Los Angeles, CA

How to Freelance Without Going Broke in the Process

Ryan Porter

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Photo: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Advice from a 26-year-old who has diversified streams of income

One of my best friends is a tattoo artist.

He’s 25 years old, owns his own business, and has an apprentice under him. He’s been at it for years and has done hundreds of tattoos for various clients.

Even though he has feared the worst (going broke), he didn’t let anything stop him. Call it luck, skill, perseverance, or a mix of everything. He’s living the life he always wanted for himself.

As great as it sounds to own a business, it’s not for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a one-stream of income lifestyle that’s built differently than working the classic 9–5.

Freelancing is another working lifestyle choice that allows you to collaborate with businesses like my friend’s tattoo shop. The benefits of freelancing are limitless:

  • Flexible hours
  • High earning potential
  • Opportunity to work on new and exciting projects

Freelancers market themselves to people, brands, and businesses that require a particular set of skills. The problem: many freelancers pay their bills by the skin of their teeth.

Aka, many freelancers are broke, and they wind up back in the rat-race known as the 9–5 job market.

I’m a freelancer, and I’ll explain how you can live comfortably while building up your status as a multifaceted work machine.

How I make my money

I made over $6,000 in June. I expect to make over $7,000 in May.

Not counting my investments, this is the most money I’ve ever made over two months. But, everything in the freelancing world is temporary. Next month will be different, but that’s the gig, baby.

The reason I’m where I am now is because of consistency and a fair share of mistakes. Read that again.

I’ve played the money game safely

I live with my parents, eat out once a week (usually take-out), and am entirely debt-free. Because I don’t have any financial weights over my shoulders, I’ve invested a decent sum into stocks and crypto.

Even though I’m down a significant portion due to recent market crashes, I’m not panicking because most of my money is in the bank, a savings account, or set aside for a Roth IRA. My life doesn't depend on getting rich quickly off AMC swing trades or Ethereum.

The lesson here is to get your finances in check. You’ve heard the saying, “pay yourself first.” I’ll do you one better:

“Pay your future self first.”

Life is long, and there’s no built-in retirement plan for freelancers. Before you embark on your journey, consider the years to come when you don’t have the energy to work anymore.

I make my money the old fashioned way (with a twist)

I’m thankful for the opportunities and also my conviction to jump at them.

However, I’m not always happy as a freelancer. I’m working my butt off right now, and I have to tear myself from my computer every night, so I get at least an hour of downtime.

Here’s what my weekday looks like right now:

  • 6:15 AM: Wake up, shower, eat breakfast, and drive to work.
  • 7:30 AM–3:10 PM: Teach at a school.
  • 3:30 PM–5:00 PM: Lift weights at the gym or go on a run.
  • 5:30 PM–8:00 PM PM: Get home, eat dinner, and edit videos for a client.

That’s right. I have a job. Yuck.

I’m still freelancing, though, and I live with my parents. I’m not going broke anytime soon.

I’m on a special teaching assignment in Los Angeles. It’s a lucrative opportunity for me to make some good cash. So much so, I’m willing to sacrifice some serotonin to work a job and freelance simultaneously.

That’s the life of a freelancer. You must be willing to work overtime.

Stability is key

I’m not a full-time freelancer. I’m a renaissance man, and I like it that way. It’s the key to landing more clients.

To me, stability is super important. There’s no reason to throw oneself out of the frying pan and into a fire pit of doom before you’re ready.

I will work entirely for myself one day, but not yet. I have plans in motion, but I’m not willing to jump the gun. Time and consistency have been my best friends on my entrepreneurial journey, and I don’t plan on double-crossing them.

Diversify your portfolio

I’m no business owner, but I do have an entrepreneurial spirit. The difference between what I do and running a business is the number of people I rely on to get a job done.

When I create content, it’s all on me, and I like it that way. For now, I have enough creative energy to do a job the way I want to do it. I’ll need some help creating products down the line, but I’m learning to manage my energy for now.

Managing where your income streams are sourced is like having a well-balanced stock portfolio. This is what I currently do for a living (and make money from):

  • Teaching
  • Video editing
  • Web design and management
  • Blogging
  • Photoshoots

You need to make a list of your basic skills. Write down your interests, decide whether or not you’re an expert, and research the market.

I recognize my three talents. What are yours?

One is my umbrella of communication skills. I realized early on I was a natural-born teacher. My mom was a teacher for over twenty years. Teaching runs in my blood, so I pounced on a great teaching opportunity in 2020 after tutoring for three years.

Second is digital media: photography, videography, and web design. Once I got into video, it wasn’t hard to learn photography. It was like learning a second instrument. Once you know how to play piano, learning the guitar becomes more reasonable.

The third is writing. My ninth-grade English teacher lit a spark in me. She said my first paper was “absolute waffle,” and frankly, it pissed me off. I ended up majoring in journalism and becoming an editor for a daily newspaper. I don’t “do” journalism anymore, but I took those skills and applied them elsewhere.

