The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success No One Dares Name

The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name

Carol Tice | 196 Comments

Asian woman keeps a secretRecently, I began asking new subscribers to this blog to tell me their top obstacles as freelance writers right now.

The responses have been interesting, and in some cases surprising.

Quite a few of them are like this one:

“I enjoy your blog & I find it informative, but I’m still left with questions or uncertainty. I can’t afford your mentoring program, Freelance Writers Den, or even to hire/create a website (for now).

I would like guidance, so I can be sure I’m doing well in starting my business, as well as have any questions answered. I want to start off on the right foot, so to speak. How can I connect with other successful freelance writers & ask them to mentor/help me?”–Kay

So. This is awkward.

I have bad news for Kay. Even if there was a mythical free awesome professional writing coach who’d take her on as a charity case, and she got the mentoring she wants, her freelance writing business would still fail.

Why? Kay lacks an important — no, critical — thing you simply must have to launch a freelance business, of any kind.

I’m going to tell you what it is…even though I know it may make some writers hopping mad.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this uncomfortable issue discussed on a freelance-oriented website before.

But I think it’s not fair to delude writers who have no chance of making it as freelancers.

It’s going to be a dream-crusher for some. I apologize in advance.

Here’s the thing you need to know if you’re embarking on a freelance career:

What’s in your wallet?

To start a freelance business — or any kind of business, really — you need money.

But you wouldn’t know it to read most websites about writing, or freelancing, or building an Internet business.

There’s a disease going around about this right now that I’m going to call “no cost syndrome.”

The popular myth is that running an Internet-based business — a blog, or a freelance business — doesn’t cost anything.

Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup book is only the most recent tome to promote this idea.

Writers keep trying to start a freelance or Internet-based business…not on a shoestring, but on flat nuthin’. And then wondering, why they failed to make it work and had to give up and find a day job.

Here’s the reality: Ramping a startup business until it pays your bills — especially, making it take off quickly — takes money.

Whether it’s opening a shop on Main Street or putting out a shingle as a freelance writer, you have to invest in your business to make it succeed.

I get the sense it must be bad manners to mention this. Everyone wants to hear that freelancing is the awesome, magical business that defies all laws of ordinary commerce. And that you can start dead broke and you’ll skyrocket to amazing riches.

But boil it down, and freelancing is like any other business — it takes money to make money.

And meanwhile, your rent is still coming due.

How to be a freelance success

At this point in the 21st Century, if you want to present yourself as a professional freelancer to any reputable publication, website, company, or nonprofit, you need a decent-looking website. For starters.

If you’re really smart and want to stand out and get some quality clients right away, you may want to do some creative marketing, like a direct-mail campaign that costs money to produce.

You should have a professional outfit to wear in case an in-town client meeting comes up.

And of course you need a computer, an email provider, paid Internet, a web host, a printer, toner, paper, pens, business cards, and more. Each dollar you put in will hopefully be repaid many times over, as  you get great clients because you seem so pro.

But the uncomfortable truth is, it all costs money.

The corrollary: As soon as your newborn freelance business starts making money, if you really want to build a solid income, the first thing you need to do is plow a lot of that initial money right back into your startup.

That initial money is not for paying your light bill. It’s for building your business.

You’ll improve your website. Join professional organizations and networking groups. Get on a plane and attend conferences.

Meanwhile, you need some other money to live on.

Why your no-money launch will fail

Beyond the realities of needing to invest in your business to make it thrive, there’s yet another harsh financial truth of freelancing.

The freelance life is often plagued with cash-flow problems:

  • The computer hard drive dies and you need to buy a new one. Immediately. So you don’t miss deadlines and lose clients.
  • Your client stops returning your calls and takes an extra month or two to send the check.
  • Your pants rip and you need a new professional outfit to wear to meetings.
  • Your car breaks down.
  • You have an unexpected health issue, which your private insurance’s high deductible leaves you mostly on the hook for.

And so on. You get the picture.

As a freelancer, you are responsible for a lot of costs you didn’t have as an employee. Also, starter clients new freelancers tend to get are often the very type that give you the b.s. about how the check is in the mail, and leave you hanging for months.

Meanwhile, how will you eat?

I’m going to say the unspeakable: If you have no resources at all, you are too broke to make freelancing work.

You will get caught in a desperation cycle of taking any crappy client you find on Craigslist. Then, of being even more broke and desperate when that client screws you over, as lowball clients often will.

You could easily end up homeless. I know writers where it’s happened.

I realize it behooves me as someone who earns some of their living helping writers learn how to freelance to tell everybody, “Hey, you can do it!”

But I won’t.

You shouldn’t try to freelance if you are teetering on the financial brink. I won’t pretend that’s going to fly.

How to freelance when you’re broke

OK. So that was harsh. But some truths of the freelance life that need to be acknowledged.

Onward to the big question: If your bank account is empty, do you have to give up your freelance writing dream?

Not necessarily.

There are several ways you can overcome this “I’m too broke” problem and create the cash reserves you need to build a thriving freelance business:

  • Get a side gig. I’ve known writers who pumped gas, worked as a bar back, sold Avon, and more when they started out. I worked as a legal secretary for years, to support my songwriting habit. Stop buying the starving artist mystique and figure out how to put aside some money to support you as you transition into freelancing.
  • Get a full-time day job — for now. It’s also feasible to freelance on the side of a full-time gig. Takes a lot of discipline, but it can allow you to pick and choose good clients and build a quality portfolio a lot faster.
  • Find a sponsor. Maybe your spouse’s day gig will cover the bills and give you some ramp-up cash to work with.
  • Lower your expenses. Take a look at your costs — could you live in a cheaper dwelling? Take on a roommate? Stop buying lattes? Cut out cable? Most of us have optional expenditures we make and could lower our basic monthly costs if we got creative.
  • Fill the gap with credit cards. I once had a screenwriter friend who would calmly charge her groceries between gigs, confident she’d soon be writing for another TV show. If you have a high risk tolerance, this might work for you, too.
  • Liquidate assets. Got a second car you could live without? Some collectibles you could sell on eBay? You might be able to turn some possessions into cash.

If you’re not willing to do any of this to get a cash cushion you could use to bankroll your freelance writing startup, then I have a question to ask you:

Do you really want to do this?

Reaching for dreams usually involves sacrifice — read any fairy tale you like.

What are you willing to give up to never have a boss again?

If you can’t make any sacrifices to find some cash to get started freelancing, then it’s probably not going to happen. Even with the best writing mentor in the world.

What do you think — can you start freelancing with no money? Leave a comment and give us your take.


196 comments on “The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name

  1. Jeandre on

    I started with Freelancing without a computer, without money, without any contacts and now have been working for over 5 years and generating a decent monthly income.

    Now, it took me a while to get to the point where I could actually invest and the very first thing I purchased was my own laptop.

    To get started I simply borrowed a laptop from my girlfriend and went to a cafe that provided free internet service with ‘refillable coffees’. I would purchase one coffee and sit for four hours working my mind to a standstill.

    After a month or so of this I could purchase my own laptop…then I worked on getting an apartment as my living arrangement was quite dismal. My first flat was horrendous but it served to get fast internet and I could then push out 12 hours a day.

    Eventually my fame grew and I managed to land solid monthly clients. This helped me invest into my studio which I now use to produce a plethora of content from writing to videos to music and more.

    It’s not impossible to make a successful business without money…it’s just damn hard! Money is like gasoline you pour on the fire…it will help you get a big burning fire much quicker than blowing on tinder.

    Time = Money and if you know how to properly invest your time, you can definitely lift a business off the ground.

    I agree with most of your points but I’m living proof you can do it without money and once the money comes in…it’s not yours yet…it’s for your business to propel it into the next level.

    2015 is the time where I march towards residual income and other forms of generating money as I am now comfortable with the notion of having my money make money and not trading time for money anymore.

    Anyhow, great post!

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks for sharing your story, Jeandre. I agree that anyone can START with nothing…but as you saw, a month later you were buying a laptop. The fact that you understood the need to invest in your business I’m sure helped lead to your success.

  2. gotooslow on

    Carol, I am thinking you are probably preaching to the choir. The funny thing is so many people are looking for get rich quick, and in writing that is about laughable. The headings on many of the search results that I have seen, point to 2-3 perennial shall we say, “con-artists.” If people would take the time and research they would learn that there is no business worth having that doesn’t require some kind of investment. You hit the nail on the head. As you know; research is the key to any good article. Thanks for dispelling the false promises made.

  3. Clara Mathews on

    Great advice Carol,

    You can start a freelance writing business with as little as $500 if you can:
    — Have the right computer equipment and good internet service at home
    — Learn WordPress and design your own website (which takes a lot of time)
    — Find good local networking groups (which can cost between $10 to $50 each month. The free ones rarely attract the kind of clients you will want to work for.

    You still need business card, website hosting, a domain name, and the list goes on. I understand the desire to start off with a small investment, but your business will never grow and be successful unless you invest the money for education and other business expenses.

    • Carol Tice on

      That’s my experience, having mentored thousands of writers now. If you can’t invest a dime in your startup, it’s very hard to grow it. Any type of startup. Freelance writers seem to think they’re magically immune from this business reality, but they’re not.

  4. Lucy Smith on

    That was in response to the comment way above how it’s against Jewish law to not pay on time…! I’m not sure why it didn’t nest where it was supposed to.

