You can be 'extremely fulfilled' working for yourself, full-time freelancers say: Here's what you need to know

"Twenty-five dollars an hour for a business is more like $18 an hour."

Marianne Boules.
Courtesy Marianne Boules

Americans are increasingly picking up freelance work. About 59 million people, or 36% of the U.S. workforce, took up freelance gigs between June 2019 and June 2020, according to a September 2020 Upwork survey of 6,000 U.S. workers. That's an increase of 2 million people from the previous year. The trend appears to be growing as millions quit their jobs to meet new priorities like flexibility and freedom on the job.

Marianne Boules made a move before the pandemic: She left her government job in 2018 to become a freelance grant writer. "I started my own business, and since then I have been extremely fulfilled," she says.

But going freelance full time isn't without challenges. Here are four pieces of advice for pursuing full-time freelance work from Boules and other successful entrepreneurs who have made the transition.

Figure out fees: '$25 an hour for a business is more like $18 an hour'

Boules, 28, who is based in Orange County, California, had always wanted to work in government and make a difference. But after working as a policy analyst, she became "disillusioned and jaded" with the environment, and decided to strike out on her own.

She founded Boules Consulting in April 2018, through which she does "consulting and proposal writing for nonprofits and social enterprises," she says. "I mostly focus on grant writing."

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In her first year in business, Boules made $15,000. This year, she's on track to bring in $70,000. As you figure out your own pricing models, Boules suggests keeping in mind that the sum of what you charge will not be what you take home. Some of that revenue will go to materials and supplies you need, for example. A third should also be set aside for taxes.

"I started out making $15 an hour and then I raised it to $25 an hour," says Boules.

With the expenses she was accruing outside of paying herself, however, Boules realized, "Twenty-five dollars an hour for a business is more like $18 an hour." So shifted her model to charging per project. "I usually do three grants a month for $1,000 a month," she says.

'Dedicate time to client acquisition'

As a freelancer, you're responsible not just for doing the work but also for finding a steady stream of opportunities.

Always "dedicate time to client acquisition," says Boules, "because if you ever stop working on marketing and client acquisition, it's only a matter of time before [you've finished the work for] your current base of clients" and you have to scramble to find your next gig.

Boules herself dedicates one hour a week for marketing to acquire new clients.

'Start your IRA as soon as possible'

Jeanette Andrews had always wanted to be a magician: She started her career in magic at just 6 years old when she got paid $10 to perform at a local day care. "To hear that somebody will pay you $10 for anything, let alone something that you love, was just mind bending to me," says Andrews. And her career took off from there.

Andrews is now 31 and living in Chicago ― and she's a full-time magician. For her, that means doing a combination of private performances at cocktail parties and galas, teaching workshops, and working with places like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on larger performance pieces. During the pandemic, she booked a lot of "corporate virtual performances."

Emily Calvin, Aleksandr Wilde's wife.
Photo by Aleksandr Wilde

Even before she left her parents' house to pursue magic full time, Andrews began putting money aside for retirement. As a freelancer, "you are responsible for every aspect of your life, your insurance, your retirement," she says. "Set up and start your IRA as soon as possible."

Freelancers have a variety of retirement account options available to them, including a traditional and Roth IRAs, as well as SEP-IRAs and solo 401(k)s. Even small contributions can add up.

Be open to 'doing other things for money'

Aleksandr Wilde, 32, who lives in Gainesville, Florida, started his freelance photography hustle in 2018 while studying theater at Santa Fe College. A few years before, he says, "a friend of mine had loaned me their DSLR camera and sort of showed me how to use the manual settings." As Wilde gained experience, people started asking if they could hire him.

Today, "I make some money doing headshots for actors," he says, and "I do family photography." That includes maternity photos, engagement sessions, and weddings. On average, he makes $100 per hour and, depending on how many gigs he books, "I'll have a month when I pull in a couple thousand dollars and I have a month where I pull in $100," he says.

Aleksandr Wilde.
Courtesy Aleksandr Wilde

Wilde is married, and his wife's salary helps bring the couple some financial stability. While he's finishing up his degree, his parents are also helping to cover some of the couple's costs.

Booking photography gigs proved challenging during the pandemic, so in the interim Wilde picked up a gig washing dishes at a local doughnut shop. His photography work is picking up again, but he still washes dishes about 10 hours a week making $12.50 per hour.   

His advice for other freelancers is to remember that your intended full-time freelance gig might be slow to start. At least at first, "sometimes [making it work] means doing other things for money," he says.

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