By the time I walked across my university’s graduation stage, I had a job offer in hand. That next week I went straight to work and could not have been more excited (read: relieved). I had just finished an internship with the same company, and loved my coworkers and the work I would be doing.
But as I started my 9-to-5, two things surprised me. First, I had so much free time after work and on weekends now that papers, group projects, reading assignments and exam prep were behind me. And second, I missed the creative outlet of journalism I had in school.
So, I started picking up some freelance writing jobs, which quickly turned into well-paying gigs. A few years and a job change later, when I had the chance to join my fiancé on a months-long travel opportunity, I realized going full-time freelance could give me the flexibility I needed.
While I had fantasized about this transition for years, actually doing it meant getting serious about my finances — since quitting my job also meant saying goodbye to a steady paycheck and health care. If you’re looking to work for yourself, here’s how I prepared before taking the leap.
HAVE A WELL-STOCKED EMERGENCY FUND
The first order of business was my emergency fund. I didn’t know when I started saving that I would one day become a full-time freelancer, but I knew I wanted a solid fund for whatever life threw my way.
At the height of my freelancing side gig, I made about $1,500 a month, on top of my full-time salary. Rather than spend this extra cash on expensive dinners (tempting) or spa days (even more so), I put all my freelance earnings into savings. When I gave my notice to my employer, I had two years’ worth of my take-home pay put away — enough so that if I had a slow couple of months or a check was delayed, I’d still be able to pay my bills.
Freelancing is inconsistent and requires a lot of unpaid work, like creating proposals, pitching and applying for gigs. The first three months of freelancing, I made less than I had at my corporate job. But having a fully stocked emergency fund meant I could take my time establishing my business.
MAKE SURE YOU’RE SAVING FOR RETIREMENT
Right after college when I began working, I started contributing to a 401(k). Once I started earning supplemental income through part-time freelancing, I increased my monthly contributions. Along with my company’s match, my 401(k) grow quickly, which got my savings off to a strong start. And thanks to compound interest, that money will continue to grow with time.
After I began freelancing full time, I was no longer able to contribute to my 401(k). So I opened a Roth IRA, which I made sure to max out each year. Today, because I exceed the earnings limits for a Roth IRA, I contribute as much as is allowed to both a traditional IRA and SEP-IRA.
My goal is to not touch the money earned from my investments until I retire, so I consider my investments to be another tool that helps me save for my future retirement.
BUILD UP YOUR CLIENT BASE
One of the main benefits of freelancing while you’re still working full time is that you can be selective when choosing clients. It also gives you more authority to have full-time employment to back up your skillset.
Once I knew I wanted to freelance full-time, I didn't keep it a secret. I contacted every client I’d ever worked with, met old colleagues for happy hour and reached out to my network on LinkedIn and via email. I wasn’t pitching every person I talked to, but by letting them know about the changes in my career, connections and opportunities started to arise and I quickly had a healthy roster of clients. Now, three and a half years later, the majority of my work comes from existing clients and referrals, so I rarely need to spend time looking for new projects or clients.