3 Uncomfortable Truths All Freelancers Must Face

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Recently, one of my friends was complaining about how he’d been stuck at the office till 11pm. “You, on the other hand, don’t even have to work,” he said bitterly.

As a freelancer, you’re going to get that a lot. Because you’re able to stay out later than those who have to be up at 7am the next day or are sometimes spotted having a life at 11am on a Monday morning, others will assume you work as hard as a reality TV star for your money.

But the sad truth is that freelancing is in many ways more stressful than having a “real” job—it’s just that you only find out after you’ve taken the plunge. Here are three truths nobody knows until they actually start freelancing.

 

Sometimes being busy actually gives you better work-life balance

In the corporate world, more work = lousier work-life balance—it’s a simple equation. When you have too much work, you OT for a longer time. When you have less, you leave on time.

One of the draws of becoming a freelancer is without a doubt the fact that you no longer need to worry about face-time. Done with your work? Then you’re done for the day and it’s time to get drunk or whatever.

Well, in theory anyway. In reality, many freelancers find that they work more efficiently the busier they are as it forces them to prioritise. On the other hand, not having much on your plate often means your work expands to fill the space.

A task that would normally take you 3 hours can end up taking the whole day. You do half an hour of work, then take a half-hour break to watch some YouTube videos, then you work for another half-hour before doing some yoga and so on. Your work day ends up feeling a lot longer than it has to.

One thing you can do to force yourself to condense your work into shorter and more focused time periods is to make lots of plans.

Sign up for classes, commit to meeting friends or even volunteer to cook dinner for your family at a certain time, whatever it takes to eliminate long stretches of nothingness. I find that when I arrange to meet friends at, say, 6pm, I work very efficiently to beat the clock. On the other hand, if I have no plans for the day, I often end up working on and off until late in the night.

 

Flexibility can easily lead to a lack of work-life balance

Most of my self-employed friends, whether they’re private tutors, graphic designers, piano teachers, photographers or videographers, complain that they’re working way too hard.

Having flexible hours can all too easily translate to a total lack of work-life balance unless you are strong-willed enough to get up on time when you don’t strictly need to, get your crap done efficiently and knock off for the day. Because you can technically work at any time of day, don’t be surprised if you end up working at all hours.

For instance, my private tutor friends often try to pack in as many students as possible. It’s not uncommon for them to teach for 12 hours on Saturdays because that’s when students have more time for classes. Talking nonstop for 12 hours is no joke—even MOE teachers are not delivering lessons for 12 hours straight per day.

I sometimes find myself getting out of bed at 3am to take conference calls in another timezone, and I never go on vacation without my laptop.

If you want to freelance without burning out, you need a lot of discipline to make the lifestyle work for you. Have clear boundaries—promise yourself you’ll stop working after a certain hour, and have the discipline to start work by a certain time each day instead of letting things drag into the night.

 

You could be making more financial sacrifices than you think

Frankly speaking, there are many freelance jobs that have better earning potential than their salaried counterparts.

Most creative jobs will definitely net you significantly more money on a freelance basis than doing the same thing as an employee if you’re able to find a decent stable of clients.

Heck, even committed tuition teachers earn more than MOE teachers. Media and PR professionals usually earn more as freelancers, even when they take on on-site contracts on a freelance basis.

But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Don’t forget to consider the financial sacrifices you’re making.

For starters, freelancers do not benefit from employer’s CPF contributions. As an employee, if your stated salary is $4,000, you actually receive more than that—your employer is required to contribute the equivalent of 17% to your wage (if you’re 55 and below) to your CPF accounts, in addition to the 20% that’s deducted from your salary. So someone who earns $4,000 is really getting $4,680.

So as a freelancer, if you’re trying to benchmark your earnings against that of a salaried employee in your field, you’ve got to take into account the employer’s CPF contributions they enjoy, too.

Those freelancers who don’t make CPF contributions because they have their own retirement plans are still not exempt from making Medisave contributions.

Your Medisave liabilities can be hefty at up to 8% of your earnings for under 35s, or 9% if you’re aged between 35 to under 45. Ouch. Furthermore, unlike the cash in your CPF Special and Ordinary Accounts, you don’t get to touch your Medisave contributions when you retire, except for sums which exceed the Basic Healthcare Sum, which is currently $49,800 but likely to rise in future.

There are other financial costs, such as the lack of paid medical leave (or paid leave of any sort) and the lack of company-sponsored medical insurance and doctor’s visits. If you fall sick and can’t work for a day, you don’t get paid.

Share your biggest challenges as a freelancer in the comments!

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.