20 Things No One Ever Tells You About Being Self-Employed

There's a lot of stuff online telling folks to quit their jobs so they can freelance at "what [they] love." That all sounds great in a blog post and even better in an e-book that a blogger can sell (for just $9.99!) but it doesn't really cover all the stuff you need to know before you make the jump.

Like, what happens when no one wants to pay you to do what you love? Because the market for GOURD ART might not be strong enough to support you.

Jus' sayin'.

This year marks my 12th anniversary of self-employment so I'm going to tell you everything that's not in those books. All the stuff about freelancing that's not so great. Maybe I should write an e-book about the sh*tty side of working from home, but I'd rather you put your hard-earned money toward a bottle of Apathy Anti-Bad-Mood Spray.


20 Things No One Ever Tells You About Being Self-Employed

  1. That you will go through amazing amounts of toilet paper and that no matter what, you will always be the one that changes the toilet paper roll when it runs out.
  2. Two out of your three meals each day will be a bowl of cereal.
  3. Your friends and relatives will assume that you are always available to accept their packages and drive them to the airport. They will call you during your work day to chat but if you call them in the evening when you're free they will tell you that they are "busy with family stuff and can't talk."
  4. After a few years, the blush of daytime solitude wears off and you get a little bit lonely.
  5. You can accomplish two or three times what you did in an office environment in half the time but your clients won't get you feedback until Friday afternoon. And then they will want those drafts back by Monday morning.
  6. No one will give you a paycheck just for showing up. You either earn money or you don't.
  7. Sometimes you earn the money but don't get paid and that's going to hurt. This has only happened to me twice in twelve years but the memory still smarts. Once, someone just flaked and never wrote a small check which was pretty consistent with his management style. The other time I had to cover a sub-contractor's invoice because my client was unhappy. Both hurt my bank account but it hurt my heart even more.
  8. You have to be the accountant, the bill collector, the IT department, the blogger, the administrative support and the travel agent. If you're lucky, you can find someone good to help you out, but it rarely makes good financial sense long-term and often takes just as long to explain it to someone as it does to take care of it yourself.
  9. Because you don't care about Federal holidays anymore, you'll catch yourself working on more than one of them and wondering why no one else is picking up the phone.
  10. The first $700 you earn each month will go toward health insurance.
  11. You will either be too busy or not busy enough. In the not busy times, you'll have time to put lots of proposals together thinking that only a few will come back in. The challenge will be that they come back in at the same time. Making you too busy all over again. It's a cycle that is well-documented among freelancers. Check it out.
  12. It's very likely that you'll be better at managing a remote relationship than your clients will be. All the stuff that really helps - like BaseCamp and DropBox and such - may be beyond the realm of possibility for your client. Last year, I worked with someone who could only use a fax machine. A FAX MACHINE.
  13. You'll get to know your UPS driver on a first-name basis.
  14. Eventually, you'll wind up taking projects you don't really want because you need the money. Because you always try to do your best some of those projects may be wildly successful for your client. This success will send a whole bunch of other people your way with more work that doesn't have anything to do with "what you love." And then you'll have the decision to make all over again, only this time it will be easier because you won't have to decide whether its worth it to give up your benefits. Because you don't have any.
  15. Over time, you will become incredibly relaxed about personal hygiene tasks once considered essential.
  16. You'll get incredibly bored by "what you love." Maybe not every day, but many days. Ongoing professional development is an essential part of my week. You must keep learning just for the sake of keeping the brain engaged.
  17. Even though you have more time to go to the gym and get abs of steel? You will never put the time in to have abs of steel. At best? You'll work off the equivalent of one or two bowls of cereal every couple days.
  18. Every piece of feedback every boss ever gave you will suddenly make total sense when you hire other people to help you do a job.
  19. Your family and friends have absolutely no idea what you do for a living. Sometimes you don't even know what you do for a living.
  20. Other consultants will steal your ideas. Potential clients will assume you don't need money and will do their best to get your advice without paying for it. Your printer will always run out of toner the day an RFP is due. Travel on your own budget is not nearly as glamorous as traveling on your employer's budget. You'll rue the day you complained to your former boss about your travel budget.

