What Is a Freelancer? Guide to Freelancing

By Timothy Moore · October 17, 2023 · 10 minute read

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What Is a Freelancer? Guide to Freelancing

A freelancer is a self-employed worker who provides services for a client or multiple clients as an individual contractor. Freelancers typically have flexible hours, work remotely, and can be involved in as many or as few projects as they would like. Think about people you may know who provide social-media consulting for a few businesses, drive an Uber, or take catering gigs. All of them are freelancers.

Because freelancers are not employees, however, they do not receive typical work benefits like health insurance and paid time off. They are also subject to self-employment tax and are responsible for paying taxes entirely on their own.

Are you committed to being a freelancer or just curious about how it works? In this piece, you’ll get the answers you need to move ahead, including:

•  What is a freelancer?

•  How does freelancing work?

•  What are common types of freelancers?

•  What are the pros and cons of freelancing?

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What Is Freelancing?

So what does freelancing mean? Freelancing is when a self-employed individual offers professional services to a company in exchange for payment. Unlike a traditional employee, the freelancer can set their own rates and hours. They can work for one or multiple companies.

In exchange for this flexibility, freelancers must be prepared to fund their own benefits like health insurance. They also typically pay their own taxes which are potentially higher.

Some people freelance as their sole source of income. If they work on a large or long-term project, you may hear the term “independent contractor” used (you’ll learn more about different terminology below).

However, it is possible to freelance on top of a regular salaried or hourly position. Such freelance work is commonly referred to as a side hustle or side gig and can help people bring in more cash.

Recommended: 15 Low-Cost Side Hustles

How Does Freelancing Work?

Now that you know the answer to “What is freelancing,” here’s more detail on how this kind of employment works. Freelancers make money by selling a service to another individual or company (i.e., a client). Typically, freelancers and their clients will enter into a contract with one another that specifies the nature of the work, the duration of the professional relationship, and the payment for services rendered.

After completing the work, a freelancer will usually submit an invoice to the client, who will then pay the freelancer by a predetermined method (direct deposit, paper check, peer-to-peer transfer, etc.). During tax season, a freelancer will receive an IRS 1099 composite form from each client instead of a W-2. This form will detail the total compensation the freelancer earned from the client.

Because freelancers are self-employed, they are solely responsible for paying federal, state, and local taxes on all earned income. In addition to paying what an employee would traditionally have withheld from their paycheck, a freelancer must also pay what an employer usually contributes toward taxes (typically Social Security and Medicare taxes). And because there is no steady paycheck from which funds are being withheld for taxes, freelancers are responsible for paying quarterly estimated taxes to avoid a penalty from the IRS.

If you decide to become a freelancer, it is a good idea to work with a certified accountant to ensure you are handling your taxes correctly. Not only can an accountant help you with quarterly taxes, but they can also point out important freelancer tax deductions you can be taking.

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Common Fields for Freelancing

Traditionally, freelancers have been thought of as roles like writers, photographers, consultants, and coaches. But today’s gig economy has broadened the definition of freelance work. Rideshare drivers, dog walkers, and online tutors — these just scratch the surface of jobs one can do as a freelancer.

In terms of what a freelancer is specifically, take a look at some common fields and roles:

•  Editorial

◦  Copywriters

◦  Journalists

◦  Bloggers

◦  Proofreaders

◦  Editors

•  Creative

◦  Graphic designers

◦  Photographers

◦  Podcasters

◦  Vloggers

◦  Animators

◦  Videographers

◦  Social media influencers

◦  Musicians

•  IT and Development

◦  Web developers

◦  Mobile developers

◦  Software developers

•  Admin

◦  Virtual assistants

◦  Transcribers

◦  Administrative assistants

•  Financial and Legal

◦  Accountants

◦  Bookkeepers

◦  Tax preparers

◦  Lawyers

•  Sales and Marketing

◦  Social media marketers

◦  Public relations specialists

◦  Digital advertisers

◦  SEO marketers

•  Consultants

◦  Business consultants

◦  Medical consultants

◦  Legal consultants

•  Gig Economy

◦  Delivery drivers

◦  Rideshare drivers

◦  Dog walkers

◦  Babysitters

◦  House cleaners

◦  Fitness instructors

The important thing to remember: Most of these jobs can be done as an actual employee, and many other jobs not listed here can now be done by freelancers. Many businesses rely on a healthy mix of freelancers and independent contractors to achieve success.

Recommended: How to Make Money Through Social Media

Types of Freelancers

You may hear different terms used and wonder what does freelancing mean exactly? Are independent contractors and freelancers the same thing? Here, the answer to that question as well as clarity on some other phrases you may encounter that describe this kind of work:

1.   Independent contractor: Most freelancers are independent contractors. They provide their services to multiple clients and companies, as specified by the contracts they agree to. An independent contractor may do a short, one-off project with a client, but it tends to be used (as noted above) when one is contracted to provide a service on an ongoing basis or does a larger scale project.

2.   Part-time freelancer: People who hold down a full-time job but make extra money on the side — like a weekend wedding photographer or a doctor who does some medical consulting with clients — are considered part-time freelancers.

3.   Small business owners: Some freelancers may earn enough work that they need to hire actual employees to keep up with it. For example, a freelance writer may attract enough clients to eventually form an agency.