  5. Melissa on

    I’ve been visiting your site for quite some time and I never commented, but I feel that I must comment on this one.
    Writing, unlike other businesses doesn’t really need money to get started. Even if you do not have a site for your freelance business, there are many sites such as odesk and elance that allow you to sign up for free. I have found regular paying clients there. Many freelancers like myself have found great success freelancing without having to pay out of pocket.

    I also wanted to say something about the comments that followed. I don’t know how this post immediately brought forth Christian bashing comments, but they really have nothing to do with the post. As a Christian, I don’t expect anything for free and I have worked for Christian clients that have paid well and on time.

    I was very surprised to see a string of comments about Christians. We are all not like that and wanting something for free is not a “Christian” quality, it is a “human” quality that crosses every religion, race and sex.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Melissa —

      I’m not hear to bash Christians, but to support their efforts to be fairly paid for their work. I’m just reporting the experiences of hundreds of writers I’ve worked with who aspired to write for Christian markets for a living, only to discover they were too low-paying to sustain them. I personally wish these markets would pay more! I think if you reread my comments, you’ll see that.

      Certainly, there are any number of places that want writers to write for free…I just find it notable (and unfortunate) that the magazines for other religions pay well, but Christian ones often don’t. I’m an advocate for fair pay for writers — so that’s my point, is simply to report that these aren’t currently good-paying markets, in the main.

      As far as your contention that you can *start* a freelance business without money…well, sure you can, especially if you already own a computer, printer, car, and all the other basics you might need.

      But I hear from very few writers who succeed in building a major income from freelance writing without investing in their business, or having cash reserves to fall back on in case of problems.

      If you’ve been able to do that and find great clients on oDesk, all I can tell you is from my experience with thousands of writers, you are an unusual case. Glad you were able to make it work, but the number of zero-investment freelance success stories I know are very few.

      I come at this from 20 years of reporting on business and watching businesses rise and fall, and my observation is that unless you are a one-in-a-million fluke success, you’re going to need money. Otherwise, you’re often trapped in a cycle of low pay, end up going broke, and have to go get a job.

  6. Jonah Cozeek on

    I totally agree. I’m just starting freelance writing and I’m using income from another online bussiness. Guess what? I started that online business, which cost $600 at least, with money I earned working food service. I continued working food service the first 3 months I was doing that bussiness to support myself and have capital for my other online business. This entire time I’ve also kept expenses low by living with my parents all but 2 of the last 14 months. It looks like my nonwriting business is going to be successful, but I’m still prepared to go back to doing food service if I need to.

  7. Julie on

    Carol may have a point. However, I actually did start from almost nothing and made as much as $1800 per month. That may not be a lot of money to some people but I would say its an excellent start. I did at times have to work extra jobs, but my primary income in the past eight years was mostly from writing.

  8. Sherry B on

    Thank you for being so honest, Carol! No matter what type of business you are starting, whether it is freelancing or selling your own products you do need some type of money to put into it. Like you’ve mentioned, there’s always some expense even if your work is all online. You still need to pay your internet provider, buy paper, pens, website hosting, etc.

    Starting out in freelancing or any kind of business also requires that you know how to get the word out there. Otherwise, clients will not find you. Like I’ve “heard” you say many times in your posts, a beginning freelancer will need a writer website of their own, which means either hiring someone to build a website or learn how to do it yourself. Plus, you’ll need to learn how to market yourself as a writer or hire someone to do it for you.

    Obviously, hiring someone costs money and learning to do it yourself takes time, effort, and a lot of willpower to keep on going when things don’t appear to be happening. At least, this is what I’ve learned from my experience this past year-and-a-half. I’ve been the main earner in our family since my hubby and I’ve been married, so I still need to work a part-time day job for now to make sure the bills get paid and there’s food on the table.

    Slowly, but surely, I’ve seen some progress, but there is no such thing as being completely free or it being easy to be successful working from home as a freelancer or online business owner. Either you have to spend some money, or a lot of time to see any kind of success. It won’t come for nothing being put into it.

    You are definitely right on with this post, Carol! If you want something bad enough, you need to be willing to give up some things in order to succeed at it. It might be your time, money, hard work, dining out, etc. but if there’s a will there’s always a way. You just have to find it. Thanks for speaking up on this subject, Carol!

  9. Jacqueline A.G. on

    Oh, you’re absolute right Carol! I’m not mad at you for something I’ve known since I left college in 1984 (comms./B.A. degree), and again in the 90s (incomplete).

    The first time I heard this out loud was during a network program interview of novelist Judith Krantz. She said it! She spoke plain about the “money” thing, and I never forgot that fact. Your mind is divided when you have to work a non-journalism job/career. There is very little energy left at the end of the day from a position that didn’t call upon your creative penning. I’ve dreamed often of leading a lifestyle of writing that had a mixture of Danielle Steel(e) and Oprah Winfrey–The best wealthy husband, 7-10 children (like Ms. D, plus I like naming and nurturing people), and top-notch networking skills (like Ms. O) that can grow you into richness (in every sense of the word). Activating the plan has been the tough part, because finding others to believe with you can be most challenging and long term. My best to all of you. Keep your your head tilted toward the sky… !

    • Carol Tice on

      Well…you can keep dreaming about waking up with someone else’s life…or figure out how to write during your own.

      My husband isn’t a hard-driving career type and our family has never been able to make it on what he earns. And I’m sure loads of people have bigger networks than I do.

      My strength is a willingness to work like heck on my writing, and put myself out there. That’s what’s allowed me to write my way where I want to go. I also somehow managed to end up with 3 kids.

      Remember…be a writer, not a waiter for some ideal scenario to emerge. 😉

  10. Mwai Gichimu on

    The simple, naked truth. No pain, no gain. Of course as a creative, you can spend more energy and time and less cash, but you must spend to get ahead. I read somewhere that “in order to be creative; you must have a successful business..” or something to that effect. Carol’s article is spot on.

  11. Nikhil Khandekar on

    Hi Carol,

    Your blog post was a very helpful one. Not that I did not realize the importance of a solid financial foundation to build my freelance biz; it was helpful because I am now more confident to launch my own site in under six months’ time. In the meantime, I’ll be saving, cutting costs, and just collecting pennies and pounds for the FD. I have a good salary at the moment, and I plan to leverage it to start out on my own. I don’t know when exactly that’s going to be, but it will be very soon enough!

    Thanks a million!

  12. Kris Emery on

    Thank you for sharing this so honestly. I’ve used every one of your gap-bridging techniques -credit cards, sponsors, selling stuff, everything – and only just on my feet making good money 3 years in.

    Same goes for self-publishing as does for online businesses. Ebooks inexpensive but not free.

    Another myth I’d add is the ‘build it and they will come’ approach to passive income. Again, having time but no money doesn’t mean you can create something out of money without investing in education and marketing.

  13. Jacqueline A.G. on

    Actually, I’m not surprise that the answer to the question was “money”. Many years ago, I watched a network interview–Barbara Walters, perhaps–of novelist Judith Krantz. She made this same profound statement, and I never forgot it. Her family’s wealth (or husband) afforded her the time she needed to focus solely on her writing. We need quiet, uninterrupted, intentional time to beat back writer’s block and get something down on those blank pages. Period. ; )

  14. Vicky Reynolds on

    Freelance writing is something I’ve been considering pursuing and I appreciate your honesty and bluntness about this issue. I know that while I cannot quite start pursuing this, I am taking steps to get there. Thanks again!

    • Carol Tice on

      What keeps you from starting, Vicky? As this thread details, you can certainly start without much, on the side of your day job, from the library, etc. Getting a little experience can help you tell whether the freelance life is for you.

  15. Katherine Swarts on

    This is a bit outside the main topic, but is there a quick way to reply to new comments–or new replies to OLD comments–on long threads such as this, when you get a New Comment e-mail? Replying directly to the message doesn’t seem to work, and when I click the “See All Comments” link it still takes a while to find the right one.

  16. Lori Bosworth on

    Hi Carol, Good for you for highlighting all of the costs of starting an online freelance writing career. I think so many people are attracted to blogging because they believe it’s a cheap and quick way to earn extra money. But there’s a difference between leisure bloggers and those who are dedicated full-time freelance writers and one of the differences is the investment of time and money in the business. Further, just like any business, it takes a few years to really see some returns on your investment and you’re going to have to pump some $$$ into your business as you outlined above along the way!

    • Carol Tice on

      Cheap, possibly, but I don’t know anyone who’d tell you it’s quick! I have another post on this topic coming up soon, one successful bloggers real-world story. I have yet to meet one where it was quick, and where it didn’t involve MANY hours of work to get there.

  17. Willi Morris on

    Can’t we agree that in order to do *anything* in life it requires money? I’m happy to say I have a loving and wonderful spouse who is supporting my endeavor, but quite frankly, to say you can start up anything at all without a red cent is just plain ludicrous. Even to get help from social services requires a bus ticket, a cab fare or gas to put into your car.

    I am not going to sit here and say I’ve spent oodles to start my business, because I haven’t. I’m still using a cruddy, free WordPress site and won’t be able to venture to self-hosting for at least another month or two. But I am utilizing the resources I already have, as Carol mentioned – internet, a computer, an iPad…things that were actually gifted to me or being paid for by someone else.

    So even if your startup didn’t use any of *your* money, it is using someone else’s…

    • Rob on

      Cost me nothing to sign up for job search sites, but I did have to pay an internet cafe a dollar an hour for their services because I couldn’t afford internet at home. Fortunately, I knew the owners, so they let me use it on credit and I paid them at the end of each month for about 5 or 6 months. Technically, then, I started with no money, but used my meager earnings to build my career.

