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How to go freelance without messing up your finances

March 25, 2024
June 19, 2019

While we can be pretty quick to bemoan the always-on, hyper-connected, smartphone and laptop-driven work culture of the 21st century, the good news for entrepreneurial types is that there’s never been a better time to be a freelancer.

While it’s not quite as simple as just sitting around in your undies, sending some emails, and earning heaps of money, it’s a pretty attractive career path for anyone with a coveted skillset, a DIY-attitude and a penchant for hard graft.

So if you’re one of those lucky souls that only needs a computer and an internet connection to do their job (hello writers, graphic designers, developers, marketers, e-commerce pros and all the rest of you…), here’s a run-through of how to swap the 9-5 grind for the 10-whenever-you-decide-to-finish instead.

Step 1: Is freelancing really for you?

Serious question. The freelance life is flexible, yes. You can work from anywhere, yes. You can probably charge higher rates than you’re currently getting paid in your day job, yes. You can start and finish work whenever you like, yes. Your earning potential is technically unlimited, yes. You can watch NBA basketball whenever you like, sure. Look, it’s great. But there are a lot of other things to consider, too.

You’ll need a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit to find work. You’ll need to be comfortable working alone, without a team or Christmas parties or awkward elevator chats or Friday social drinks. You’ll need to be willing to learn all about invoicing, accounting, tax, GST and all that money stuff you currently leave to Mike and Maria in finance. You’ll need to be focused. You’ll need to be able to deal with rejection and uncertainty. And without a guaranteed paycheque coming your way every month, you’ll need to be good at thinking on the fly.  

You may find it helpful to work out your living expenses and plan a budget to know how much you need.

If you think you can manage all of that – you’ve passed the first test!

Step 2: Set up an ABN

If you’re starting small, and it’s just you, register yourself as a sole trader and grab an ABN. This means you’ll be a registered business in Australia, which means you’re now legit in the eyes of the law. It also means you can get pulled up if you try and pull a dodgy on your tax return – congrats!

Step 3: Get an accountant

Seriously. It might seem a little intimidating at first, but these guys are lifesavers when it comes to helping you get your finances (and taxes) in order. Whatever questions you have, they’ll be able to answer – feel free to shop around until you find an accountant you like, too. It’s important you feel comfortable with them, because they’re basically going to be your money guru for the foreseeable future.

Step 4: Fix up, look sharp

Even if your only paying client is Bob’s Florist (hi Bob!), you need to come across as a professional. Set yourself up with a schmick-looking website (Wordpress, Squarespace or Wix are all safe bets), get some business cards printed, and get yourself a nice-looking email signature. It all helps give the impression that you not only know what you’re doing, but you’re good at it too. And don’t skimp on the SEO-friendliness of your website either – Google has the power to give you heaps of referrals if it knows where to find you. This stuff might not seem important at first, but it’s an important foundation to have in place to help support all the great work you’ll be doing.

Step 5: Start small

Say you’re a mid-weight graphic designer working in marketing. Say you want to go freelance.  Would it be wise to just quit your job and go freelance without lining up any clients beforehand? No, Sally, it wouldn’t.

Unless you have at least 100 million dollars in your bank account (you can probably get away with a little less, TBH), start building your freelance portfolio while you still have the security of your 9-5. Yes, it’ll mean working evenings and weekends – but you’re building an empire here. And Rome wasn’t built by quitting your job and wading off into the unknown like some kind of maniac.

Lock down some regular clients and aim to be earning at least half of your full-time salary before you think about taking the leap. It might take months, maybe even years, but the point is that you just keep gradually building the thing and get it to a relatively healthy place before making any hasty decisions.

Step 6: Hustle. Then hustle some more

The ‘hustle’ is probably the key difference between freelancers that make it and freelancers that don’t. The good thing about emails (and phone calls) is that you can send a lot, to anyone in the world, in hardly any time at all. So do that.

Set yourself a weekly email/cold call target – say, 10, 15 or 20 prospective clients that you’d like to work with – give them a brief overview of who you are and what you do, and let them know you’re available should they ever have a need. Suggest catching up for a coffee if they’re local, or jumping on a Skype call if not.

And don’t overthink it. Just tell them how you can help them, leave them with your contact details, and move on to the next. Follow up after a couple of weeks if it feels right (if you feel like you’re chasing someone too soon, you probably are). If you never hear from them again – fine. There are thousands and thousands of potential clients out there. Don’t take it personally, just keep moving.

Also, the word ‘retainer’ is now your favourite word. Find and nurture retainers at all costs.  

Step 7: Set up a freelance savings fund

It’s a good idea to use a chunk of all that extra freelance income you’re earning to put into an emergency fund for when you do eventually take the leap to go full-time. Aim to save up three to four months’ worth of living expenses so that when you do eventually quit your day job, you know you have a buffer. That buffer, paired with your already (hopefully) decent freelance income, should stand you in good stead to weather your first foray into full-time freelancing.

You may want to check out Bank Australia's Bonus Saver account, which offers a bonus rate when you deposit at least $100 and make no withdrawals in the month.

Step 8: Do the damn thing

If you’ve followed all of the above advice, you should find yourself in a pretty good spot to live the freelance life you’ve always dreamed of. It’ll be hard work but it should also be rewarding work – you’ll be building your own business, growing as a professional, and challenging yourself on a daily basis. Welcome to the freelance life.

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