The Deadly Math Mistake That Will Make Your Freelance Business Fail

Carol Tice

Avoid This Deadly Freelance Business Math Mistake. Makealivingwriting.comNote: If you’re trying to run a freelance business as a writer, there’s a critical lesson you need to learn about money if you want to be successful. It was true when I first wrote this post, and it still is. Step into my wayback machine and read all about it.

A lot of writers aren’t good at math.

When I say that, I don’t just mean that we didn’t get an “A” in algebra back in high school. Or that a lot of writers don’t want to take article assignments that require heavy number-crunching.

When it comes to running a freelance business, many new writers don’t understand how to set a rate that will keep their freelance ship afloat. And by the time you find out, it may be too late.

Want to know how to avoid the deadly math mistake that can ruin your freelance business? Here’s what you need to know:

An exciting opportunity or ticket to starvation?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I frequently see comments here on the blog along the lines of:

“I just got a client I’m excited about — they pay $20 an hour, which is more than I used to get working a day job.”

And that’s where it all goes wrong.

I don’t want to rain on this excited new freelance writer’s parade, but there’s something she hasn’t figured out about this gig.

This isn’t an exciting opportunity — it’s a ticket to starvation. It’s a step down the road to having to give up the freelance dream and get a day job again, because you’re flat broke.

The flaw in your calculations

Here’s the big issue: Your freelance hourly rate and your day-job hourly rate are not comparable figures.

They do not relate to each other. They are not similar.

This is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Which means it’s a bad comparison to make. One that gives you a false sense of well-being and sets you up for failure.

To find out whether your freelance hourly rate is truly better than your day job hourly, you have to do two things:

  1. Analyze all the components of your full-time job pay package
  2. Calculate all the items you have to pay for as a freelancer that you didn’t as a staffer

Anatomy of a paycheck

For an example, let’s compare my previous life as a staff writer with the life I now enjoy as a freelancer.

My staff job included:

  • 40 predictable hours of pay
  • Paid healthcare
  • Paid vacation, personal days, and sick time
  • Company-paid disability and life insurance
  • Company matching on a 401(k) plan worth several thousand dollars a year
  • Company paid 50% of my employment tax
  • Annual transportation reimbursement plus free use of a company Flexcar for remote interviews
  • Paid professional development/training/conferences
  • Free break room coffee/snacks/meeting lunches
  • Per diem budget for taking sources to lunch
  • Fairly predictable annual raises
  • Computer equipment, Internet, heat and light all provided during working hours
  • Leave time for childbirth or caring for an ill relative under FMLA.

I used every one of these perks, by the way, including taking FMLA leave when we adopted our second child.

It’s easy to forget about all these juicy little perks that come with having a full-time job when you’re doing that freelance math, hmm?

Anatomy of a freelance expense sheet

When you are a freelancer, a whole raft of expenses and challenges land in your lap. Some of the ones that have definitely impacted my hourly rate calculations include:

  • Health care (for those of us in the US & some other countries) — I pay nearly $8,000 a year for a family of five with a $7,500 deductible
  • Equipment (that computer will break at some point or need replacing)
  • Transportation
  • Pay for your own training and conferences
  • No paid vacation or sick time
  • No federally required or paid leave time
  • Pay my own disability and life insurance
  • Pay 100% of my self-employment tax
  • Billable hours are variable, and not every work hour can be billed
  • Administrative and marketing time is unpaid
  • No guaranteed raises
  • Additional utilities costs from working from home

What you really need to make

After reviewing these figures, you may get a better sense of why I advocate that freelancers aim to make $100 an hour in order to build a sustainable business.

But every writer’s goals and cost of living are different.

Some of you have national healthcare, for instance. Or your spouse has a job and you can get covered for cheap on their plan. And you don’t need to earn as much because you’re not the primary breadwinner.

Some of us live in more expensive parts of the world, others less so. And our families come in different shapes and sizes.

We may be choosing to freelance part time, or be willing to put in 60 hours a week.

How can you determine what your target hourly rate should be?

Do the math. The real math, that takes freelance realities into account.

I recommend using a tool like this freelance rate calculator to plug in your own numbers and figure out your needed hourly rate.

Don’t assume you’re doing great because you’ve billed a few hours at a higher rate than you made in a full-time job. That could be faulty math that empties your bank accounts over time.

What’s your hourly rate? Leave a comment and tell us if that rate is working for you.

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  1. Sarah L. Webb

    Yes! Yes yes yes! People get caught up in what hourly rates are for 9-5 jobs and just don’t realize it’s totally different for freelance work. I didn’t realize this first starting out, but after reading, and using the freelance switch calculator, I realized my hourly rate should be much higher.

    I’m pushing for $100, but I do live in the South where cost of living is relatively low, and I’m single. While I could think of it as, I can survive on less than others. I really want to take advantage of my single status and low cost of living and build up some real wealth.

    • Carol Tice

      What I’m always working on is getting writers out of the “I can survive” mentality and into the “I should be able to live comfortably and take vacations and have a retirement fund” mentality.

      Living in a low-cost area obviously helps you have a low regular nut…but as you say, that should only be an opportunity to save more, not to undercut your rates! You can set up the ideal situation, where you line up clients in larger cities that pay better, while living in the low-cost place, to maximize your net income.

      • Ty

        I just had this conversation with a friend. I can only survive by working for clients in bigger markets. I live in NC.

        • Barbara Saunders

          I live in California. I’ve always thought the winning strategy was to have clients in California (or New York or one of a few other really expensive places) and live somewhere like North Carolina! That’s where my Web designer lives.

      • harish desai


        Can you suggest some high paying clients who pay decent rates for freelance writers?

        I am a freelance writer since the last 7 years but until now I have not been able to earn enough for sustaining myself.

        • Carol Tice

          Afraid I’m not a referral service — I’d have to know a lot about your experience, expertise and portfolio, what you’ve been doing — that’s why I have this program, where I can spend a lot of time with writers:

          My focus is on helping writers learn HOW to find better clients, rather than handing them a list of clients. There really is no such list, anyway — all the good writing gigs are rarely advertised. It’s about proactive marketing to identify companies that need your services, and have the budget to pay well for writing, because they understand its value. Most online sites don’t value content and order it by the bushel for pennies.

