A Primer on Freelancing: Finding Work, Personal Finance, and More

. 5 min read

It’s no secret: freelancing is a major aspect of the global workforce. In the United States alone, approximately one-third of the workforce has freelanced at some point in their career, and as of 2020, there are 57 million freelancers in the United States. And that’s not even the lion’s share. Europe holds the largest portion of the global freelancing population, with 35.5% of freelancers based in the continent.

So, a lot of people are choosing to freelance. Why is that? A recent survey from Upwork found that freelancers appreciated having:

  • A better work-life balance
  • More varied and stimulating work than that of an office job
  • Less stress and higher productivity from working at home
  • More flexibility
  • Greater work opportunities.

Traditionally, people have viewed a 9-to-5 office job as the standard for stable employment. However, large-scale disasters and economic turmoil (such as that of the current COVID-19 global pandemic) have proven that for many people, freelancing and remote work could provide more reliable long-term employment.

Whether you’re looking to add an additional source of revenue or make the move into full-time freelancing, here’s what you’ll need to know about freelance work.

1. Finding work

Like office work, there are several avenues for finding freelance work:

  • Networking. It’s been estimated that at least 60% of jobs are found by networking. You may not be working in an office or interacting with people face to face, but no matter what kind of job you’re doing, a recommendation from a trusted colleague can do wonders in helping you find new work. Reach out to current and former colleagues and other industry connections, and leverage your social media channels to let people know what your skills are and what you’re looking for.
  • Job sites. The same job boards that host ads for full-time office positions also have a number of remote and freelance opportunities. Just make sure to add “freelance”, “remote”, and other keywords to your searches on Indeed, LinkedIn, and CareerBuilder.
  • Freelance-specific sites. Other job boards recruit solely for freelance work. Upwork, Fiverr, Guru, Peopleperhour, and Freelancer all have plentiful opportunities for freelance positions. Depending on your area of expertise, you may also have the option of industry-specific job boards and online communities.

2. Working effectively and staying productive

For people who’ve been used to office work, it can be a shock to transition to freelancing, where you’re often left to your own devices. While some people thrive in being able to work wherever they want, whenever they want, and however they want, others struggle to stay motivated and in the “working” mindset.

If you’re worried about adapting to remote work, we encourage you to take a look at our tips for staying productive when you’re working from home.

If you’re concerned about keeping busy and maintaining a steady stream of business, you’re not alone. One of the primary concerns that freelancers have is the lack of permanence in their workflow and income. If that’s one of your big stressors, here’s what you can do to keep yourself busy:

  • Build up your portfolio. If you don’t have one, now is definitely the time to put that together. Whether you’re a designer or a writer, it’s always good to have evidence of your skills and previous work. If you have the choice between several jobs, it might not be a bad idea to prioritize the ones that will let you add new pieces to your portfolio and build it out. A fresh piece in your portfolio now could help you get several new freelance gigs down the line.
  • Look for new work even when things are good. A common mistake is to only look for freelance gigs once yours have dried up. We understand this—when you’re busy with work right now, it’s tough to carve out time to look for vague “future work”—but if you’re someone who doesn’t do well with down time or worries about running out of opportunities, this is a surefire way to ensure you’ll continue to be busy.
  • Build your brand. As we mentioned above, networking and social media are great ways to put yourself out there for future freelance work. Show people what you do, what you’re capable of, and what you’re looking for, and always try to communicate as much as you can.
  • Stay in touch. Don’t be a stranger! Not all freelance jobs are a short, one-and-done project. Keep in touch with the organizations and people that you’ve enjoyed working with. They could provide referrals and endorsements for future jobs, or they could have additional work or long-term freelance positions they’re looking to fill.

3. Getting paid and managing your finances

Let’s be honest: getting paid is one of the most important parts of the job. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the greatest sources of trouble. 40% of freelancers have reported trouble getting paid and long wait times.

No one wants to do the work for nothing. Here are some of the most important things to do as a freelancer to ensure timely payment:

  • Document everything. You should sign a contract upon accepting any job. This contract should detail everything relevant to the job: the project, its requirements, the duration, how much you’ll be paid, and when you’ll be paid. When you accept and complete projects, keep everything documented on an Excel spreadsheet, and save all official communication and documentation. If something goes wrong, having everything organized will make it easier to fix the problem quickly.
  • Know how you’ll be getting paid. Will it be a money transfer? Will they mail you a physical check? Will the payment method have any impact on your payment amount? Discuss this before signing the contract.
  • Always invoice. This is how you’ll get paid, so don’t skip over this step. Your employer might have their own invoicing process that they’d like you to follow, or you might need to craft your own. In that case, just make a quick Google search. There are many guides and templates to creating an invoice that you can find online.
  • Ask for a deposit. Some freelancers choose to ask for a deposit upon signing a contract, particularly for longer-term projects that would otherwise only pay upon completion. This is not an unreasonable or unheard of thing to ask for, and it can be a big help to your livelihood.
  • Make sure your rates are right. Research the market standard for your work, and consider what would be a competitive rate for someone at your experience level. Consider what you would charge hourly versus what you’d charge per project. Many freelancers have said that they charged lower rates in their starting years. If you’re having trouble getting steady work, do some research and see if that could be the problem.
  • Don’t be afraid to hold firm. If you’re doing the work and your employer isn’t adhering to the established payment deadlines, it’s time for you to put a pause on your work and let them know that you’ll need payment to continue. You might feel uncomfortable, but you signed a contract to work in exchange for payment, and that needs to be honored.

But even once you’ve gotten paid, you’re not quite in the clear. With money coming in at irregular intervals, many freelancers feel that budgeting and personal finance can be difficult.

The most important thing you can do for your budget is to document every expense and purchase. When you don’t have a steady income, this is the best way to establish what your budget should be. When you make your budget, include a projection for the next year based on your lowest monthly revenue figure. It’s unlikely that that will be your income, but planning for the worst will help you to boost your savings and plan for the worst.

Though freelancing might seem intimidating and confusing at first, it can be a fantastic opportunity for people to work flexibly and expand their professional horizons. The only way to know for sure whether it's the right move for you is to put yourself out there and try freelancing out for yourself.