are putting out into the world, so it’s totally natural that we don’t want to disclose certain income streams that don’t align with our business or online persona. While I absolutely don’t think we all have to share everything about ourselves online, I think we have an obligation to others in our industry to not deliberately hide our truth and perpetuate a falsehood that we have quit our jobs to 100% pursue a life of freedom and creativity. While that may be the goal, and a reality for some of us, for many of us that just isn’t the case. Whether we have additional income streams out of necessity or desire, it’s naive to assume that your favourite online creative business owner relies 100% on one income stream, or that they should have to somehow to have their business be considered ‘successful’.
I became a freelancer in part because I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I like to work for myself, look for opportunities to generate income, learn new skills and have new experiences. We are all unique, as are our businesses and circumstances. For me, this is part of the beauty of working for yourself. You don’t have to be defined by anyone else’s metrics! You get to decide what success looks like for you, and build a life and work that suits you and your needs. It’s a perk of being a freelancer, so use it and don’t be hemmed in by it. I also strongly believe that diversifying your income and striving for a portfolio career is key to maintaining a healthy income and a certain level of freedom in your life and work. Whatever your situation, whatever your business, it’s smart to always be thinking about the different ways you can generate income, particularly as your personal situation or values may change.
So, now you know how I make it work and how I generate income for myself, my business and my family. Here are some things to consider about your finances if you’re thinking of going freelance or starting your own business…
Real vs Possible earnings
Now, these are two VERY different things. For example, I currently charge £350 for a family photo shoot. I have the time to shoot and edit between 2-4 sessions a week, meaning that my possible earnings at this point in time are between £700-£1,400 a week. At the upper end, that is £5,600 a month or £67,200 per year. Sounds good, right?
Well, before you get too excited, here’s the reality. Experience has taught me that my family photography is seasonal, meaning that at certain times of the year I am much busier than others. Jan-March I might get no bookings at all, and the same goes for June-August. So that means I’m only really busy actually shooting and earning money for six months of the year, so you can cut those projected earnings above in half. Another thing I’ve learnt is that in the early years of running a business, you’re unlikely to work at anywhere near full capacity. You just won’t have the clients, reach or reputation yet to be fully booked out - or at least I certainly am not! So I might be able to shoot 2-4 sessions a week for at least 6 months of the year, but I’d say at this point I’d say I average around one or two bookings a week for six months of the year. So you can do the maths on that one and figure out how much my gross earnings are from family photography. Then add in my business running costs, which are around £75 a month for my website, equipment insurance, cloud back-up, software and so on, plus any equipment, education or other tools I need to grow my business and you’re starting to see that the shiny figure of almost 70k a year is now looking a whole lot less than that.
Then you have to take into account your energy levels. While I may be able to schedule in 2-4 sessions per week, the reality of that amount of client work for my business means there is no time to work ON my business. I’d be a shooting and editing machine all year round. Then if my kid gets sick, or I do, or we have some sleepless nights (never far away from you when you have small kiddos) and my energy starts to run low…well hello burn out. I have learnt the hard way that although it seems sensible to look at your calendar and plot out all your client work to keep you as busy as possible, in reality this is no way to run your business. Not if you want to stay healthy, serve your clients as best you can and grow your business. It’s a hamster wheel.
Of course, I am building and running a business alongside the extremely demanding more-than-full-time-job of raising a family. If I had more time to devote to my work, my earnings would be more and for sure I would build my business faster. I am in this for the long game, something I remind myself of frequently when I compare myself to other photographers or business owners ten years younger than me. My aim was always to build a business slowly, so that by the time I had two children in school I could hit the ground running. I didn’t want to find myself in my late thirties having fully devoted myself to being a parent, but nor did I want to miss out on spending those early years with my children. So I’ve chosen to do both, and although it’s frequently challenging, it’s a privilege that many people don’t have.
So how can you prepare yourself financially for going freelance?
Work out your monthly business costs - what are the minimum costs associated with running your business? I’d advise starting with the minimum, while also making sensible investments into software that can save you time - I use Freshbooks to manage my accounts, and pay a monthly fee to Squarespace for my website. Sure, I’d save £30 a month if I didn’t use either of them, but I’d waste a whole bunch of time using other, less efficient ways of managing my website and accounts.
Work out your start up costs - do you need a computer or any specialist equipment to do your job? Do you have savings to cover these or do you need to save or borrow money to enable you to start your business? Again, I’d recommend starting with the minimum, while making sensible investments into things that make your job easier and free up your time.
Work out your minimum monthly living costs, and save up 6-12 months of that before you quit your job. Of course, this isn’t always an option…but the better handle you have on your finances and the more you have saved up to get you through months when you have little to no freelance income, the less pressure you will be under and the easier you will find it.
Cut down on or cut out any unnecessary personal monthly expenses. Looking at where you can save money and increase your cash flow is an important part of running a business, it’s all about your net income, not necessarily what you earn every month. There’s no point working hard to grow your business and increase your income if you don’t have tabs on what money is going out the other side.
Always be saving. Put money aside whenever you can, it gives you safety and choices should you have a quiet period with no clients, need to repair or purchase equipment, take a step back for health or family issues, or want to pivot in your business and need some space in your schedule to do so. Even if all you can put aside is £10 here or there, have a savings account that you can easily access that is specific for your business. You can also use it to invest in education opportunities for yourself, to finance personal projects or to take a well earned few weeks off work. Whatever you do with it, saving is always a good idea.
How about managing your freelance finances?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good system from the get go. If you invest in one thing at the start of your freelance career, it should be good accounting software OR an accountant. I don’t have an accountant currently because my business finances are relatively straightforward, but I use Freshbooks for my invoices, expenses and accounting and I love it. I can’t tell you how many times it has saved my ass when I’ve needed to pull out figures for HMRC when applying for childcare, maternity allowance or doing my annual tax return. For a small monthly fee it will save you time and money, and make keeping up to date with your earnings and expenditures so easy. It might cost me around £15 a month, but it’s worth it for the amount of time it saves me. I also love that I can easily see a tally of my earnings because it spurs me on to meet my financial goals, and it makes me look professional to clients because I have proper invoices, reminders etc. I also use the Freshbooks app on my phone so I can keep track of my receipts when I’m on the move.
Another app I use to track my finances is one called ‘Accounts’ where I track my current and savings accounts. I have to input everything manually because it’s not linked to my bank accounts, but I can input recurring income and expenses, and easily update it when I make purchases or get paid. I have used it for years, and am in the habit of checking it every few days, cross referencing it with my bank account and making sure I am keeping track of everything that comes in and goes out of my account. You can also set up monthly budgets in categories using the app, so it’s easy to track where you might be over spending. I always underestimate how much I like to go out and drink coffee…
However you choose to stay on top of your freelance finances, just do it! Don’t wait until tax time, make it the number one thing you do from the first day you start your business. Create a system for receipts, invoices, expenses and so on and stay on top of it. Get in the habit of filing your taxes early, putting money aside to pay those taxes every time an invoice is paid, and make sure you’re always paying attention to whats coming in and going out of your business.
Did you enjoy this post? Do you have any questions about earning money or managing your finances as a freelancer? Leave me a comment and I’ll get back to you.
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