  2. Sandra

    A.w.e.s.o.m.e post. This will be an eye opener for many. I realized that I hadn’t taken into account: annual bonuses, stat days and benefits. Off to the calculator I go!

    Thank you!

    • Carol Tice

      Oh yeah! I forgot to put in those year-end bonusi. Thanks for adding that to the list of job benefits you have to cover yourself as a freelancer.

  3. Jennifer Gregory

    I am starting to inch towards the $100 an hour rate. My absolute minimum is $50 an hour, but that is starting to be the exception. Only client I really take that rate from is a PR company who hires me for regular copywriting since I am new to this type of writing and I am gaining experience that I can take to other clients with a higher rate. It’s also a steady amount of work. But I am finding that my average these days is $75 and I am starting to make $100 on some projects, which is wonderful.

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing your great story of rising rates — and congrats!

      Sounds like your PR client is a perfect example of when to take a bit lower rates — in scenarios where they feed you a steady stream of client work, and you can learn a new skill. Totally worth it.

  4. Bex

    To be fair, only about 5% of the people I know who have hourly (NOT freelance) jobs receive even a few of the things you have listed as a benefit of being an employee. I’m Canadian and have never had health insurance through an employer, no paid vacation, no paid training, nothing. Heck, I even pay less in taxes being self-employed than I did as an employee.

    Predictable hours and a break room are the most I ever had at any of the jobs where I was “qualified” to be an employee, and those “perks” certainly aren’t enough to say that $15 an hour employed is worth more than $20 an hour freelance… especially when being a freelancer means I can live and work and travel in Mexico or somewhere else where the cost of living is 5-10x lower.

    I love the freelance calculator, though. It tells me that my hourly rate should be about what I am making now – $40 to $50 on average. I still have a few easy hourly jobs that pay me $25 or $30 an hour, but those balance out with work where I make $60 or $75 an hour. I’m certainly not saying that I wouldn’t charge $100 an hour or more to the right client… but I’m still building my business.

    It can be easy to assume that one person’s cost of living is unilaterally applicable to someone else. If I made $100 an hour, I would either be swimming in cash or only working 10 hours a week.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m assuming nothing, Bex — that’s why I’m telling folks to check out the calculator. Everyone’s scenario is a bit different.

      But almost nobody is going to make it freelancing for $10 or $20 an hour.

      Interesting to hear that the self-employed have a better tax basis in Canada than employees…here, it’s the opposite. That’s kind of awesome for you. But sad to hear Canadian companies are so skimpy on the benefits!

      $50 an hour average is a nice rate if you’re still starting out…sounds like you’re headed the right direction with your rates.

      • owen

        “I’m assuming nothing, Bex — that’s why I’m telling folks to check out the calculator”

        Actually, Carol, when you use “we” in your article where you should be saying “I,” assuming is exactly what you are doing.

        Please don’t. If you mangled pronouns like that on a $100/hour job for me, you’d be fired & blacklisted.


        • Carol Tice

          My apologies for any confusion. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t work for you, and have found clients who’re a bit more understanding.

          • owen

            I concur.

          • Robert Blanchett

            Hi Carol,

            I can’t see that there is any confusion because you have not “mangled pronouns” but used the inclusive we, though not to address every reader of the post but for a defined group of freelance writers. This is a common and accepted usage and is widely recommended by expert copywriters.

            A similar example of the inclusive we, also used of a defined group, would be this:”We Scots love scotch”. (Which is different from, “Wee Scots love scotch.”) The inclusive we is similar in form to the inclusive or in Boolean logic.

            There is an exclusive use of we, known as the Royal we. Mrs Thatcher used it, saying, “We are about to become a grandmother.” However, I think Owen is suggesting that you should use the pronoun “I”, which logically is wholly exclusive. He is entitled to prefer that usage, but then the point of your post, offering very valuable advice, would have been lost.

            Replacing one of your very few uses in the post of “we” with “I” gives, “I didn’t get an “A” in algebra back in high school.” That sentence would have left readers with the impression that your post was about your own weakness in mathematics. In that case, they would probably have moved on to find advice from an accountant.

            Summing up, we say, please do continue to write inclusive posts we can enjoy. (Yes, I have put it like that by way of illustrating just how common the usage is!)

            Thanks for a very useful post.

  5. Deb

    I will reduce my hourly rate if I am guaranteed a set number of hours per week from the client. It’s a good negotiation tool, the client likes to think they are getting a good deal, and it’s a win for me too as I get a guaranteed amount of work.

    I usually suggest that I work X amount of hours for the agreed upon rate, and that if the project goes over the projected hours, I will let them know ahead of time if extra hours are going to be needed to complete the project – so that they can keep track of their budget.

    • Carol Tice

      I try to reduce my rate for…nothing. 😉

      Writers generally are too anxious to think of reasons to cut their rates, and worried about whether the client thinks they’re getting a ‘good deal.’

      I’ve never thought of that once. I’m not in business to give clients a deal. I’m in business to feed my family of five.

      You don’t want to compete on price…that road leads to $1 for 500-word articles. Compete on value. If you’re working for business clients, they can leverage a fortune in new marketing off what you write for them. They should pay well for it. That’s my philosophy.

      Even at top freelance rates, we’re pin money in even a medium-sized company’s marketing budget, and so worth every dime. Why give discounts?

      • Tom Bentley

        “Writers generally are too anxious to think of reasons to cut their rates, and worried about whether the client thinks they’re getting a ‘good deal.’”

        Carol, so true. I’ve been freelancing for a long time, but I still squirm about sometimes, into giving a client an opening to soften my rates, when as you put it, it’s a clear issue of delivering value at a set price.

        Such a pointless—and self-defeating—insecurity we writers can have. I’m better on this issue now (though I’ll still have a brain waver now and then). Your advice in the Den on this and related topics is invaluable.

        • Karen J

          “Such a pointless—and self-defeating—insecurity we writers can have.”

          So right, Tom (and Carol, too)!
          Unfortunately, that’s a common affliction among all-kinds of “creatives”: I even get insecure about the value and quality (and thus, the prices) of my sewing, fer crissakes!

    • Barbara Saunders

      The people who give you the most work, who take up the bulk of your time, are the worst people to give discounts to!