Sure. There are definite positives - I don't have to wear pantyhose, for one - but this blog post isn't about all that. Do you freelance? What are the pros and cons you struggle with in your business?



Vegan SNAP Challenge: Reflections


A couple of weeks ago I participated in a plant-based version of SNAP Challenge led by a group of local vegans. The SNAP Challenge asks participants to commit to a limited food budget of about $1.50 per meal. (The average amount allocated to each person receiving SNAP is $4.50 per day.) SNAP stands for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program" and it is similar (but not the same) as the government's old food stamp program. Several public figures wrote about their experience including Panera CEO Ron Schaich.

Probably like most of my vegan SNAP Challenge group I felt pretty confident that I could pull off healthy, satisfying meals that came within the budget. I was able stay within the $4.50 a day budget but as I cooked I thought about how many other resources I have readily available that may be a challenge for others. I wanted to share some reflections on my vegan SNAP Challenge week - I'd love to hear about your experience or comments on what you've read here:

    • I was very conscious of how helpful it was to have such extensive experience planning and cooking meals. I'm a pretty experienced cook - stretching all the way back to my "pregan" or pre-vegan days. I know how to pick out recipes that use cost-conscious ingredients and knew to prepare only those that would have leftovers that could feed me for lunch or dinner the next day. In addition to falling within the budget, they also needed to taste good, be reasonably easy to prepare, and satisfy. I think it would be pretty tough to pull all that off if you were just learning to cook! Everyone in our group learned early on that oatmeal was the way to go for breakfast. I had oats with a banana every morning. Soup was another healthy and satisfying staple and I could save leftover portions for lunches.
    • I also thought about how much I relied on my fully equipped kitchen. I have a Vitamix, a food processor, bunches of knives, cutting boards, pots, pans and my pantry is stocked with hundreds of spices and dry goods. It's so much easier make things taste good when you already have everything on hand. I remembered what it was like to replace dozens of spices after a divorce - it was a grocery expense I hadn't planned on and someone on a very limited budget would have to very thoughtful about their choices. I also thought about what recipes could be made without a stove or food processor - just a microwave or a rice cooker as you find in many big city apartments.
    • Transportation matters. In my younger years I lived in the city and didn't have a car. I remember waiting for hours for buses and even taxis that never showed up. City bike rentals and "Zip Cars" are only an option for those with credit cards and a driver's license which limits their availability for those who could benefit most from their use. Dragging canned and bulk goods on public transportation is a pain, no matter how altruistic you may be. Now, I'm five minutes from four farmer's markets and three low-price supermarkets. A friend living in Duluth commented that many people in her neighborhood without cars buy food at a local gas station. Someone who relies on the bus for transportation may be reluctant to haul all that stuff in a backpack to their apartment. They may not have the credit necessary to allow them to order online.

    There were interesting discussions on Facebook as the week progressed:

