How to Survive and Thrive as a Freelancer
Editor’s note: This article is intended to be general in nature and is not personal financial advice. Before acting on any information, consider your situation, objectives, and needs, and seek professional local help.
I’ve been freelancing my entire career.
I’ve never had a proper job—and by that I mean, a salaried position, with a boss and the assumption of constant work—but so far it’s worked out alright.
I’ve seen tough times. There’ve been long stretches of unemployment, especially at the start. But I’ve also seen boom times where I earned more than I ever thought likely.
I’ve made mistakes, I’ve learned valuable lessons, and along the way I’ve landed on a system that’s helped me manage my finances through a financial crisis, two babies (and another on the way), a global pandemic, and the industry’s constant leaps in technology.
Freelancing isn’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine giving up the freedom, flexibility, and entrepreneurial agency that it offers. So if freelancing is something you’ve chosen or recently fallen into, or if you’re just considering the jump, then there’ll be (I hope) something in these personal experiences that you find useful. If not now, then maybe later.
As in the edit suite, so in life. Always be saving something.
Even if it’s a tiny percentage of your income. Eventually it will all add up and consistently saving something helps to build that crucial habit into your financial life.
I prefer to use percentages to slice and dice my income—rather than a set monthly amount—because the total amounts I then save, invest, give etc., will automatically scale as my income increases.
I’ve also found that, when it comes to the practical mechanics of saving, it’s better to have separate accounts to move different portions of your income into. If it’s all in one account, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve tallied somewhere that some portion of it is supposed to be savings, it’ll all turn into financial soup and will get spent before you know it.
I’ve seen too many freelancers fall into a panic when it comes time to pay their taxes because they’ve not stored away (in a separate account) the correct percentage they need to cover this inescapable expense.
So pick a realistic percentage you can set aside as savings every time you get paid. Now what?
Savings buy you time
Over the course of a freelance creative career, savings serve multiple purposes. First, and most obviously, they give you some protection against the unexpected twists and turns that freelance life brings. Having a cushion under you when you fall on those proverbial hard times, really helps to soften the blow.
Ideally this would be at least enough to cover a full month of all your outgoings. This will give you some breathing room if work dries up, you get a short-term illness, or just need to take a decent break! A bigger reserve will buy you more time, so choose a reserve that you feel comfortable with.
A further benefit of tucking away your tax payments as you earn, is that you’ll also have a large pot of cash to draw from if you hit any cashflow crunches, where you know you’ll get paid to cover what you borrow, but you’re still waiting on clients to pay your invoices.
The only danger with borrowing from your tax fund is if you can’t pay it back in time to pay your actual tax bill.
During leaner times in my freelance career, I’ve burned through my savings and had to borrow from my tax fund, but thankfully managed to earn enough to set things straight before the tax became due.
The risks of this should be obvious. Don’t do it if you can avoid it.
Savings buy you options
One of the less obvious benefits of building up a more substantial pot of savings is that it affords you the opportunity to be picky when it comes to the kind of projects you choose, or at least those that you turn down in the hopes of something better coming along.
This was some of the best advice I ever received. Over two decades ago, from Carol Littleton. She said to save as much as I could, that way you can survive and be able to be a little more picky about what projects you take. I owe her so much for that.
— Jesse Averna, ACE 🥖 (@Dr0id) December 14, 2021
As animation editor Jesse Averna both noted in the tweet above, this is especially true for assistant editors looking to make the jump to working as full-fledged editors.
the way i always put this is that different parts of the industry are ladders, and going from one ladder to another often requires climbing down and starting from the bottom again. don’t climb a ladder you don’t want to end up on.
— Michael Tae Sweeney (@mtsw) February 7, 2022
It’s also true of editors looking to step across into new parts of the industry, for example when moving from unscripted into scripted they may have to “take a step down” as an assistant to build up connections and credits.
For example, Legends of Tomorrow editor Monica Daniel shared her perspective on stepping down into assisting in order to make her way across to a new ladder in scripted TV.
I don’t regret any of my experience. I took a step back into assisting to break until scripted at 35. All of my experience throughout my career has made me the experienced editor I am today.
— Monica Daniel, Editor (@Monica_Edits) February 7, 2022
From 2008 – 2015 she worked as an editor in unscripted TV before moving across, in 2015 as an assistant editor on scripted shows such as Minority Report, Supergirl, Preacher, Altered Carbon, Colony and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, where she also began editing specific episodes through 2018-2021.
This is a good example of how career moves often require flexibility and having some savings to lean on in these moments can give you the confidence to make purposeful choices.
