The life of a freelancer: Juggling work, wages, wanderlust, and wellbeing
What's it really like to live the freelance life?
What are some of the challenges that freelancers face?
This section of the guide covers what it's actually like to live the freelance life. We'll talk about mental health, what it’s like to be a digital nomad, what the average day of a freelancer looks like (if there is such a thing), and other topics related to the freelance lifestyle.
First, let’s start with the basics.
But being self-employed comes with its own set of challenges. It's up to you to find new clients, manage your finances and keep track of everything happening in your business. All that can make it hard to carve out time for yourself and your personal life - and if you're not careful, it can lead to burnout.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone knows what a freelance life is like—after all, there are 59 million people in the U.S. alone who do some kind of freelance work for pay. But then I remember how little information is out there about this increasingly common career path, and how hard it can be to find answers to simple questions like "What does your typical day look like?" or "How much do you make?" It can be difficult to know what to expect from a freelancing career if you don't have anyone else's experience to draw on—and given how many people are interested in getting into freelancing, knowing what freelancers' lives are actually like seems pretty important.
So, what does the freelance lifestyle really look like?
Let’s take a look at some data.
- 86% of freelancers work from home
- 70% of freelancers claim to juggle between 2 and 4 projects at the same time
- 84% of freelancers say work lets them live the lifestyle they want
- 46% of freelancers choose their job because of their flexibility
- 84% of all full-time freelancers report that this work has allowed them to live their lives on their own terms and conduct with any lifestyle they choose. That’s about 21% more people than regular full-time workers
- 42% of freelancers said they would not be able to do a traditional job due to life circumstances.
- 51% of freelancers say that no amount of money would entice them to take a traditional job
Some call this trend “the death of employment,” but I like to think of it as merely a shift in the way we work. For those who are motivated and disciplined enough to manage their own time and workload, freelancing offers an enticing opportunity for freedom and flexibility. For those who aren’t, no amount of freedom and flexibility can substitute for basic work ethic!
How hard are freelancers working?
According to Elsie Boskamp at Zippia:
- Freelancers spend between zero and over seven hours a week looking for work, depending on their industry and skill set.
- The majority of freelance workers have had multiple clients in the past six months.
- 63% of freelance workers agree that having a wide and diverse portfolio of clients is more secure than having only one client. Freelancers across the country serve, on average, 4.5 clients each month, or 27 clients in a six-month period.
Of course there are good reasons why so many people take their careers in their own hands and decide to freelance.
Freelancing enables opportunities for those who otherwise might not be able to work. Forty-six percent of freelancers agree freelancing gives them the flexibility they need because they’re unable to work for a traditional employer due to personal circumstances.
Having the flexibility to raise and care for family members is one of the top reasons people choose to freelance.
And according to a 2019 study conducted by Edelman Intelligence, 60% of freelancers in the United States reported starting freelancing by choice. That number is up by 7% from 2014 when just 53% of Americans said they started freelancing by choice.
Freelancing may provide freedom and flexibility but it also presents its own set of unique challenges.
For example, finding clients, getting affordable health insurance, and breaking out of the feast-or-famine cycle of work are all issues that freelancers may face.
One of the challenges inherent in freelance work is the pay gap.