    • In one post, I suggested that Walmart was a low-cost source of organic produce in many poor communities and this comment sparked an exchange about the pro's and con's of shopping at this chain store. I didn't say so at the time but I'm sometimes pro-Walmart for poor people. After spending six years on an Indian reservation in rural Montana - a food "desert" - let me tell you that Walmart may be the only affordable source of consistently fresh produce in poor communities. Walmart's extensive distribution network means that it can absorb the costs of getting there. Poor people are more likely to be "unbanked" and Walmart charges about $6 to cash checks in comparison to the extortionate fees of storefront check cashing services. This is not a commercial for Walmart - there are plenty of reasons not to like the store - but I just wanted to point out that choice is a luxury for many people. It's worth some amount of money to you not to have to shop there - you might rather pay the mark up at another store that appears to be more conscious of its employees and manufacturing sources. But what if you didn't have that little bit extra to spare?
    • There was a conversation about foraging - and though all of us thought it was a little silly to ask poor people to forage all of us could give examples of times we'd done it or seen it happen. People picking apples, black walnuts, asparagus and greens on the side of the road, and plenty of people fishing the canals in Miami. Harder in Brooklyn, of course. It was commonplace for people in Montana to hunt each fall not for sport but so they would have meat for the winter. Other hunters donate meat in those communities and it is so common that there is a system set up for butchering and delivering the steaks directly to the food banks.
    • When I told my normally relaxed husband about the SNAP Challenge the night before he returned home from a business trip he said, "I'M NOT DOING THAT!" Before I could even finish my sentence he anxiously continued, "Do we have fruit? Do we have bread?" When we talked about it later he said, "I never did benefits but I probably had to feed myself and my daughter on that amount or less for a long time." The memories had clearly touched a nerve. He continued, "Really, what was hard was finding money for the other stuff - razors, paper towels, laundry soap, and so on." And that's something else to consider.
    • There was a some incomprehension that SNAP benefits could be that low and much back and forth about the veracity of the $4.50 a day SNAP Challenge. Yep. It's that low. Here's the average per person, by state, from the USDA website. Benefits actually drop November 1, 2013.
    • Another person suggested that what we were doing was a little bit arrogant, especially when we could just go out any time and buy ourselves anything that we wanted and would probably never bother to do much with what we've learned. 

    I took the point about arrogance especially to heart. I am always on a budget but still have enough resources to meet the needs of our daily life. Those resources (as you can see from the list above) extend far beyond cash. I have a reliable car; knowledge; a healthy larder, the luxury of knowing that the Challenge can and will end after just seven days. Throughout my career I have worked in many communities where choice seemed to be a luxury. The experiences of needy families and memories of difficult times in my own life stay with me. It's unfortunate that the conversations about poverty and assistance in this country are most often about who does or does not deserve to be helped, and what we believe they should be doing with their lives or where they went wrong. After all of our opinions are shared, kids still go to school hungry. We give them a lunch ticket and some say they're "lucky" to have it.

    The other day I happened to pass a man leaving the food bank with a carton of stuff. On top was a box of Frosted Flakes. I thought about the need for good, healthy food and I thought about how happy his kids would be to see that "Tony the Tiger" box coming through the door. It definitely worked for me when I was a kid! I was glad he had the chance to offer them that moment of sugar-joy. I passed that food shelf three more times this week and then decided to Google the resources for needy families in my small town. I was surprised to learn that a church just down the street from me serves a free lunch every Saturday for almost 100 people. Almost every place of worship in our town operates a busy food pantry and even a couple of animal shelters offered assistance for needy families by providing pet food and low cost vaccinations. The number of resources in a town of just 30,000 people told me something I didn't know about my community.

    The biggest takeaway from the vegan SNAP Challenge has been this growing awareness of need in my community and questions about how my skills might be employed to alleviate that need. Even on a very small scale. So my question is, "What's next?" Because it doesn't seem like simple awareness is enough - some action is required. But what kind of action? Advocacy is one thing, but it will take years of concentrated effort for anyone to see change, if change were to happen at all. There's no evidence that anyone in Congress worries about what people think - regardless of what side you're on. So, what are some simple, direct ways I can contribute?

    • Make a photocopied recipe 'zine that could be distributed with boxes at local food banks that includes local sources for cheap, fresh food;
    • Offer a class and a few photocopies of ideas for microwave or rice cooker meals;
    • Can I become an active donor to local food banks and/or find ways to provide other items families may need, i.e. detergent, razors, etc.?

    What about you? What did you take away from the vegan SNAP Challenge experience? What do you feel called to do about it?
    Heidi Rettig

    P.S., The most appropriate Anti-Bad-Mood Sprays for this discussion are Apathy and The Antidote for Ego.



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