Earn enough to work for free
Following a similar thread of empowering creative career options, Mission: Impossible 5-8 and Maverick editor Eddie Hamilton made gutsy choices early on in his career that helped him to build a credit list and impressive industry connections that consistently led him to each new project.
If you examine his feature film editing credits on IMDB you’ll see that, between 1998 and Kick-Ass in 2010, Eddie cut 19 feature-length projects! (Not to mention numerous shorts and TV shows…)
But how did he do that? And why? Here’s the story in his own words:
“Once Urban Ghost Story was complete in 1998, I went on to cut two further no-budget features for free. Yes, for free.
I supported myself with two days a week freelance editing at the Paramount Comedy Channel, which just about paid my bills.
Now I was starting to build a network of friends and contacts, and gradually people contacted me about cutting short films and other features, and the pay started to improve. And the more people I met, the greater the chance of a personal recommendation to someone else who was looking for an editor for their project.
On my first ten features there was no budget for an assistant editor. I was my own assistant. Digitizing, synching rushes, logging paperwork, cutting the film, doing playouts, creating EDLs and generally overseeing the entire post on the movie. That is how I learnt my craft.
I’ve now been editing professionally for 17 years and have cut over 20 feature films as well as TV dramas, documentaries and award-winning short films.”
What does this tell us? If no one will pay you to do the kind of work you really want to be doing, find a way to the work you want by backing yourself.
“If no one will pay you to do the kind of work you really want to be doing, find a way to the work you want by backing yourself.”
For Eddie that meant working part time at the Paramount Comedy Channel while cutting feature films the rest of the week.
So if there’s a direction that you’d like to take, consider doing it for nothing (or at least a reduced fee) to encourage others to take the risk of hiring you. Remember that it’s up to you to define the difference between pro bono and exploitation. You’re the only person who knows far you’ll go to gain the experience that will get you noticed. And hopefully paid next time.
Being realistic about your financial situation can be daunting. But freelancing can be uncertain, so understanding your finances helps create a solid foundation for success.
You wouldn’t drive down the road in the dark with no headlights on, so why fly blind with your finances?
All you need to do to start is to add up all of your outgoings on a monthly basis, especially your fixed costs, as these are the overheads that you’ll need to pay regardless of whether you’ve got any work coming in.
For individual freelancers this includes (but is not limited to) your rent or mortgage, car payments, utility bills, food, travel, insurance, debt repayments, office space, etc.
This will help you also to set a realistic figure for how much to start to save towards your safety reserve. Whether this is one month or more depends on the amount of risk you’re comfortable with, or what’s realistically achievable.
It’s essential that these fixed costs/overheads are covered by your day rate or the profit margin in your project budgets. So take a moment to calculate the following.
For break-even days
Total fixed costs / current day rate (minus tax) = number of days you need to work each month to break even.
For your break-even rate
Total fixed costs / average number of days worked a month = what your day rate needs to be greater than to break even.
It’s also worth understanding what your marginal costs are. These are the ones that might grow or shrink per project—such as buying in new gear, paying other artists, or equipment rental.
Where possible, these costs should be covered by passing on the direct costs to your clients through your project budget, or factored in somehow.
Understanding what these are likely to be for any given project can also help you avoid delivering an initial budget to a client that’s simply a multiple of your day rate, but one that also includes these costs upfront.
Adjusting when situations change
It’s also a good idea to reassess each year, or at least when you know your circumstances have changed—like how many of us are doing a lot more work from home now.
If you’re still rolling with the same fixed costs total, based on a different working context, you should double check it is still accurate. Keep a note of how these figures have changed each year, and always use an accountant, as they’ll be aware of the relevant tax deductions and expenses for your location and trade.
Here are some questions to ask when circumstances change.
- What changes to your expenses has a remote workflow created?
- Are you spending less on travel and eating out?
- Have you spent money in building out a home office/edit suite?
- Did you acquire new hardware or software?
- Did you start up a new monthly subscription to any cloud-based services?
- Are these a set monthly fee or a pay-per-use cost?
Be specific and be honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to lift the lid on your finances, it’s the truth that will set you free!
Spending. The easy part.
For some people saving represents security, whilst for others spending represents freedom. By nature you’re likely one or the other.
There are strengths and weaknesses to both, but it’s helpful to know what your gut response is when dealing with money. For example, I’m a saver which means I like to have cash to hand to make me feel safe, but it also means I often bottleneck potential increases in productivity by not purchasing new essentials quickly enough.
Obviously the best way to save more is to spend less.
“Obviously the best way to save more is to spend less.”
These days that seems like an ever increasing challenge but the best way to shape where the flow of your finances go is to try to make purposeful decisions.
