Freelancers: You don't need to spend money to make money

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Freelancers: You don't need to spend money to make money

“You need to spend money to make money.” The business maxim pops up frequently in Instagram feeds and advice columns for aspiring solo entrepreneurs. But if you’re a freelance newbie, you don’t need to fork over a ton of dough to get your business of one going.

Here’s my case against spending too much money when you’re starting out as a freelancer.

You’re still testing the waters

If you’re fresh to the freelance game, chances are you aren’t making as much as you would like. So why dump a bunch of money into a new venture if you’re unsure about making it back and you’re operating on slim margins? Instead, put in a bit of money, see how it flies, then reassess. This way you can figure out how much you need for your freelancing business and in which areas to invest.

Wait until you get the wheels going on one money-making vehicle, then figure out where to focus your efforts and money next. For instance, my colleague Catherine Alford started out as a personal finance writer. A few years ago, she heard a few clients were growing video content. So Alford invested in basic equipment to learn how to film and edit her own videos, and hired a career coach to position herself for brand spokesperson work. This past year, she expanded her freelance business and made more money making videos and from brand sponsorships than from writing.

Building your emergency fund

In your first year of freelance, besides getting your business off the ground, you need to get used to periods of feast or famine, gaps in cash flow, paying self-employed taxes, end-of-year lulls and all the oh-so-very-awesome things that come with freelancing.

While the recommended amount of savings is generally three to six months of basic living expenses, you’ll want to sock away at least six months in your emergency fund. Without this cash cushion, you may find yourself digging a debt grave.

Bootstrap your freelance business

There are a lot of tools, resources and services you can get for free or cheap. When I started, the money I invested during my first year as a freelancer (besides health insurance) was minimal. Besides a monthly subscription to a cloud service to back up my files, I bought a Chromebook and got a ticket to FinCon, a conference for financial media.

Besides basic equipment and supplies, and depending on the kind of work you do, you can run a lean operation by making the most of freebies. To manage your time, projects and finances, you can use free apps like Expensify to track your expenses, And Co for invoice templates and basic contracts, Calendly’s free version to schedule phone interviews and client calls, Toggl to track the time spent on assignments and Asana and Trello to manage projects. Once your freelance business ramps up, you can look into the paid versions of these tools.

Barter

Swapping services with fellow freelancers could be a way to save money and cultivate community. For instance, you can craft some copy for your designer pal’s site in exchange for a logo. I’m a beta tester for my friend’s freelance writing course, which helps me attend for free and helps me gain insights on how to create one myself. I’ve also scored free books from colleagues in exchange for honest reviews.

Besides getting services without paying, you’ll forge relationships and expand your network.

Spend when you can afford to — and when it's worth it

This year I’ve spent a little more, mainly to hire a virtual assistant to help with research and image curation. When I was slammed, I needed help to deliver quality work on time. Paying for help was worth hitting my deadlines for both my regular clients and on higher-paying one-off gigs.

Recently I’ve put a little bit of money into updating my blog and working on side projects, such as YouTube videos, a book series and a podcast. Whether or not I make money on these projects, I’ll learn new skills, which is valuable in itself.

Don’t spend just to create an illusion of success

There’s no point in spending needlessly just to feel like a #girlboss. You know what I’m talking about. Populating your Instagram feed with pictures of yourself dressed to the hilt at mixers with fellow professionals. Hiring a career coach who charges $500 an hour to help you boost your freelance game and a crew to film you in your living room for your new YouTube series. Does any of it add to your revenue?

I work at a desk in my dining room and spend more time chatting with my freelance friends virtually than in real life. I haven’t had to spend tons on freelancing and my income has grown every year. I am not against spending money on your ventures, but make sure it helps your business grow.

You don't always need to spend money to earn money. You can go the scrappy route when you start freelancing. Once you've started earning more and have a clearer idea how to use your funds, then you can invest more money into your business.

Image: GaudiLab