      • Carol Tice

        I don’t know if I entirely agree with that, Barbara — because having a reliable volume of work saves you on administrative and marketing time. That’s worth something. But certainly, you don’t want to discount them too much!

  6. Jennifer Gregory

    Whenever possible I try to price my projects by project not by the hour which helps hide my hourly rate a bit from clients. If you are writing for a publication, it is generally paid by article so I have found that my rate increases dramatically by taking jobs that I can write quickly because I am familiar with the topic. For example, I am paid $550 for a 700 word article on a personal finance topic (one I am very familiar with) with three sources. The articles typically take me 3 to 3.5 hours, which nets a great hourly rate. Or I have a client that pays me $100 to write a 400 word blog post requiring no interviews and very little sources. These take me a max of an hour, so I make $100 per hour.

    • Carol Tice

      You bring up a great point, Jennifer.

      When you start focusing on taking gigs that you know will be fairly easy for you to execute, your hourly rate goes way up.

      We all need to stretch sometimes to learn something new, but I bear this in mind very sharply when I’m offered gigs. If someone wants me to write about apps or the cloud or something else I know little about, and I’m not interested to learn that topic, I pass. I know it would take me ages of extra work to get up to speed, so it won’t pencil out.

    • Cassandra

      Where do you find such clients? I researched and wrote an entire site with hundreds of highly technical, acclaimed medical articles with thousands of peer reviewed sources and made nowhere near the rates mentioned here. I must be doing something wrong.

      • Carol Tice

        That ‘something wrong’ is accepting work at nonprofessional rates, Cassandra. It’s important to prospect and find better clients — you can check out my “How to Get Great Freelance Clients” ebook over on the ebooks tab up top to learn how to identify and pitch better prospects, rather than lurking on Elance or responding to online ads.

    • Victoria Hay

      A hundred bucks an hour doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get more than one or two people to pay you that rate. And it doesn’t represent what you really earned for the gig.

      How much time did you spend locating a market for the story, proposing it to the editor, and negotiating for the job? How long did it take you to get three sources to agree to talk with you, to get past their gatekeepers, and to get them to return your phone calls? That 3 to 3.5 hours may not represent the full amount of time you put in to developing and marketing the story.

      • Jennifer

        Hi Victoria,

        Actually the 100 bucks an hour that I quoted in the example was a 100 bucks an hour counting everything that you mentioned into the equation. The secret is working in an industry that you are familiar with, can work fast and have personal relationships with many sources. In the example quoted above, I had at least 20 different go-to personal finance sources that I knew well and didn’t have to go through gatekeepers, etc, etc. I personally don’t find it hard to even find sources that I don’t know, I just send an email and almost always here back from them pretty quickly.

        As far as marketing time, I don’t count that because I tend to keep clients for a long time – like years and will not take one off projects. So it takes me zero time to find the client because they are already my client and they often come to me with the assignment. Even if I have to pitch something, it takes me very little time (like 5-10 minutes) because I am already so familiar with the industry and what the client wants. The key to making a good salary as a freelancer is to have a niche and to have repeat clients. Without these two things, I think it is very hard to make a high dollar. In fact, I had almost zero marketing time in the entire 2015 since I didn’t have to look for work once – I may have sent off a few LOI’s here and there when something piqued my interest, but all of my work pretty much came to me through referrals from other writers and clients finding my website.

        In response to only 1 or 2 clients paying $100 – that is totally not true. I have MANY MANY clients that pay over $100 per hour and most of my freelance friends earn at least that much or more. It is not that hard to earn $100 an hour if you have worked your way up to it, have clips in top publications and have specialized knowledge on a topic. I started at like $50 bucks an hour then moved up to $75 and $100. Interestingly, since I wrote that post almost 3 years ago – my hourly rate has increased. While I do earn $100 an hour on some clients, I have some clients that I earn $150 to $200 an hour with through a project rate so they have no idea my hourly rate. This is especially true with data analytics topics which is a specialized field.

        I actually broke the 6 figure mark for the first time in 2015. And am very proud of myself, especially since I took 6 weeks completely off work and worked only very part time for another 4 weeks in 2015. The difference between 2014 and 2015 is that I have a lot less 1099’s coming in the mail, meaning that I have more regular clients and I have developed a specialized area of expertise where there are few other writers.

        • Carol Tice

          Thanks for sharing your story, Jennifer. There’s so much negativity out there — but those who know how to find good clients are still doing well. 😉

          Like you, I tend to keep my clients a long time, which does lessen the marketing burden and cut down on admin time.

      • Carol Tice

        Luckily, there are many clients that still pay professional rates, if you know how to find them, Victoria. And when we say $100 an hour, we’re usually bidding at project rates — and counting in all that administrative time into the estimate we bid.

        • Jennifer

          Thank you for clarifying that Carole! Yes, my $100 bucks an hour was part of a project rate so it includes everything.

          It was funny reading this post I wrote almost 3 years ago and one above where I was so excited to have raised my rates to $75. And now $100 is on the low end and the absolute minimum.

          I actually think that there is more work out there than ever before because everyone needs content – lawyers, hospitals, businesses. Everyone. Instead of potential clients being limited to just consumer and trade publication, it is now virtually limitless.

          • Carol Tice

            I’m with you — online content development to attract customers and build authority — longform blogging, case studies, white papers, infographics, video sales letters, you name it — are all growing. So is the opportunity in writing e-learning, which I’m excited to say is the topic of the next Freelance Writers Den bootcamp!

  7. Liesa Malik

    Hi Carol, LOVE this post! I forwarded it not only to a couple of freelance writing friends, but to prospects who refused to talk to me after I told them my $100 per hour fee. Fingers crossed now for some sales activity. Wishing you continued success. Liesa

    • Carol Tice

      Well, the trick is to stop telling them you want $100 an hour and bid per project. Goes down a lot easier.

  8. Kevin Carlton

    Now here’s the funny thing. I’m a writer who studied a god-damn stupid degree in Mathematics and Physics (not that a degree of any kind means absolutely anything in this freelance writing game – it’s your ability to think on your own two feet that counts).

    But the point I’m actually trying to make is that some people would think I’d surely know better. But, oh no! Still get it all wrong.

