The Born Freelancer on Being a Frugal Freelancer

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



Let’s talk money.

(Got your attention, didn’t it?)

Today I want to talk about the money we spend.

Or rather, shouldn’t.

You see, one of the basic strategies of surviving a long life in freelancing is to spend as little as you can while making as much as you can.

This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. On the contrary. Living as a frugal freelancer means that when something comes up you absolutely need (or really really want) you will almost always have the money saved to afford it.

It means being responsible for the day to day expenses that seem invisible to most and curtailing those which are unnecessary or the least rewarding.

Sounds so simple, right? And yet for so many, so hard. For others even – unthinkable!

A new year begins…

For some of us this year marks about a decade since the freelancing economy became excessively volatile. It’s harder and harder to remember a time when income seemed to flow so readily and revenue streams seemed to multiply overnight.

It’s been a decade of hardships for many working freelancers.

A quick, unscientific poll amongst a handful or so of my freelancing colleagues who have been in the game a decade or longer, reveals anecdotally that a third have left (to get 9 to 5 jobs), a third is struggling (possibly working part time elsewhere) and a third claim to be doing just fine, thanks. (Hard to know how well. We can be notoriously vague when it comes to discussing our income with fellow freelancers.) I don’t know if this reflects the bigger picture or not.

But what sets those still freelancing apart from those who could no longer hack it (among many other admirable qualities) is the ability to curb and control expenses and to do so with consistency and determination.

The list

OK, with luck I haven’t scared you away but rather impressed upon you that learning to manage your expenses is every bit as important to successfully living the freelancing life as is actually getting paid for work.

Here’s part of a list which I review each new year to see if my ongoing expenses are justifiable and as minimal as can be. Your list and ability to curb expenses will vary depending upon your circumstances (partners, dependent family, work requirements, health, location, etc.) as will your motivation to do so (if you have another job, for example.)


Canadians seem to me to pay more for their cell phones/cable/internet than almost anybody else in the world. Yet we appear to be incredibly complacent about accepting the ridiculously over-priced bundles the big providers offer in an attempt to obfuscate the true cost of their services.

First stop, your current service provider’s Customer Retention Department. Sometimes called the Customer Loyalty Department. Nobody else you speak to will have the authority to give you a real deal except these fine folk who are there to try to keep your dollars flowing into their bulging corporate vaults. Once you threaten to leave (subject to any contract already in force) it’s amazing how they usually manage to pull better deals out of thin air.

If you remain unconvinced you are getting the best value for your dollar, try unbundling services for yourself.

Even lower cost alternatives

* Television. Given streaming options do you need it at all? If so, consider the government-mandated but little-advertised basic cable package. Even less expensive (if you live in or near an urban centre) is to go completely OTA – Over The Air – and buy a digital antenna system. Once it’s paid for the TV is free (albeit limited in number of available channels).

* Internet. There are numerous smaller companies willing to cut a better deal which provide service usually just as good as the big companies because they buy bandwidth from them and resell it at a discount. Do your research.

If all you need at home are the basics like e-mail, consider the various non-profit community networks (such as the Vancouver Community Network or Toronto Freenet) which still offer low cost dial-up services. This option can be supplemented by the high speed computers available for use for free at your local library.

* Cell phones. Again, look for smaller companies that buy blocks of airtime from the big companies and resell at discounted prices. Also consider your usage patterns. For example, I mostly text (and use free public wifi whenever possible). So I use a pay-as-you-go service (Speak Out, which I have discussed elsewhere) and pay a low monthly fee to get unlimited texting – all without any cumbersome contracts.

* Computers The price of computers have come down so much that it almost always pays to buy new. The exception is perhaps the Apple/Macintosh line which is as seemingly expensive as ever. If you (like me) prefer them, it may be worth your time looking for pre-owned models.

Admittedly, I have had mixed results buying second-hand. You can never tell if it’s going to function perfectly in the weeks and months ahead. Do your research and buy from a reputable dealer who knows how to correctly recondition them. If you buy from individuals unknown to you you may get lucky and get a deal but you also take your chances.

* Office space Do you rent office space? Now may be the time to renegotiate the lease or look for a new space.

Your local library or coffee shop may well be all you really need. For many years a local “greasy spoon” cafe served as my “office” with its intelligent (and well-tipped) waiting staff acting as sounding boards for most of my writing.

There’s also a growing number of shared work spaces in many urban areas. I will write more extensively about them in future.

If you choose to work from home, dedicate physical space to your work exclusively so you can write off the proportion of rent for that space from your taxes.

Day to day

Buy a daily coffee at your local cafe? Ever added up how much that costs over a month? Over a year? It’s often the small daily costs we take out of change that add up and slip away almost invisibly on a daily basis. Unless that coffee shop is also your “office” or a meeting place it’s probably best to relearn how to make a decent cup of coffee or tea at home. A thermos flask may become your new best friend.

The takeaway

My list goes on for several more pages but you get the idea. Everything – and I mean *everything* – you spend money on is up for review.

Always ask – Is it really necessary? Is it the best deal possible? Does any pleasure from it justify its expense?

The ultimate goal is to spend less than we make and pay off any debts.

You may read this and say, hey, I do all – or almost all – of those things already.

If so, congratulations! You are now – or are well on your way to becoming – a frugal freelancer too.

You may carry on with your freelancing work and concentrate on acquiring more revenue streams, confident you have your expenses under control.

As a result, if you work hard and have a bit of good luck, you should almost always have savings (and/or a decent credit rating) with which to pay for what you absolutely need and/or really really want.

On the other hand…

You may read this and say, Hey, I don’t want to live like THAT. I want to continue to recklessly spend and enjoy myself. Who cares if I go into debt? Everybody else does it too.

My best advice for you is to look for another 9 to 5 job and/or stay with the one you probably already have.

Because you will rarely succeed in the long run as a freelancer.

For me and all of my freelancing colleagues “frugal” is not the dirty word it is for some in the 9 to 5 economy, determined to spend their way into debt at an alarming rate.

For us it is a word signifying freedom, enabling our chosen career and lifestyle.

The price of that freedom is never-ending vigilance over our financial well-being and the willing implementation of all reasonable cost-cutting measures to achieve it.

For what we get back, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Got any secrets to share about keeping your expenses under control? Please leave a comment below. We promise, it won’t cost you a cent!


Posted on February 1, 2019 at 8:57 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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