How to Go Freelance, and Still Afford to Travel

There was very little about going freelance that threatened to put me off, back when I did it a year or so ago. Sure, I would probably never be able to get a mortgage, and my lack of preparation meant that my savings would take a pounding as I worked to get the show on the road. These were the things that bothered my friends when I told them about my plans to quit to go it alone, my voice full of manic relief at finally reaching a point where I no longer gave a monkey’s you-know-what about money—I just wanted my freedom.

The only thing that niggled at me about my plan, or should I say lack thereof, was the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to travel. I love going places, mostly long weekends in neighboring European countries (I live in the U.K.), but I suspected my hair-brained idea would cost me my precious San Francisco trip. I’d lived in the Bay Area for three months when I was a very impressionable 19-year-old, and I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the foggy city and was gagging to go back. But transatlantic vacations are for people who sweat it out in offices, collecting regular salaries … right?

Actually, no. A year and a bit after I jumped into the freelance pool, I found myself on an airplane headed for San Francisco, where I stayed for 29 amazing days without putting any of it on credit. This is how I did it: 

1. I’m a freelancer; I’m a minimalist. The day my paychecks stopped coming in at regular intervals was the day I stopped shopping. Goodbye to new clothes, trinkets and gadgets; hello make do and mend, libraries and hand-me-downs. This may sound restricting, but I found it strangely liberating, knowing I could live on very little money. It made me feel in control. And unless you are Kate Middleton, no one needs more than five dresses, I swear. Of course, I still get coffee, and the occasional Thai meal with friends, but now that my income is so closely tied to my efforts, the value of money has gone up. 

2. Experiences are the new Things. As a kid, I remember thinking it doesn’t count as a gift unless it’s wrapped. Don’t get me wrong: I get as excited as the next geek over my Apple products, but generally speaking, shifting my focus from things to experiences has gone a long way to make me happier spending less money. For me, freelancing meant trading money for time, but this is the thing: They were right when they said the best things in life are free. Happiness isn’t a widescreen TV—it’s an afternoon walk by the canal with an ice cream. Or at the very least, I’m convinced you can have just as good a time, if not better, at the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant where you can bring your own beer, as you can at some fancy place with linen napkins.

3. Let your freak flag fly. Of course, this sudden tightwad attitude may well cause people to think you are weird. I remember the look on my then-boyfriend’s face when I suggested that instead of spending three figures on his birthday present, I’d get us some fish and chips and a bottle of rum, and throw the money saved in a pot marked ‘Rome’. Apparently, that’s not as romantic as I thought. So beware: Once you start comparing every price tag to air miles, there may be casualties.

4. We do what we want. When I announced having finally bought my San Francisco ticket, people would lament over not having the money to do something similar. Then they’d show me what they’d just bought from American Apparel. I’ve realized most people resent being reminded of the connection between the two, because underneath it all, we do what we want—even if we don’t realize it. I kept thinking I wanted to buy my own place, but it finally dawned on me that I’ve moved ten times in the past ten years so I’m probably the rootless kind. I’ve now stopped reading the real estate pages. To sum it up: If you want to travel, stop buying takeaway pizza.

5. Keep your eye on the prize. I can spend a hundred on a big night out, or I can use that money to pay for a whole week in a hostel in Istanbul. Of course, there has to be a balance, but chances are you can have just as good a time on half that money if you’re careful. And while being a new-ish freelancer puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to cash, the time saved on commuting alone means I now have time to cook from scratch. But all this presumes one thing: That there is something you want, and badly. For me, it was a Mission burrito and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now I’m thinking it’s high time I go to a little place called New York. I hear it’s incredible.