    Although my problem lies not so much with being unaware of the freelance overheads involved, but more making the client aware of these costs when negotiating rates.

    But as you’ll have guessed, Carol, I’ve had some terrible clients in the past – just like practically every other reader here.

    So the trick is to replace these kinds of clients with the ones that appreciate what your hourly rate actually represents.

    • Carol Tice

      Yep, that’s it exactly Kevin — keep swapping ’em out!

      They don’t need to know your cost basis. Instead, look for clients who hire freelancers regularly. They already understand the freelance marketplace and what freelancers should earn, so you don’t have to explain the story to them.

      I think the big thing people forget, especially with business clients, is even at great rates YOU ARE SAVING THEM A FORTUNE over hiring a staffer to do the work, with all the fringe benefits you see above that they’ll have to pay. At $100 an hour, you are often STILL a deal, from the client’s point of view.

  9. Sarah Russell

    Oh my freaking gosh, yes. When I first started trying to attract “real world” clients, I set my rate at $40/hour (more than double my former full-time employee hourly rate and I still struggled with thinking I wasn’t worth that amount) and promptly got laughed at by the client who was used to paying writers in our area competitive wages 🙂

    I now aim for between $75-$125/hour (whether I’m pricing as an hourly project or as a flat rate for an article based on estimated time needed). I do take on a few projects at lower rates if I know I’ll be guaranteed consistent work or if I know the project will be easy to complete, but in my area of the country, this is fine as my cost of living isn’t super high.

    Logically, though, even while I know that my higher rates need to take all of the different variables and expenses listed above into account, it’s still pretty hard to wrap my mind around seeing that large of a number as my going rate!

    • Carol Tice

      Well, sounds like you’re doing a great job of moving your rate up, Sarah — congrats!

  10. Laura Spencer

    This is a great post, and one every freelancer should read.

    I think it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the exact dollar figure, and forget the principle behind what Carol is saying here (which is timeless). The bottom line, as I see it, is you need to charge enough to not only cover your expenses, but to live comfortably.

    Most freelance writers drastically undercharge for their services–not only because of the math errors Carol highlights here, but also because they underestimate the amount of effort required for most projects.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Laura! Great points you raise here too about underestimating.

      In the Den one of the most frequent conversations we have is writers’ shock as they begin to read through the forums and realize how far below market they’ve been bidding, and how much money they’re leaving on the table.

      When clients accept your first offer in the $20-40 an hour range without a blink, and they seem to just love you and want to give you more and more work… that is often a clue you’re undercharging.

  11. Suzanne

    Thanks so much for this post! The calculator was really helpful. I am just launching my freelance business, so thank you for helping me start right!

    I was nervous to see the numbers on the calculator after popping in the money I wanted to make, but the number that came back was completely reasonable. Seeing the math actually gave me more confidence that by working hard and getting my name out there, making a living freelancing is completely within reach.

    Thanks again!

    • Carol Tice

      I think you’re so smart to start with real numbers of what you need to charge to make your goal and cover your bills, instead of the vague dreams a lot of freelancers have about making it. Then they get to the end of the year and wonder why they’re broke.

  12. Rebecca Klempner

    The only reason I can afford to write fiction is because of my FT employed spouse and his union-negotiated benefits package.

    I pray that this continues.


  13. Ashley Brooks

    This is excellent advice! I was lucky enough to have found the Freelance Switch calculator before I jumped headfirst into freelancing, so I’m sure I saved myself a lot of heartache. Like others have mentioned, I find it way easier to make my hourly rate if I charge by the project instead of the hour.

    I’m working toward getting into writing, but right now, I make most of my money editing. While I have some publishing clients, I get a lot of inquiries from authors who want some editing help before they self-publish. Holy cow, is it ever hard to convince these people that I’m worth the money (especially when Amazon is out there low-balling everyone with sub-standard services)! Of course, I can completely understand if an author just doesn’t have the money. But one author e-mailed me and said right off the bat, “You’re the seventh editor I’m contacting, and if you cost as much as the rest, we won’t be doing business together. Since you don’t list your fees on your website, I’ll assume you’re expensive and most likely overpriced.” Talk about infuriating!

    In any case, when I present it as a project fee or per-page rate, I’m much more likely to get the work. Thanks for such excellent advice!

    • Carol Tice

      Doing business with solopreneurs is always like this, Ashley. They don’t have any money. That’s why I encourage writers to think bigger when it comes to clients.

  14. J'aime Wells

    Thanks for the post, Carol! I need to be reminded of this from time to time.

  15. peachfront

    I’ve told wanna-be self-employed people they need to earn $100 an hour for years, so it seems like it should be more by now. If you don’t have a spouse with a secure job to provide health insurance, etc. then most people are nuts to think about writing or most other self-employment as anything except a side hobby.. But, at the end of the day, someone who thinks $20/hour is good pay can’t do math anyway, so I’m not sure how far you can go to change their minds. They usually have to find out by going broke. I’ve seen it many times over the years. I guess you have too, hence this post.

    People who earn $30/hour self-employed with no other income will lose their homes. Guaranteed. Heck, I know someone who is going to lose their home on $50 an hour. And forget all that junk about “things cost less” in the south. If they do, then people need to start shooting to earn even higher because $50/hr as a self-employed person will not cover the bills, and there is very little social safety net in the south. Here in Louisiana, our charity hospital was swept away by Katrina (2005), so that’s a long time to wait to see a doctor if you can’t afford health insurance.

    Most people will earn more money in their jobs than they could ever dream of in a self-employment enterprise.

    A big problem with $30-50 an hour is that it isn’t enough to allow people to pay their taxes, so they don’t. The IRS lets it run for years before they take everything and the person is without a home. This is why that rate of pay is so deceptive and why so many self-employeds think they are doing well, only to find out too late that they weren’t getting away with anything.

    Which leads to another thing I always say…don’t be self-employed unless you have the willpower to put aside 1/3 of your earnings and never, ever touch it for ANYTHING until your quarterly taxes are paid.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Peach —

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on rates. And I so agree on taxes. Don’t be in denial, and save up to pay your quarterly estimates! I try to put mine aside first thing and have them sitting far ahead of when they need to be mailed off.

