How much is enough to earn as a freelancer? (lessons from my first year)

Mountains above Meiringen in Switzerland

I first published this article in 2019 on Medium. Before republishing here, I’ve made a few edits.

In my first month of being self-employed, I made $15,000. It didn’t stay that way. I’m ok with that.

On my twenty-fifth birthday, May 18th 2018, I sat down at my kitchen counter to start my first day as a self-employed person. I had no idea what I was doing or if I’d make it a year before scuttling back sheepishly into an office block. But I hoped for the best, made coffee, and got to work.

The balcony of the house in the Swiss Alps where I spent three years, including my first year of self-employment.

I set up my consulting business after I received several offers when I left my marketing job at a tech company. I negotiated and was able to juggle them as consulting projects. I’m prone to making wild leaps, but even so, I don’t think I would have had the courage to make the jump without this starting point.

I was in Switzerland, where you can run out of money very easily, but I also had a small cash buffer saved and no mortgage or children. That said, if you’re thinking this post reeks of privilege, you’re right.

Another thing: there’s nothing wrong with office jobs. Most people prefer them. You’re told what to do and get paid at the end of the month. You have to be a special kind of masochist (hello!) to want to work for yourself. You don’t need to want to quit your job and it’s probably easier if you don’t. But I knew self-employment would suit me.

Fairly early on, some other cool projects came my way. After they came across some of my travel writing online, I was hired by the Swiss tourism board to go on a hike and write about it (why the hell didn’t I do this before, I pondered).

In my first month, I earned more than I’d received the last quarter at my full-time job — while absolutely not working full-time.

It wouldn’t last.

My earnings since June 2018. The blue line is a benchmark of what I was earning in my office job, pre-tax and pre-bonus. Since starting my business, I haven’t been working full-time, by any stretch of the imagination. But on average, I’m earning more than before. And I have a hell of a lot of freedom and lower living costs. So what more could I want?

A little over a year on, I’m not one of those gals who can write on Medium about how they earned $100,000 before breakfast or bought their Grandma a Tesla or something.

After my badass boss first month, I went off to Asia. With just one client, I did pretty much no work, if dragging myself valiantly through 80% of a scuba diving course in Bali while living in utter dread of putting my head underwater doesn’t count.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing and I wasn’t really marketing myself. Instead, much to my boyfriend’s concern, I mostly worked on my own very much unpaid projects for a few months.

I created livewildly.co, a website to share my thoughts about designing an adventurous, unconventional, and kind life. I started writing a book about life by the Swiss Alps (note: this became Mountain Song).

I went on hikes and sat on my balcony looking at the mountains, trying not to think about running out of money.

I’m glad I let myself enjoy the peace.

The mountains that witnessed my victories and failures for three years in Meiringen, Switzerland.

The thing is, after covering the bills and leaving a bit for luxuries and saving, there are two things that matter more to me than showering in 1000 Swiss franc notes: freedom and creativity.

Back when I was working full-time and with a list of health problems multiplying in an environment that was toxic to me, I read You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. When I had finished sneering at the title, I actually did the exercises.

I spent hours imagining what my ideal life would look like. I wrote it down and internalised it.

Several months later, the amazing and somewhat irritating thing was that by quitting my job and becoming self-employed, I’d made that life happen.

But more importantly, I had found my freedom and got my creativity back. My weird and wonderful career path had opened up so much more than just work.

2019 was a good year for me so far, in ways beyond my bank balance.

After a quiet end to 2018, I kicked into gear and suddenly had 5–7 clients on the go for the start of the year. I had six months of solid income and earned much more than I needed.

I was busy, though. I still escaped to the mountains every so often in work hours, but I was overbooked and busier than I wanted.

What’s the point of this whole self-employment thing if you’re burning out trying to get cash you don’t need?

At the end of June, I ended several contracts to coincide with taking time off to travel and moving back to the UK from Switzerland.

My boyfriend, Iain, had finished his PhD in Zurich and even though I still adored my life by the Swiss mountains, I was more than ready to move on. By no longer paying the various costs required to live in the land of cash and cows that is Schweiz, I could justify going on more adventures — and cut down on work.

I spent most of July in Greenland, hiking the 160km Arctic Circle Trail from the ice cap to the sea with my Mum before recuperating with a view of the icebergs in Ilulissat.

Day 8 of the Arctic Circle Trail. We’d walk along the left of that water and behind the ridge to pitch our tents for that night.

Shortly after first publishing this post, I travelled from Moscow to Beijing with Iain on the Trans-Mongolian Express, as part of an ongoing challenge to both see the world and stop ruining it even more by flying.

Did I do any work? Yes.

I did enough.

For now, enough is my goal.

“There are plenty of jobs out there that’ll pay 100,000 yen a month. And some of them can give you much more time than you had in your higher-paying job, which is the real luxury… I don’t even have to worry about retirement anymore. I’m optimistic, knowing that all I have to do is earn 100,000 yen each month.” 

— Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki

Right now, I have enough work on my plate and projects in my pipeline. I’m confident I can find more work if I need to.

If I have a few months where I don’t earn much, that’s ok. If I make more money through great projects that come my way and won’t lock me to my laptop for a month, awesome.

But at this stage, I’m clear on what I really want.

This is what’s important to me:

  • Spending time with the people I love, when they can and want to spend time with me.
  • Being able to wake up and decide what I’m going to work on — or even if I’m going to work that day.
  • Having enough to pay bills, live the life I want without being full of dread, top up my emergency fund, and invest every month.
  • Having the mental, physical, and creative energy to work on my own projects and writing. This requires so much space and so many boxes ticked to actually happen.
  • Saying yes to crazy adventures without worrying about being offline on Slack.
  • Remembering what’s enough and not exhausting myself to needlessly pursue more than that.
  • Having the space to live my life — on my terms and at my own pace.

Looking at that list above, it seems crazy saying that all of those incredible things are enough. They’re more than enough. It’s an enviable life of riches.

I don’t know your life. Even if we have spoken and you do know me, I probably don’t really know what drives you and inspires you. But I do wonder this:

Are some of the things you want — and I mean the things you really want, beyond the title and status — more accessible than you might think?

What would it take? What would you need to give up or accept less of? What would you need to do more of?

You don’t have to quit your job. You don’t have to move to Thailand. But you can reposition your career journey to focus more on freedom than prestige if you want to. If you know what enough is, you might have a different view of roles that you previously thought were beneath you.

It will probably take an alignment of expectations and priorities and even a lot of hard work, but think about it.

Is it worth it?

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