How to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Variable Income

April 5, 2017


A few months ago, I said goodbye to a weekly paycheck, employer-supplemented health insurance and paid vacation to pursue freelance writing full-time. Now that I’m my own boss, it feels good. Except for when it doesn’t.

Now that I’m my own boss, it feels good. Except for when it doesn’t.

Last week, I spent a day refreshing my email every 10 minutes and reviewing bank accounts to make sure I’d have enough money if I didn’t get more assignments soon.

If you’re a self-employed creative, that scenario may sound familiar. Like you, I rely solely on self-generated income so I get nervous going a week or so without scheduling new work.

A recent study by Freelancers Union and Upwork found that full-time freelancers worry most about being paid a fair rate, unpredictable income and debt. Yet even with these concerns, freelancers still feel “overwhelmingly positive” about their work and 50% of respondents said that “no amount of money” could lure them back to a traditional job.



So, how are successful creative freelancers able to overcome the income uncertainties of self-employment? Fortunately, I’ve learned a few ways to tamp down income worries and put that energy to better use. I reached out to freelancers, agency owners and sole practitioners for advice and these are their top 10 methods to ease your financial worries.

1. Realize that Job Security Is an Illusion

Just because a company pays a salary and provides benefits doesn’t mean that job can’t disappear, says Stephanie Bouchard, a freelance writer who watched many co-workers get axed at her former news job. “I knew that any day could bring a new round of layoffs and I might be on the layoff list,” she says.

Now when Bouchard gets anxious or panicky over income, she reminds herself that freelancing allows her to practice yoga every morning, run errands at non-peak times and make up that time on evenings or weekends if she chooses.

“My sleep is more restful because I don’t have the stresses of a micromanaging boss or the power plays that go on in the workplace,” says Bouchard.

What you can do:

Make a list of everything that is more secure about self-employment versus a traditional job. For example, no CEO or board of directors is making secret decisions about your future, no boss is meddling in your work style and you know every aspect of your financial situation. Post the list on your refrigerator or beside your workspace.

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2. Network With Successful, Like-Minded People

“It’s harder now more than ever to make a living as a freelance writer,” an editor at my day job told me when I left. His bleak outlook prompted me to avoid naysayers and associate instead with people who model success.

So, gravitate toward thriving freelancers. “It’s not hard to make that amount,” a freelancing friend told me when I mentioned how much money I’d need to live on each month. Then she shared marketing and accounting methods and advised me to treat freelancing like a business.

What you can do:

Join a Meetup group of like-minded peers. I also get plenty of advice and support from a forum for freelance writers I subscribe to, where many earn more than $100,000 per year.

3. Know That Slow Periods Pass

Michael Nova struggled for years with the ups and downs of running Nova Custom Printing, a New York City business with a staff of six, before landing major clients. According to Michael, business will run hot and cold.

“I used to worry during the cold times that things would stay that way,” says Nova. “But every time, just as I began to think that things were becoming worrisome, it got incredibly busy, and it’s always been like that and always will be.”

What you can do:

Track business and expenses income using a cloud-based accounting solution like FreshBooks. This way, you can see annual patterns and anticipate slow periods to remind yourself that business always picks up.

4. Push Marketing During Down Times

Kathryn Hawkins, who along with her husband Jeff owns Eucalypt, a content marketing agency, learned to anticipate slow times based on patterns from previous years.

“This is something we tend to plan around, knowing that business is likely to pick up considerably later on in the year. We don’t get too stressed about it anymore,” says Hawkins.

What you can do:

Revamp website content, develop blog posts and ebooks, contact potential clients and plan future website updates. “Investing that time will pay off with dividends down the road,” says Hawkins.



5. Diversify Your Client Base

I have a freelancer friend who once lost a few of her regular, high paying clients and, as a result, also lost a chunk of monthly income. Luckily, she managed to stay afloat because she already had numerous other customers in various industries and hustled to acquire new clients to replace the one that left.

What you can do:

Having anchor clients that provide regular income are important and nice to have, but never stop adding new niches and content outlets to your portfolio. This way, you’ll be prepared for any unexpected loss of income and can recover quickly.

6. Build Confidence With Precise Record Keeping

Abbey Ashley, sole proprietor of The Virtual Savvy, an online coaching course for virtual assistants, credits keeping good financial records as one of the best ways to quell sporadic income anxiety.

“I can accurately predict how much I’ll need for the month,” says Ashley. “If I don’t have enough client work to fill expenses, I know I need to focus more on marketing that month.”

What you can do:

Luckily, there are many tools available (like FreshBooks) to help you stay organized and better manage the books.

7. Know You’re Staying True to Yourself

Professional photographer Kim Beer has struggled with sporadic income enough times in 25 years to have taken what she calls the “chicken exit” to a salaried job at least twice. Those jobs never lasted.

“My personal, business and spiritual goals don’t align with that type of position,” says Beer. “Every time it failed because it didn’t serve my higher purpose.”

What you can do:

Find two or three quotes that remind you why you’re living the freelance life and post them on the wall by your desk on or your computer. Get inspired with these motivational and inspiring quotes for entrepreneurs.

8. Find an Impartial Support Person

Beer doesn’t depend on family members and friends for emotional support. If your best friend can’t understand why you won’t work in a corporate environment or a family member steers you in a direction you later resent, that puts a strain on the relationship.

So Beer hired a life coach who understands business to talk her down from the freelance ledge. The coach reminds Beer of her goals and past successes that can get overshadowed when times get lean. “Having a third-party coach isn’t really that expensive and can yield the biggest benefits,” says Beer.

What you can do:

Find another self-employed creative who understands your work. I have a freelance buddy who offers encouragement, lets me vent when I’m having a challenging day and holds me accountable to my goals. I do the same for her.

9. Take Care of Your Body

Holli Dean, a sole practitioner attorney, gets a weekly deep-tissue massage to relax her body after sitting for long hours at a desk. Nurturing her body helps Dean maintain patience and a positive attitude that makes her work more productive.

“You can’t be on the go constantly without taking the time to be good to yourself or you’ll burn out,” says Dean.

What you can do:

Take a workday break with a morning walk, yoga or 30 minutes on the exercise bike in the afternoon. Exercise balances brain chemicals that affect mood, attention and motivation and make you “calmer yet more alert and better able to focus,” according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

10. Sock Away as Much Money as Possible

I spent several months cooking most meals at home, missing great movies at theaters, walking instead of driving and doing anything else I could do to save money. If I have a lean month, I may get worried but I never get desperate, since I have enough savings for several months with no income.

If you had the gumption to break away and start your own business, you’ve probably already got what it takes to stay on track financially with the right planning and attitude.

What you can do:

According to The Balance, you should squirrel away approximately 25-30% of your monthly income. Set up a savings account (you can even link it to your checking account to make automatic deposits) so you’ll always have enough saved for tax time or during a slower period.

When in doubt, repeat this motivational mantra: “No matter what happens, I’ll figure it out.”

And just remember, when in doubt, repeat this motivational mantra: “No matter what happens, I’ll figure it out.” Because you’re a freelancer, and that’s what you’re hardwired to do.


about the author

Freelance WriterDeb Hipp is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, MO, who covers small business, personal finance and legal issues. You can visit her website at www.debhipp.com.