      • Carol Tice on

        You’re confirming my statement that you have to plow early money back into the startup.

        Yes, you may already have a computer, etc….but there’s a limit to how far you can usually take it without investing anything in the biz.

        And I never said you can’t get started on next to nothing…it’s just so hard to grow it from there into a nice living without any investment.

        • Rob Schneider on

          I agree with you – now. I was taken aback by the title and message at first, but it was a reaction based on previous experience and had little to do with what you were really trying to say. Basically, I haven’t lived in the US since the time of easy credit and back then, I saw many people borrow big to launch their dream business, only to fail. For example, I made custom furniture in San Francisco back then (the 80s). I shared a space with friends and did alright. Another friend thought that was too small time, so he borrowed a bunch of money and set up a big workshop. He went out of business in less than a year. I knew it would happen – he had neither the client base nor experience to make it work.

          On the other hand, I’ve seen way too many internet hustlers who say if you just buy their $39.95 ebook or course, you can quit your day job and enjoy a 6 figure income in no time, with little effort. The bottom line is that I now appreciate your dose of reality here.

  18. Jennifer Montoya on

    Thank you for your honest post Carol. I have been scouring the internet for over a year on “how to freelance at little to no cost” and have wasted a lot of my time. I have a full time job and had to get a second job to support my family and pay bills. Needless to say the lighbulb just went on and I figured out how NOT to listen to the countless people saying I can start up my business in 6 months and quit my job.

    I think I have finally found the right posts to read, all which give great advice (yours included). Not only am I getting great advice, I am receiving REAL feedback and people reaching out who have already been there, done that and are willing to share.

    I also want to add that I understand you have to pay to play, but also you HAVE to do the work, in order to get results. Since I have a full time JOB, it will take me longer to establish my business, but now that I am heading in the right direction I can take my time and make sure I am doing things right.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Jennifer —

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      I’m not here to say you couldn’t start up your business and quit your job over a 6 month period…I’ve worked with quite a few writers in Freelance Writers Den who’ve done exactly that.

      But I don’t recommend doing it with no cash reserves, and there are definitely some costs to launching a business. I like to see writers do it in a way that’s sustainable and can be successful, and in my experience that usually involves having some kind of cash cushion or access to credit to tide you over that month when the client forgets to mail a check. 😉

  19. clara Mathews on

    It is possible to start a freelance writing business without much money. But as the saying goes, “it takes money to make money.”

    Thanks Carol for making this clear to new freelancers. The nature of the business means that your income will vary from month to month. If you can’t afford to invest $25 per month on your business, freelancing may not be the best way to go.

    I started freelancing with a small investment in some business cards and a premium wordpress website theme. The idea of the $100 Startup is possible, but you have to keep investing in your business.

    At the very minimum, you will need a computer with an internet connect and up to date software. While there are tons of free programs out there, you still need to spend money on business cards, networking events, and so many other things.

  20. Katherine Swarts on

    I’d note, in light of the several testimonies here, that this thread seems to have proved the validity of the first thought that would occur to most people when they read the post title (at least until they got to the “no one dares name it” part): that “the ONE item you need for success” is determination. You can succeed with almost no money IF you have determination (at a level inversely proportionate to the money you lack, and mixed well with sound judgment, solid self-understanding, and get-your-hands-dirty stick-to-itiveness); but there are probably a lot more people who have thrown a fortune at everything that promised to make them rich writers quickly or that worked for someone else, only to wind up with little to show for it because they expected whatever they bought to do all the work for them. That’s really not too different from those who are pleading for good advice when they “don’t have money to pay for it”–laziness and a self-centered refusal to accept reality are the great equalizers of business failures in all fields and backgrounds.

  21. Jayne Georgette on

    WOW! My hats off to you Carol. To write something like this, takes lot courage and guts, but it seems that you do have a great audience that appreciate your sincerity.

    A lesson learned: sometimes you need to be brutally honest in order to get your message through. People that are able to be honest with themselves actually appreciate your “telling them as it is”, while still trying to provide them with food for thoughts.

    In reality, it is not a rocket science and you did not reveal the secret of the year. However, people prefer to put their head in the sand, rather than look in the mirror and see reality.

    As I said above, congratulations for a great piece; I am positive it was not easy to write this and you took a chance that in this case worked out great.

    I just have one comment with respect to Chris Guillebeau’s book. He repeats in the book multiple times that these are individual experiences that may not apply to everyone or work for others. People can take back ideas, methods, avenues for building a business and it may or may not work. So is life.

    I do not think, and I did not have a feeling from reading your post, that you want to discourage people from taking risks, or give up their dreams, just do it intelligently, with a well thought-out plan.

    • Carol Tice on

      I think Chris is great…just that people read book titles like that and make assumptions they shouldn’t about how easy this will be to turn into something that pays their bills.

      And you’re exactly right — I want people to think and have a plan, so they don’t go broke trying to freelance. Glad you got it!

      • Rob Schneider on

        Okay, now I get it. This post has been bugging me because if I’d read it before I started freelancing it may have discouraged me from trying. For most of my adult life, I just freelanced occasionally because I believed I needed a degree or [insert another excuse]. In retrospect, I am grateful that circumstances forced me to start freelancing for a living, but with planning, confidence and a mentor, I may not have had to do it the hard way.

    • Katherine Swarts on

      I agree on the “may not apply to everyone” point. I’ve also tried copying others’ systems letter-for-letter and it just doesn’t wash–plus, it helps sour you on the whole idea of investing money because you’ve wasted so much on things that don’t “work” because you weren’t committed to using them effectively. Everyone has to integrate the key principles with their own situations, temperaments, and abilities, and that can be more work than scraping up cold hard cash.

  22. Daphnée Kwong Waye on

    Great post! It’s nice to have someone at least willing to put the truth directly before us. It’s a harsh reality indeed, but it’s always been like that in any kind of business. And writing is a business. So we have to accept it, especially if it’s one’s biggest dreams.
    Personally, I’m not much interested in freelancing, but more in becoming a fiction writer, which I’ll do as part-time of course, since it’s as time-consuming, costly and risky as well. Searching for a full-time stable job is a must at first!

  23. Lance McDonald on

    Hey Carol! I’m not much of a business wiz but opne thing I can tell you for sure it that you absolutely need some kind of funds starting out. That’s goes for any busniess rather its online or in-store/office. I just started a business online myself and it cost me. You need the cash if you want to win these battles with your competition. I already know that once my business gets buzz then let the online battles begin. It’s all about money, tactics, and action. Live by the three creeds and you should be just fine. Great post!

  24. Rose on

    For me, this is completely untrue. I started with nothing (pretty much only a few Ramen in the pantry). I had shutoff notices for utilities, etc. I made $105 in my first three days. Of course, I got some food and paid the Internet bill. Then, the next 10 days I made enough to pay enough on the light bill so satisfy the power company. Then, I just kept going. I made friends who were kind people and offered me tidbits of advice free of charge. In my second year, I paid $10 for 1,000 business cards. So, technically I did invest $10 into my business. Other than that, nothing. I am close to a six-figure income writing full-time and with the exception of that $10 for business cards, I did not invest a cent. Things like food, electricity, Internet, gas, etc. are bills I would have if I was a cashier, waitress, doctor, college student or writer. They are not exclusive to writing.

    • Rob Schneider on

      Thank you, Rose! I tried to make the same point, but it went ignored. I had nothing when I started and literally needed money to eat. No portfolio, no website and certainly no business suit. I’m not close to six figures like you, but at $30 an hour, I could now make a living writing in the US or Australia and am in a position where I can cull some clients as I find better opportunities. At “close to a six figure income,” you’re a freelance writing success in anybody’s book. Well done!

  25. Andrea on

    I love this article and I think your points ring true whether you’re a writer or any other type of freelancer. I left my job in December 2011 with plans to write full time – I had an article published in Reader’s Digest and (erroneously) took that as a sign that it was time to go solo. I was at that point where my day job was interfering with my freelance work, so I thought, “Why not?”

    After a few excellent months, the bottom dropped out last March and I started flying through my savings. I am very fortunate to have skills in web design/development – which is what I should have done in the first place – and started my web design business just in time to save myself. But I realize that not everyone has a lucrative backup plan… I got very lucky. And if I told you how much money I spent getting my business started, you’d probably pass out! There’s just no way to do anything well without spending some money.

    On a slightly biased note, I will say that I think a well-designed website is an absolute must regardless of industry. But other commenters are correct in saying that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune – a free WordPress site with its own domain can be a great way to get started and have a presence online; you can always upgrade down the road when it makes more financial sense.

  26. Matthew Ross on

    Thanks for an awesome post, Carol. In the age of Internet snake oil, it’s nice to hear a little truth.

    Starting out, I found myself with very little extra cash to get things going. I quickly decided two things: 1) My business would have to be launched in stages, and 2) I was going to bootstrap it and not incur any debt.

    I managed this by putting together a list of what I was going to need (including monthly access to the Freelance Writers Den–plug, plug) and then headed off to the content mills. I figured they wanted to use me for their nefarious ends, so why not use them? I had no intention of giving my life away there, but they were a great place to grab quick cash to invest in my writing business without dipping into an already tight household budget. The trick is not getting sucked in and moving on ASAP.

