In my long journey to escape this whole giant rat race, I have been asked this question multiple times.
When I was running my cafe, people – random strangers – would come up to me and ask bluntly, “So are you able to make money doing this?” (The honest answer? No.)
Later on, I’d had to deal with the skepticism of my family and friends about the inherent financial instability of my decision to find my own way in this world.
Meeting up with friends from school was painful sometimes. At that time they were all fresh university graduates and had all just secured comfortable jobs paying them $3,000 – $5,000 a month. They would openly and excitedly exchange their salary figures, but would look at me quizzically and ask, “So… are you doing okay? Surviving?”
It was a good time in their lives and I was truly happy for them, and it really wasn’t their fault at all that they would ask me something like that – they were just concerned about me.
Most people have this idea that freelancers cannot earn much money and don’t have much job security. When I was starting out, that was certainly true – I really was barely scraping by. For YEARS. To add on to everything was the interminable uncertainty, unlike my friends, who could look forward to their promotions and their bonuses.
But having come a little further along the journey, I want to dispel the misconception that freelancers cannot earn good money.
Fear, lots and lots of fear
Many people desperately want to quit their jobs and start their own small businesses or become a successful freelancer (just look around you).
They want the perks that come with the freelance life. The freedom. Not having to wake up to go to the office every day. Not having to answer to a boss or to have to do things that suck the joy out of their soul.
But they don’t want the sacrifices and the pain and the uncertainty that come with actually quitting their jobs to do their own thing.
Mostly, they are mortally afraid – of not having their salary automatically transferred to their bank accounts every month; of not making enough money to feed themselves.
Truth number 1: Freelancers can make good money.
Truth number 2: Full-time employees are often underpaid.
I have a very talented friend working at an art studio who earns $1,800 a month. And another friend who’s a full-time designer who earns less than $2,500 a month, even though she’s an amazing designer.
That’s not cool.
They are clearly underpaid (for their talents). If they could just venture out to do their own thing, they might be able to earn more, and have more creative freedom at that.
Step into a world of possibilities
I want to show you a year-by-year highlight of how much money I have made since I quit university to pursue my own path.
I’m doing this to show you real figures that a real freelancer makes (and can potentially make), so that you are no longer in the dark about the financial possibilities of working for yourself.
It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, and some creative thinking (and very thick skin – by that I mean a slight disregard for what society thinks of you). It can take years before you even start seeing any returns. And then it might take years for things to start getting stable.
But it’s all worth it.
No pain, no gain.
2007 – A year after I quit university, I started running my cafe. Startup capital was borrowed from my parents (I’d like to acknowledge how blessed I am to have parents who were crazy enough to support me in whatever I wanted to do). Every month I paid myself about $300 in living expenses. This went on for about two years. In that time I barely went out (I spent most of my time working in my cafe) so I didn’t need that much money.
2009 – After my cafe closed, I decided to give a 9-5 job a try. I got a job at a local arts organisation. My take home pay was about $1,500/month. This went on for six months, then I quit.
June 2009 – I’d had my taste of a regular job, and I hated it. It confirmed my gut feeling: I’m not cut out to work for someone else. It was at this point that I steeled my resolve to make a living working for myself doing what I love. I didn’t know yet what that was; all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to create my own path, even if I didn’t have a roadmap. During this time I began trying to become a freelance writer (since, after some serious thinking, it was a skill I had and something I thought I’d enjoy doing). I started writing for free for a few publications. I survived on the money I’d saved from my job at the arts organisation.
2010 – Throughout 2010 I probably earned not more than $1,000 from all my freelance writing assignments. I realised at this point that freelance writing pays peanuts. I took on a translation project that paid somewhat better at $100 per article. It was a difficult time.
2011 – I began teaching tuition. I worked quite hard and had quite a few students so I began earning about $1,500/month. I didn’t really enjoy it but it helped me to survive while I continued finding my own way as a freelance creative. At this stage I was winding down on my freelance writing (although there wasn’t much to wind down haha) and trying to figure out my next step. Going back to a 9-5 job was definitely not an option for me.
2012 – I started part-time hosting a radio show. It paid a few hundred dollars a month. I was still teaching tuition to survive at this point, so I was earning about $1,500-$1,800 a month. Early 2012, I decided I would try to become a freelance photographer (something I’d always wanted to pursue but hadn’t dared to, since it felt like an impossible goal), since I’d failed to gain any traction in freelance writing. I started doing my personal photo project Creative People + Projects and began telling everyone I knew that I was now “a photographer”. Began shooting free and low-paying photography jobs for all sorts of different people.