You have tangible skills

Look at your background and pick two or three skills you learned in high school, college, or your professional career.

Don’t tell me you can’t leverage those skills to make more money than a traditional job would make you. The internet is the greatest invention since the printing press. There are people out there who would pay hundreds of dollars to learn your unique skill.

Make tons of mistakes

Every freelance opportunity is a combination of ambition and luck. If something comes your way, jump on it.

The important thing is to jump even when there’s a little bit of doubt. New opportunities can turn into lucrative financial incentives, but they also add stress and take away time to do fun activities like gaming with your friends.

With many streams of income come many responsibilities. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin, but you also need a plan to fall back on.

I work a job while freelancing to keep me afloat when my income streams don’t pan out. Here are some examples.

Trading stocks

I shouldn’t have ever considered this a stream of income. Inflation fears inspired me to throw my money into the stock market. It went well at first, but currently, it’s not doing so hot.

I’m down a few grand because I bag held too many stocks. Oh well, it’s all part of the game. There are lessons any freelancer can learn from:

  • Mistakes happen. Wallowing in your failures isn’t conducive to future success. You will fail, so the best thing to do is to move on and learn from it.
  • When one stream of income fails, that’s why you diversify. Another stream that does well will keep you afloat.
  • Invest in a patient mindset. The good stocks will go up eventually. You will find a client if you do your research. Take this as an opportunity to pivot to another way of success.

Startups

Working for a startup is sort of like a freelancing gig. Even if you aren’t paid, you’re investing your time in hopes of making big money down the line.

I learned some priceless lessons from my time developing a matcha green tea product, but I also learned that startup life isn’t the dream.

First off, it’s fun. I worked with my best friend every day on something we believed in. But there was a problem.

I was 24 years old at the time, and I probably should’ve focused on finding a higher-paying job. When 90% of startups fail, the chances of it moving forward were slim. I could’ve used the time to make money instead of working for free.

Let me suggest: If you’re going to create a product, do the research ahead of time. The idea of wealth is intoxicating. Just because you see a new brand of kombucha in the store and think to yourself, “Wow, I could make a better version,” doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful at it.

Are you willing to throw your life savings into a beverage that people mightlike? It’s a significant risk to take. Risks are okay, but balance is everything.

Now that I’ve done it, I don’t think creating tangible products is a viable business opportunity for regular people.

The solution: Sell your skills. Skills aren’t tangible. It’s something you already have in your inventory. You don’t have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to restock your skills.

There’s a difference between investing in yourself and throwing your life savings into a pipe dream. Sell your skills by marketing yourself the same way you would a product.

That’s my definition of freelancing. I have conviction about it.

In-house product photography

During the early pandemic days, I panicked. I was stuck at home with my parents and felt like a loser because I wasn’t making much money.

It didn’t take long, but I built a case for myself to live with my parents. The benefits were obvious, even though I didn’t want to admit it. If I didn’t live with my parents, I’d be broke.

If you can live with your parents until you have enough money to land on your feet, your freelancing journey will be way less stressful.

What frustrated me the most was that I couldn't travel and take photos. I knew how to take product shots from my startup days, so I decided to approach other brands.

Instead of cold-calling clients, I bought smaller snack company products, took product photos, and sent them the images. I pitched my talents and explained how I could improve their social media presence.

I didn’t land a client this way because most companies were just as panic-stricken by the pandemic as I was. If I kept on doing it, I think I could’ve landed some more clients.

The lesson: Stay the course. If you believe something will work, find your conviction. That’s not something I can teach you. It’s something you feel.

Just as I feel convicted to write blog posts, you might believe Dogecoin will be a universal currency one day.

Okay, Elon.

Regardless, everything happens for a reason and realizing that has made me more open-minded to the opportunities that come my way.

Final thought: Find time to relax

Once it’s 8 PM, I’m done working for the day. I don’t grind into the late-night unless I have to. I don’t give myself much time in the day to do anything I enjoy, so I need that late-night downtime.

I don’t want to burn out, and that’s something you should consider. Just how hard can you go before your battery runs out of juice?

Balance is critical here. You’re juggling a lot of responsibility when you have multiple sources of income. The tightrope you walk is skinny, it bounces, and sometimes you fear the worst.

But you wouldn’t have it any other way because you control your destiny as a freelancer. I get a taste of the rat race every morning as I commute to my teaching job. I don’t want to be stuck doing that my entire life, and I can see how easy it is to give in to the decent pay and benefits.

It’s not the life I want. I look at it as a lucrative but temporary opportunity.

The blueprint

Make your passion a side hustle. Don’t expect tons of money in return.

Live with your family if you can, temporarily work a day job while diversifying your portfolio, and make as many mistakes as possible. Do all of this, and you won’t be just another broke freelancer.

It’s simple. If you love what you do, then your visions will pull you. The side hustle will seem effortless at times.

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I write about startup culture, productivity, and life's moments. My goal is to serve as a teacher for the next generation of content creators.

Los Angeles, CA
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