Reflections on Life: Finances and Freelancing

Some days I yearn for a regular job. Regularly keeping track of how far I’ve come lets me keep perspectives and ensure this lifestyle still makes sense for me.

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August last year was the first time I felt that I could live off my writing. I had just finished a summer of last-minute research and conference hosting at American Institute for Economic Research, and not really found my way amongst job interviews and PhD applications.

Academia wasn’t right for me last spring, and judging by the chaos that corona has unleashed this year, that increasingly looks like a prescient move. The door to their hallowed halls hasn’t closed entirely, but should I decide to try, I’ll tardy another few years at least.

In September, I set up my Fiverr page for editing, remembering that I had done quite some editing work at Oxford — and frequently proofed friends’ essays and applications. That’s a work I enjoy. It’s clear, beautiful, and something I’m pretty good at: The struggle of making a text read well, the challenge of picking the right words and the right punctuation to deliver the intended message.

Straight away, I knew this setting was right for me: No office politics, no co-workers and chit-chat, no endless meetings of questionable use — only value creation. A few weeks into this quite risky and reckless adventure of mine, I remember trying to explain its wonders to a friend. I was on my own, transforming others’ early drafts into useable, publishable stuff, making them shine and making them convey their intended message.

I liked the simplicity of it: receive a draft, improve it, polish it, send it off — and get paid. I edited financial newsletters, blog posts, submissions for academic publication — I even did a long-form journalistic piece about witches in Switzerland.

In addition to that, I worked on my own stuff. I wrote articles that I enjoyed writing. Read the books and scientific journals that I found fascinating, the essence of which I condensed for my readers. I had also moved myself entirely out of my routines — across the globe even — to get a fresh start and from-scratch opportunity to build something new.

It was amazing. At first, I attributed the bump in my self esteem and prowess at work to the splendid environment I was in: sun-drenched beaches, torrential downpours, and some of the most wonderful sunsets imaginable have a clear positive effect on most people’s mood.

As the bump never seemed to end, I kept thinking that I had found something long-term: I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to do.

From the sun-drenched beaches of Costa Rica, I spent a few months in Budapest living with a close friend — “housewifing”, we amusingly called it, but in fairness I spent most of my days in that city’s many wonderful work cafés (everyone else seems to be digitally nomading in Budapest…). After corona hit, I cancelled my next relocation to Spain and spent the last four months with family in Sweden.

Down to business: How am I doing financially?

Remarkably, from the numbers alone I couldn’t tell that I’ve been in three very different places, under three very different circumstances. Sure, the cost side of things has been very different in all three places — in the last four months alone, voraciously reading and building my library, I’ve spent $620 on books, more than all of 2019 combined. In Costa Rica, I spent a lot more money on food and drinks and accomodation — let’s not mention the chocolate — while in Budapest the tea, coffee, and chocolate accounts were the most noticeable.

But my incomes have been fairly oblivious to the world around me, steadily increasing by about $35/month. I’m clearly getting better at what I do, at least in terms of quantity and getting paid for it. Counting as I did during my half-year review in February, I have bagged a neat $19,500 — a good 11% ahead of the $17,500 I had projected back then. Calculating taxes on that gets a bit weird (it’s distributed across two calendar years, and I don’t yet know precisely what my bill for 2020 will be), but after refunds and corona tax rebates, I’ve paid about $3,800 to the taxman.

In addition to this, I’ve earned $1,364 in various one-off services, donations, and referral programs that I don’t expect to be able to repeat. Lastly, through the generosity of book publishers (and my endless emailing) I’ve received advance copies of books with a market value of around $50.

As I don’t yet earn as much as I would like, I also need to be smart with what I’ve got. Cut expenses where I can and manage my funds wisely for additional return. Thus, I’ve decided to include investment income here as well.

Calculating financial returns is always tricky, especially when you add and withdraw funds at different points in time. To keep things simple, I’ve opted for merely subtracting my portfolio value of July last year from July this year — a positive return of $4,826. Now, some of this financed certain expenditures last year, and so avoided the financial market corona-turmoil since February: I’ve simply added them back at 0% return. In essence, it’d be like that portion of the portfolio was held in cash from last fall until now. (And, as always, there’s the concern that I would have earned a similar amount regardless of my professional endeavours.)

Adding them up, I get $25,722 in pre-tax income for this full year, distributed as follows:

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Income sources, 2019–2020.

Still worth it? Heck yes!

In the early days of corona when everyone was still reaching out to far-off friends, skyping them weekly and were genuinely interested in how their lives had been affected, a friend reminded me that I was the only one whose work hadn’t change. Yes, my ambulating and globetrotting lifestyle had come to a sudden standstill, but the essence of what I did remained much the same: using my constant companion (laptop), I edited, read, researched, wrote, and submitted my work all the same. A corona-proof freelancing gig, if you can believe such a thing.

Sure, most of my editing clients were awfully quiet (In Costa Rica, my editing income was 10–20% of the total, instead of the 2–3% it has been since), but on the other hand I had even more to write about.

Last week I read Tiffiny Costello’s article from about a year ago, traversing the many ups and downs of her freelancing lifestyle — until she finally had enough, and came back to a “normal” job. That wasn’t bad either: in fact, she pointed to some of the same things that sometimes also tempt me—the predictability of a stable routine, clear work assignments, being able to check out and let work wait til Monday morning.

“Some days I feel like shit. Some days I wanna quit, and just be normal for a bit” — Fort Minor

And there are clear downsides that come with this: taking relative pay cuts in exchange for a lifestyle and independence that suits me better; having submissions and pitches rejected by editors. Thankfully, the latter part is something I’m getting better at (you’d hope so after some 30–40 “no, thanks” amidst my 150-odd articles).

So far so good, and I can see myself continuing this experiment a bit longer — even with new goals and shifting priorities.

For an inventory of work, reading and publishing achievements, check out the companion piece for this one article: “Reflections on Life: Reading and Publishing.”

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Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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