How to Find Your First Freelance Work and Manage Money

Going from a 9 to 5 gig to a full-time freelance career usually isn’t something you can do overnight.

Unless you luck out and the work falls in your lap, you’re going to have to spend some of your time hustling up jobs.

Trying to nab clients can be frustrating, especially since you’re not getting paid for your efforts to land a position.

When I first started freelancing, I was fortunate enough to have financial support in the form of my husband’s income; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have been able to successfully make the transition.

Figuring out how to find freelance work is one of the biggest obstacles newcomers face and it usually ends up being a lot of trial and error if you don’t know where to look.

There are tons of job boards out there but how do you know which ones are worth the time it takes to scroll through hundreds of postings?

Not only that, many of them charge a membership fee just to gain access, which can be burdensome if you’re already strapped for cash.

If you’re ready to go freelance, here are four ways to find the kind of work you want without putting a strain on your time, energy or bank account.

Put a Dollar Value on Your Time

The Internet is chock full of leads for freelancers but tracking them all down just isn’t feasible, especially if you’re already working a full-time job.

Before you get bogged down on job boards or Craigslist, you have to decide what your time is really worth.

Part of that involves coming up with a rate system, which is often the hardest task for freelancers.

For instance, if your current salary breaks down to $25 an hour, you’d make about $750 a week after taxes.

Now, assume that instead of working 40 hours a week as a freelancer you want to cut back to 20.

To make that same amount, you’d have to set your hourly rate somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 to make your goal and still cover your tax obligations.

So why does this matter when you’re still in the job-hunting stage?

For one thing, it’s just not cost-effective, especially if you’re wasting time on job boards where the pay scale is lower.

Let’s say after three hours of searching, you find something that pays $20 an hour. That’s less than what you want but you’re new so you take it.

Now, let’s say it takes three hours to complete the project, earning you $60 before taxes in the process.

If you put a price tag on the time you spent just looking for the job, that adds up to $180.

When you compare the effort you put in to the money you’re making, it’s clear that you can’t afford to invest your time in things that don’t yield a bigger payoff.

If you’re going to be surfing the job boards, your best bet is to look at ones that are tailored towards your area of expertise.

For instance, some of the sites I check out regularly include Indeed and MediaBistro.

Access is free and there’s usually a good mix of higher pay postings from reputable companies to be found but you don’t have to waste hours sifting through them all.

Keep Track of Your Search Efforts

From experience, I know how easy it is to let the hours slip past when you’re online and before you know it, you’ve spent half the day sitting in the same spot.

When you’re trying to hustle up freelance work, you have to be more efficient about how you conduct your job search.

That means keeping tabs on how much time you’re actually spending perusing job ads or sending contacting potential clients.

Using an time tracking software like RescueTime can help you to stay on schedule so you can be as productive as possible when you’re following up on leads.

The free version of the app allows you to monitor the amount of time you spend on specific websites and you’ll get a weekly report detailing which ones you’re visiting the most.

There’s also a paid version for $9 a month that offers more detailed reports and even lets you block distracting sites but until you’ve got a steady stream of work coming in, you may want to hold off on making the investment.

If you’re already established as a freelancer and you’ve got some reliable clients, OfficeTime also lets you track your time more accurately and record your expenses for each project.

You can run reports, generate invoices and export your data to Excel, which can streamline your record-keeping even more.

There is a one-time fee of $47 to download the software so you’ll have to decide if those features are worth the price.

Don’t Fall Into the Bid Site Trap

A lot of people tout the benefits of sites like oDesk and Elance, which feature scads of listings for just about every kind of freelance gig you can imagine.

All you have to do is sign up for an account on these sites for free and you can bid on different jobs.

I’ve managed to get steady, well-paying projects through them both but that seems to be the exception more often than the rule.

Since they’re open to anyone, you’ll run into a lot of competition from freelancers in other countries who are willing to work for much lower rates.

I’ve seen people who literally charge pennies per hour and unfortunately, there is a demand for this type of freelancer.

If you’re thinking of trying your luck on a bid site, tailor your search as much as possible to hone in on your target client base.

oDesk, for instance, allows you to narrow your search down to specific categories and filter them according to the amount of pay that’s being offered.

When you’re applying for positions, a quick glance at the client’s history can tell you if they have a track record of hiring cheaper workers.

If you’d rather try and get the right clients to come to you, your time is probably better spent perfecting your profile, which boosts your visibility on the site.

Don’t Discount Working for Free

Working for no pay seems a little counter-intuitive but established freelancers know that it can be an effective way to generate future income.

Doing one or two projects on a pro bono basis allows you to test your skills while getting your name out there. 

Even if you’re not able to get a solid lead on a steady job, you’re still doing something that allows you to build your resume and now you’ve got a sample of your work to show other potential clients.

For instance, if you’re a website designer and you know someone who owns a small business, you could offer to help them set up their site for free.

If they like your work, they could recommend you to other people they know in the business community.

If you’re considering working for free, be clear up front about what the client’s expectations are and how long it will take to complete.