    Just a thought.

  27. Luana Spinetti on

    I guess it all comes down to being realistic about one own’s financial situation. I live with my parents and I’m not getting married and move out until I’ve reached a decent yearly earning income. That might take another two years, but those two years have been discussed and over-discussed between me and my fiancé and my parents, so that they know I need to invest two thirds of my current income to keep it going and push it forward.

    Sometimes a bit of realism and honesty to ourselves is what it takes.

  28. Jamie Alexander on

    I think this is a different way of looking at it that people might not realize.

    You could be really stupid and say someone could sleep in a doorway while using the public library during the day to write, but realistically everyone will need money to start. It’s not nice having nothing, so people better start putting their cents away.

  29. Esther on

    Seriously, cost is not a valid barrier to setting up your own website in 2012. You can create a pretty slick looking site on WordPress for free in under an hour, then buy your own domain name for about $10.

  30. Rob Schneider on

    I started my freelance career because I WAS broke and could find no other way to make any kind of living at all. My first clients paid me one cent a word. I wasn’t in a position to argue, so I wrote 30 to 40 articles a week just to survive and in my “spare time” looked for other opportunities. For about a year, I got all my work on Elance and made about 2 cents a word. Now I’m averaging $30 an hour, have as much work as I need, and even turn down work occasionally. I know that’s not top dollar and I have higher goals, but that’s a hell of an improvement, you have to admit.

    Awhile back, I wrote a review of a fantastic article I read by a “successful” New York based freelance writer. Your readers can look at that or go directly to the article for yet another take on freelancing, but I do want to share one quote. The guy went in for an interview at Fortune magazine wearing a dirty tie because he only had $7.00 to his name, but plenty of guts. This is what he wrote about that interview: “Then he asked me, without looking at me, if I read Fortune. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m young and poor. Why would I read Fortune?’ The silence went on long enough that I got distracted by the thought that his office was bigger than my studio in Harlem. Then he laughed and said he liked honesty, and hired me.”

    Here’s the URL of the full article: I can’t recommend the article highly enough. It’s brilliant.

    • Carol Tice on

      Wow, that is some article, Rob! Great read for anyone wondering what it’s really like to try to crack big markets and what it takes to keep going.

      BTW your link isn’t working for your site…not sure why.

      • Rob Schneider on

        I didn’t notice your reply until just now. So glad you read that article! It was one of the best I’ve read and I wanted to share it. Got a little carried away the other day and removed the dates from my WP blogs, not realizing it would apply to past blogs as well. That’s why my link didn’t work for you.

  31. Ken on

    Holy Crap!

    Maybe the best post I’ve read this month! I know that if I didn’t have a full-time job in the Army right now…I’d be hurtin’ for certain!

    I’m taking it slow and am eligible to retire from the military in 2 or 3 years. I’m hoping to take my time and transition slowly.

    Dang, I love this site…

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Ken — thanks for your service. And glad you enjoyed the post!

      I’ve had military members in the Den before, doing the same thing you’re doing — laying groundwork so that when you get out of the military you don’t have to look for a job. Given our economy and the tough challenges vets have been facing in employment, I think it’s a super-smart idea!

      Do you know Nathan Hangen? If not you should connect — that’s exactly what he did, very successfully. His company now is “building digital empires” and he’s at He’s into building apps & stuff now, but started as a blogger.

  32. Sophie Lizard on

    Yes! Thank you, Carol, for making this point clear.

    I started my freelance writing career with nothing, and ran it on next to nothing for the first year. And yes, I succeeded in the end, but to anyone else I’d say DON’T do what I did! The only reason I didn’t struggle to pay the rent was that, um, I was already technically homeless when I *started* freelancing.

    After taking a year to reach the point where I had some money to invest in my business, I’ve really seen the difference. Keeping my technology up-to-date and buying some high-quality training have made it much easier to attract and work with better clients. There’s no way I’d ever want to start a business with zero cash again!

    • Carol Tice on

      Well, you bring up a good point, Sophie — lower your nut to nearly zero and it removes some financial challenges! I’ve actually worked with women living in transitional housing, just off the street. When you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easier to risk than if you’ve got a house, car, and a couple kids to support. But you can do it either way, with the right approach.

  33. Perry Gamsby on

    As one who started a private investigation business in the mid80s with that month’s car payment, I echo every remark made, Carol. I have started several freelance businesses on frayed shoe string budgets and they all teetered on the brink, some went over the edge others developed through the hard work and sacrifice you mention. I now teach how to make a living online with your writing and find too many who come to my courses expect to do the four hours a week by the pool thing on zero capital. I usually put these people onto the ‘clients’ who expect writing work should be free because we enjoy writing etc.

  34. Jovell on

    When I opened your newsletter, I have not yet enabled the “display images ” option, so what I read as the start of your post was something like “Asian women keep secrets.” That really got my attention. 🙂

    It’s true, there are very few posts on sites for freelancers revealing the brutal truth that you need to have some emergency fund saved up before you can really launch a full-time freelance business. I don’t know why but we call it a business so it should give the connotation that it needs a start-up capital like any other business. Maybe the “free” in freelance gives it that impression that anybody can just dive into it without spending a dime.

    As for me, I did or have 4 of the things you mentioned before I was really able to launch full blast as a full-time work at home professional.

    I had a full-time “night” job and worked on my part-time freelance gig during the day for 2 to 4 hours.

    My husband backed me up and served as my sponsor…well until now he still gives the same support even if I don’t ask for it anymore.

    We lowered our expenses and focused on spending only for necessities.

    We also used our credit cards on days when we need to make both ends meet.

    It took about a year of doing all these “sacrifices” but it was all worth it. Even my husband and other relatives agree with this.

    I’m able to work at home, earn a good monthly income and take care of my family all at the same time.

    I think, like any other job, having the “right support system” will allow anybody to succeed as a freelancer.

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks for noticing that I’m getting my act together on providing alt tags for my photos, Jovell! Only took 5 years. 😉

      And thanks for sharing how you did it. I think you’re write about the “free” in freelance problem!

  35. Jon on

    Good evening!

    I’m actually a new follower of your blog and while my business is in technology and not writing, it’s been my experience that a person can learn a lot about running a business from those who are successful at it.

    Like many of the readers above, I applaud you for telling this unwanted truth. You’re going to have to shell out money no matter what (sometimes more or less, depending on your chosen field). There’s also a misconception that some things are out of a beginning business’ budget. These days website hosting is relatively inexpensive, designers are willing to work with their customers, there are companies out there that will print your business cards and letterhead at affordable prices and so much more. You just have to look.

    What it boils down to, in my opinion, is, if you want to be a professional, you sometimes have to pay the price to look professional.

    Thank you again for not only sharing this “truth” but also for sharing your experiences for the rest of us to learn from.

    Take care! Jon

  36. Karen on

    Thank you for having the guts to say “You need money to make money!” Whether it’s forking over $14.00 a month to get yourself a toll free number for your business (my husband just did that yesterday for his business) so you seem more professional or paying $5.00 per month for website hosting (what I currently pay), you still need a little cash to make cash. And I’m glad you came out and said it. I see a lot of things these days along the lines of “make money without spending any!”

    Your honesty is part of the reason I keep coming back and devouring your blog!


  37. Michael Martine on

    Late to the party here (was busy and only just saw your tweet, Carol) and I don’t often comment.

    BUT I will say that I agree with Carol on this one. You can’t really start for nothing and expect to be taken seriously or make anything. Even the bare minimum of starting costs: hosting, domain, setting up PayPal, email marketing services, web/blog design products or services, invoicing and CRM services, business cards…

    And let’s not forget about training. You don’t know jack about freelancing when you begin. Where will you get this information and how much will it save you and help you?

    The list goes on.

    Granted, some of these aren’t big expenses. But also consider this: whatever you don’t spend in money, you will spend in time.

    And if you don’t have the time to do it correctly, then you also don’t have the time to do it poorly. You may as well just forget it. And no, I’m not talking about perfectionism. I’m talking about entry-level baseline competence and effectiveness.

    I started Remarkablogger in 2008 and for a year I worked 60 – 80 hours a week because I still had a full-time job. It practically killed me, but when I was able to nearly equal my full-time job income, I cut the cord and went solo. I funded my startup from my “real” job.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Michael — thanks for weighing in! So true — when you buy training, you save time.

      Time is the big problem in starting a freelance business — do you have time to figure it all out before you’re evicted? If not, you need money to buy an accelerator that makes it go faster. Love your story. I worked crazy hours launching this blog, too!

  38. Nida Sea on

    My two cents. Here it goes:

    This reality and truth is actually business 101. You can’t make something out of nothing, the same way you can’t make money without investing more money. For example, when I discovered a year before my job was going to be eliminated at the pharmacy where I worked, and I would be demoted, I began purchasing what I needed to start working from home. I knew from the moment I was told my job was going away I needed to do something else.

    There is always an investment when you pursue something. If the government is paying for your college tuition, you are investing your time. Later you’ll invest money in your education when you have to pay back the loans. You invest time and money into certain webinars, books, materials, and lessons to learn your freelance writing gig.

    What I was taught as a kid was that “nothing comes for free and if you want something bad enough, you’ll do what you need to get it.” My mom totally drilled that into me. And, paying $25 dollars for the Den membership isn’t really all that hard to cover. Learning to manage your budget and letting go of unnecessary things like cable and things that are not a necessity can help get you that extra $25 dollars.

