3 great things about going freelance, and 3 not-so-great ones

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3 great things about going freelance, and 3 not-so-great ones

Forget all that "you can set your own hours!" stuff. The real reason to go freelance is so you can take more control of your career and avoid the more bureaucratic trappings of traditional salaried work, like HR meetings and sensitivity training sessions.

This freedom brings its own risks and rewards, which you'll discover as you gain more experience with different types of projects and clients. A lot of what you'll learn will be specific to your area of expertise, but here are 3 general freelancing tips, and 3 things to watch out for, in the years to come.

tips for freelancers:

3 great things about freelancing

1. You can give yourself raises

When you work full time for one company, your salary isn't always tied directly to your skill level and job performance. It's also subject to the overall performance of the company, to the whims of managers upstream who are largely disconnected from your work, to internal politics, and so on. Ideally you'll see a steady improvement in your take-home pay, but that's not always the case.

There are no guarantees you'll do any better on your own, but at least your income won't be restricted by outside forces as you build an unparalleled skill set--and accompanying reputation--in your line of work. In addition, you can decide how to use your revenue, whether that means investing it, building up a stronger emergency fund, buying some income protection, or just improving your day-to-day quality of life.

2. You can keep your work interesting

It's possible to burn out on work as a freelancer, but at least you have more options if you feel yourself growing tired of the same old projects year after year. It's easier to transition to a new line of work too, because you can take on smaller projects in your new area of interest while keeping the bulk of your work focused on what you've been doing all along.

There's a catch here, which I'll explain in detail below, but the summary is that if you don't manage your income stream responsibly, you may find it just as hard to switch tracks as you would in a salaried position.

3. You can keep a healthy work/life balance

You know what most office workers can't do? Go to the museum on a Thursday afternoon. Finish and deliver a project while house sitting for a friend who lives near the beach. Add a couple of extra days to your vacation because the tickets were cheaper.

The vacation time for the average American worker is at its lowest in 4 decades, even though breaks are good for employee productivity. You, not a one-size-fits-all employee handbook, know best what you need in order to recharge your batteries. If you manage the ratio of relaxation to work responsibly, you can enjoy a more satisfying (and productive) life than you might at a typical company.

And 3 not-so-great things about freelancing

1. Your financial situation can leave you trapped doing work you don't like

Freelancing is a little like the weather, in that you can't always predict when your workload will be a monsoon and when it will be a drought. This is why it's smart to learn how to set up a budget that will cover you when a month or more goes by without a check from a client.

We frequently make the case for why it's smart to buy long-term disability insurance, because it will protect you from losing income if illness or injury prevents you from working for more than a few weeks. But long-term disability insurance doesn't apply if you're able to work but having trouble finding it.

If you find this happening frequently, you should take it as a warning sign that you're doing something wrong. What's worse, it prevents you from doing all the great things listed in the section above. If you're forced to live hand-to-mouth as a freelancer, you'll end up feeling as constrained as you would in any salaried position.

2. Some clients are nightmares

Everyone eventually comes up against a workplace nemesis, whether it's another person or something more abstract like illness. As a freelancer, one of the most likely sources of great pain will be that one client who is uncooperative, angry, and sometimes downright abusive.

If you're lucky, you'll be in a strong enough financial and contractual position to "fire" the client and find a better one. If you're unlucky, you'll be working as a subcontractor and stuck in the middle between the company that hired you and the nightmare client, and if you jump ship you risk burning a bridge you spent a long time building.

In this kind of situation, you may just have to suffer the client--and perhaps use it as a case study to help you avoid similar clients in the future.

3. The hours aren't just long--they're weird

The flip side of being in control of your work/life balance is that if you're not careful, the flexibility you have over your schedule can trip you up.

When you have to choose between a last-minute deadline dropped on your lap by a client versus going out with your friends "after work," it's easy to choose going out and pushing the client's work off until tomorrow. But doing that can create two problems: it could make you look flakey to your client if you've already committed to meeting a deadline, and it pushes out the date when you can start a new project. Do this often enough and you end up facing the sort of dry spell budgeting issues I described above, not to mention it becomes harder to get clients to recommend you to their friends.

It takes practice and finesse to negotiate these sorts of scheduling demands so that you earn the devotion of good clients without being taken advantage of by needy ones. But even in the best case scenario, there will be times when you have to work through what your salaried friends would consider "free time."

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Those are 6 tips for freelancers, but if you've freelanced for more than a few months, you've probably got your own insights about what one can expect from this career path. What are they, and how did you learn them? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo: Ben Smith