Becoming a freelancer--whether you're a copywriter, designer, engineer, or participant in the gig economy--is no longer a pit stop between traditional jobs. For younger workers especially, it's a long-term entrepreneurial career choice all its own.
When you're a freelancer, you are essentially a sole proprietor business owner. That means the decision to go out on your own isn't quite as simple as filing a W-2 one year and using 1099s the next. You're starting a business of one, with the capacity to grow your venture into an employer firm in the future, if things go well.
So, assuming you've decided to go full-time freelance, it's time to start asking yourself some important financial questions. Here are five things that any new freelancer, business owner, or even side hustler should consider:
1. Where will your money go the furthest?
As a freelancer today, you can most likely work from anywhere. New, young freelancers who want to live in a city where it's easier to network, source new clients, and be around other freelancers (not to mention other benefits of city living, if those appeal to you) may want to choose somewhere where their money goes further. Tech talent doesn't have to live in San Francisco, for example.
We recently released a report at Fundera that determined the top cities for freelancers to live in and work from--taking into account factors like housing costs as a percentage of income, tax rates, and freelancer ecosystems (including the existing freelancer population and how many coffee shops there are per capita).
Freelancing can be an up-and-down business. Choosing a location where you can save more and live better is a key consideration.
2. Where will your finances live?
Profits from your freelancing career will live in the bank, of course--but which bank? You can't simply start funneling your business earnings into your personal bank account.
For one thing, mixing your personal and business finances leads to a headache come tax season. For another, doing so can leave you personally liable for lawsuits against your business. And, finally, you'll fail to build business credit if you use personal finance tools like your personal credit card to pay your business expenses.
Open up a business checking account and get a business credit card as soon as you go freelance. For logistical, financial, and legal reasons, you'll be glad you did.
3. Do you need accounting help?
Keeping track of contracts, invoices, overdue payments, and, of course, tax responsibilities is where the "business" part of being a freelancer comes into play. Are you prepared to handle these tasks on your own?
There are a variety of low-cost and even free invoicing, accounting, and business management software options for freelancers. These tools will help you stay on schedule, be paid regularly, and remain in compliance.
When it comes to tax season, it may be worth enlisting the help of a professional accountant, such as a CPA, to make sure you're making the most of your possible deductions and filling out your forms correctly.
4. How can you continue to save for retirement?
The responsibility of saving for retirement falls squarely on your shoulders as a freelancer. You can't simply put money into a company-sponsored 401(k) as a freelancer. You'll have to do your own financial planning here.
Opening up an IRA or Roth IRA is the obvious step, but budgeting for your retirement will be more difficult. Think about it: Whatever your typical by-project fee is, you'll have to take into account not just your time, effort, and skills, as well as a percentage for your taxes, but also a portion for your retirement fund.
Don't be afraid to budget for yourself in this regard. No one will look out for your financial future except you.
5. Can you make enough to cover insurance costs?
Finally, you'll need to consider the costs of insurance. That means health insurance costs--which, until further notice, will likely continue to mean private, high-deductible insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act. These plans come with hefty fees and don't always offer the most comprehensive coverage, but the alternative--living without insurance--isn't advisable.
You may also need to invest in liability insurance (depending on your field or your clients), such as professional liability insurance or errors and omissions insurance.
Committing to an entrepreneurial career path means more than working on your own schedule. It means making the kinds of financial decisions that used to be up to an employer. Freelancers are business owners, so get ready to think like a CEO, CFO, manager, and employee all rolled into one.