    This line of work isn’t easy and I found out the hard way. Regarding Carol’s tips on the post about “How to freelance when you’re broke” is a perfect example of my own mistake. Yes, my job title was being eliminated, and I was being demoted to my former pay, but I could have still worked there while building my freelance business on the side. Looking back, I wouldn’t have suffered as much as I did.

    Great post, Carol!

  39. David Gillaspie on

    Hi Carol, Thanks for posting on such a taboo subject: money from the writer’s pocket.

    So far my start up costs are $300 for a class on finding the right niche, $300 for domain and website, $500 for screenwriting class to learn dramatic structure.

    On my dark and rainy day in Oregon (yesterday) I took an approach to a job fair that seemed reasonable: I pitched the on site business a Social Media plan. Lots of smiles, lots of “We’ve got marketing and sales handling it.”

    This freelance blogger understands one thing: try and figure it out, then do it again. Reading your posts are a great reference for my sponsor/wife.

    What I tell her, “Honey, Carol says…”
    What she hears, “The check is not in the mail.”

    You make a difference, Carol, and your posts light the path to success.

  40. Rebecca Lee Baisch on

    I sing this same tune to most of the would-be clients that want me to write grants for them. I probably started my freelance business as inexpensively as anyone, and it still cost me about 3 grand the first year. Part of it is desperation, part of it is naivete, but mostly it’s the “I want everything free” syndrome. There really isn’t any free lunch.

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks for sharing your real numbers, Rebecca! I feel like the comments to this post are adding a lot of valuable, real-world experience for new writers to check out if they’re researching getting into freelancing.

  41. Pinar Tarhan on

    I worked at a mind-numbing full-time job that inspired me further to follow my dreams, so I took my time to research and learn about blogging and writing. When I left after 6 months, I had some cash in the bank, so I was ready for emergencies. But that cash had its limits, and I panicked, and took some crappy gigs- mostly because I didn’t know any better. But when I took a part-time job that I loved, it gave me all the freedom and motivation I needed. I’ll probably keep the job unless I move to Hollywood or something : ) It gives me material, beats the loner blues and makes me happy.

    ı have to say some parts of your post made me feel like I was reading my own diary or something 🙂
    And I do need to add that I agree with spending money for your business. The more I invested into improving myself and my websites, the better results I got. I am not suggesting to spend recklessly on stuff that’s not beneficial, but I got the returns on my carefully chosen investments.

    • Carol Tice on

      Well put, Pinar. It’s not about throwing money at the issue of getting your freelance biz going, but asking where the shortcuts are you could pay for that would make this happen faster and at a level that would really sustain you.

  42. LindaH on

    Your article reminded me of what my mother taught me years earlier — you must spend money to make money. She believed in me and in what I did, and was a teacher by trade–so I learned tons from her. Plus my dad was a self-employed merchant for 50 years. I had an idea of what was needed when I stepped into freelancing.

    Your article speaks true and hits the nail. And you’re right, most people don’t want to discuss how it takes money to make money. In a way when I was laid off and stepped back into freelance writing I had an edge–but it didn’t last too long.

    In a way I had an advantage when I was laid off 3 years ago after 13 years in Corporate America. During the last two years of full-time employment I pursued a Masters in Business Management. Focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, I wrote two business plans and a marketing plan for my freelance writing business to complete school projects. Immediately after my layoff my severance funded a 3-month writing workshop that set the groundwork for what everyone else has said since then.

    Any you’re right, you do need the income. I had three major surgeries unexpectedly, lost my medical coverage because of COBRA’s high fees, and lived off unemployment supplementing income through freelance gigs. I struggled but paid off my vehicle (YAY!) and eventually stopped my cable TV (don’t miss it at all!). I live on a shoestring, it’s feast or famine, but the hard work and resume writing has paid off. My website brings me more business; I’m in networking groups that have brought repeat freelance gigs; and my free advertising has brought me clients. My business is growing but it’s a constant to keep the cash flow positive to pay bills and cover the rent.

    It’s not an easy business, being self-employed never is. It looks easy because the pros work hard in the background and have built a business from their wisdom and experience. Michael Jordan made basketball look easy, but he worked hard to reach that point. Richard Branson is wealthy and makes it look easy, but he’s been an entrepreneur since childhood. It still requires hard work, funding, and focus.

    Once I found my focus I started making better money. It was hard. It took me three years. But now that I realize my niche market, market toward that goal, I’m starting to see more income building. To reach that point took time. If I hadn’t had backup funding I’d never have made it.

    Thanks for this post. People need to hear it. Hopefully some who did will so some soul searching to see if they’re really cut out to be a freelance writer. Well done yet again, Carol!

  43. Tom Ewer on

    Hey Carol,

    I agree with your statement when taken literally but I don’t agree with the message. I’m trying to think of anything I spent in my process of building a freelance writing business that was absolutely necessary. I’ll take the list in your post as examples:

    – A decent-looking website: this doesn’t have to cost anything — even the technically/design-challenged can knock up a decent-looking site with a free theme such as Twenty Twelve.

    – Direct-mail campaign etc: not necessary (in my opinion).

    – Professional outfit: I’ve had two in-person client meetings in 18 months, both of which have been conducted in jeans and a shirt 😉

    – Computer: you’re right here…but all of your readers already have one.

    – Paid Internet: as above.

    – Email provider: GMail is free.

    – Web host: not strictly necessary — you could go with for instance.

    – Stationary: not necessary — I didn’t have a business card until the middle of last year and I’ve never handed one to a prospective client.

    I think you can launch a successful freelance career without spending a penny. Don’t get me wrong — it would be tough as hell and you’d have to hustle like mad, working harder than you might if you invested some money in key areas (e.g. hiring a web designer), and you might not advance as quickly as you would otherwise, but there is no doubt in my mind that it *is* possible. I pretty much did it myself.

    *My* answer to Kay would be a (perhaps more polite) version of the following:

    1. Realize that you’re going to screw up at times but that the learning process will be invaluable. There is no getting around this, even with the best mentor in the world at your beck and call.

    2. Subscribe to blogs like Carol’s and lap up all of the ridiculously good (and completely free) advice that is on offer.

    3. Stop making excuses and start hustling. You don’t *need* money, you don’t *need* expert advice, and you don’t need to “start off on the right foot” (whatever that means) to create a successful business.



    • Carol Tice on

      For every rule there’s an exception, Tom, and you might be it! I think very few could pull off what you’ve done.

      Having been a reader of your blog, I think you had a level of hustle and willingness to put it out there that few writers show.

      And you hit a great point, too — fear of missteps has a lot of writers paralyzed…and no amount of spending on the business will get you a result unless you can get over that.

      • Tom Ewer on

        In fairness Carol, if I put my penchant for pedantry to one side for a moment (which I find difficult ;-)), money certainly helps a great deal. I wouldn’t actually recommend that someone strive to spend nothing — it’ll certainly be easier with a bit of investment. I think I agree with the spirit of your message, just not the letter.

        Thanks for a thought-provoking post and for giving me the inspiration for a post of my own!

        • Carol Tice on

          Coolness…drop us a link here when you put it up!

          This one’s already inspired at least one other post…check the trackbacks below for the one that calls my post ‘tripe’… Which I find weak. Doesn’t she know I’m responsible for the destruction of the United States? (Comment I got on a recent post I did for Forbes.)

          • Katherine Swarts on

            Guess you mean the second “faceless” comment, the one by Dave Richard that took you to task for writing “Starbucks Will Make Millions Off [instead of ‘From’] Its New Reusable Cup.” With all due allowances for looser standards on post comments, I wonder if this patriotic grammar pedant ever noticed that HE twice violated the U. S. rules of punctuation by putting a comma, then a period, OUTSIDE the closing of the quote.

          • Carol Tice on

            Yeah…it was pretty funny. Like all trolls.

            But I feel so empowered! Look at me…destroyer of worlds. But, really? Let’s not take ourselves too seriously, folks. And one typo or piece of slang is not going to cause the fall of the American empire.

    • Kevin Carlton on

      If you’re building a business where clients seek you rather than you seek clients then I totally agree that business cards are a complete waste of money.
      Not so keen on using WordPress templates though, as you run the risk of looking like a clone.
      Then again, we are talking about starting a business with practically no money, so I guess a template website is a million times better than none at all.

  44. Erica on

    I love your no-nonsense approach, Carol.

    Freelancing has low overhead and start up costs, but not none. I’ve had to pay for web hosting, business license, business cards, office supplies and a ton of books to learn what I’m doing. Not to mention time spent (that we don’t get paid for) learning online, reading those books and building our own online presence.

    I’m lucky that when I was started freelancing, it was because I was laid off, which qualified me for unemployment benefits. And, I have a fiance to help when I’m struggling. We planned for this, knowing that corporate copywriting was a volatile and kept our living costs low. I also saw my lay off coming and was able to build a cushion.

    I’ve still had to take some low-paying gigs and a long-term corporate copywriting contract to get through the holidays. But I’ve also taken that time to ramp up, keep marketing and maintain a couple side clients.

    Sometimes, you do what you’ve got to do to keep those lights on. And I’m not above taking a side job if I need to.

  45. Tom Bentley on

    To be fair to Guillebeau, I just saw him speak, and he cautioned that people shouldn’t just quit their day jobs—he promoted that budding entrepreneurs should start their projects on the side, and work up to full-time, when it was clear the startup was viable.

