The Accidental Freelancer's Survival Kit

Freelancing in the wake of a layoff? These 10 tips can help.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

Feb. 5, 2009 — -- In January, Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown dubbed the current rotten job market the "Gig Economy," where both high earners and low earners increasingly find themselves cobbling together paychecks from a menagerie of freelance, contract and part-time work.

Suddenly media outlets from CNN to Newsweek followed suit, telling the freshly unemployed what those of us who've been freelancing and consulting for years already know: if you have skills to hawk, you can make a decent living hopping from project to project.

But merely welcoming this army of accidental freelancers to the self-employment club won't groom anyone for the challenges of running their own show.

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

If you, too, have found yourself cast in the role of accidental freelancer -- presumably because you've had better luck finding project work than a staff job -- take heart. As someone who's been a full-time freelancer and contractor since 1992 (by design, not accident), I assure you that there is a method to this self-employed madness.

It doesn't matter if you're a writer, designer, programmer, marketer, builder, bookkeeper, recruiter or project manager; the principles of staying afloat as an independent worker are the same. Herewith, my top pointers for surviving your first freelance year:

I realize that as a newly minted freelancer, you're probably in that starry-eyed, "I heart my 10-second commute!" honeymoon phase. But unless you aspire to lead a very unbalanced life, find someplace to work other than your sleeping quarters (or, if you live in a studio, other than your bed).

Instead, set up a desk that's yours and yours alone and isn't visible from your bed or couch. Use a curtain if you have to. The point is to establish a bit of separation between work and play. Otherwise, the working from home thing gets old fast -- for you and anyone you live with.

Your Alarm Clock Is Your Friend

When you work from home, the temptation to sleep until noon can be overwhelming at first. Don't give in. Adopt a regular work schedule (at the desk by 9 a.m. is my vote), preferably one that meshes with the clients you work for. If your clients can't reach you at least four or five hours each business day, they won't be your clients for long.

Do something, anything, before sauntering over to your desk each morning -- brew some coffee, play with the dog, watch the news, change into your "work" pajamas. Again, it's all about that elusive work/life balance.

Ditto for your hairbrush and deodorant. If you look and smell a mess, you'll start to feel like a science experiment gone horribly wrong and you'll have a harder time taking your professional self seriously. Besides, you never know when a neighbor or UPS delivery person might stop by.

And that brings up another important point: Build a couple of errands or meetings with clients into each work week. Unless you're chummy with your UPS delivery person, if you're relying on them for your weekly dose of human contact, you need to get out of the house more.

Trolling the Freelance Job Sites Is Not Networking

The prevailing wisdom these days is that if you want to freelance, you sign up for a freelance job site like Elance, Guru or oDesk, and you bid on the projects that sound like they're up your alley. But this is not the only way to get freelance work.

As in the employee job-hunting world, seasoned freelancers get a majority of their gigs through referrals, courtesy of friends, former coworkers and satisfied clients. And as in the employee world, if you're limiting your search for work to the job boards, you're greatly limiting your options.

If you haven't yet e-mailed a note to everyone you've met since the day you were born, saying that you're now accepting freelance projects, get cracking. Be sure to include a link to your Web site (mandatory). Also, if you're not schmoozing on Biznik, the social networking site for independent workers, or at the regional face-to-face meetups sponsored by the Freelancers Union, time to get there. Ditto for industry-related events and mailing lists (some of which offer freelance job listings).

A common misconception among new freelancers is that it's sacrilege to fraternize with the so-called competition. But nothing could be further from the truth. After clients, other freelancers are our biggest source of referrals and job leads.

I'm not suggesting you run around demanding that your fellow freelancers fork over their entire contact lists or marketing strategies. (They won't.) But the more solo workers you befriend, the more referrals you'll get from those offered extra gigs that don't fit their schedule, grab their interest or pay their going rate.

Besides, freelancers in the same field often work in different niches. One graphic designer may specialize in Web design, another in logos and print campaigns. Freelance journalists specialize in everything from food to health to -- ahem! -- careers. So if someone offers me a gig reviewing steakhouses, I'll likely refer them to my friend the food critic.

Paying Quarterly Taxes Is Not Optional

If you want to see a freelancer throw a temper tantrum, stop by her office on Jan. 15, April 15, June 15 or Sept. 15, when her quarterly tax payments are due. (That's right, Virginia. We freelancers pay Uncle Sam directly.)

You're bound to have 101 questions about making your quarterly payments, as well as which business expenses you can deduct -- questions your cousin the accounting intern won't be able to answer. And despite being mildly helpful, the IRS Web site will only explain so much.

Do yourself a favor and hire an accountant who has experience working with small business owners, and do it now. Tax day is always right around the corner.

One of the biggest mistakes rookie freelancers make is working without a written contract. Sure, your client may seem reasonable and trustworthy. But even reasonable and trustworthy people forget what promises they made six months ago. Also, if your contact suddenly leaves his or her company, you'll have no proof of that handshake agreement they made with you. Better to get the terms in writing, even if all you do is reiterate in an e-mail the deadlines, project parameters and terms of payment you verbally agreed to.

Contracts are as varied as the projects and industries they represent. For specific examples, I recommend attorney Stephen Fishman's book, "Consultant and Independent Contractor Agreements."

Health Insurance Is a Necessary Evil

Yes, it stinks that self-employed workers don't have the same health insurance options as many U.S. employees do. But getting hit with a five-figure ER bill because you have no health insurance to speak of stinks more.

The COBRA benefits offered through your former employer will likely be your most expensive health care option. Instead, check with your favorite industry association; many offer health coverage to members. Also check to see whether the Freelancers Union offers health insurance in your state.

If neither of these is an option, enlist an insurance agent to help you pick an individual plan that best suits your budget and health needs. (I've found this more cost effective than going to eHealthInsurance and playing eenie, meenie, minie, moe.)

Whatever you do, don't let your health coverage lapse, unless you don't mind being hit with nasty waiting periods or denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions.

I know, I know -- save money? In this economy? But according to experts far more finance-savvy than me, an economic implosion is no excuse to stop feeding your retirement kitty. So with that in mind, get yourself to your financial institution of choice and open yourself an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) if you haven't done so already.

If you're worried about losing any more money in stocks, don't be.

"You do not have to invest in the stock market just because you put money in an IRA," said Ken Clark, a Certified Financial Planner and the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Out of Debt."

"You can choose a money market or CD option -- something you can do in any IRA," as long as your financial institution offers that option, he explained.

Getting Paid in Exposure Won't Pay the Bills

Now that you've hung your own self-employment shingle, people are going to ask you to work for them free of charge. If you don't believe me, peruse the Gigs section on Craigslist, where many of these culprits lie in wait.

Pro bono work and bartering certainly have their place in moderation. And taking a short-lived gig for a high-profile outfit with shallow pockets can be a great way to boost your portfolio and get your work noticed by other movers and shakers.

But unless you've got a pot of gold stashed under your bed, you'd be wise to set a firm limit on the number of hours you can afford to give away each month. Otherwise, you're not freelancing -- you're volunteering.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events