One of the easiest ways to spend less is to cut back any non-essential overheads, especially any that crept in during previous boom times where what then seemed like a necessity is now a luxury.
Spend on purpose
What is the goal you’re currently trying to achieve and how can you direct your finances accordingly? Maybe it’s to get a different kind of work, so do you need to invest more in training to be able to do that kind of work?
Maybe it’s to win higher paying clients, and so maybe investing in the look and feel of your website and design aesthetic will help attract that level of work?
Or maybe the goal is simply to survive and stay in the game! (That’s totally fine, I’ve definitely been there.)
Be purposeful. I know freelancers with an “if you buy it, they will come” mentality when it comes to acquiring new toys and hardware. Like buying a bigger faster machine for 3D work because they want to get into it, not because they have a client base requesting it.
Personally I would advise against this. It is safer to build up a portfolio of 3D work, albeit on a slower machine, and then use the profits from those real projects to buy that new beefier machine. (Or maybe just add a line item in your invoice to cover cloud-rendering costs.)
When it comes to buying new things, you might think you need it, but it’s quite likely that buying that new thing feels like it’s the right thing to do, simply because it’s a very easy fix and it comes with a dopamine hit.
Instead try to think creatively about how else you might deploy that precious limited resource (cash) to better solve your problem without impacting your bottom line or wiping out your savings.
A good example of purposeful purchasing is to invest at least as much in training for new software, as the software itself. You’re paid for your skill set, not your tool box, so be competent with any software you do invest in.
And finally, try to avoid long-term contracts.
As we’ve seen, a lot can happen in 24 months, so agreeing to a fixed price monthly fee for two years can be restrictive and problematic if you can’t guarantee that you’ll need—or be able to pay for—a specific service over that time-horizon. Especially if leaving early incurs exit fees/penalties.
Build a second income stream
Having multiple sources of income can help smooth out the peaks and valleys of freelance cash flow, which can keep you in the game long enough to broaden your client base, deepen your experience level, and catch those breaks where opportunity meets preparation.
But what kind of jobs work best for a second income?
I would suggest something that’s flexible, scalable, and relevant.
It needs to be flexible enough to fit around your other commitments, both in the time it takes to do the work and the timing of the work, such that you have the ability to turn it off at the last minute, should a better project come in with your day-job, which for me is editing.
It also needs to be scalable, meaning it can expand to fill your spare capacity. This is one of the good things about writing for my own or other sites as a freelance writer. There is always demand for new content and there are usually no hard deadlines, which means I can fill my spare time with as much blog writing as I can manage, whenever I want to.
Finally, it should really be (at the very least even vaguely) relevant to the main focus of your career. Sure, you can earn extra cash knitting bespoke scarves, but how does that connect to your pursuit of a career in post production? Unless, perhaps, they’re these scarves.
For me, writing about post production keeps me up-to-date with the industry, connects me to new people and demands that I constantly learn new things. All helpful elements to furthering my career in post-production.
Spend your time wisely
Lastly, as a freelancer there is a further resource that you’ll sometimes have in abundance; time. Making the most of all your resources, not just your money, will help to further your creative career and increase your productivity.
So how should you spend your time when you have it to spare?
Competitors can be community
One of things I discovered early on in my freelancing career is that other editors are the best people to know. Their network can become your network and vice versa.
So when you have time to spare, use it to travel to meet other editors, go for coffee and write those warm email introductions that might make the connection you need to open up a new pathway in your career.
Recommending other trusted editor friends to do jobs you can’t also strengthens the cross-pollination between your industry networks. Make sure you tell them your rates with those clients, so they don’t accidentally undercut you. Sharing is caring.
Downtime is the hardest time to be disciplined about re-cutting your reel, updating your portfolio or exploring new creative ideas and tools through noodling around creating something for the love of it.
You might not feel like it when you’re unemployed but you won’t get this time back so this is one valuable way to put it to good use and something every freelancer is always meaning to get around to (but almost never do.)
Invest in yourself
It’s easy to spend money on hardware and software, but it’s actually your heart, mind, body and soul that clients are hiring when they book you for a gig.
When you have time to spare, even in a lunch break, put it to good use learning something new. Heck, you’d do well to read a few more of the in-depth articles here on the Frame.io blog as a solid starting point.
So what’s next?
So you’ve made it to the end of the article, but what should you do next? That’s up to you, but here’s a list to get you started.
- Figure out what your monthly overheads are.
- Pick a percentage of each invoice to start saving.
- Start saving towards a one month cushion of your overheads.
- Set some goals for your career.
- Save/spend to work towards creatively meeting those goals.
- Write a list of ten ways to develop a second income stream.
- And finally, like Baz said, wear sunscreen.