Every so often, somebody asks me how much I earn each month as a freelancer. Other than the fact that that isn’t the most polite of questions, I struggle to answer without throwing in a ton of caveats. I’m sure many other freelancers and self-employed folks feel the same.
For someone who’s thinking of taking the plunge, quitting their job and freelancing full-time, this can seem frustratingly evasive. How do you know if you’re ready to take on the risk if you don’t even know how much you can earn?
Here’s why asking about a freelancer’s monthly income is never a meaningful exercise:
Doesn’t take into account the amount of time a freelancer has worked
I have self-employed friends who work only 15 hours a week. I have self-employed friends who work 50 hour weeks. And I also have self-employed friends who can work 70 hours one week, and 0 hours the next. Knowing how much these people earn each week doesn’t tell you much about the amount of effort they have to put in to make that money.
That’s why those articles claiming that some taxi driver or Grab driver earns $6,000 or $7,000 a month aren’t very helpful. What’s important to know is how many hours they need to work and how much effort they put in to achieve that, and whether such hours are sustainable in the long run.
Doesn’t take into account the inconveniences experienced on the job
A salaried web designer earning $2,000 a month will without a doubt feel crappy when he realises there are freelance web designers earning two, three, four or even five times that amount.
That’s normal, as freelancers charge more per hour than salaried employees. They have to, as they do a hell of a lot of unpaid work. For instance, freelancers do not get paid for introductory meetings with clients, administrative tasks like invoicing, taking phone calls from potential clients or replying to emails. All these tasks can be a considerable time sink.
So the next time a freelancer tells you he charges $xxx per hour, doesn’t assume he’s definitely rolling in cash, as it’s likely he’s burning through many hours a week doing stuff he’s not being paid for.
Doesn’t take into account hidden costs, lack of stability and lack of benefits
When freelancers fall ill, they can forget about getting paid medical leave. They can also forget about getting a 13th month bonus, paid vacations or even a guaranteed salary.
So when you learn that a freelancer’s earning about $x,xxx-$xx,xxx a month, don’t take it at face value. If this guy decides to take two weeks of vacation, that’s two weeks he’s not getting paid for.
Doesn’t take into account the freelancer’s lifestyle benefits
Okay, it’s not all doom and gloom. If we’re going to be honest, being a freelancer comes with a host of lifestyle benefits that make it all worthwhile for many folks.
For instance, a freelancer graphic designer who gets to work from home does not have to spend time and money commuting to work every day. Should he have a kid to look after, he gets to save money on childcare and has the chance to actually be around to spend time with his child. Digital nomads can base themselves overseas in a country with a lower cost of living. And of course, being able to work flexible hours is priceless for the many sleep-deprived Singaporeans who would rather not wake up at 7am.
It is very hard to put a dollar value on these lifestyle benefits. What’s more, freelancers often take a pay cut to enable themselves to enjoy these lifestyle benefits—for instance, by voluntarily working less than 40 hours a week in order to enjoy better work-life balance, or picking and choosing only projects that interest them to the detriment of their income.
So to anyone who’s still worried about their earning potential and hoping for some guidance from the experienced freelancers out there: take every figure you receive with a grain of salt, and realise numbers are meaningless unless you learn to understand them better by asking the right questions.
What are your biggest questions about how freelancers make ends meet? Tell us in the comments!