4.   Temporary workers: Individuals who find temporary work, often through a temp agency, are considered freelancers. Sometimes, businesses need to fill a full-time role but only for a set number of months or years, like to cover for a full-time employee’s parental leave. The contracted worker who temporarily fills that role is also considered a freelancer but may enjoy some company benefits during their tenure, depending on contract specifics.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Achieve Financial Security

Tips on Becoming a Freelancer

Thinking about becoming a freelancer? The following tips may help you find success:

•  Finding clients: Before quitting a full-time job with steady income and benefits, it’s a good idea to have some clients as a freelancer. Many freelancers start out part-time and transition to full-time freelancers once they have enough steady work.

•  Understanding the financial implications: Knowing how you will pay taxes as a freelancer is an important requirement before transitioning into this career. It’s also wise to have a plan for health insurance, disability insurance, and other benefits that you may be losing by transitioning out of full-time work.

•  Staying organized: Having an organizational system to keep track of clients, projects, communication, and deadlines can be crucial. Successful freelancers often make their own work schedule with standard hours and stick to it, even if no one else is holding them accountable.

•  Networking: Word-of-mouth referrals are a great way to earn business as a freelancer; networking on sites like LinkedIn and in person with potential clients and others in your field is a great strategy. Depending on your line of work, having a website and portfolio advertising your services can make it easier to win new business.
Feeling unsure about the transition to independent contractor? Consider researching and following some financial planning tips for freelancers.

Recommended: Retirement Options for the Self-Employed

Pros of Freelancing

Freelancers enjoy plenty of perks, including:

•  Setting your own rates: As a freelancer, you can determine how much you’ll charge a client per project or hour. Just remember that if you set the price too high, companies may go with another contractor.

•  Setting your own hours: You can also work as much or as little as you’d like — and at the time of day you’d prefer. You don’t have to ask for permission to go to the grocery store, take a mental health day, or go to yoga class in the morning.

•  Diversifying your client list to keep work interesting: You can choose which clients you work with and have more freedom to define your job responsibilities.

•  Flexible time off: Freelancers may not get paid for their time off, but as long as you fulfill contractual obligations to clients, you can take vacation (or just lazy days) whenever you like.

•  Freedom from regular meetings and office politics: While freelancers may hop on a call or meet up with a client for lunch on occasion, there is typically more freedom to do the actual work instead of sitting through unnecessary meetings. This may not apply to some freelancers, like consultants.

•  Remote work: Most freelancers are able to work on the go or from a home office.

Cons of Freelancing

But there are also downsides to freelancing, like:

•  Lack of company-paid benefits: Freelancers are responsible for getting their own health insurance and can’t count on a company’s 401(k) match. (That’s where the solo 401(k) comes in!) Freelancers also won’t get paid while they’re on vacation.

•  Higher and more complicated taxes: If you’re self-employed, you’ll need to cover some taxes beyond those you would pay as a traditional employee. Freelancers must also pay their taxes quarterly to avoid fines from the IRS.

•  Less job security: Because freelancers are not employees, it is easier for a company to sever ties. Freelance work is sometimes on a per-project basis, so as a freelancer, you may need to spend a significant portion of your time just trying to market your services to find more work.

•  Lack of steady income: As a freelancer, you might not be able to depend on the same amount of money every week; it can vary by the type and amount of projects you take on. This can make it more challenging to build a monthly budget.

•  Loneliness: Working from a home office as a freelancer can be isolating. If you feed off other people’s energy and really enjoy networking and socializing with coworkers, you may find that freelancing isn’t right for you.

•  The constant need for “hustling”: Workers who do an average job might be able to skate by as a traditional employee and still earn a paycheck. To turn a profit as a freelancer, you must constantly impress clients with high-quality work and no missed deadlines. Otherwise, they might look elsewhere.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of freelancing in chart form:

Pros of Freelancing

Cons of Freelancing

•   Set your own rates

•   Set your own hours

•   Choose your clients

•   Have flexibility with time off

•   Avoid meetings and office politics

•   Can work remotely

•   Don’t get benefits

•   Must cover more taxes

•   Lack job security

•   Don’t receive steady paycheck

•   May be lonely

•   Must constantly be pitching new work

Banking With SoFi

Freelancers rely on many tools to turn a profit, including a bank account that puts their hard-earned money to work. If you sign up for an online bank account with SoFi, you’ll enjoy a suite of tools that makes organizing your earnings, spending, and saving super convenient. Plus you’ll earn a hyper competitive interest rate and pay no monthly fees, so your money can grow faster.

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Is freelancing better suited for full-time or part-time?

Many freelancers are able to turn their work for a client or clients into a full-time career. If you are just starting out, it might be a good idea to freelance part-time and then transition to full-time if you feel confident that you can sustain a freelance career.

What skills are necessary for freelancing?

Beyond the actual job skills required by whatever field you’re freelancing in, being a successful freelancer requires several key skills, including:

•  Excellent communication

•  Strong organization

•  A commitment to deadlines

•  The ability to network

•  A solid understanding of finances.

Is freelancing difficult?

Freelancing can be difficult: You won’t enjoy employer-sponsored benefits, you’ll have to pay self-employment taxes, and you’ll need to “hustle” to win clients — and then deliver impressive work that convinces clients to keep you around. That said, freelancing offers freedom and flexibility and can be lucrative if your business is successful.

Photo credit: iStock/AleksandarNakic

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