    But Carol, you are on the mark with having the backup dough to deal with the lean times, which are almost inevitable. I’ve gone back and forth from corporate work to freelancing a couple of times, but always had—and very much needed—a little mattress cash to make sleeping without obvious income a little more comfortable.

    • Carol Tice on

      Oh, absolutely — but I think a lot of people read that book cover and think yeah! I only need $100 and I’ll be raking in the bazillions.

      It’s amazing how that lumpy mattress can be sleep-promoting.. 😉

  46. Kevin Carlton on


    When you haven’t much cash, having a supportive partner really helps.

    Mine certainly has been that, although she does do her nut sometimes when she thinks about how much more stable things would be if I just had a steady job.

    To me, there are two other things that are really important if you’re starting a freelance business from scratch and don’t have much capital to put into it:

    1. Lots of time and patience
    2. An ability to postpone gratification

  47. Susie Klein on

    Painful post Carol. I think I have done all that I can without money. I have over 300 articles on the web, most were for pay but not enough. I set up a writing website for free. I blog, guest blog, write Fb Notes and Fb links to my blogs and writer website. I have also contacted local small businesses but no bites so far. I only have one freelance client and that small income is helping us pay bills.
    Guess this caught me on a day when I feel discouraged. I love your site and the encouraging words you have sent my way this last year.
    My writer site:
    My blog:

    • Carol Tice on

      Sounds like you’re finding this out the hard way…it is hard to position yourself as a pro without pro tools…and they cost money.

      But once you’ve identified the obstacle to ramping your business, you can work on solving it. 😉

  48. Dianna O'Brien on

    Love his post! It is a business — and editors will offer me assignments without saying how much it pays. But today, I ask. Also, another myth is that writers are like pot roasts — done. Once I tuned into the fact that I need to continue to hone my skills and learn new things in a more concentrated way than just catch as catch can, things really turned around for me. I listen to the Den information, ask questions and have a work coach. All of these things are investments in my business. Thanks, Carol. Great no-nonsense information helps.

  49. Emily McIntyre on

    Great post, Carol. I had a website in place already for my harp performance business, and when I changed career tracks I paid for a no-ad design. So that was about $350 a year. (Now I use wordpress, so have it at about $120). I also bought business cards and have all the equipment needed in an office.

    I’m about to invest in the Writer’s Den membership, and plan to continue with educational opportunities as they come.

    Two years in, finally starting to make more than my goal amount per month.

    Thinking that you can start without skills, without investment, and without any expertise is a complete bust, in my opinion. It takes time to learn the business, to figure out how to play the pitching game, though if one happens on the right resources immediately that period could be shortened.

    I love your website and have been deeply impacted (in a positive way) by your continual great advice on making a living writing.


    • Carol Tice on

      Wow, so glad to hear I’m helping! Since that is why I bother to get out of bed. 😉

      Appreciate your sharing your ramp story…I think people also need to hear that this WILL take time. As Ally said below, I don’t know where people get the idea freelancing is something that could instantly fix their poverty problem…but it not usually going to work like that.

      Hope to see you in the Den soon (watch your email if you’re on the waitlist)…

  50. Ally on

    This is a fantastic post, Carol. Thanks for saying the unsayable! As an editor and publishing consultant, I have a few of these kinds of conversations every month with potential clients who are would-be authors. They’ve been laid off, they’re poor single mothers, they’re retirees on a fixed income, they hate their day job…whatever the story is, the bottom line is the same: They want to self-publish or get a book deal from a publisher and see their dreams of being a published author realized. They think publishing a book is a magic bullet that will solve all their personal and financial problems. But like the woman who emailed you, they want to do this without spending any money and they want it to happen relatively soon. They don’t have a website. They don’t have a platform. They have no prior publication credits. They claim to be unable to afford writing workshops or a professional editor or designer, and though their manuscripts are far from publishable, they want to get a book out quickly. My answer (as kindly phrased as possible) is that if all of the above is true, then they can surely publish their book for free to the Kindle store or send their work to agents, but they will never see the results they desire. Publishing a book, like building a freelance writing career, is a *business*. You must be willing to invest in your business if you want to succeed. And you’re either going to pay cash to pros who have the skills you need or you’re going to invest time to learn those skills yourself (probably a little of both). But one way or the other, you’re going to invest, or you’re not going to get anywhere. Period. Thank you again for being straightforward and honest with your readers about this fundamental truth!

    • Carol Tice on

      Ally, great point — it’s a similar scene in book publishing. Though I’d say the key missing element there is often the sweat equity. I hear from lots of authors who ring me up to say, “I’ve published a book, so now I thought I’d start blogging to promote it.” Too late!

  51. annie on

    I disagree. While money does make it easier, it is not a requirement. I know because I did it.

    I know others who started out with an old laptop that was given to them and went to libraries for internet and some who are borrowing computers as they start out or go to the library.

    The fact is that you can do anything you want if you desire it bad enough. THAT is what really separates the successes from the failures.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Annie — I don’t disagree…you CAN start that way. Especially if you’re super-motivated. But it’s HARD, I think many will fail at that approach, and I’m going to say the success odds are lower, and the ramp time longer. Congrats on being among those who could totally bootstrap it!

      • annie on

        You can walk to the library. I do quite frequently. It is amazing what one can do when one wants to. I knew a gentleman who rode a bike 20 miles one way to get to work every day, and another who walked and hitched a ride to the neighboring town (about 15 miles) to work until he saved enough to repair his car when it broke down. Heck, I used to carry 2 toddlers almost 4 miles to town to get groceries when I was married. One rode piggyback, the other on my hip while I looped the grocery bags on my wrists. It sucked but we needed food.

        So yes, a person could get to the library if they wanted to without having to pay for bus fare or gasoline.

        As for how hard it was to start, I was paying my bills the first month I decided to freelance full time. Before that I just goofed off. It wasn’t hard, It was just a matter of writing x number of articles to get the money needed. Simple math.

        • Rachel on

          I think a lot of it depends on how “desperate” you are. If you know you need to make enough money to eat next week, you will find a way to do it, whether it means walking four miles, cleaning houses, or bartering your services for things you need. I have a friend who is a single mother and cuts down on things most people would consider essential (she hand washes her clothes, uses almost no electricity, makes all food from scratch, etc.).

          On the other hand, she and her three children once owned a large boat, have traveled to numerous countries for weeks at a time, and have generally done more things on their mediocre budget than people with ten times her income.

          It’s not so much that she doesn’t spend money on things- she does- just that she chooses what to spend her money on (and nothing is sacred – they don’t even use toilet paper; they use a shpritzer to wash off and then dry themselves off with clean cloths!).

          Desperation is the mother of invention…

        • Carol Tice on

          Well, you bring up a great point — there is a lot you CAN bootstrap…but many people don’t have the drive to do it the hard way.

          The thing I worry about with the “you don’t need any money” philosophy is if one thing goes wrong, the game is pretty much up. One medical problem or unforseen bill (here in the US, anyway, where healthcare is far from free), and the whole freelance dream can come crashing down.

          Also many people don’t find enough client work in month 1 to pay their bills. I had 12 years of staff writing and it still took me about 90 days to ramp my business…and I was lucky to have severance pay to live on the meanwhile.

          • Rachel on

            I do think you’re right about needing to spend money. Just to pay for hosting, an e-mail hosting service, e-book covers-just some very basic things online that everyone has, costs. The thing is that most of these people remind of some clients who say they have no money to pay for something, and ask for a major discount, but then turn around and pay for some other comparable service.

            And really, the majority of people who want something for free or cheap are the worst kind of customers; an old boss of mine calls them “all-day suckers” because they take up so much of your time.

            Someone who is really serious about wanting results will do what it takes to get the money they need to succeed. They may not be able to pay big bucks right away, they might have to start off with something small (like the Den), but they’ll get to it, even if they have to save up.

          • Carol Tice on

            And that’s the problem — come off as some bootstrapper who’s too cheap to invest $50 in their business, and they’ll want the cheapest possible price out of you.

          • Katherine Swarts on

            I hear THAT kind of story from all contexts in life: people “don’t have enough money” for something important and their unspoken reason is that they are spending all their money on whims and luxuries–and on interest for the debts they run up thereof. There was the full-time employee who walked into her supervisor’s office and announced, “I just bought a new car and I need a raise to make the payments.” What she got was kicked straight to the top of the company’s layoff list.

          • Carol Tice on

            When I lived in my first house we bought back in L.A., we had apartments across the street. All so many of the residents drove BMWs! I was fascinated by that. No doubt they complained often about how they ‘just couldn’t afford’ to buy a home.

            Meanwhile, we had literally taken 2 Fiat Spider 850s we bought for $500 total and Frankensteined them together into one running vehicle…and of course over time that home asset has grown greatly in value and equity, while the cars only ate cash.

            We all make these spending choices. I rarely see people who couldn’t make some changes to create a cash cushion to help them launch their freelance biz.

  52. Joseph Putnam on

    Hi Carol,

    This is a great point to make with all of your readers. Neither freelance writing nor starting an online business is a get rich quick scheme. It takes time, effort, and money. The good news is that you can build it with time and effort as you earn money, so long as you have a way to pay the bills in the mean time. As you mention, this can come from a spouse, a day job, or a part-time job. I’ve done it by working a full-time job and writing nights and weekends. Eventually you can make the leap to full-time work, but it’s better to know the financial requirements of doing so ahead of time.

