Freelancing on a Budget

Starting and running a freelance business costs money, an unfortunate irony at a time when a lot of people have lost their jobs and would like to freelance to bring in income but don’t have a lot of spare change lying around to invest in it.

So, this blog post is about (as the title states) freelancing on a budget. But I’m not going to name specific tools to try, as that’s information you can pick up without too much trouble on a thousand other blogs. I want to talk about how to think about expenses.

The most important consideration is that you need the right tools to do your job. This is where aspiring freelancers sometimes try to cut back but that makes them unable to deliver professional results on time. You can’t succeed that way!

Identify the Tools You Need

You need a reliable computer, reliable internet access, a professional-sounding email address ( suffices, but not, and appropriate skills.

You may be able to use Google Documents for some clients but for most (particularly when developmental editing at book length) you’re going to need to use Microsoft Word. And whether you use the cloud-based version or the software, this is going to cost money.

And if you’re hoping to be a copy editor but you don’t know what CMOS is, then you need training. While you don’t necessarily have to take a class or attend a certificate program, you’re probably going to need to buy some books.

So you do need to invest in yourself and your business. In fact, I recommend that you set aside a certain percentage of all income you earn to reinvest, whether this means upgrading your computer or taking classes to upgrade your skills (or, ideally, both).

But you should invest in the right things. You don’t need printed business cards this minute. In classes I teach about getting started in freelancing, people tell me about spending money printing business cards and similar collateral. It has been at least five years since I’ve given someone a business card, and I can’t remember the last time giving one out resulted in any business. I am thinking it may be “never.”

If you meet someone in person and you want to keep in touch with them, get their contact information and put it in your phone. If you will be going to a conference (someday when we have conferences again) then it may be useful to invest in business cards or other collateral but if you’re not going to choke at the cost of attending a conference, then the business cards shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

So, separate wants from needs:

  • You need to back up your files and it’s easier to do using a paid service like Carbonite, but you can use the free version of Dropbox if you prune away the old files on a regular basis.
  • If you can’t afford to build and host a website, then you can start with a great (free) LinkedIn page to refer people to.
  • Same with marketing your services. Someone just bemoaned to me that the free version of Mailchimp (a way to easily send email marketing newsletters) wasn’t robust enough for the marketing she wanted to do. Well, no, not if you’re marketing to ten thousand people at a time. But a small marketing list, hosted for free on Mailchimp, can generate excellent results for editorial freelancers.

Buy it “just in time”

Planning ahead of time is smart. If you’re going to offer live video coaching sessions, you should probably think about how many meetings you’re likely to need in a given month, how many people are likely to be on each call (one individual or a group?), and other factors that matter in choosing a video conferencing service. Then you can do some research about which options will best suit your needs.

But until you actually get a video coaching client, you don’t need to buy the service.

I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my accounting. When I need something more complex, I will buy the more complex thing. So far in twenty-five years I have not needed the more complex thing.

If you do need accounting software—perhaps you have a lot of invoices and want to automate this, or find it hard to keep track of who has paid what—then by all means invest in it. But just because you think you might or because someone else uses it doesn’t mean you have to. Buy it when you need it, not before.

Invest time and effort, not money (or, DIY freelancing)

To learn about free and inexpensive resources, to develop your skills, and to be in a position to give and get referrals, it helps to be hooked in with other freelancers. You can do this by following and interacting with other editors on Twitter, participating in online groups like Editors’ Association of Earth (on Facebook), and so on.

Cultivating clients may require sending letters of introduction to publishers you want to work with or answering questions in an online writers’ group to establish your expertise and perhaps connect with potential clients.

These things require time and efforts. There aren’t a lot of shortcuts. People try to find shortcuts, such as by listing a profile on Upwork and similar places, but for the most part those types of platforms undervalue professional services and pay a pittance. Such jobs don’t build your skills or help you build your business. Instead of winding up on a treadmill of low-paying work, invest the time in cultivating better-paying clients.

Doing it yourself can require a big commitment, I know. The first time I tried to figure out how an ecommerce plugin works (to sell classes on my website) it took me days to wade through all of the documentation and make it go. But the next time I needed to configure a plugin for ecommerce, it was much easier and took me an hour or two. Not only did I save money—for both website updates—I also learned a lot about what I needed an ecommerce plugin to be able to do and I understood a lot more clearly what ecommerce plugins can actually accomplish.

Investing time and effort instead of money also means being patient, which can be hard when you’re feeling stressed about money. This weekend was the first time someone requested to join the Club Ed forums and I didn’t know them from a class I’ve taught—and I opened the Club Ed forums in December. Freelance editing is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Until you’re fully booked consistently, don’t farm out chores. Managing other people is time-consuming. Hiring other people is expensive. It’s okay not to take over the world with your business. Manageable is beautiful.

Join the Club!

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