According to Wikipedia, “Freelancing is a gendered form of work. The 2012 Freelance Industry Report estimates that more than 71% of freelancers are women between the ages of 30 and 50. Surveys of other specific areas of freelancing have similar trends. Demographic research on Amazon Mechanical Turk reveals that the majority of North American Mechanical Turk workers are women. Catherine McKercher's research on journalism as a profession has showcased that while media organizations are still male-dominated, the reverse is true for freelance journalists and editors, whose ranks are mainly women…”
To dig deeper into this issue, look at some of the findings from the Freelancer Income Report (a survey of 2,000 freelancers from more than 100 countries) released by Payoneer in 2022:
- Women freelancers’ pay lags their male counterparts, with that gap growing over the last two years
- The gender pay gap is most pronounced in North America, with women reporting earnings of $37 per hour on average, compared to men who reported an average of $52 an hour
- Women reported earning less in every region of the 100 countries surveyed except South America, where women out-earn their male counterparts by $4 an hour, likely influenced by the higher-paid industries that are more in demand in these regions
- The global average hourly freelance rate rose from $21 an hour in 2020 to $29 an hour today
Here are a few more interesting statistics related to freelancer compensation:
- 65% of freelancers are male, and only 35% of freelancers are female
- Almost 50% of freelancing females make less than $25,000 USD per year
- On average, male freelancers make up to 4 times more money than female freelancers Male freelancers are over four times more likely to make $150,000 USD per year than female freelancers
- Over 30% of freelancers earn more than $75,000 USD per year
- Over 40% of freelancers have said that they make less money as freelancers
- An average freelancer earns approximately $39,000 USD per year (pre-tax)
- An average freelancer earns approximately $21 USD per hour and works around 36 hours per week
60% of freelancers identify as men and 40% women in the US, while the global average reflects 77% of freelancers are men and 23% are women.
Freelancers earn, on average, $28 an hour for performing skilled services.
Upwork defines skilled freelancers as those “that indicate that their current freelance work entails selling skilled services,” which it said includes programming, writing, design, IT and other professions that require a college degree or the experience to back up one’s qualifications. In 2021, 53% of freelancers qualified as skilled, Upwork said, which was a 3% increase over the previous year.
Computer programming, marketing, IT, and business consulting are top industries for freelancing, with 50% of freelancers providing such services.
Overall, freelance workers are making more money now than ever before.
- 36% of freelancers in the United States make more than $75,000 a year.
- A recent analysis of freelance workers in the U.S. found that 19% of freelancers earn $75,000 to $99,999 per year, up from 9% in 2014, 12% of freelancers earn $100,000 to $149,000 per year, up from 5% in 2014, and 5% of freelancers earn $150,000 or more per year, up from 3% in 2014.
Although they make good money, freelance workers have a greater likelihood of living paycheck to paycheck.
Freelancers historically face more cash flow challenges than non-freelancers and traditional employees. A recent survey found that 59% of freelancers in the U.S. work paycheck to paycheck, compared to 53% of non-freelancers.
Freelancers typically have to wait 30 days or more for payment, which is a primary reason for their increased cash flow challenges. The majority of freelance workers have to use their personal money every month for business-related expenses.
A 2017 study found that 63% of freelancers have to use their personal savings at least once a month to smooth over gaps. This is compared to just 20% of traditional, non-freelance workers. Data shows:
- 36% of US-based, full-time freelancers make over $75,000 a year. Considering that about 15% of Americans (individuals, not households) earn over $75,000 a year, freelancers actually tend to be more successful than traditional workers.
- Additionally, 84% of full-time freelancers self-report that they’re satisfied with their current position. That’s roughly the same as the US workforce, where 85% of workers claim to be happy with their job.
Regardless of your definition of “success,” freelancers seem to have found it at equal or greater rates than regular full-time employees.
If you’re wondering what freelance skills pay the bills, it depends on who you ask.
According to Varun Omprakash, Content writer at Flexiple, the most in-demand skills for freelancers are related to development.
Meanwhile, Biron Clark over at Career Sidekick says the highest paying freelance skills of today are direct response copywriting, ad management, SEO consulting, software development, lead generation and sales.
No matter which source you believe, it’s clear that there are plenty of high-value skills freelancers can bring to the table.
For example, Elsie Boskamp’s article for Zippia reports, “Skilled services, including computer programming, marketing, IT, and business consulting, are the most common types of jobs performed by successful freelancers. In 2020, 50% of freelancers in the United States provided skilled services, up from 45% in 2019.”
How much do freelancers earn?
- Freelancers earn, on average, $28 an hour for performing skilled services.
- The average annual salary for freelance writers in the United States is $63,488.
- According to research conducted by ZipRecruiter, freelance writers in the U.S. earned, on average, $63,488 annually in 2019.
Is becoming a freelance digital nomad really a thing?
Have you ever wondered, “Could I work while I travel?”