April 2013 – After about a year of shooting, directly because of my photo project Creative People + Projects, I got my first 4-figure ($5,000) photography job and another 4-figure job ($3,500 to shoot a magazine cover) within a month. I consider these two jobs together as my first big break. The income I earned from them gave me the confidence (and the financial buffer) to keep persisting. I also started doing editorial (magazine) work that paid a few hundred dollars a shoot after I decided to ask.
April 2014 – This was a huge milestone for me: I got my first 5-figure photography job. I was jumping with joy when the job was confirmed. It was a commercial shoot for a private bank’s publication that paid about $13,000 for 3 half-day shoots.
June 2014 – From this point onwards, I began getting a steady stream of photography jobs. Most of them were 4-figure and 5-figure commercial jobs. I continued to shoot editorial work at the same time.
July 2015 – Another milestone: I got paid $20,000 to shoot an advertising billboard. 2 days’ work.
Dec 2016 – I recently got represented by a photo agency who will now help promote me and help me get bigger commercial/advertising jobs. It’s been 3 years since photography became financially viable for me, allowing me to pursue it full time; 10 years since I quit university to pursue my own path in life. In between, 7 years of self-doubting, uncertainty, searching, failing. In the last 3 years as a photographer I haven’t stopped working.
The most important question in your mind – how does a freelancer get 4-figure and 5-figure jobs?
The grossly simplified answer – by working with corporations who have money. Companies are all about the bottom line. If you can help them earn money, they tend to pay well. So think of how your skills can help a company or a brand earn money.
Creativity is a much-needed skill in today’s society because it helps a company stand out from the noise. Example: If you are good at miniature food styling, you could have been hired by Singapore Airlines to consult for this brilliant advertisement that features… miniature food:
For photography, since it is so tied up with the commercial needs of companies and organisations (almost every brand in the world needs photography to tells its story), it becomes something that is highly valued.
If you want to be pragmatic, find a skill that the market needs (this is very important if you want a lucrative career as a freelancer) and that you enjoy, and become good at it, then use it to help companies earn money. Example: Aaron Nieh, a designer from Taiwan, is so good at what he does that he practically designs the album covers of every singer in Taiwan with good taste – his design helps them to sell their CDs; even the Taiwanese government engaged him to do design work for them. (In future articles I will write about how to attract the attention of companies and brands. According to Cal Newport, one way is to be so good they can’t ignore you.)
Still, generally, all kinds of freelance work has the potential to give you more income than if you were working a normal job (unless you have climbed to the upper levels of the corporate ladder, then that’s a different story).
Can a freelancer have consistent income?
There are always going to be ups and downs. Some months you earn more, some months you earn less. But at the end of the day, if you can get big jobs, the bigger jobs can make up for the bad days.
Does freelance work ever become stable?
Yes and no. There is no inherent stability in being a freelancer. One day you might be busy fending off potential clients, another day you might be sitting at home refreshing your email, hoping for a job request. And that’s okay. That’s a truth you need to live with if you want the other (good) parts of this life. To counter this, learn to save as much of your income as you can for rainy days (an important lesson that I learned that will be the topic for a future post).
Do you need to be the best in your field to earn a good living as a freelancer?
No. Is anyone really the best in their field? There’s always someone better. I definitely don’t think that I’m the best in my field, but I think I’m good enough. I have also built relationships over the years, giving me access to a network of opportunities. These people in my network think of me when they want to hire a photographer. That’s how I get many of my jobs.
At which point does one consider oneself a “successful” freelancer?
When there is more or less a constant stream of work; when you have more job requests than you can take up; when you need to reject jobs.
Is freelancing a good path for everyone to pursue?
The honest answer is… no. Or at least it can be much more challenging for people who have dependents and who have to support their family. Or if they already have a massive college debt to pay off. Having said that, nothing is impossible in this world. If this is what you want, nothing should stop you (or at least give yourself the chance to have a go at it before throwing in the towel).
The economy is really bad now. Should I still pursue my dream of being a freelancer?
Any time is an okay time to pursue your dream. It’s not about the economy. The economy will go up and down. But you can control how little you need. The less you need, the less you can afford to earn. That gives you some buffer to experiment with your life (especially if you are still young right now). So go and try. If you die tomorrow, would you regret the life you didn’t dare to live?
This was a long, slightly unnerving post to write. I’m a little nervous about putting it all out there like this, but I have learned that, if one wants to share effectively, honesty / total transparency is always the best policy.
I also wrote this to encourage the many people I know – including many of my friends – who want to quit the rat race and live life on their own terms. I hope this gave you a view of the possibilities of a freelance career and a strong push to pursue the life you want.
As always, I hope this article proved helpful and encouraging to you!
Got any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comment section below.