Your Survival Guide for the Independent Contractor Lifestyle

Master these 5 categories to make gig life work for you

Congrats! You’re either already an independent contractor or thinking about becoming one. We believe the freelance lifestyle is great. Yet it takes diligence, discipline, hard work, and grit to juggle the many tasks of running your own business. But you already knew that. Maybe you even thrive on the challenge. We put together this mini guide to help you keep all those balls in the air.

Assemble your toolbox
Your industry might require a real hammer and nails to get the work done, but when we mention tools, we’re talking about the gadgets, the apps, the software, and the subscription services that help you manage your processes. The necessities of a work kit will be different for each industry and even for each individual, but if you’re looking for a place to start, check out our list of 45 fabulous freelancer apps and tools.

Know your pros
As independent contractors, we wear many hats, but unless you’ve got the qualifications to practice law or the education to master tax code, you might have the need to hire a lawyer or an accountant. The other pros you might require will depend on your line of work. You might find it highly useful to connect with fellow freelancers who do what you do so that you can hire them as subcontractors when your plate fills up or when you have a life emergency. You should also network with others outside your specialty so that you can refer niche-specific clients to them and vice versa.

Designate boundaries
Nine-to-fivers or even shift workers have clear schedules. When they’re at work, they’re supposed to be working, and friends and family typically understand that. Boundaries are less evident in the freelancer world. If you’re experiencing frequent interruptions from loved ones during your work time or if they have unrealistic expectations about your availability, set guidelines with them. (Check out our freelance myth-busters article.) You may also need to set rules for yourself about work hours if you’re new to the independent contractor lifestyle. Don’t forget to set boundaries with the people who hire you, as well. Doing your best for a client is always a great idea, but that doesn’t mean you have to constantly take late-night calls or do rushed project work on weekends. Yes, these things might happen occasionally, but if the same client regularly expects you to be on during off hours, speak up. And if things don’t change, you may need to let go of the pesky client.

Get real about cash flow
One of the trickiest things of the independent contractor lifestyle is managing the money. Unfortunately, unless you’re on retainer with a client, you’re likely not getting a regular paycheck deposited directly into your account once or twice a month. Be diligent about sending invoices and following up with clients who haven’t paid you in a timely manner. (Check out our guide to getting paid.) Research rates in your industry and set client fees that work for you, your budget, and your lifestyle. (Our guide to setting rates can help you calculate.) Using a spreadsheet, an app or another method, track what you’re billing, what you’re collecting, and what you expect to collect each month to stay on top of income needs and goals.

Make balance a priority
The independent contractor or freelancer lifestyle won’t feel all that independent or free if you’re working all the time. If you’re just starting out as an independent contractor, be sure to overestimate the hours it will take to complete tasks. The rule of thumb is that work will often take longer than we think. If you do a little overestimation, you’ll also avoid the common pitfalls of overbooking and underbidding.

Set some non-negotiable health rules for yourself and find ways to de-stress. Maybe you always take the dog for a long walk around 2 p.m., or perhaps you always disengage from your devices by 9 p.m. so you can unwind and get some sleep. Whatever the rules, they should help you find much-needed work-life balance. If you feel the scale tipping more in favor of work, you know that it’s time to reassess your personal rules, possibly your workflow, and maybe even your rates. Finding a reasonable balance can be tricky, so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes time to master this.