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A Survival Guide to Full-Time Freelancing with No Savings

Recently, I was put in a position (through my own doing) of full-time freelancing with absolutely no preparation or savings to support it.

I know what you’re thinking, “No savings? That’s insane.

You’re absolutely right — it is insane.

What follows is not an endorsement of jumping into the deep end without a life-jacket (although maybe it should be). Instead, through my own experience, I thought that a post about what to do in this situation would be very helpful to individuals who may find themselves in similar situations.

You might find yourself staring at full-time freelancing if:

  1. You were laid off of your job.
  2. You were fired from your job (yours, truly).
  3. You can’t find a job.
  4. You’re single and live with your mom.

After a week of being thrust into full-time freelancing, here are some tips on how to book up the next 3 months with work as fast as possible (within a few days I was booked till the beginning of August with full-time work), and how to plan for an all-of-a-sudden uncertain future.

Photo by Tabea Damm on Unsplash

First Thing’s First

Before you begin the journey of anxiety and utter-thrill—if you’re entrepreneurial, then suddenly being full-time self-employed is both of those all the time—it makes sense to prioritize what areas to tackle first.

After all, your “security” is now gone and it’s up to you to restore that safety-net as quickly as possible. Developing security comes in many forms, but here’s my opinion on the top 5, in order of most important:

1. Determine Your Lowest Estimated Income

You should immediately determine the lowest estimated income of your freelancing gig. Since you have no history of full-time freelancing, this is going to be a stab in the dark.

Start uncomfortably small. This will adjust over time after you get real data from each month’s income. Until then, it is essential that you operate on a realistic expectation of what you can make in a month on a fairly consistent basis.

2. Determine Your Base Expenses

Next, you’ll want to determine your base expenses. Don’t skimp, here. This is survival mode with no guarantee you’ll have a place to sleep in a month, so cut out as much cruft as possible.

Netflix? Pause it. Side-project expenses? Pause it. Coffee outings a regular thing? Pause them. Eating out? Nope.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

You’re stripping all these down until you can justify them again based on actual experience. Note that I said “pause” a lot. Adopting this mentality helps a lot with being able to turn off your luxuries because you start to see it as temporary.

Keeping stripping these down until you fall below your lowest estimated income. If you can’t do that, then it might be required for you to take on a part-time coffee shop job or something to cover the difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re working 60–80 hours a week because, as I said, this is temporary. It’s survival.

3. Emergency Fund First, Debt Second

Once you get Step 2 figured out, the next couple months of your life are going to be very tiring. But that’s okay because it’s for a purpose.

You’ll work your ass off in order to build your emergency fund.

If you were paying debt prior to full-time freelancing, that momentum has to be transferred to savings. Your emergency fund is going to help your life go back to normal, and allow for high-and-low fluctuations in your income to be mitigated. Pay the minimum payments until you get your emergency fund.

In my opinion, freelancers should have 3–6 months of your base expenses stored in the bank before they start tackling debt again.

When you have a low month, you can pull from this to cover the difference. When you have a high month, you can replenish this fund for the future.

This is your new normal.

4. Make Some Noise

Next, you’re going to want a strategy for letting people know that you’re taking on work. Lucky for me, the thing that got me fired was also the noise I was making. Some people will have to start from scratch.

Regardless, there are a few things you’ll need to set up immediately (or amplify, if you already have them):

  • Point-of-Contact: I use this term because it’s medium-agnostic. But for many people, this would be a personal or professional website that you send prospects to. Sometimes these the same, other times they are not. It doesn’t really matter as much as making sure people can find you.
  • Networking Presence: As much as we hate social media these days, it is invaluable. I have used Twitter for nearly 8 years and built some semblance of a network on there (enough to get a project from a single tweet). Regardless, choose the network your prospects are likely to hang out on and start engaging multiple times a day.
  • Cold Email: Be annoying. Be persistent. Email just about every possible client you can think of and offer them whatever they want in order to secure their business. At this point, you’re going from a client roster of zero and trying to build it to around 25 in a single month. That takes a lot of cold emailing, calling, and Slack pinging.

I’m sure there are other ways to make noise, but those three will get you really far and do most of the work for you.

5. Mix Projects with Contracts

Finally, a lot of people think of freelancing as one-off projects for clients. This can be very lucrative and is, of course, something that should be pursued.

But many freelancers just starting out tend to forget about contracting opportunities. If you’re not sure what that is, just think of it as a job from your old employer but without the taxes, restrictions, or long-term commitment. Some contracts vary, but that basically covers it.

Hit the job boards and start looking for contract opportunities in the 3–6 month range with agencies and/or companies that could use your skills.

You’ll generally work at a lower rate but you’ll be able to calculate your income on a much more predictable scale. You can even go a step further and begin emailing agencies and asking for overflow work.

If you can, sprinkle projects throughout your contract term (be careful not to overcommit, it’s painful). Doing this will help you reach your 3–6 months of base expenses emergency fund much quicker.

Things That Help

What follows is a brief list of things that can seriously help when going full-time freelance and may be the difference between eviction and paying your mortgage.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Your Network Will Save You

I’m fortunate to have had an existing network that I built over the course of several years, namely within the WordPress community. Many employees do not have a network, but any employee can begin creating that network for future events exactly like this one.

Building a network means being involved. For me, the WordPress community is huge—but the way you build a network is to build open-source software that the community can use. I do this on my personal and professional GitHub profiles, but also via Twitter.

The Right Freelancer Networks

There is a slew of freelancer networks out there that connect you with clients. Most of them have a bad reputation, but if you can get into the Toptal Network (.aff) then you’re going to be much better off.

I’ve been a member there for a year and had my availability turned off until the day I was fired. I turned it on and had 4 client interviews within 2 days, one of them full-time for 3–6 months.

Summary

In summary, jumping into full-time freelancing without any savings is not recommended. I don’t enjoy working 80 hours a week, but it’s necessary to restore security and predictability in my business.

Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have questions. I’d love to chat and hear about your own experiences. Good luck!

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