I meant to make this an “ask the readers” question as per my new Thursday tradition, but I started writing just a short response to it and then it got longer and longer. So it’s not quite that anymore, but hopefully readers will weigh in as well.
I’m an avid reader of your blog, even though I haven’t had a standard office job in about a decade. I’ve been a freelancer/independent contractor all that time, in a competitive, creative industry. My work is fascinating and fulfilling; working at home on my own time maximizes my strengths while minimizing my professional weaknesses; and I’m happier doing this than any other kind of work I’ve ever tried. I’m nearly 50 and have worked in four different professions, so I’m glad to have found the right track for me.
But the one big downside is the uncertainty. I hate not knowing when work will come, or precisely what money will be coming in at any given time. (My quarterly taxes are an exercise in amateur soothsaying.) This means that when I have multiple offers, I take them all and work myself ragged. Then I tell myself I won’t do that again—and I hit a brief dry spell, which fills me with financial terror. Sometimes it feels easier to be a workaholic than to deal with the anxiety. Budgeting only gets me so far, as my income varies widely, and quarterly taxes therefore become a huge variable. (In my best year I made mid-six-figures; in my lowest year, mid-five-figures. At the start of each year, I have only a rough idea where I’ll be on that continuum.) I bought a house I can make payments on even at the lower end of my range—but it’s the not knowing that drives me batty. I can’t stop thinking that this is the year it all falls apart. Sometimes I think of getting a day job again, but I never did any better at that than my lowest earning freelance year, and I genuinely love the work I do.
I would love to hear your advice (of the other readers’) for dealing with freelancer job anxiety, particularly in creative fields. Unless it’s just “Xanax.”
Yes to Xanax.
For years, I dealt with this by taking on as much work as I could humanly do, which meant that I was often working nearly all of my waking hours and rarely seeing friends and family — and was still living in fear that it could all change in an instant and I could be penniless and homeless. It sucks to live that way! (Your line “Sometimes it feels easier to be a workaholic than to deal with the anxiety” captures exactly how I felt.)
I eventually decided that there’s a certain point where one has been successful enough at one’s chosen work that it’s reasonable to trust that you’ll continue getting work and it’s okay to turn things down and make room in your life for non-work things, and it’s so much better … but I still always have that fear in the back of my head, and maybe all freelancers always do.
The best thing to soothe that fear that I’ve found: savings. In your good years, pile all that extra money into savings. Then you can look at your finances and tell yourself things like, “If I stopped getting any work tomorrow, I could still live just fine for X years/months, and that would be plenty of time to find a regular job if I needed to.”
That doesn’t mean that you have to live at the income level of your worst year, but I’d look at what you make most years, and then live around that level (while keeping things like your mortgage payment affordable for your worst years too, as you’ve done).
Also: Have a plan! You keep thinking that maybe this will be the year it will all fall apart. It probably won’t, but who knows, maybe it will be. What would you do if that happened? Gaming that out and knowing that you have a plan in case that happens will probably help you feel more comfortable.
I also think one of the hardest things about working for yourself is that there’s no ceiling on what you can make. You could potentially earn way more than you ever could at a normal job. So even if you’re making enough, you have to wonder if you should spending more time working so that you earn even more (to safeguard yourself against future leaner times, or just because you love money, or whatever). But that’s how people end up working around the clock — so at some point you have to decide what else you want from your life, and how you want to balance that against the money piece.
Readers who work for yourselves (or have in the past), what’s your advice?