      I want to disagree with your idea that you can only freelance if you have a spouse with healthcare, though. I’ve been self-insuring since about 2007 now…it’s doable. A major expense, but doable. I know plenty of two-freelancer couples. You just have to budget for the fact that healthcare is a substantial expense.

      While MOST people might not make as much freelancing…plenty of us with hustle and drive and a passion for being our own boss make a lot MORE as freelancers than we ever did as employees.

    • Surviving

      So writing for $30 an hour means I’ll lose my home and be unable to pay my taxes for years on end? That’s news to me. I’ve been making $25-30 an hour for years and I pay my taxes every year and am current with my house payments. My husband only makes $45k a year with not-great insurance too so its not like he’s single-handedly saving the day. I believe I can earn more and I’d like to be able to take vacations and that’s why I read here. But your dire predictions about the utter doom associated with earning less just don’t apply to me. Maybe your expenses or debts are way higher than mine.

      • Carol Tice

        I’m the sole support of my family — so it’s not that my expenses are higher, but that I’m trying to earn all the money and pay all the benefits here. We’ve made a decision a few years back that my husband is home with our kids full time. Previously he was selling cars and when the downturn hit that became a real low-earning proposition, but he was still working 80 hours a week and our kids never even saw him.

        When yours is the side or secondary income, certainly you can get by with a lower rate. I’m talking about what you need to earn to pay ALL the bills with your writing. Having someone else bringing in $45K makes a huge difference in what you have to bill as a freelancer.

        • Victoria Hay

          ?? It doesn’t sound like Surviving’s is the “secondary” income. If she’s earning $30 an hour and working 40 hours a week, then she earns $60,000 a year if she takes a two-week vacation. If she works a more realistic 30 hours a week, then she grosses $45,000, same as her husband’s income.

          While she’d have to hustle to generate 30 hours/week consistently, it surely can be done, especially if she has one or two corporate clients that feed her a steady stream of work.

  16. Heiddi Zalamar

    Hiya Carol,

    Yet another great post! One thing I would add though is the underlying factor of self-worth. I know for me, it has been hard to see myself as beyond worthy of making more than $20 an article. I work full-time, have benefits and some child support from kiddo’s father. So I am able to live well because I’ve got all of that to fall back on. I do want to push for more than that and earn more from blogging. I know that I’m worth it. I feel that writes especially beginning writers don’t feel themselves to be deserving of a living and/or comfortable wage. It’s really an emotional thing that stops them from even asking for what they are worth. :/ I’ve been working a long time to see myself as a writer and deserving of getting paid what I am worth. Thanks for sharing the post Carol! Great one.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, totally agree. Writers have a lot of self-limiting behaviors that grow out of low self-esteem issues, and seeking only low-pay clients is one of them.

  17. Holly

    While I understand your point here, I think there are a lot of writers to whom this just doesn’t apply. I know quite a few freelancers, myself included, who did not come from lucrative staff jobs with full benefits, and live in smaller cities where staff writing jobs are virtually nonexistent. For me, the alternative to freelancing is often part-time work that isn’t remotely related to writing which pays less than $15 an hour, with no health benefits, medical leave, 401K or paid sick leave. Employer-paid professional development conferences, transportation reimbursement and per-diem budgets were so far beyond my reality before I became a freelancer that honestly thinking about them as a factor in my equation seems extremely lofty and remote.

    I absolutely agree that freelancers shouldn’t under-value themselves, and that’s why I stopped writing for $15 an article and am constantly aiming to do better. I’ve recently more than doubled my average per-word rate from 30 cents a word to 75 cents a word and I hope to hit that dollar-a-word target by the end of the year. My hourly rate ranges anywhere between $25 and $50 an hour depending on the project. But it’s just not accurate to me to say that I’m potentially failing as a freelancer because I’m not getting all kinds of employer perks, since I wouldn’t be getting those employer perks anyway. I measure my success a different way, in being able to increase my rates, earn more than I would at other available jobs in my town and by getting to work at home. I am thrilled to be able to earn my living from writing!

  18. MELewis

    Hi Carole,
    In my view, the real question is not what you need to live on but what the market will bear. In my case, working in corporate communications in Switzerland, $100 a hour is about the going rate for an experienced PR writer. Of course, each project is subject to an appreciation of how many hours will be needed — which can be negotiable — and the cost estimate should provide for potential adjustment based on number of client revisions, etc.
    Another rule of thumb a freelancer should bear in mind is that realistically, only about 50% of your time is billable. That’s allowing time for building your clientele, marketing, accounting, training, etc.
    Good post! Keep ’em coming….

  19. Kathleen Curry

    This post is a timely one for me, because I am making the decision to move on too complicated.

    ‘Published 20 stories in the last year for 2 local publications. I really like interviewing food business people, being published is a thrill and it’s probably the most bragworthy item I have to post on my twitter accounts. ‘That being said, it’s high time to move on….

    The FS calculator is definitely helpful for numerophobic writers.

    • Carol Tice

      Kathleen, I’m not sure I follow — move on from what? Being a freelancer because you’re not making enough? Or move on from lower-paying clients? Let us know what’s going on.

      • Kathleen Curry

        Move on to higher paying clients.

        • Carol Tice

          Right on!

  20. Erica

    This is the exact same mistake I made when I first started freelancing after being laid off. I was so used to the corporate way of doing things, I didn’t account for how freelancing works in time. When I started, I charged $30/hr. Then I moved to $50/hr. Now, I based projects on a $75/hr rate.

    I’m locked into my current contract rates for the onsite gig (thankfully more than enough to cover the bills and build my safety net again), but when this is over, those are going up too.

    Every freelancer—writer and non-writer—needs to read this post.

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks Erica — and congrats on hiking your rates up to more where they belong!

  21. Darnell Jackson

    Good one Carol,

    One thing for sure if you sell your services at a discount no one will buy them at a markup.

    People forget the point of working for yourself is to benefit YOU.

  22. Karen

    So true. Many people seem to have ‘make as much money as my old job’ as a freelancing objective, without realizing that will actually lead to a huge drop in disposable income.

    As is always the case when I read about US freelancer expenses, I am grateful I live in a country with a free public healthcare system.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, you should be! At least Obamacare is coming next year, and some new options will be coming. I’m hoping that will encourage many writers who’ve been wanting to freelance but worried about the healthcare piece.