  53. Anne Bodee-Galivan on

    You’re 100% correct. I spent a good bit putting together my homeschooling website three years ago because I wanted a professional-looking site. And when I look at a lot of other blogs, I realize it was money well-spent. But I remember when I was getting it going, at least one person (on a forum or something) said to me, “Why are you spending money on something that isn’t making you money yet.”

    I actually felt a little guilty, but I believed my instincts were right. And though I haven’t made money from my site, I think I can say that I’ve about broken even by now. I invested in some things that were long-term investments…for example, I got in on Headway before it was a subscription plan, so I’m grandfathered in to not have to pay any more for it ever – plus I upgraded to the developer plan so I can use it to develop additional sites…not a bad investment, in my opinion.

    And to me that’s the bottom line. When you own a business you need to invest. Whether it’s business cards or continuing ed, you have to invest. Right now, my finances are tight so I’m having to be very particular about where I invest, but if I find something (in my price bracket) that I know will give me actionable advice concerning something I need to know right now, I’ll bite. Because most of us still have a good bit of learning to do, or we probably wouldn’t be reading your blog!

    And yes, whatever you can do to cut costs, whatever you can do to put away even a little bit so that you know you can pay the light bill, do it. It’s just smart business (and life) sense.

    • Carol Tice on

      Right ON, Anne! I had the same instinct when I started paying for guest posts on this blog…when I first started, this site didn’t earn much at all. But I had this instinct that it was the right thing to do, and that it would end up building my business. I kept saying to my husband, “I see opportunity…” and he’d say, “Do it.” And I’d keep investing. It’s always turned out to be the right thing.

      I hear often from bloggers who say, “Wow, your photos are so great, how do you do it?” A: I pay for them. I think my readers deserve a visually pleasing experience! Every dime comes back to you many times over, if you spend right.

      • Anne Bodee-Galivan on

        I also pay for my photos, through Fotolia. Again, that was another item people always said, “but you can get them free!” Nevertheless, I was always concerned about the licensing issue. I don’t want to be improperly crediting something…I believe the people who post those photos deserve to be credited properly and/or paid for them, and I was pretty sure I’d get it wrong. It’s easier for me to pay for my pictures through Fotolia and they are beautiful images as well. As a matter of fact, sometimes I go back to a previous post (to tweet it, for example) and I still enjoy seeing the photo I chose for that post, whether it’s something humorous or haunting.

        I also want to offer you kudos for paying for guest posts. So many people out there want everything for free. The fact that you go the extra mile in that way is a credit to you, I think.

        • Carol Tice on

          Well thanks! But I loooove paying for guest posts. Have you checked out the quality of guest posts I get? It’s totally worth it.

          It’s sad to say that waving $50 at people could set me above the crowd…but it does. And when everyone else starts paying $50, I’ll just have to go up…

          I don’t do it for licensing – I’m totally clear on appropriate credit for the free sites I use and never worried about that. I thought my readers deserved beautiful images.

          The revelation to have about your blog is…you’re a magazine publisher. I think of mine as an awesome glossy you can’t wait to dig into, so I try to make it graphically attractive. To me that’s just respect to readers. And it’s amazing how far you can get on $1 photos, too…it really isn’t a big investment!

  54. Diane on

    Hi Carol,
    Thanks for sharing from a position of experience. We all need to reminded that pursuing a freelance career should be treated like any other “self-employed” job. It was sprinkled with class, no BS, a dash of humour, and a huge dose of reality check.

  55. Dawn McKenna on

    Hi Carol,

    I’ve been an avid reader for about two years, but this is my first comment.

    I think your post is extremely important for those contemplating making the leap into freelancing, especially if they have unrealistic expectations of almost immediate success. I have to admit, though, that I was one of your financial anomalies.

    I spent twenty years in a career I hated, waiting to either build up enough savings to write fulltime or find a way to earn a living at home so that I’d have time to write. When I discovered the possibility of online writing in 2009, I knew I was going to make the leap, despite the fact that I was a divorced Mom with three young children still at home and had no savings. However, I planned that move for almost a year.

    During my last six months of work, I cut every expense to the bone and spent my evenings and days off doing research, setting up my Elance profile, etc. When my last day rolled around on January 1, 2010, I only had about a month’s worth of expenses in the bank, but I was certain that I wasn’t making a mistake. Although being able to get back to my writing was a huge factor, my main purpose was to be able to live the kind of life with my kids that I desperately wanted.

    While I did have plenty of tight months, I made just a bit more in my first year freelancing than I did as a mid-level manager. In my second year, I made a bit less. Last year, I beat my management salary by 10k.

    I realize that I am an exception to the realities that you’ve carefully and compassionately pointed out. I’ve had several people ask me to mentor them and help them make the switch to freelancing and I haven’t suggested they do it the same way that I did. I was fortunate, I was blessed and I made it because I was doing the right thing for me, which isn’t necessarily the right thing for Dick or Jane.

    I guess my point is that people who are really serious about freelancing but have no nest egg shouldn’t take your post as an end to their dreams. It’s simply the very sound advice of a friend; advice they should remember and include in their plans.

    Thank you for all of the great information, for the lack of BS and the sprinklings of humor that make your blog one of the few I actually bother following.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Dawn — it’s so great to see a lurker come out and comment. 😉

      I don’t see your story as in contrast to my advice above at all. Everyone has their own appetite for risk. For you, careful planning and a month’s cushion was enough for you to make the leap and make it run. I think that’s great…and that your prep time probably had you ready to hit the ground running.

      My own switch came when I got the sack from a new editor at a pub, and I had $10K of severance money — maybe enough for 2 months, and that was all. I did have a partial sponsor in my DH’s job and healthcare at that time. In this economy, many of us don’t have the luxury of building up savings, and it’s into the pool.

      But if you have a framework of understanding the need to invest in your business as you’re able, you’ll be more successful.

      Congrats on exceeding your previous income! Isn’t that a kick?

  56. Rebecca Klempner on

    I totally understand where you’re coming from, Carol. Making financial investments in your freelance business before expecting profits is necessary. But, you forgot the biggest expense for many writers: childcare. The moment I sent my youngest to preschool, my productivity skyrocketed–but now I have to make sure that my budding career actually pays for the preschool.

    On the other hand, if you don’t need FT income (because you are married to a FT-employed spouse, because you have other independent income, etc.) and have a very long-term picture in mind, there’s no need to make a giant investment up front if you write fiction or personal essays for small magazines. Just work on writing as well as you can and subbing frequently. You can’t expect to make profit anytime soon, but the reputation you build and the clips you collect can help you later.

    This won’t work for business writing, technical writing, editing, or anyone who needs to pay bills independently and soon. Yes, you’ll still need to invest in the computer, occasional classes, web access, etc. You won’t get big-time clients. But the cost is spread out more over time.

    So I guess that I’m saying Carol isn’t wrong, just that some freelance writers have a slightly different profile.

    • Carol Tice on

      Oh duh! I paid thousands, and know so many writer-moms in that boat. It is a big expense that hopefully makes us get serious about finding good clients and meeting deadlines, because we have to cover that childcare nut.

      But we have that childcare expense when we have a day job too…so guess I didn’t see it as a NEW cost of freelancing.

  57. Marisa Swanson on

    True. True. True! I wish that I would have definitely looked at more resources and learned more before I jumped in about what it would take. Thankfully I have a “sponsor” but it still hasn’t been easy. There have been times when I literally could not leave the house for want of money to do anything or even buy gas. After 1.5 years of full time freelancing, things are just now starting to even out. And I’m not sure that I’ll stay out of the day-job thing forever. There may come a time when I go back to day time work and use free time to continue freelancing.

    You do have to be motivated. I don’t think I’ve spent nearly as much as I should, because I couldn’t, but the bare minimum has been website and domain purchases, b-cards, a couple of tutorials from you and Linda, an Elance scrip (whatever you want to say about it, it’s an effective way to build one’s portfolio and get work on short notice) and a Media Bistro scrip, books on freelancing and small business, and in the future I’ll upgrade my LinkedIn account.

    For anyone who’s thinking about freelancing full time I’d say, get that portfolio built up first, save money, use your day job money to buy b-cards and other things you need…and really quit when your freelancing income starts to equal your day job money or you’re turning down freelance work b/c you have a day job. Just my humble opinion.

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks for sharing your real-life story of ramping your business…I think we need more of this to help people see how to budget and how to spend their resources to launch their freelancing writing biz.

  58. Sarah L. Webb on

    Yep! I started by purchasing a domain name, buying a copy of The Writer’s Market, moving in with my brother, and getting a flexible part-time teaching gig.

    Then I tried paid Facebook ads and I’m shocked at how much growth and engagement I’m seeing for only a few bucks a day. Now that I’ve done the experiment and seen how well the ads work, I’m not afraid to increase my budget for that.

    While I’m cautious about how I spend my money, I am willing to spend it. I think it’s important to spend money wisely, on efforts that move us closer to our goals, and not just on any offer that comes our way.

    That said, I have yet to spend more than $200 on anything other than my domain name and hosting. But now, I’m making it a priority to pay for something like The Writer’s Den, because I can only advance my career beyond a certain point on my own. To get beyond that point, It’s clear that I need much more help. I know it’s not fair to ask for free help, when I myself am trying to get paid for my own time. Investing always comes with some risk, but there’s no real success without some risks, calculated as they might be.

