Deciding to become a freelancer may seem as simple as choosing to make a go of it on your own and riding off into the freelance sunset. But there are a variety of factors you should consider before making it your full-time gig — not least of which are the expenses you have to cover out-of-pocket.
While employees don’t need to worry about calculating their taxes or budgeting for sick time, freelancers do. And they also have to cover office supplies, health care, and accounting fees as well as a variety of other business-related costs. All of these play into the hourly rate they charge their clients.
Before you make the decision to go from being an employee to a freelancer, here are some of the expenses and costs you should be aware of.
Freelancing Expenses Contractors Have to Cover
From basic office supplies to legal fees, freelancers have to cover a lot of different business expenses that employees don’t. Here are some of the most common costs to take note of before deciding whether the freelance life is for you.
1. Office Space
Many freelancers can work from home or even from a coffee shop, but those who don’t have room for a home office or who frequently need to meet with clients may need to rent out a commercial office space. The costs can vary greatly between cities and buildings, but some affordable options include:
- Coworking spaces
- Daily office rentals
- Sharing a private office with another freelancer
The size, type, and location of the office space you choose will depend on your budget and needs. Unlike employees, you will be responsible for researching, negotiating, and paying for office space if you need it to provide your freelance work to clients and customers.
2. Office Supplies
Whether your office is in your home or in a commercial building, you’ll need to pay for supplies and furniture to fill it. Start with basics such as:
- A comfortable office chair
- A desk
- Business cards
- Pens, pencils, and notepads
- A desk or floor lamp
- A filing cabinet
- Printer paper and ink
As you grow your business, you can upgrade items to better suit your needs and budget. For example, once you have a few contracts under your belt, you may consider purchasing a standing desk or an ergonomic chair.
3. Hardware and Electronics
One of the biggest costs freelancers have to cover is the hardware and electronics they need to do their jobs. Depending on the services you offer, you may need to purchase:
- A desktop computer and monitor
- A laptop
- A tablet
- A keyboard and mouse
- A smartphone
- A camera and microphone
- A printer
Fortunately, many of these items last for at least a few years, so you won’t have to repurchase them on a regular basis. As an added bonus, they’re typically tax deductions, which means they can help to reduce the overall tax amount you have to pay the IRS.
4. Software, Licenses, and Subscriptions
Once you have hardware, you need to purchase any software required to provide your freelance services to clients and customers. For example, depending on what you do, you may need to purchases licenses or subscriptions for:
- Office 365
- Adobe Creative Cloud
- Apple Developer Account
- A virtual private network (VPN)
- Stock photography
Keep in mind that most platforms offer discounted pricing to individuals, so do your research before committing to an annual subscription or license with a hefty price tag. Look for free alternatives to traditional platforms, like Word Online or Google Docs to cut costs while still benefiting from the tools you need to do your job.
While employees don’t typically have to worry about paying for advertising costs, freelancers do. In order to get new clients and build up a full-time roster, freelancers have to spread the word about their services. You can do so by advertising your business through:
- Social media ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn
- Pay-per-click (PPC) ads on Google, Bing, or other search engines
- Newspapers, magazines, and other print publications
- Websites such as Craigslist
- Professional associations
Before emptying your wallet for expensive ads and self-promotion, research the options available to you and select the method you think will get you the best return on your investment.
There are a number of free options you can choose from, such as joining a virtual or in-person networking group, posting in professional forums, or creating professional social media profiles and sharing information about your services and availability.
You can also post your services on freelancer websites such as Upwork, which typically allow freelancers to post their professional profiles at no cost.
6. Professional Website
Most freelancers need a professional website that prospective clients can visit to learn more about their skills, experience, and services. This could be a basic website similar to a digital portfolio, or it could include a number of additional features such as online booking and digital payments.
Whatever type of functionality you choose, your website will come with some standard costs, including:
- Domain name registration
Although you can reduce your expenses by choosing a free website building platform like WordPress or Wix, you’ll still have to pay for your domain and hosting at the very least. If you want to include a blog, you’ll also need to consider the costs associated with hiring a freelance writer or editor unless you plan to provide your own content.
7. Self-Employment Taxes
Because taxes don’t automatically come out of your freelance invoices, you are responsible for calculating and setting aside your self-employment taxes throughout the year, the current rate of which is 15.3%.
Thankfully, many of your expenses will count as write-offs, which you can include in your annual tax returns, reducing your total amount you owe. However, it’s still a good idea to calculate an approximate tax amount from each invoice and to keep the cash in a separate account, so you aren’t left owing an unexpected amount with no way to pay for it come tax time.
8. Health Benefits
From glasses and prescriptions to medical appointments and emergencies, freelancers are responsible for their own medical costs — either by securing their own health insurance or paying out of pocket.
Fortunately, you have options when it comes to self-employed health insurance that can save you money and stress. Be sure to do your research and choose an option that works for you both practically and financially to support personal and professional health.