      The problem with goals like “make as much money as I did at my job” isn’t just that it doesn’t take into account all your new expenses as a business owner. It’s also that we humans have a tendency to fall short of our goals.

      So we need to aim high, to make sure we make any progress at all!

  23. Rob S

    Nice wake up call, Carol.

    For your few readers who might not live in the U.S. or are expats living in so-called 3rd world countries (I loathe that demeaning expression):

    I am an Australian citizen living in Cambodia. I’m a “non-resident for taxation purposes”. Sounds like no income taxes, right? Wrong. I have to pay a higher rate of tax on my Australian income than residents do — around 30%. Then there’s no Medicare, etc. When I told people I was making $30 an hour, they thought I must be rolling in money, but I’ve found I really have to make around $50ph to live comfortably. I have a big family to take care of, but I reckon only around $10 of those dollars go towards their expenses.

  24. Kristine M Smith

    Right on! These days I charge $100/hour minimum. It took me forever to realize that this is what I needed to charge to make ends meet and get a little ahead each month. When you factor in all the time it takes to find and submit for writing jobs, network, and pay basic expenses, $100/hour is the least a single American writer can get by on. And I have very few outside interests or acivities! If I did, I couldn’t afford them! So $100/hour is the bare minimum (as a single person) in America (if you have pets, as I do). I’m going to send this link to everyone who wonders why great copywriting comes at the price it does. (And let’s face it: $1 to $3 per word–not a typo–isn’t uncommon in the copywriting world. I don’t charge anywhere near that much; I can usually produce upward of 500 compelling, converting words in an hour’s time. That’s WELL worth $100/hour!)

  25. DKendra

    I needed this post right now. I hadn’t factored in some of the things you mentioned, so those were a wake-up. Thank you.

    After intermittently studying the copywriting fields during my 35+ career in retail sales, I’m finally able to wrap my mind that commercial writing / copywriting is a real career. I realize that although I’m a beginner in getting paid in this writing field, I’m an old hand at writing. (I wish I had the proof to upload to my site, but the copy was for friends and I hadn’t realized I was already writing like a freelancer. Hence, no copies of anything.)

    Your emails – and your humor about the whole writing business – are a big part of the reasons I’ve finally gotten the courage to head out on this adventure. I deliver newspapers to pay the bills (I gross $1,000 if the tips are good). My first goal, once I’m up and running, is to make $1,600+/mo every month so that I can resign by December’s end this year. Then I can devote even more time to the business of freelance writing.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi DKendra —

      Copywriting is one of the best-paying niches — and it’s definitely a viable living as a freelancer!

      I’m so glad you’re following the path you want now.

      If you wrote that initial copy for friends, wouldn’t they give you a copy of it? Try your best to reclaim all the samples you can so you can build a nice portfolio on a writer website. Make a big difference in getting hired.

      • Traci S.

        Hi Carol,
        I have been writing nonfiction for magazines and its been hit & miss …more miss really. I would really like to break into copywriting since I hear its a consistent job market. But as a newbie I have no clue how to get started, where to find work, etc. I see online “classes” advertised thru Writers Digest about learning to be a copywriter, but am hesitant to spend that much money. (I was burned once so now twice Any ideas on how to begin? (No, I dont have a blog or anything)

        • Carol Tice

          Hi Traci —

          For a budget option, in Freelance Writers Den I have a few relevant bootcamps for you including 4 hours on Break into Business Writing that includes a training from top copywriter Chris Marlow on writing persuasive copy. Get on the waitlist if you’re interested…there should be opportunities to get in coming up in the next couple months.

  26. Edward

    You are so right about this. I have seen many self employed people make big mistakes in estimating how much money they have to make just to make ends meet.
    If you do not do it right from the start you will end up looking for a job again.
    Believe me I have made that mistake myself, and am still recovering from it.
    Thanks for the great info and warning.

  27. hitawall

    Great post. What’s your view on elance and sites of that type where you bid for the job…and what do you do when you factor in the cost of production based on your experience in preparing your bid only to receive a terse reply from the potential client telling you that you were never in the running because of your rate and lack of experience on elance (never mind the years of experience before elance listed in your profile). I thought it’d be a good way to expand my network beyond my geograpic location but I find the rates are ridiculously low and the lowest bid always has it. What’s your take? Is it worth it?

    I’ve always tried to be fair when quoting to clients over the years, and I’m willing to negotiate within reason. But what if you do the math, and do it right, but the client figures cheaper is better?

    • DKendra

      Anecdotal info (from years of retail): the client or customer who wants the cheapest is also the hardest one to satisfy. It was almost always the one who wanted the cheapest shoes for their hard-playing kids who complained that said shoes didn’t last “long enough.”

      • Carol Tice

        I’ve found that as well.

    • Carol Tice

      I don’t find bid sites worth the time…and anytime a client wants to quibble with you about price, it’s time to move on, whether you’re on a bid site or not.

      • hitawall

        That’s generally been my view as well but, with the economy being what it is, I think I’ve tried to adapt …but it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort. Thanks for your reply and for your very thoughtful article.

  28. Susan Kushner Resnick

    I’m willing to get little or no money for creative writing, but for business writing or copy editing, which takes time away from my literary work, I charge $110. I set my fee based on what my first biz client offered. In that world, our skills are valued.

    • Carol Tice

      Sounds like you had a great first client!

  29. Melinda

    Hi, I just found your blog today so this is the first post I’ve read. Like some others have commented about, I cringe when giving out my hourly rate EVEN THOUGH I know they would be paying more if they worked with an agency.

    I have confidence charging $75 an hour here in the midwest when I’m working with corporate clients in the aviation industry, where I have much experience and I know these companies often work with agencies and are used to those budgets. Working at an agency and seeing the pricing structure helped give me this confidence (they are charging at least $125 an hour and more — and also make sure you are charging for ALL of your time — phone calls, emails, helping track down images, etc.).

    When I encounter a small business or a client in a new industry that I would like to gain some experience with, though, I feel the need to lower my rate to $50. Your post will make me rethink this but I’m not sure if I’m ready to change quite yet! Oftentimes I don’t get to quote by project so I have to use the hourly amount.

    Thanks for the post and I’ve enjoyed reading others’ experiences in the comments too.