 

Jessica Furseth is a freelance journalist living in London, U.K. Read more of her writing here: www.jessicafurseth.com Photo: Shutterstock/sdecoret

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8 Comments / Post A Comment

madrassoup (#929)

There is kind of a disconnect between the intro to the post and the tips that follow. The tips are all great, but I found them to be more philosophical than practical — at least when compared to what I was expecting, which was more like “I ate here, stayed there, did this” during your month in San Francisco.

navigateher (#555)

All of this seems very familiar and true also for those not going freelance, but those having kids. Nothing like losing your income AND increased expenses (did you know strollers can cost you €1000? I didn’t.) And it really is liberating to notice that you don’t actually need to buy all that stuff you thought you needed, like new boots in two colours every fall, a new phone every 18 months, and all the nice looking stuff for your home that your friends got. It’s really ok not to have the perfect everything once you let go. It also makes me very excited to know that we’ve learned to live on very little money, so once I go back to work and we’ll have two incomes again, a lot of debt will get paid off AND we’ll be able to save money.

jfruh (#161)

On a practical level, while paid vacation time is nice, it’s incredibly freeing to not have to store up vacation time and then coordinate your time off with your co-workers. It’s also worth mentioning (though I know this will make some recoil in horror) that, with Wi-Fi everywhere, you can bring your laptop along with you and fit in a few hours of work here and there in your downtime, which means you aren’t totally losing money every day you’re away.

Generally speaking, when you’re figuring out what your freelance rates should be (and you should do this as an aspirational exercize, even if at the moment you can’t command those rates), figure out your ideal annual salary, then divide that by 52 minus the number of weeks you’d like to take vacations, then divide that by your working week. So if you’re the type who wants four vacation weeks a year, divide that annual salary by 48, not 52!

shoot (#1,281)

@jfruh As a fellow freelancer, I totally agree with all of this. I have several trips scheduled over the next few months, and all will involve at least a little work while I’m there. But many are trips I booked and then sold related travel stories, so not only do I have to pound the pavement for at least a few hours in whatever destination I’ll be visiting and writing about; I get to write off part of the trip on my taxes!

I have a monthly income goal, and I work really hard to hit it, even though it seemed like a crazy number when I set it at the beginning of the year. I have to hustle harder than my friends with desk jobs — if it’s the 20th and I’m down $2k more than I’d like, I work hard to make that money show up over the next 10 days — but I love the challenge and especially like the freedom to, as you say, not worry about accrued vacation days if I want to take off early on Friday or sleep in during the week.

mishaps (#65)

@jfruh The way I learned that trick, years ago, was figure out the annual salary you need, double it, and then divide by 50, because of all the Federal and local holidays and whatnot. This protects you if you’re not working for months at a time. Of course, I am not a freelance writer, but a freelance office-worker, so your mileage may vary.

If you are getting paid by your time, and not by the piece, and there’s work available in your field, I think it’s more realistic to try to figure out what you need to charge if you’re assuming you’re working more than half, but less than all of the year – my current freelance rate works out to needing to work about 2/3 of the year. Which should theoretically leave a lot of time to travel, if I can get past my neuroses to do it!

I’m also currently putting all of my freelance expenses onto a mileage card, because I am both lazy and cheap.

shoot (#1,281)

@mishaps I think freelancers (at least American ones I know) are split about remembering to factor in taxes. I have several good friends who have been doing it for more than a decade, so they’re quite seasoned and know a lot of the tax loopholes on top of knowing what they actually need to make each month or quarter. But I know others who, for a variety of reasons, just can’t manage the financial side. I like to say that suck at that stuff, but you know what? I got better at it because it gave me a crazy amount of freedom. I’m not trying to say that someone can just get over not being able to add, but if it’s important enough to you, I think you can sometimes find ways around it. I get help with my taxes and financial management, on top of being my own bill collector and expense report filer. I can pay for the help by making more money. So…I dunno. I kind of think it’s a myth that this stuff has to be horribly difficult, but maybe I just feel that way because I bought into it for a long time. Once I changed my mindset, my income skyrocketed.

[ducks and runs for cover after expressing unpopular opinion]

mishaps (#65)

@shoot I don’t think anyone was saying it’s horribly difficult at all.

I started freelancing and became the opposite of a penny-pincher. All of a sudden my efforts were actually tied to how much I was making, instead of making the same amount no matter how hard I worked. So, I started making way more and then I started feeling like I didn’t need to scrimp and I could buy what I wanted when I wanted because I had clearly worked for it. And, I could go where I wanted when I wanted, because no one cared.

Of course, I also have panic attacks that the money’s all going to drive up, so maybe eventually I’ll decide to spend some of that on counseling. Or, I’ll just buy something to make myself feel better.

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