9. Retirement Savings
As with taxes, freelancers don’t have the same retirement plans to contribute to as employees. Instead, freelancers must plan and save for retirement on their own. For example, you can choose to set up a solo 401(k) or an IRA, similar to how you would if you were working for a company.
Unfortunately, you won’t benefit from having an employer match your contributions, but you will be setting yourself up for future financial security while still owning your own business.
10. Professional Development
Seminars, conferences, courses, and certifications are all an important part of staying up-to-date in your profession. And they all cost money. Small-business owners like freelancers don’t have employers with perks like professional development budgets, so they have to cover these costs on their own.
But even though these endeavors come with upfront costs, they can end up providing you with a lot of long-term benefits. After all, the more you hone your skills, network with others, and expand the services you offer, the better chance your freelance business has to succeed.
While you may be more cost-conscious about how you approach professional development when you’re footing the bill, it should still be something you budget for and make a point of pursuing. Some professional development options are relatively low-cost or even free, but still offer new information that can help you to learn more about industry trends and best practices.
11. Vacation and Sick Time
One of the biggest hidden costs of freelancing is budgeting for time off. Many freelancers inadvertently overlook the fact that they have to set aside money to cover any vacation or sick time they take throughout the year. Because they don’t have an employer paying for time off, it’s up to them to calculate and set aside the appropriate amount.
You have a couple of options when it comes to saving up for sick time and vacation days. For example, you can:
- Take a small amount from each freelance job you complete and save it in a separate account
- Calculate the amount you need to make to live and then use extra income as vacation pay
- Work additional hours to cover the amount of time you want to take off each year
As a new freelancer, you’ll probably be starting out with no vacation or sick time, but as you get more clients and start to build up your average monthly income, you’ll have a better idea of how to start banking extra hours and saving for some well-deserved time off.
12. Accounting and Legal Costs
When you’re an employee, it’s easy to take your accounting and legal departments for granted. They track your hours, deposit your paychecks, and provide your employment contract, all without you having to lift a finger. Freelancers have to handle their own accounting, develop their own contracts, and keep track of their own records — or else pay someone to do it for them.
If you aren’t comfortable managing the financial and legal aspects of your freelance business alone, you may want to hire someone to do it for you or, at the very least, purchase software that will help you to do accounting tasks like:
- Drafting quotes and contracts
- Tracking your billable hours
- Monitoring payment statuses
- Documenting business expenses
13. Administrative Tasks
Freelancers don’t typically get paid for the time they spend completing the routine administrative tasks that come with doing business like responding to emails, listening to voicemails, or talking to customer service about a technical issue. That means they need to consider how to cover their non-billable hours so they don’t end up working for free.
The best way to do this is to calculate non-billable work into your hourly rate. That way, you don’t get paid directly for your administrative tasks, but you still make enough money to cover the time you spend doing them.
14. Business-Related Bills
Whether you have a home office or you rent an office space somewhere else, you still have to pay for utilities, Internet, and a phone to run your business. Even if you decide to freelance from home, you could be looking at higher bills due to:
- Being at home more often
- Needing an upgraded Internet connection speed or data plan
- Using more cellphone data at coffee shops or other remote workplaces
Expect an increase in any business-related bills when you start freelancing, regardless of whether you choose to work from a home office, rent a space, or take advantage of a public workspace.
Business travel is expensive but sometimes necessary. From transportation and event tickets to meals and lodging, making a trip to attend a conference or to meet a client can be a pricey undertaking that freelancers typically have to cover on their own.
Occasionally, clients may pitch in or even pay for costs if they require the freelancer to travel specifically for their project. Depending on the freelance work that you offer, you may not have to travel at all. However, if your services require you to fly or drive to meet clients, don’t be surprised if you have to pay your own way.
When possible, take advantage of video conferences and phone calls to get some of the benefits of face-to-face meetings without the associated costs.
If your freelance business requires you to visit client homes or businesses on a frequent basis, you’ll need to pay for your own transportation costs. For example, you’ll need to have enough to cover your:
- Vehicle payments
- Bus or transit pass
- Parking fees
- Repairs and maintenance
If you’re used to having a company vehicle and credit card to cover gas expenses as an employee, having to pay for these yourself can be a tough pill to swallow — especially if you’re new to freelancing. But these are important costs to include in your pricing calculations and quotes to help you avoid losing money on your freelance jobs.
Before making the decision to go from being a full-time employee to pursuing a freelance career, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re getting into. There’s a big difference between taking advantage of the gig economy and starting a sustainable and profitable freelance business of your own.
Consider all the expenses you will have to pay and whether you can afford to cover them based on the clients and contracts you have lined up. If you can’t, don’t give up hope. You can always start by offering your services on the side and gradually move toward a full-time freelance career in the future.