I have a rocky relationship with the banking app on my phone. Every time I’m about to get a paycheck or put savings away, I check it obsessively. Other times, though, like when I decide to buy one too many rounds of drinks for friends, I need to take a deep breath as I squint at my phone, surveying the damage.
Most of my work is a bit cobbled together, working as a freelance writer and independent contractor. I would choose this creative, thrilling mess of a career over a high-powered banking job any day. However, the rules of finances are quite different for the self-employed. The first time I did my taxes in this freelance state, I poured a strong drink before diving into 1099 forms and crumpled receipts.
As a twenty-something, I’ve been raised to stay tight-lipped about money. While I agree that it’s tacky to outright ask someone what they earn, this general conversation needs to open up for female young professionals — especially freelancers. There are no rules, so how are we supposed to know if we’re on the right track?
When I think about a group of people discussing the stock market over drinks, I usually imagine a group of older men in expensive suits, drinking a beer I’d hate. Not often do I picture myself with my twenty-something girlfriends, splitting a pitcher of margaritas and complaining about the impending recession.
Everyone has a different way of managing their money, which is a good thing. While I can sit for hours and discuss Bachelor in Paradise with my girls, I’ve also started asking things like, “What makes it easier for you to save money?” Or, “how are you planning for retirement?”
They’re not the sexy topics. But what I’ve found as we start sharing, is that I’m not the only one who’s thinking about money all the time. Usually, these questions have sparked larger conversations about how we allocate money towards what’s important to us. For example, I’ll spend every last dime on travel. My best friend on the other hand, says she’ll know she’s made it when she buys her dream car. We’re sharing tips on high-yield savings accounts, or how to avoid getting blindsided by a “Net 60” payment.
Maybe you’re the only freelancer in your friend group. Maybe you’re the first one in your family (welcome to the club!). Or, maybe you just don’t know what questions to ask. I’m still new in this game, but here’s a few tips I’ve learned along the way to help lessen my financial anxieties:
-The 30% rule: Many times, when being paid as an independent contractor or freelancer, you’re cut a check for your full rate. It seems so great in the moment — no taxes! But come April, I usually end up paying thousands more in taxes than my friends with conventional jobs. Ask anyone in the creative industry, and they’ll usually recommend taking 30% of each paycheck and stowing it away for tax season. I know how depressing it is to wire hundreds of dollars away each month. But, when that big payment comes, it’s priceless to not be in a panic. Plus, if you don’t end up paying exactly 30% of your income, you have money left over! Stow it away for more savings, a fun trip, or painting your apartment.
-Roth IRA: Yes ladies, it’s another sexy name. I’ve had to Google this one countless times before I realized that wow I was missing out on some big money. Think of an IRA as a savings account. The only catch is that any interest made can’t be taken out until you retire. This, unlike a 401k, is something that anyone can get. I like using a Roth IRA because I’m able to take money out of this account if I need to, unlike others where you’ll be hit with a hefty fine.
I put as much money as possible into this account, even if I know I might need to take it out in the future. All that money I’ll give up for taxes come April? It might as well be sitting pretty with a higher interest rate.
-Write offs and receipts: In my line of work, something as small as a new pair of sneakers can count as a write off when I do my taxes. My best advice is to save your receipts. A painter would write off all of their paintbrushes and materials, so why not do the same even if your work is more unconventional? Another helpful tip is to track mileage. I recommend MileIQ, which will automatically calculate many of these costs for you.
-Plan ahead: I know, this one seems counterintuitive as a freelancer. I get anxious without knowing how much I’ll make in a year, and when you’re paid on a project-basis, predicting is tough. Take a look at your last year — are there clients you can expect to return? How much were you paid for the average one-off project? There’s options like Quickbooks Self-Employed, but even laying out the year’s project in a simple spreadsheet can help give you a holistic view of your business.
-What’s your worth? Whether you charge hourly, work by the word, or bill by square inches, think about the true cost to create this work people are so excited about. In creative industries, it’s common to get asked to do something on trade or for a sponsorship. If you’re able to solidify a budget for how much time and money you actually spend on your work, you’ll be better able to understand what you’re giving up by doing a free project or taking a lower rate than usual. It’s nerve-wracking to think you might lose a job because your prices are too high. It’s kept me awake at night, too. However, turning down this job might lead to a bigger one, or keep you in business longer since you’re more financially sustainable.
Freelance work is the wonderful chance to fully utilize your creativity, make your own hours, and be your own boss in the truest way. Sometimes though, getting cozy with the boring parts of the business, can create room for more exciting projects and alleviate stress. I’m curious to know from fellow freelance artists, writers, photographers, and more — how do you stay on track financially?