The inevitable lows of being self-employed (and how to handle them)

posted on May 27, 2020 | by Sanhita Mukherjee

The inevitable lows of being self-employed (and how to handle them)

When you first quit a steady job to become self-employed, you already know it’s not going to be a straightforward ride. You know that there will be some incredible highs—like getting your first client, seeing your work published, or finally sending in that big project after pulling all those all-nighters. You also know to prepare yourself for a few lows.

But if you are self-employed, this last month may have been more stressful and overwhelming than usual. The COVID-19 outbreak has everyone stressed of course, but being self-employed, it’s really easy to feel very alone at this time. You have to worry about your business on top of everything else. You do not have colleagues or coworkers to share day-to-day work anxieties with. You may not feel like you’re in the same boat with anyone else—and that’s a scary feeling. 

I started working on my own a year and a half back. While I’m so grateful for all the amazing work I got to do so far, I’m still surprised by some of the lows that creep up on me from time to time. I want to share some of them with you today if only to let you know that things like this happen to all of us. Plus, I’m sharing a few tips on how I handle them, which I hope you find useful! 

I did not make enough money this month

I won’t lie, this one can be really unnerving. The end of the month arrives, you realize that your bank balance is not looking as robust as you expected—and you immediately start questioning whether you were kidding yourself with this whole self-employment thing.

The first thing to do is to stop and make sure that this is really a low. If you were used to getting a steady paycheck before you quit your job, you may be programmed to think of your income in terms of monthly goals—and even a slight dip may leave you feeling panicked. But as a self-employed professional, it might be a good idea to have a broader timeframe for your financial targets. Take some time out to assess your earnings overall. Did you exceed your targets a few times in the past? Are you currently working on a big project that pays out at the end? If so, then having to dip into your savings this once may not be quite as catastrophic as you initially imagined.

On a related note, when you’re on the other side of this problem and you earn enough, do remember to pay yourself first! Having that financial cushion makes it that much easier to take a freelance famine (that’s a real term!) in stride. It might also be a good idea to figure out how to diversify your income. Do you have specialized skills that you can train others in? Can you offer add-on services to your clients to generate extra income? Do you have a website or blog you can monetize? Having various alternate sources of income (no matter how small) is always helpful during these inevitable low-income months. 

I don’t have enough work right now

Even if you’ve got your finances covered, this can still freak you out. You know, when you look at your schedule on a random Wednesday and realize that you don’t have anything planned for the rest of the week. That just makes you feel like you’re missing something important!

But much like a fluctuating income, a fluctuating workload is very normal when you’re self-employed. Take advantage of the free time to grow your business. Update your website, polish up your portfolio, or drop an email to all those people you met at that networking event. You can also use this time to scout around for new clients or businesses you would want to work with. Go to their website, familiarize yourself with the work they do—and then set about thinking of how you can best pitch your services to them.

Looking for some other alternatives? You can update your skillset by signing up for an online course or two. Or check off all those little tasks that keep your business running smoothly—like getting your next few invoices ready, or finally sorting and categorizing that wild pile of receipts you keep in that shoebox. And every once in a while, you can just enjoy the unexpected time off—I like to bring a cup of coffee back to bed and read the day away.

I had to say no to new work

On the flip side of the coin, there will invariably be phases when you have a lot of new work coming in and you can’t possibly accept them all. In a profession where your income fluctuates every month, it can be so tempting to say yes to everything, even if you have to work every weekend and never take time off. Turning down new opportunities, then, can make you feel jittery. 

This is when you remind yourself of the reason you said no to that assignment. Did you have way too much on your plate already? Was the opportunity not a good fit for the brand you are trying to build? Did the compensation not line up with your expectations? It is unlikely that you made the decision randomly—so reaffirming those reasons can help keep those doubts at bay. And don’t eliminate personal reasons here either. Wanting some time to yourself over the weekend, needing a holiday every once in a while, simply needing a day off to take care of yourself — these are valid reasons to say no to new work too, and you shouldn’t feel bad about them.

Another thing that helps is if you’re able to foster a new relationship with the brand or person. After all, just because you cannot work on their project now, doesn’t mean you never want to work with them in the future. So go ahead and help them out by referring them to someone who may be able to take on this work. Do also let them know that you’d be interested to keep in touch about any future projects. And lastly, be as gracious as you can. Many people believe that you don’t have to give a reason for turning something down—but I personally prefer taking the conversation a little beyond an outright ‘no.’

So, those are my experiences. If you were stressed about your self-employment timeline and were wondering if you were still supposed to feel this way, I hope this helped!