Income Vs. Expenses: How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living

Part of a series about how a freelance writer does money.

March 2014 stats:
Total earnings: $3,583.39
Completed pieces (all types): 119
Essays published: 8 (check ‘em out here)
New contracts being negotiated: 2

So now that you have an idea of my monthly income, let’s look at expenses.

My monthly nut, aka “the money I must earn to fulfill my responsibilities to landlords and corporations,”  is $1,850. This includes rent, bills, health insurance, and paying more than the minimum on my credit cards. It does not include food, which usually comes out to around $300, and it does not include travel or discretionary expenses. My actual monthly expenses, in total, are closer to $2,500-$2,800.

If, at this point, you’re looking at the $3,583 figure and thinking “wow, she must be able to sock away a lot in savings,” remember that this is pre-tax income. It’s also before Paypal takes out its fees, which add up. I wish Paypal were not the ubiquitous method of paying freelancers, but I did not create the system.

(Also, to pre-empt the question “well, why don’t you request to be paid by check or P2P transfer?” the truth is that most freelance copy agencies require Paypal as part of the work agreement. The two new contracts I’m negotiating right now are for individual jobs, and so I’ll be able to request payment via check, but when you work with an agency, you have to get paid the way they want you to.)

To break down my expenses, one by one:



I pay $675 per month to live in a studio apartment in Seattle. The apartment is slightly larger than a full-size bed. The building itself is a converted 1920s hotel, which means that my converted 1920s hotel room does not come with a kitchen. (It does come with some truly lovely mahogany baseboards.)

I have a refrigerator, a toaster oven, and a microwave. I wash my dishes in a plastic bus tub in the bathroom. It’s a fair enough tradeoff, and is actually one of the nicer places I’ve ever lived as an adult.



I pay electric, smartphone, and internet. The rest of my bills are included in rent. I do not own a car.


Health insurance

I have a Premera bronze plan. I did not get it through the ACA exchange, since Washington State’s site was perpetually broken during the first round of the exchange. (It was so broken that I wrote a Billfold article about it. It has since been fixed.)



Like many people, paying off my debt is my biggest expense. (In a good month, I pay way more on my debt than I do on my rent, for example.)

I have no student loan debt, but I do have $15,866.81 in credit card debt. This debt doesn’t have anything to do with my current job; I actually went into debt before I made the decision to become a full-time freelance writer. (The shortest explanation: I tried to start a business and it failed.) Now that I am freelancing, my finances are back on track and I am paying down my debt as fast as possible. My goal is to have it paid off in two years.



Savings is not technically an “expense,” but it’s worth sharing. My savings at this point consist of a TIAA-CREF 403(b) account which, as of this writing, contains $34,787.52. That should cover one year of retirement.


How I handle shared expenses

Last week The Billfold ran a piece on how a freelance writer shares expenses with his partner, and so I feel like I ought to throw in a few words about how I share expenses with my boyfriend. We don’t live together, so we haven’t done the challenge of combining day-to-day expenses, but the important piece here is that we take turns volunteering to pay for stuff that both of us share. (Which is as it should be, amirite?)

Same goes for expenses I share with my friends, some of whom earn more and some of whom earn less than I do. Sometimes I pay for them, sometimes they pay for me, sometimes we split the check, sometimes I politely decline events I can’t afford.

And yes, when I learned that it would cost $1,200 to fly to my parents’ home in Iowa for Christmas, I did ask my parents for help. And they helped.

So there are a lot of factors involved in how I share expenses, but I try to err on the side of generosity. (I should also put a note in my GTD list about setting aside money for Christmas 2014 plane tickets right now.)

Next month, I’m going to answer the looming question of “why don’t I just get another job?” (Teaser trailer: People don’t get jobs. People are given jobs. Any discussion of “why don’t you just get another job” must start from there.) As always, please drop your questions in the comments and I promise I will answer them!


See the previous entries here.

Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and is the only member of the band Hello, The Future!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


30 Comments / Post A Comment

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Yes to all of your “How I handle shared expenses” section. This was well written and well thought out.

honey cowl (#1,510)

Wow! I live in Seattle and $675 is the absolute cheapest I’ve ever seen for a studio! I was going to ask you which neighborhood you live in but then I remembered that it’s probably so cheap because you don’t have a kitchen…right?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@honey cowl I am in Capitol Hill! And yes, it’s no doubt the lack of a kitchen that pushed the rent down.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

I am really enjoying this series – and all the pieces on “How X Does Money.” Thanks, Billfold and Nicole!

People don’t get jobs. People are given jobs. I’m going to steal that, thank you.

Can you negotiate the paypal fees into your fee? Like, “Sure, pay me $100, but paypal will take 10%, so pay me $110″ ? That also at least forces them to consider that paypal kind of screws you and (hopefully) encourages other payment options?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@polka dots vs stripes When you work with an agency (and I’m not even talking bottom-of-the-barrel content farms here, I’m talking legit copy agencies) it’s all corporatized and streamlined. It’s like working for Starbucks, or for a temp agency. There’s no negotiation about price; the online form says “you will accept this amount” and you click the button marked “YES.”

L Crumbs (#5,957)

@HelloTheFuture I started writing for The Content Authority about a month ago and I’m wondering about their reputation among other freelancers. I’m guessing it’s a content farm but it is definitely very streamlined. The payment process is exactly like you described. Any thoughts?

notpollyanna (#2,841)

“People don’t get jobs. People are given jobs. Any discussion of ‘why don’t you just get another job’ must start from there.”