So we decided to find out.
Are there really freelance digital nomads out there? Or, is the media publishing story after story about a few outliers to make the nomadic lifestyle seem popular?
The data says freelancers’ interest in the digital nomad lifestyle is real. Over 60% of freelance workers are pursuing a digital nomad lifestyle
Digital nomads are people who are location-independent and use technology to perform their job, living a nomadic lifestyle. Digital nomads work remotely, telecommuting rather than being physically present at a company's headquarters or office.
If you read the earlier section of this guide, Anyone Can Work From Anywhere, you may remember we said when you freelance, you can work from anywhere. Well, before you grab your passport and jet off to Bali, let’s talk about a few things.
What's it really like to combine work and travel?
What is it like to move locations frequently and work from the road?
Is living the laptop lifestyle while you’re location independent all it’s cracked up to be?
If you’re a freelancer interested in pursuing a nomadic lifestyle, there are many factors to consider. There’s the practical side of being a digital nomad — such as how to stay productive and where to find reliable WiFi. Then there’s the more personal issues to think about: how to manage your finances without a steady income, how to maintain relationships with people who don’t understand your lifestyle, and how to balance work and travel.
Things have changed some since the beginning of the pandemic so if you’re planning a trip, make sure you check all the rules and regulations in the areas you’ll be traveling through.
We’ve seen more and more stories about different countries offering incentives to lure digital nomads to visit and set up shop. Lots of places are inviting remote freelancers, offering digital-nomad visas and incentives.
Steve King of Emergentresearch.com wrote about the findings shared in American Express’ recently released annual Global Travel Trends report which included, "... 54% of respondents (U.S.) said that the freedom and flexibility of being able to live and work while traveling the globe is more appealing now than it was prior to the pandemic."
Steve King also talked about his work with MBO Partners which found the number of digital nomads grew significantly in 2020 as more workers found themselves unfettered from the office because of the pandemic.
As you can see in the chart below, from this Bloomberg article, 19 million Americans say they plan to become digital nomads while another 45 million are considering it.
If even a fraction of that number pursue the digital nomad lifestyle, expect to see even more freelance digital nomads.
And even those freelancers who don’t want to travel the world while working are interested in working from home…even if home may not be where they hang their hat today.
About 70% of surveyed freelancers note that they’d be open to moving somewhere outside of a large city, as their job allows them to work from home, which could be virtually anywhere, as long as there is an internet connection.
When people talk about freelancing, they often neglect to mention mental health, and well-being. I'm not sure why this is the case. Maybe it's because people want to be positive about the lifestyle changes that come with freelancing. Or maybe it's because once you've made the jump and started your own business, you're so busy trying to keep all the balls in the air that you don't have time to reflect on the bigger picture.
Work can be stressful, and stress can be very unhealthy. That’s why protecting your mental and physical health is important.
Michel Syrett, a journalist, researcher, Director of The Cairn of Mental Health and Centre for Research on Self-Employment member says, “to understand the wellbeing of a freelancer, you have to look into four main areas: Financial Security, Mental Health, Social Support and General Wellbeing”
- 64% of full-time freelancers said their health has improved since they began freelancing.
- About 22% of freelancers think that healthcare is a big concern, and about 28% of full-timers purchase a health plan.
Michel Syrett, Director of The Cairn of Mental Health and a CRSE research network member, makes a good case for more research into freelancers’ wellbeing.
Although 83% of freelance workers in the United States do have access to health insurance, it doesn’t come easy for the majority of them. Of full-time freelancers with health insurance, 24% purchase insurance themselves, 21% get insurance through Medicaid, 19% get insurance through Medicare, 15% get insurance through a spouse’s plan, and 7% get insurance through a parent’s plan. Additionally, 47% of freelancers who purchase health insurance themselves said they paid more in health insurance premiums in 2019 compared to previous years.
Perhaps that’s why lately, we’ve seen more freelancers speaking up about denouncing hustle culture and reducing burnout. We had a great conversation about this recently on The Hectic Podcast with Pariss Athena, founder and CEO of Black Tech Pipeline.