Here’s How I Cleared 50K in My First Year as a Full-Time Freelance Writer

open laptop on a table next to a mug of coffee
Photo courtesy of Jamie Cattanach
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I’d pretty much landed my dream job.

I was a staff writer at a well-read, profitable blog — a role that came with responsibilities and challenges I loved, as well as loads of cushy benefits. (And no, I’m not just talking it up because that job happened to be right here at The Penny Hoarder.)

But I’ve always had itchy feet, and the road was calling — as were my aging parents, who lived a few hours away and could use more help around the house than they were ready to admit. I wanted to be there for them before that “could use” turned into “needed.”

So when I took a deep breath and hit the send button on my official resignation email in December 2016, I was more than a little nervous. And not just because was I checking out of a position that had a lot of promise (and had been a fun way to spend 15 months).

I had no idea what my life as a full-time freelance writer would have in store for me. Well, besides the promise of working in PJs and yoga pants the vast majority of the time.

Here’s Exactly What I Earned in My First Year as a Freelancer

As it turns out, I was correct on that front… but that was about the only thing I predicted. My first year as a full-time freelancer came with a lot of surprises, and not all of them were good ones.

But in the end, I didn’t just survive the W-9 world — I succeeded. I cleared $50,000 in my first year as a freelance writer and scored more than a dozen new bylines. That’s several thousand dollars more than I was making while I was working on salary, although it doesn’t include the benefits I now pay for entirely out of my own pocket, like health care and retirement.

What I learned along the way is harder to quantify, of course. But for those of you who are looking to build your own freelance business and are experiencing the same nervous excitement I did, here’s a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of my earnings — and the even-more-valuable insights that came along with them:

Quarter One: $8,298.75*

This isn’t a terrible total, especially since at this point, most of my clients — all four of them — were either blogs I’d already written for (like, um, this one) or connections I’d made through my existing network.

I was also working a part-time coffee-shop job for the first couple months, mostly in order to secure health care, but it soon became an unjustifiable time expense as my web of clients expanded.

Quarter Two: $14,827.25

Quite a jump, right? In large part, my ability to pull in almost double what I earned in the first quarter was thanks to a compromise — one I was pretty unsure about at first.

One of my main anchor clients, who paid me ten cents per word for fairly straightforward copywriting, asked if I’d be willing to write for eight cents per word… but with the assurance of a certain minimum amount of content each week. In short, I’d be writing more for less money, but I’d have an all-but-guaranteed, reliable stream of income.

Even with the pay cut, I earned a great deal more from that client in Q2 than in Q1, when several weeks went by devoid of assignments entirely. I’d also been busy in Q2 pitching new ideas and outlets — outlets who paid a higher rate per article than most of my existing contacts. Although I only scored three new bylines, those clients alone accounted for $2,000 of this quarter’s earnings.

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Quarter Three: $13,975

Although I earned slightly less than I did in Q2 earnings, by Q3, I was cooking with gas. I’d taken up some work I hadn’t expected, including retail-website copy and an e-book, and I’d also garnered exciting bylines with recognizable publications like SELF and VinePair. (How to land dreamy publications, you ask? Persistence and thick skin. About 85% of my 2017 pitches were rejected — or ignored entirely.)

Quarter Four: $12,945

Since the anchor client I mentioned above is in the travel and hospitality space, fall and winter are considered their slow seasons. Thus, my weekly copy quota got cut back a bit. I wasn’t super pleased to get this news, which came just in time for the holidays… and my costly, already-booked, months-long overseas sojourn.

But luckily, by this point, I’d built up enough momentum and regular clients to have a solid base income. In fact, the cutback ended up working in my favor, since I had more time to explore my foreign destinations.

First-Year Total: $50,046 (!!)

Of course, I didn’t actually have Scrooge McDuck-style stacks to roll around in. Freelance earnings come in fits and starts and don’t account for taxes, which you need to withhold yourself.

