Blog

Common Misconceptions About Freelancers (Or, What I *Really* Do All Day)

A couple of days ago -- after three full weeks of traveling for work and going to trade shows -- I told Ron I was just going to quit my job so I could be a housewife blogger and play video games all day.

His response?

"How is that different from what you do right now?"

"Oh," I said. "Burn!"

Now, obviously he was joking -- after all, he's also a freelancer. But the exchange still got me thinking about how "normal" people working 9-to-5 jobs view us freelancers, especially us freelance writers. Not my editors, so much -- they know what's up -- but everyone else.

Here are some of my observations of what people think of my freelance life (#FREELANCELIFE), based on my four (four! That's crazy!) years of experience.

1. I can't get a "real" job.

A couple of years ago, my parents visited me in California. We wandered into my local Apple store, and I introduced my parents to some of the people who worked there (I live...next door to the local Apple store, so I know everyone pretty well). As we left the store, my mom said, "Why don't you get a job here? You seem to know everybody, and it's related to computers!"

My mom was just making conversation, but this wasn't the first (or last) time someone had said something like that to me. Many people with "normal" jobs think that I'm freelancing because I'm between jobs, or I'm acting as a temporary editor/writer until a company hires me. Um, no. Believe it or not, I've actually been offered positions -- both by the publications I write for, and by other publications whose editors have seen my work. But I'm a freelancer by choice, and I will hold onto my freelance life for as long as is feasibly possible. In fact, I enjoy freelancing so much that I would rather take a 50 percent pay cut and stay freelance than take a "real" job.

2. I'm always on vacation.

I travel a lot. And I often travel on a whim. Why? Because I can, mostly -- I'm a freelancer, Ron's a freelancer, we have basically no constraints. I go overseas often, and I occasionally do crazy things like fly to NYC for a sample sale (yes, I have done this). So it's not surprising that, when I'm constantly tweeting and emailing from another country, people think I'm perpetually on vacation. And they know that I'm in another country because my freelance life allows it, ergo, freelance life = permanent vacation.

But I'll let you in on a little secret: I actually never take vacations. Unlike you "normal" people, I don't get PTO (that stands for paid time off, right? I don't even know what it stands for!!!) -- nobody pays me to kick it. So instead of taking vacations, I just...don't. Don't get me wrong -- I travel all the time. But I work all. The. Time. Planes are a great place to get work done, obviously, but I also work at the hotel, on the road, while sight-seeing ("Hey, this app is great for mapping the streets of Paris! Let's hop into that Apple store so I can connect to the Internet!"), and I'm constantly thinking about work when I'm not working. I have plenty of great tips for traveling and working, too (like, Apple stores always have free Internet), but not too many great tips for separating life from work. Because it never separates if you're a freelancer. NEVER.

3. "Freelance" is another word for "unemployed."

For some reason, a lot of people think that the freelance life is synonymous with the unemployed life: I don't really work, I just kind of do whatever I want, whenever I want, and I am free to do anyone's chores at any time because, hey, I'm just sitting at home waiting for life to happen to me...right?

Er, wrong. My schedule is pretty flexible, that's true. If I'm bored in the middle of the day, I can go shopping, have lunch with a friend, take a nap, walk my dog, work out -- and I do all of these things (I don't pretend like I have to have some sort of structured 9-to-5 schedule). But when I'm working, I'm really working. I'm probably working even harder than I would at a "real" job, because I know that I can do something fun when I'm done (unlike at a "real" job, where I'd have to sit around and pretend to be working until the end of the workday. No real incentive to finish things quickly, there). So I can't babysit/walk your dog/pick up your mail just because I happen to work from home, sorry.

4. I have no health insurance.

When I tell someone I'm a freelance writer, the first question out of their mouth is usually, "Is that code for 'unemployed'?" The second question is usually, "What do you do about health insurance?"

I grew up in Tokyo, Japan. My parents were high school P.E. teachers at an international school. The school provided health insurance, but it wasn't like most U.S. health insurance -- for one thing, it was a pay-then-get-reimbursed situation, not a co-pay thing. For another thing, the company offered a very easy, independent option for people who were not traditionally employed. There are actually a lot of health insurance options for freelancers -- you can join a guild or group of other freelancers for discounted rates, you can ask one of your bigger clients if they have any options for independent contractors (many do), you can pay out of pocket for insurance, etc. I have excellent health insurance.

5. I'll work for exposure/free/basically free.

The Internet has made things pretty difficult for freelancers. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to write for free (whether they're any good is another story). So I often have "potential clients" (I put that in quotes because, they're not) contact me and ask if I'll write for exposure/free/basically free.

Sorry guys, it doesn't work that way. And if you think my rates seem high, remember that in addition to regular taxes, I also have to pay self-employment taxes, business expenses (including trips. And deducting something is not the same as just...not paying for it at all.), and for any benefits such as insurance, "PTO," retirement, etc. At the end of the day, I only make around $0.50 for every dollar, so yes, I would absolutely rather sit here and stare at the wall than write for $0.02/word.

6. I sleep in, therefore I am lazy and my job is super easy.

I do sleep in. I wake up around 2 p.m. on a good day.

But I'm also awake at 9 a.m. You do the math.

7. I'm financially unstable.

"I could never freelance -- I need a stable income." -- Everyone, ever.

I don't get a steady paycheck. I get paid as I invoice, which means that some months I make a ridiculous amount of money...and some months I make a whopping $0. In fact, this last year I made well over 80 percent of my annual income in January and February. (My bank account was rockin'.) And I made quite a bit less in the last few months of the year.

So here's what I do: Not spend all of my money at once. In February I had enough money to either (a) cover my expenses for the rest of the year or (b) buy a luxury sports car WITH CASH. I chose (a), which was probably the better decision...probably. :)

8. I'm introverted.

Haha, no, nobody ever thinks this about me.

But some people do think that freelancers are, generally, introverted. Some certainly are, but many are extroverts -- and that's the only way they can really make freelancing work, since they have to constantly be self-promoting and interacting with clients, sources, and partners.