Freelancers are no strangers to instability. At any moment, clients can abruptly cancel a lucrative project without a replacement gig in sight. To survive a financial downturn, we must be ready to plan, budget, and pivot when hard times hit.
But the last couple of years have given “instability” a whole new definition. According to Pew Research, global inflation in 2022 reached its highest point since the early 1980s. Forbes recently noted that economists are increasingly predicting a recession by 2023. On top of all this, geopolitics and supply chain snafus tied to the war in Ukraine, tensions with Taiwan, and a seemingly endless onslaught of natural disasters continue to disrupt the way the world conducts business.
Without benefits like company health insurance and paid leave to protect us during lean times, many freelancers are feeling the pressure. To dig into how independent workers are weathering the storm, we spoke with seven seasoned freelance writers about how inflation has affected their livelihoods, what they’re doing to stay afloat, and the work they’ve landed despite the downturn.
What’s your area of expertise?
Dahna M. Chandler: I’m an award-winning business journalist who writes scholarly whitepapers and thought leadership content for the finance industry.
Leslie Patrick Moore: I’m a writer whose work has appeared in top print and digital travel magazines.
Steven Moore: I’m a bestselling fiction novelist and editor [and husband to Leslie, above].
Lola Akinmade Åkerström: I’m a visual storyteller, travel photographer, and author of the bestselling novel In Every Mirror She’s Black.
Mark Ray: I’m an award-winning writer who focuses on healthcare, profiles, and content marketing.
Nancy LaFever: I’m a writer and book editor specializing in developmental editing.
Samantha Johnson: I’m a freelance writer and proofreader whose books include Garden DIY and The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of being a freelancer (vs. a full-time employee) in times of economic volatility?
Ray: The main benefit is that you aren’t reliant on a single source of employment. You can also pivot more quickly as conditions change. And, if you ever decide to return to full-time work, you have mastered the work-from-home thing!
LaFever: In my situation, I’m the boss. I set my own schedule and take time off when I can afford to. Granted, not having employee benefits is a downer, but being laid off twice within a two-year period made me very skeptical of the full-time employee concept.
Chandler: We’ve got more control over what happens to us. We won’t get laid off with few options beyond unemployment insurance payments and a panicked job search. We can take advantage of other business opportunities, travel, move abroad, or have more flexibility to care for family.
How has inflation affected you as a freelancer?
Chandler: I honestly can’t say it has. Since I work remotely, I don’t have a lot of business expenses. Thankfully, I can afford the most recent price increases. And because I don’t commute to work, I don’t drive my car often, so higher gas prices haven’t hurt me.
LaFever: I live in an expensive coastal town in Oregon, so rising prices have dictated that I actively seek more varied work.
Johnson: As freelancers, we’ve all felt the ups and downs of exciting new projects followed by budget cuts when times are tough, so while I feel a potential recession is on my radar, I’m not more concerned than usual.
What advice would you give freelancers concerned about their careers in a tumultuous economy?
Ray: Diversify your client base as much as possible. Build up a rainy-day fund. Never assume a client relationship will last beyond your current project or that you’ll get paid until the money is in the bank. This advice applies regardless of how the economy is doing.
Chandler: Think of ways you can provide additional value, services, or perspectives to help meet client objectives. For example, I recently launched my whitepaper writing business, The White Paper Maven, which leverages my 25 years of writing experience with my last six years of graduate school.
Akinmade Åkerström: While it’s easier said than done, don’t panic. Identify your largest source of income and nurture it or branch out into other complementary industries. For example, if you focus on travel, you could write for culture, architecture, or food outlets.
When times are tough, have you considered taking any courses, developing new skills, or taking a different career path?
Johnson: I believe in lifelong learning and always seek to nurture new skills that could be valuable to my career. I regularly invest my time and resources to expand my knowledge and skills, but this isn’t due to economic concerns; it’s always been my philosophy.
Patrick Moore: Yes. The travel industry changed significantly during the pandemic, which made me realize that I need to focus on more than just travel content and diversify my income stream.
Moore: I haven’t gone in a different direction, but I have focused more time on my editing business. Writing fiction has taken a bit of a backseat, but I still work hard marketing and selling my existing titles while working alongside my wife on our nonfiction side project.
What are you doing to prepare for a possible economic downturn?
LaFever: Evaluating what skill sets you have (or may need to acquire) and being flexible and creative with your work is essential. I’ve recently started to draw on my past career as a psychotherapist to offer coaching services to my clients. I realize that I’ve always done it on some level, but labeling it as “coaching” has attracted new clients.
Patrick Moore: Like many self-employed people, we’re working on trimming living expenses for the months when our income is down. Work-wise, I’m also focusing on reaching out to former editors and content clients and finding creative ways to generate more income, such as writing ebooks.
Chandler: I’ve been keeping a positive mindset. A few years ago, I began focusing almost exclusively on writing for banking and wealth management audiences who are less likely to be affected by the economic downturn. I’m also leveraging my business development and operations expertise to write content for a major financial services firm and [a few different] marketing firms.
Have you made any adjustments to your pricing, etc., in response to current economic concerns?
Moore: In my editing business, I’m keeping my prices fixed for existing clients and offering generous discounts for first-time clients. I’m sure this will keep the requests coming.
Akinmade Åkerström: Yes, I have increased my fees and rates across the board. I am also now more comfortable saying no to jobs I would have easily taken earlier in my career in exchange for brand name recognition.
LaFever: Not pricing structure per se, but I’ve added more affordable services to my author clients. For instance, I offer a manuscript evaluation (light editing) in lieu of full-blown manuscript edits—at a considerably lower fee. I’m also taking on small writing and editing jobs like blogs, newsletters, copywriting, and ghostwriting for small entrepreneurs.
Can you detail a recent positive freelance experience you’ve had, despite the downturn?
Chandler: I’m forming a great relationship with the managing editor of a bank building out its private wealth content. I’ve written several longform blog posts [so far], and the bank loves my work. It will take time to strengthen that relationship, but it’s a wonderful opportunity—one I’ve worked years to get.
LaFever: I had a real slowdown with work this winter. It’s feast or famine in this business, but this was scary stuff! Fortunately, a couple of former clients recently returned with exciting new projects, so I feel like I can put off full-blown money panic for a while. [The lull in work] also made me more creative in my marketing efforts.
Moore: I’ve seen an uptick regarding various requests for editing services. Because I have kept my already-competitive rates fixed for a while now, I’ve gained many repeat clients who have also become friends. I’m getting regular work, and they have found an editor they can trust. It’s a win-win situation. And regarding the aforementioned nonfiction project with my wife, it might not have materialized had it not been for these “uncertain financial times.” Hmm… perhaps that’s the name for a new book.