Each hour you spend on the project is one less you have to look for paying opportunities so you have to make sure you’re balancing your time appropriately.

Stick around for more of my freelance advice, I’ll be posting articles with my tips and mistakes to avoid.

Ways to Budget With Freelance Income

A predictable month-to-month income just doesn’t happen for a lot of people.

Your financial life could be that of a salesperson on commission, or an entrepreneur just getting a business off the ground, or a freelancer who’s constantly moving from one contract to another.

There are lots of reasons for an irregular income.

But even if you have one, you can be sure your bills will still arrive on a regular basis and have to be paid.

If you want your exciting but unpredictable financial life to take on the consistency that comes with the routine of a steady paycheck — it’s vital to know how to budget with variable income.

Here are five good ways to accomplish that:

1. Add Up Your Monthly Expenses

The first thing to figure out is how much you spend each month.

Break down your expenses according to whether they are recurring, or one-time. Don’t forget to include your spending on everyday items, or splurges.

You want to have a general idea of how much you spend each month. This is the foundation of your budget.

Free online budgeting tools, like Mint, can be invaluable in creating your plan and tracking your expenses automatically.

You start a free account, provide your checking account information, and the tool tracks the money you spend and categorizes it by the criteria you’ve established.

The only thing you’ll need to add manually is your cash expenses.

The more automatic your budgeting, the more likely you’ll stick with it.

It’s very important to prioritize your expenses.

That way you make sure the most important debits are covered first. Bills, groceries, and debt payments are among the most important spending categories.

Once you’ve set these priorities, you’ll know what you set aside dropped from the list if you have a lean month. Know ahead of time what you can cut back on if necessary.

2. Know the Sources of Your Income

You also need to know where your money is coming from.

Do you have multiple jobs?

If you are self-employed, what percentage of your income is from a specific source?

Document your income so that you have an idea of what you earn.

If possible, look at what you made in the last 12 months.

Divide that amount by 12. This is a great way to estimate your average monthly income.

If you made $48,000 over the last 12 months, your average is $4,000 a month.

With a variable income, though, you might earn $5,000 one month, and $2,500 another month.

The overall average, though, gives you a solid number to work with.

Many self-employed professionals have a problem with getting their clients to pay on time.

They want to avoid having to be pushy for fear of alienating clients and losing further work.

One solution for late payers is to make prompt payments profitable for them.

You can offer clients incentives in the form of declining discounts the longer they take to pay.

Try sending an email or letter to clients with a positive announcement of this form of discount offer and add it to your invoices.

It’s an approach that will accelerate payments better than pushing for them.

3. Give Yourself  a Regular Salary to Make Planning Easier

You can pay yourself a salary by opening two bank accounts — a checking account and a savings account.

Every time you receive money, deposit it into your savings account.

Then, every week, two weeks, or monthly, transfer the amount you estimated above into your checking account and use it to pay your expenses and fund your goal.

When you have good months, you’ll build your savings. In less successful months, you’ll draw from your savings to keep your salary steady.

With this system, if you have a big savings balance at the end of the year, divide it by 12 and give yourself a monthly raise.

If you don’t have enough in savings to make it work, you’ll have to take a pay cut and take a hard look at your expenses so you can stay on track to meet your goals.

4. Keep Expenses in Line With the Monthly Average

Once you have your monthly average, base your spending plan or budget on that income.

Look at your expenses, and cut out the least important items so that your spending is in line with your monthly average.

Plan your retirement contributions, spending on luxuries, debt repayment, and other spending, so that you can live within your means on your average income.

Every six months, re-evaluate your average income. You want to make sure that it is still fairly accurate.

If your average income is dropping, you’ll want to cut from your lower priority spending from your budget.

If your average is on the rise, you can adjust your spending plan so that more money is going toward retirement planning, or debt pay down.

5. Lay the Groundwork for Your Future

The key with budgeting on a variable income is to plan for the future. Once you have your average, you can plan around that.

On good months when you earn more than the monthly average, you can put the difference away in a special, high-yield savings account.

In our example above, if you have a good month that earns you more than $4,800, you would put the difference between your earnings and the monthly average in an account.

Each month that yields more than your 12-month average should provide you with a cushion to help you through the poor months.

On months that you don’t earn as much as your average, it’s always best to try to cut back a little bit.

See if you can avoid some of your more frivolous spending.

Then, once you have made that effort, you can dip into your cushion to make up for any deficiency.

When your income changes from month to month, paying attention to budgeting is even more critical for you than it might be for a salaried professional.

Be aware of where your money is coming from, and where it is going.

Build up a cushion so that in down months you aren’t digging a hole of debt for yourself. A little discipline will go a long way.

Learning how to budget with variable income takes effort and time.

It means making your income and expenses predictable and consistent.

But it’s well worth it when you escape fees from bounced checks, credit card interest, late payments, and poor credit reports. It’s also worth it when you enjoy the resulting peace of mind.

Rebecca Lake

Rebecca is a writer for MyBankTracker.com. She is an expert in consumer banking products, saving and money psychology. She has contributed to numerous online outlets, including U.S. News & World Report, and more.

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