Yes, yes, and yes. A lot of people don’t understand this: older people who have not been job-seeking in a rough economy and weird entrepreneurial sorts who like to foist themselves on employers who don’t necessarily want it. I can be the best person for the job, but I have to convince them of that and there aren’t very many convincing ways to say, “I am the best person for the job.” It is up to the hire-er to choose me.

(Please don’t give me “convincing” methods. I know this isn’t an absolute, there are lots of tactics, “create a job for yourself,” freelance; this was the practical reality for me and practicality doesn’t always include all possibilities. I don’t want to have that debate. If you want to have it, go ahead, but I won’t be joining.)

readyornot (#816)

This is really great! Hard numbers. And it’s so good that you have started saving for retirement alongside your other financial goals. I will note that the $34,787.52 you have saved will only cover one year of retirement if you retired TODAY. But, with the magic of compound interest, if you retire in 40 years it will be more like $170K, covering closer to five years. (That’s assuming 7% return and 3% inflation.)

Allison (#4,509)

$1200 to fly to Iowa? Do you have to fly into some made up airport? (if it’s des moines, southwest should open up their calendar for christmas at the beginning of may and I find that buying tickets as early as possible is the best bet for me)

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Allison I have to get out to Mount Vernon. It usually involves tiny Frontier Air. (Last year, when I saw the prices, I confirmed with another Seattleite who regularly flies to rural Iowa, and she said “yes, this is expected.”)

therealjaygatsby (#4,053)

I was also shocked by this! Would it be possible for you to rent a car in Des Moines or something? That seems crazy expensive, but I guess if you are flying via a number of smaller legs, it adds up.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@therealjaygatsby I had not thought about renting a car. My parents live in a very small town, so I don’t even know if I’d be able to drop the car off at an agency after I drove it there. But that is totally an option to consider — thanks!

Allison (#4,509)

@HelloTheFuture I know someone who had to greyhound down to Seattle from Vancouver to fly to the American east coast in order to save like $800.

I’d look into the rental car thing (drop it off in Cedar Rapids?) a bus or just some sort of rideshare network if possible to get you close to your parents place and beg a ride for the last half hour or so.

@Allison I’m an American living in Montreal, and it’s pretty standard practice here to take the bus down to Burlington, VT (~3 hrs including time spent at the border) if the difference in price is great enough. The Greyhound route stops at the Burlington airport…which, btw, has a French-language website saying “Bienvenue Canadiens.”

Flights from Canada really are that much more expensive.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@Allison I flew to Des Moines from Seattle last summer (for a funeral) and it was outrageous. Near $800.

Lila Lapine (#6,382)

This was great! I’m a freelancer myself (but haven’t worked for copy agencies). I was surprised and kind of dismayed about the PayPal thing. That is unfortunate.

Also I was super-shocked by the xmas flights. I was upset when I had to pay $400 for my xmas flights from the Midwest to the West Coast!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Lila Lapine It could also be because I waited until after Thanksgiving to buy my plane tickets………. yeah, that is never a good idea.

therealjaygatsby (#4,053)

What is it like to just have a toaster oven + microwave? I’m thinking about moving to a place sans oven/stove top, but the thought makes me nervous.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@therealjaygatsby I regularly bake fish, pork chops, cheap steak, potatoes, etc. in the toaster oven. I was totally scared of it until I went to a used bookstore and bought “Pop it in the Toaster Oven” by Lois DeWitt. I have made several of her recipes and the only one that failed was the casserole.

gyip (#4,192)

@HelloTheFuture Thumbs-up here for the toaster oven too. Uses less energy, totally fine for one, even two people. Ours cost $30 (Black and Decker, I think?).

If you need to boil water, get an electric kettle!

@HelloTheFuture Unsolicited advice: you should totally get a slow-cooker.

(Cause that shit is CRAZY.)

terrific (#1,532)

Wait, I’ve been paid through Paypal exclusively for a long time and never paid any fees. I’m confused.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@terrific Paypal is really sneaky. They take 2.5% out of every transaction that isn’t a “gift.” They don’t show you this on the main Paypal screen; you have to look at your listed transactions to find out.

Also, if you do not pay any fees PLEASE TELL ME YOUR SECRETS.

terrific (#1,532)

@HelloTheFuture I….what? No, they never have taken anything out of any transaction I got. But I just get my paycheck through them? Maybe my employer sends as a gift?

Allison (#4,509)

@terrific I sent money to a friend to pay back some stuff and ok, there was a currency exchange but it gave me the option of paying the fee or having her pay it, so your employers might do something like that?

honey cowl (#1,510)

@terrific Maybe your employer pays the fees!

Agree 100% on your approach to shared costs. I straight up told my boyfriend from the start that I will not let him buy me everything, gotta lay down the ground rules! Can’t wait to read next week’s post. Also, have you thought of trying to use Venmo to get paid? Or Freshbooks (wait maybe they use PayPal…?)?

jennknee (#3,899)

you seem very together! thanks for sharing.

may i ask how old you are? you seemed to have saved up a good chunk for retirement!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@jennknee I am 32! And I don’t think of that as a good chunk for retirement; shouldn’t I have, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars at some point?

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