  30. Amy Dunn Moscoso

    Hi Carol,

    Great advice. I also find charging a higher rate makes the more serious businesses have faith in you while charging lower attracts clients who want to make a lot of revisions, write the post themselves and suddenly $20 becomes hours of work.

    Higher rates attract businesses that hire professionals who put their trust in you to take care of it and make little fuss over good work.

  31. Holly

    Are there some markets where you just can’t find good paying clients? In my local area I cannot charge $75 an hour or even $100 an hour; clients just won’t pay it. I’m writing for local hospitals and for the largest local industry (chemical processing) and I find that $50 an hour is the absolute most any client will pay around here. Even then, I’m told that they think my rates are high, but that I’m worth it. Do you have to look to Fortune 500 companies to make $100 an hour?

    • Carol Tice

      So…stop looking in your local area, Holly. It’s a global business these days. I have clients right now in New York, Canada and the UK…and I’m in the Pacific Northwest.

      And $100 an hour is definitely not some Fortune 500-only scenario. WAY more situations than that limited group. I billed that to a $1 billion private company, and none of those are in the F500. Startups with venture capital funding also pay top rates.

  32. Maria

    What you’re not considering here is what people who want to buy our services are willing to pay. The more writers who write for next to nothing, the fewer higher-paying jobs there will be. We are destroying our own futures by undercharging for our services. Unfortunately, as long as there are other writers out there who can get the job done for less money than we want, we’ll continue to struggle.

    Understand that I have been active in publishing since 1990. I built a career from the ground up and was earning a very healthy up six figures by 2000. Just getting by? I was doing great! But as the markets changed, so did my career and earning potential. People don’t want to buy content when they can get it for free online. Similarly, those who are willing to pay are always looking to get the best deal — or what they perceive to be the best deal. In the end, it doesn’t matter much what we want, but what our competition is willing to take.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Maria —

      I don’t agree with your outlook. Yes, there is now a section of the writing market that’s very low paid — I like to call it the Underworld of Freelance Writing.

      But it hasn’t had a big effect on much of the freelance writing world. Anywhere expertise is needed, there’s a sophisticated customer or reader, and a lucrative product or service(s) on sale, rates are still high.

      And the Internet isn’t just bringing low-paid opportunities, but high ones also. I earned $2000 per online article for one major corporation on a 7-article series. See my recent post on $100 blog posts and read the comments, on all the writers that are getting nice blogging rates by identifying the right client type.

      There’s plenty of money out there, but it involves active prospecting and networking. As long as you look on bid sites and Craigslist for gigs, it’s easy for form this opinion, that all good pay has vanished from the freelance world…but it hasn’t. Just have to get out of the Underworld.

      I agree that writers willing to work for peanuts don’t help our industry…but plenty of businesses have tried the $10-a-post writer pool and gotten nothing they can use, and have gone back to hiring real pros at real rates.

      • Victoria Hay

        “But it hasn’t had a big effect on much of the freelance writing world. Anywhere expertise is needed, there’s a sophisticated customer or reader, and a lucrative product or service(s) on sale, rates are still high.”

        Have to agree to disagree with that. Recently a journalist friend who writes for a large, financially successful personal finance website bragged to me about the per-word rate she had extracted, swearing me to confidence since it was about twice what the outfit was paying other regular contributors. I was floored and flabbergasted at her delight: they were paying her — as their never-done-before TOP rate — exactly what I earned at a regional magazine thirty years ago!

        As a practical matter, when people agree to work for nothing, employers pay nothing. That’s why rates haven’t increased in decades.

        • Carol Tice

          I’d agree that rates haven’t gone up, but don’t mistake anecdotal reports for market realities. Rates I’ve recently been offered include $400-$500 a blog post, and my most recent articles paid $850-$2800. Real pay is still out there, and I’m hearing about more and more better-paying markets.

          The rise of longer authority content as the main SEO driver is a great opportunity for freelance writers to earn more. I’m excited to see more companies realizing this is what really builds their audience, and they’re willing to pay more for it. I recently threw out a figure for blog posting that I was confident would be impossibly high for the market I pitched…only to have them agree to it. 😉

          If you’re baffled on how to find pro rates, you might want to check out my How to Get Great Freelance Clients ebook — it’s up on that ebooks tab. Goes through chapter and verse on identifying and pitching better prospects, an area I’m afraid most freelance writers are very weak on.

  33. Jessica

    Wow, this post is a real wake-up call. I have only been freelance writing full-time for about a month, and I was so excited when I accepted a contract that pays $5 hr on Odesk. I thought that the client hiring me over the other 30 applicants meant I had real potential. I had NO IDEA how much I was underselling myself. I have another project and the client pays me $2 per 100 words, which I thought was a really good rate. How do you get the high-paying rates with little to no experience in the field? I thought I needed to ‘put it my time’…

    I don’t even know where to go from here. The extra income has been really nice, but I do want to grow as a writer and the last thing I want is to get in my own way.

  34. Vicki

    Hi Carol,
    Just a quick note to tell you I learn so much from reading your posts, and learning from them. You have very practical advice, and your experience is phenomenal. At the moment I am just soaking it in like the proverbial sponge. What a great learning experience.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad you’re finding the blog useful, Vicki! I spend sort of umpty-level hours on it in hopes that writers can earn more…so glad it’s working!

  35. Bill Borden

    I’ve been self employed my entire life and quickly learned what you’re talking about. However I see people just starting out with the same mentality. i.e. I made $20/hr at my full time job so if I can make $30 I’ll put everyone else out of business and have more work than I can handle.

    In addition to your reasons to charge at least $100/hour, I would say that more is better. In some fields you can charge $150/hour and more. Why? Because the purpose of being self employed is not just to survive and make just as much as working for someone else. The purpose of being self employed is to create a better life and be able to retire comfortably when you no longer can handle the stress of working full time. Also the more you charge, the more desirable you are. You’re targeting a different market that’s quality conscious instead of price conscious. They assume you’re the best because your prices are high. This means more business, clients who are easier to work for, more loyal clients, and more money per hour. It’s a better situation for everyone.

  36. Linda

    hello, can you provide the link again? is no longer active. Thanks!

