With more than 16 million unemployment claims filed since mid-March and economic activity on pause, all signs are pointing to a recession. It’s anyone’s guess how long the downturn will last or how severe it will be. But one thing is abundantly clear: The outlook for freelancers is shaky.
Like bears prepping for winter, the 1099 set is scouring for work, beefing up on receivables before a season of tight corporate budgets and heightened competition for gigs.
Recessions are hard on everyone, but freelancers can still put themselves in a position to push through it. We already work at home, we’re resourceful, and we have marketable skills and experience.
I’ve been writing news, magazine stories, and branded content as a freelancer for most of the last 23 years. Staying in business through two economic recessions—one in 2001 and another in 2008-2009—wasn’t easy, but both times I earned enough to cover all my expenses.
Here are seven pieces of advice to help you do the same.
1. Prioritize adding income over cutting expenses
Your first reaction to a big drop in income may be to cut back your expenses. That’s not wrong, but it’s more important to focus on bringing in more work. If you already live frugally, as many freelancers do, there’s only so much you can eliminate from your budget. Earn more and you won’t have to cut as much. When you have a good month—and you will, even in a downturn—save as much as you can to improve your cash flow for the next month.
We could devote an entire article to getting more work. But a few ways to expand your roster of clients is to ask your current editors to connect you with their colleagues, update your online portfolios and social media pages, scour freelance job boards, and keep an eye on social media for calls for pitches.
2. Don’t let your ego get in the way of pitching
If you’ve been freelancing successfully for a while, you may be used to doing work that comes to you rather than work you need to ask for. Asking doesn’t have to involve begging. Think of it as marketing and sales. Be professional. Focus on the editor’s needs and how you can meet those needs. Don’t complain about your personal finances. When you’re asked to pitch, do it.
You can still try to negotiate your rate higher, but don’t expect a bump. Also, be mindful that when budgets are tight, price may determine who gets the gig more than quality.
3. Widen your horizons
Prior to the Great Recession, I only wrote about real estate. When the housing market imploded, one of my editors was reassigned to banking, and I went with her. Today, I write about real estate and banking. I’ve also written about personal loans, credit cards, small business, trade negotiations, Brexit, and health insurance. I once spent an entire week writing about cancer.
Learning a new subject takes time, but when you have an opportunity, it’s smart to go for it. Add new clips and specialties to your portfolio, website, and/or LinkedIn so the market knows about your expanded skill set.
4. Don’t buy anything you don’t need
That new car, new laptop, new clothes, new anything you planned to buy right now? Just don’t do it. I’ve been shopping for a computer monitor to replace the one I purchased with part of the $600 stimulus check I received in 2008, when George W. was president. Now I’ve put that purchase on hold because I’d rather wait than be short of cash. I will buy it as soon as the economy looks stronger.
5. Shop around for everything you do need
When you must make a purchase, look for the cheapest option even if it’s not what you’d normally buy. Find a less expensive supermarket. Buy used clothing. If you have a mortgage, refinance it to lower your payment. During the Great Recession and recovery, I refinanced twice. My payment went from $1,800 to $1,200 with a longer term and a lower interest rate (5.5% to 3.25%).
6. Get serious about collections
When money’s tight, clients will pay slowly. Two weeks will turn into 30 days. Thirty days will stretch out to 60. Sixty will drag on to 90.
Always submit an invoice as soon as you complete an assignment. When payment’s due, remind your client. If a payment’s late, follow up and ask for a partial payment. If you suspect a client won’t be able to pay you soon—or ever—think hard about whether you want to write more for that client before you receive a payment. If the company folds, you may have little recourse to get paid. Ask about payment terms upfront, and prioritize work that pays fast, like Contently assignments that pay on submission.
7. Apply for aid and ask for help
One difference for this likely recession is that government aid programs are open, at least in theory, to freelancers. The CARES Act authorized unemployment insurance benefits through state employment agencies and emergency loans through the Small Business Administration.
Accessing government relief programs can prove challenging. It may require swallowing your pride or going against a long-held habit of self-reliance. If you’re hurting financially, apply without getting attached to the prospect of a personal bailout.
Freelancing through a recession is mostly about survival. Do whatever necessary to get through it, and you’ll be well-positioned to take advantage when growth starts again.
Marcie Geffner is a freelance news reporter, content writer and editor in Ventura, California.
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