After paying Uncle Sam his cut — approximately 35% of my gross total including income and self employment tax, which is slightly more than I’d been taxed as a staffer — my net income was down to approximately $32,500, about $1,500 of which I stuck directly into my IRA. I know, I know, I should have maxed it out; with my earnings, $5,500 was totally doable. But I was simultaneously building my emergency fund, which today is over $10,000.

I also paid a little over $500 in monthly health insurance premiums, an expense that would have been much higher — like, thousands of dollars higher — if I hadn’t qualified for that nifty Obamacare subsidy I’m totally not sure I actually qualify for anymore. (Note to self: Call accountant.)

Even so, I touched more money this year than I did as a salaried worker, and I didn’t have to count vacation days or go into an office. I also only worked about 25 hours per week on average.

I think that calls for some Champagne, don’t you?

Want to Start a Freelance Business? Here’s My Advice

That #freelancelife isn’t always easy, but it’s worthwhile and totally achievable if you’re dedicated. Here’s what I wish someone had told me before I’d started:

1. Nothing is a sure thing, so don’t spend money you don’t have.

Remember how I said I went several weeks without any assignments in Q1? Well, I didn’t go any weeks without having to buy groceries.

Freelance clients are often late with payments, and projects are frequently discussed that never come to fruition. There’s no guarantee until there’s a guarantee — and sometimes, not even then. So if at all possible, don’t spend money unless it’s actually physically present in your bank account. (This means you, Q1 Jamie, expensing a trip to Portland on credit.)

2. Take advantage of long-term agreements — even if it means a lower pay rate.

Obviously, this rule won’t work in every situation; you’ll need to assess what your work is worth based on your own personal topography of available time and clients.

That said, I’m so glad I said yes to that two-cent pay cut, especially since the client in question pays on time and on a weekly basis (bless). These kinds of arrangements can pay dividends in the long run, so don’t overlook them!

3. Say yes as often as possible, at least at the beginning.

I definitely took some work that wasn’t really in my wheelhouse in 2017 — including writing an ebook on dating —one that was directed toward helping single men become… more successful in their efforts to… woo women. (Notice I did not write “pick up chicks.” I did everything in my power to try to use the opportunity to de-sleazify the dating scene just a little.)

Of course, writing toward the kinds of content you want to pursue is the best way to build the client base and career you want. But when you’re first starting, every penny and byline counts — so don’t be too choosy about who you’ll write for.

4. That said, DON’T WORK FOR FREE.

Or if you do, don’t make a habit of it. Yes, you need clips and bylines, but “exposure” doesn’t put food on the table.

5. Just keep swimming pitching.

It’s time-intensive and often thankless; you’ll be rejected lots and hear nothing at all even more.

But pitching — or whatever the outreach equivalent is in your freelance business of choice — is absolutely essential to expanding your client roster. Although it’s not directly earning you money right now, you should definitely consider it a regular responsibility. Set aside time to do it and count those hours as part of your work week.

6. Separate out your taxes IMMEDIATELY.

Just make a whole separate bank account and funnel a third of your earnings directly into it. Consider it Uncle Sam’s money: It doesn’t belong to you, so don’t touch it. Don’t even go there.

(Until, of course, quarterlies come up and you get to write four-figure checks to the IRS. Like I said, freelancing’s not all rainbows and unicorns.)

7. Max out your IRA if at all possible.

I really, really wish I’d done so this year — and to be honest, I definitely could have if I hadn’t prioritized travel. It’s only $5,500, after all.

If you can’t max out your IRA contribution, at least set up automatic weekly withdrawals and factor them into your normal budget. Depending on your income and expenses, even $100 a week can become unnoticeable after a month or two, and you’ll be thanking your younger self when you’re coming up on retirement time.

Taking the freelance plunge was scary, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made — and you can do it, too. Now to see what 2018 will bring. My goal: to gross $60,000, earn at least five new bylines and focus more on fun, creative projects.

Good luck, you entrepreneurial Penny Hoarders!

*Author’s note: These figures represent total income generated in a given quarter, rather than total income actually received. Another important thing you learn as a freelancer: Even if your deadline is in June, you might not see the money until August, so always be sure you have a hefty safety cushion!

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.