  37. HCwriter

    Sorry I’m so late to the party. I agree in principle with the post here, but it’s an oversimplification. You have to consider how much marketing you need to do to get the work.

    Imagine that I spend 10 hours to land a one-off gig that consists of 10 hours at $100/hour. Meanwhile, you have an ongoing freelance gig at 20 hours/week for $50/hour. Aren’t we making the same rate? And if you’re making $60/hour, then while my rate looks higher, you’re actually doing better. The general idea that we need higher rates is true, but the exact nature of your business and client base makes a huge difference.

    The same thing applies when you’re working for a per-word or per-piece rate. A consumer magazine writer will most likely need to pitch constantly. But a trade publication writer might stay busy all the time without writing a single pitch.

    I think it’s more useful to start with what you need to make per year or per month and work backwards. I do several types of freelance writing under different pay structures, and it would be almost meaningless for me to try to apply a single per-hour or per-piece rate to all of it. Big picture, I need to make a certain amount per year, and I’d like to do it within a certain number of hours. I could calculate an hourly rate if I wanted to, but that figure would not be a good starting point for me.

    Some gigs are ongoing and solid, and while the hourly rate might not be great, they give you piece of mind that the mortgage will be paid even if the rest of your schedule doesn’t fill up.

    Sometimes you might work on a larger project with a flat fee that is rather high — maybe Rolling Stone finally accepted your pitch! If you can do it pretty quickly, it will amount to a fantastic hourly rate. But if your editor asks for a major rewrite — uh oh! That type of writer faces risk, just as contingency lawyers and real estate agents do.

    If your focus is business writing, trade publications, agency work and the like, you might spend the vast majority of your working hours actually writing and editing, and you could do well with an hourly rate lower than Carol advises. If you are targeting major consumer magazines or if you want to be a communications or PR consultant, you’re going to spend a lot of time unpaid time pitching your services. Better make each “working” hour count!

  38. Jennifer

    Interesting. I do far, far better in taxes on 1099 than I do as an employee, because of all the deductions.

    • Carol Tice

      You often can — IF you’re tracking your deductions and take them all. Many freelancers don’t.

  39. Sarah

    It’s unfortunate how helpful this truly is.

  40. kate

    This is great advice. A recruiter called me today to offer me a contract position for $25 an hour. I told him my rate was $35 to $40 an hour. Now I know I should have quoted much higher.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, it depends on your experience and track record, Kate. If you’re just starting out, $40 an hour could be a good situation for an initial client. But if you have a portfolio, you should be moving up from there, and fast. $25 an hour freelance is a recipe for going broke, especially if it locks down a big chunk of your time at that rate.

      • kate

        I have seven years in-house copywriting experience. I’m not sure if that would appeal to anyone outside that particular industry. Am I starting over?

        • Carol Tice

          No, Kate, you’re not starting over!

          At base, copywriting is copywriting. It proves you know how to do copywriting. Get your samples together and pitch for more gigs! Think of related niches where they might respect your knowledge of that other area, or troll for more in that same industry.

          Be sure to see this post:

  41. Siusan

    Freelance Switch and re-organized and the rate calculator isn’t there – know where I can find it?

    Thanks! Great article!

  42. Meredith

    FYI, I found another freelance hourly rate calculator at Looks like it goes into more detail.

    Great post. Great discussion.

    Thanks to all.Meredith

  43. Brianna Bell

    I am in talks with my first potential client and I said $35/ I’m wondering if i was wrong. It’s for a not for profit and I said my regular rate is $50/hr. I would be doing lots of articles for this client though..

    • Carol Tice

      That’s not a bad starter rate, Brianna, for a first client — just try to do a short-term contract for that rate, 60 or 90 days and then you’ll revisit it. That gives you a chance to negotiate a raise fairly soon.

      When you renegotiate, try to go to a flat fee instead of hourly rate. That way, as you become more efficient with projects, your hourly rate will go up…but the client won’t be the wiser.

  44. Kayla

    Yes, I knew this all along but it can be hard to keep it in mind sometimes. There are other benefits to working from home though, wearing pajamas and being able to spend more time with your kids are good benefits that might be able to help make up for that income difference depending on your situation.

  45. Laurie W.

    Excellent advice. I also think, though, that it’s helpful to list what our expenses as a staffer were, from getting sick more (all those germs in the office) to more for clothing, transportation, etc.

    The best takeaway for me from this article was to remember not to equate my hourly rate then with now.

    Now, what can be done about all the publications trying to get too much from us upfront? Before we land a sale, they exhaust us with questions about angles, sources, etc. (for journalism)

    Thanks for a great article.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, definitely — I felt like I saved a TON once I stopped commuting, buying professional wear, etc.

      On your question, I tend to build relationships with editors. Once they know me, they don’t ask a lot of questions before they greenlight. One-offs waste a lot of time.

      • Laurie W.

        Yup. That’s always the goal, but every relationship starts with a first date. Also, I’ve found that some of the top tier publications will do this because they can get away with it, one, and two they’ve never worked with me. Even with 30 years of experience and thousands of clips. It’s great to establish long-term relationships and just get that assignment and then you’re off! But realistically, if one wants to jump to top tier publications sometimes it’s best to give them what they want. Then hopefully on the 2nd assignment, it will become a relationship and not just a date.

  46. Catherine

    I’m just getting into the freelance game after working as a copy editor and copywriter for the last 10 years. I came across an opportunity for a “part-time” copywriter (24 hours a week). I understand your reasoning for $100/hour for freelancers, but when there is a minimum number of hours each week and the work has a steady schedule (to be confirmed), it would make sense to me to consider discounting the rate. What are your thoughts? How much of a discount would you consider fair?

    • Carol Tice

      Absolutely, when it’s a big hunk of work, rates tend to discount. How much and what level would be workable will depend on your circumstances. Me, I’m the sole support of a family of five, living in an expensive neighborhood. I know others who’re living on a shoestring in Saigon or Budapest — figure out your daily rate of what you need to earn in a year to live the lifestyle you want and do the math from there. 😉

  47. Dan Neamtu

    After years of experience I prefer to work projects and not rate hours, the more experience you have, the faster and good results you deliver. And your mission is to deliver the project. When you rate per hour you tend to be happy with “the more hours I will work the much money I will earn”, wich is not the right direction of thinking.


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