    • Carol Tice on

      Wow, I’m fascinated on the Facebook ads! Don’t know any freelancer who’s winning at that. Would you do a guest post for us about how you designed your ad, what it said, how much you paid, how it paid off, what type of clients you got/what they paid, etc??? Would LOVE to have.

      I actually went to a great training at NMX on Facebook ads, and I’m intrigued, but mostly thinking of it for promoting this blog and the Den, not my freelancing. I’d love to hear how to apply that to freelance writing…and I’m sure readers would too!

      • Sarah L. Webb on

        Of course I’d love to do a guest post. I’ll send you an email with more details. I’m using it more for audience building than for attracting clients, so that would affect the angle of the post.

      • Patricia Proctor on

        Great follow-up Carol. I would certainly love to read a guest post on making Facebook work! So glad you are monitoring your comments so closely – that is certainly not true everywhere. It truly makes you stand out.

        I hear over and over that it is so important – but still you don’t see it that much. I have to say knowing that if I leave a comment on your site – it’s at least going to be seen – and heard – is worth a lot. Not saying you have to answer everyone – but just that you are an active presence is awesome.

        • Carol Tice on

          I don’t know who those people ARE who ignore their commenters! What’s UP with that? The whole reason comments are open is so we can chat…and I can learn more about your questions, so I can answer them.

          Plus my readers are smart and funny…I love hanging out in my comments! Seriously great way to procrastinate on my own writing assignments…

  59. art williams on

    Yes, I’ve been wondering the same thing Carol talks about here. Business isn’t just about makeing money but being in business usually presupposes one has some money. Compared to the majority of other legitimate business/professions (profession might actually be a better word for what we’re talking about here)…being a writer seems very reasonably me.

    And on a completely different topic. When are we going to hear something about the Writers Den opening up again? Is it ever? It’s referred to obliquely here but otherwise nothing is ever said or hinted at.

    I’m ready. I’ve got the money.


  60. Amandah on

    I do think you could start a freelance writing business with little or no money.

    As Carol mentioned, you could get a full-time job or a side job and invest the money into your business. Here are some other tips…

    1. If you’re great at networking and know how to schmooze with the best of them, find networking groups on (some charge a fee, as little as $5, up to $50 or more) or in your local newspaper’s career section and pitch your writing. Let’s face it; sometimes, it’s who you know and not what you know that gets you the job. All it takes is one word from the ‘right’ person, and you could land writing clients ASAP. Of course, this is providing you know how to write and believe in you and your writing.

    2. You could contact your local high school or community college to see if the kids in the audio/video/design area would be willing to create your website for free. You get a website, they get experience and a portfolio piece.

    3. You could volunteer with your favorite organization and provide writing services from blogging to article writing and build your portfolio. Make sure to ask for written and video testimonies. Send out your clips to potential clients along with a LOI. Once you start earning an income, you can invest money into your business. Remember… Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    4. If you’re looking for clients, why not create a flyer in Word (if that’s the only program you have) and ask your librarian if you could post it on their community bulletin board. You never know. An editor or business professional could be at the library and see your flyer. If you have an independent bookstore in your area, ask the manager if you could post your flyer or business card (Vista Print offers cards at a discount).

    Most importantly, you need to believe in you and your writing services. Don’t fall into the trap (like I did) of thinking you’re not prepared because you probably are. It won’t matter how many coaching sessions you have, how many blogs you read, how many memberships you join, or how many books you read on starting a freelance writing business because if YOU don’t believe in you and your writing, you business won’t get off of the ground.

    *Check your library for workshops. Our library has career workshops, social media workshops, small business workshops, etc. These are FREE to the public.

    • Carol Tice on

      See above for more on #2, Amandah. Some great tips on how to get useful services free above and do marketing on the cheap!

      I agree you can START for cheap, especially if you already have a computer & printer…that’s the $100 Startup thing…but the part people miss is where you end up needing to feed a lot of early income straight back into the business to build it.

  61. Lisa Baker on

    Love this! So true. I’m lucky to have a sponsor (my long-suffering husband, haha!), and even luckier that he understands the necessity of investing in a new business (since he’s started a business before). I am just starting to make a little bit of money from writing, and write now I intend to invest every cent of it into training! The Freelance Den was the *first* thing I did when I decided to start seriously freelancing, and that’s already paid off a hundred times over. And it’s easy to afford. I can write one content mill article a month if I have to to pay for that

  62. Richard Myers on

    You are absolutely correct about the financial aspects of maintaining a website. I’ve put a fair amount of capital into my fledgling site and will need to spend quite a bit more before I am satisfied of it’s business possibilites. I have the proverbial “day job” and a brand new laptop that’s role is strictly as a backup for this one. The idea of a “free” website that would drive business would make for an episode on “Fantasy Island” or “The Twilight Zone.” There are a lot more expenses than meet the eye and you must be in a position to pay the necessary money to advance your cause. Of course, you’ve got to be pragmatic and not let your provider sell you everything available. Some things are unnecessary and will not improve your site in a positive and impacting sense. Does anyone really need cartoon GIFs or zombie sound-effects?
    Thank you for a helpful overview of what to expect when starting a website. That old saw, “you get what you pay for” is certainly true where new websites are concerned.

  63. Nick (Macheesmo) on

    The credit card financing solution really scares me. I would be very careful before trying this approach. You could find yourself in quite a bind very quickly. The only way I would ever advise someone to finance a career on a credit card is if they had some sort of evidence that they were almost certainly going to be successful.

    For me, I’ve held down a full time job for the first three years while I built a website and figured out how to get a few clients. Now that my freelance income is growing, my old full-time gig has become a part-time gig which I still enjoy.

    • Carol Tice on

      I’m with you…I would never want to go the credit card route! But America does live on plastic. It’s funny how people don’t feel scared to rack the cards for a vacation, but to launch their business? Oooh, I’m scared.

      But as I said in the comments above, I’m pretty risk-averse, so I wouldn’t want to deficit finance. Obviously, it’s a last resort, and comes with risk attached.

  64. Steve Maurer on

    Hi, Carol.

    Good article. You are absolutely right; there are expenses involved in starting up and growing any freelance business. Many folks coming from a job don’t realize this. The transition from employee to boss mystifies them.

    Investing money to start and grow your freelancing is what separates the business person from the hobbyist. And another key idea is this: Don’t spend foolishly. If you’re going to buy training – and you should – make sure you’re getting a quality education. Along with free, cheap is not always the best option. It is true that you get what you pay for.

    That said, your equipment doesn’t need to be outlandish. I’m typing this on a laptop that I purchased for under $500 almost three years ago. When working from home, I use a desktop and keep the files synched to both. Yes, I do have over $1000 invested in computer equipment. But it could be more and that would be excessive.

    And don’t forget having a good data protection plan. Your computer will crash . . . that’s a given. When it does, how will you continue working. A good backup plan is essential. Along with the synchronization between computers, I use an online backup. Even if both crash, I can still keep on pounding away. It costs, but it pays as well.

    • Carol Tice on

      Great tips Steve, I have both Carbonite AND Time Machine for backup. And 7 years into my freelance business, I just bought my first really pricey equipment — a new MacBook Pro, so I could run my business from anywhere. Definitely economize at the beginning…but realize there will be costs.

      You know I’m a big believer in professional development…writers should budget something every year to go to an in-person event or two, in my view. And of course there’s a lot of great online training around, too these days. 😉

  65. David Goldstein on

    Carol, this was a good read. I’d add that not only do you need money for physical goods, but to offload the services that you need. For your sanity.

    I met with a business owner recently who was literally hyperventilating while explaining everything she had been doing. Sales, marketing, website design, social media, you name it.

    Her quality was so shoddy, I’d say it did her business more harm than good. She wasn’t getting any clients and it was easy to see why.

    If you’re on a budget, rather than trying to do everything, be creative finding help.

    I mentored students over the summer at our town’s small business center. Let me tell you, some of the students I met were immensely talented and were willing to work for peanuts. Help them out, use them as a resource!

    Business owners need to focus what their good at. Focus on building a portfolio. Have a budget that leverages other people’s strengths to help build your business.

    • Carol Tice on

      Right on David — when I started, I got a high school digital design student to do my writer site for cheap! He did a pretty good job and it worked for about 18 mos., by which time I could afford a pro. 😉 I’m all about finding ways to get deals.

      I know one writer who gets all her interviews transcribed and pays for that, to take work off her plate. It’s so true, we can’t do it all, and sometimes it pays to offload some tasks and concentrate on others.

  66. Sandra on

    After the first paragraph, I thought you were going to say that the most important thing one needs is the will to do it: that if she really wanted to, she could borrow $100 from a friend to pay for 4 months’ worth of Den access. And so on.

    There’s a pervasive notion that because it’s “freelancing”, it should be fun, easy to do, simple to set up and nearly free to operate. And those clips – you only need 2-3, never mind if they’re 20 years old.
    Might be because there’s a disconnect between “your site just needs to be clean and simple with all the info the prospect needs to contact you” and “but it’s still a business and businesses always require recurring investments.”

    So yes, if you want to launch and thrive in this business, you need some cash. Business registration, printer/fax, website setup, biz cards all require money. And as you said, if you really want to do this, you’ll find the money.

  67. Julia on

    Thanks for writing this Carol. It’s a harsh reality, but necessary to face. You don’t need a TON of money to start, but you do need some. I’ve been ramping up my spending as I’ve increased my income over the last 2 years. Now that I’m fully freelancing, I’m spending even more on my website & conference attendance, as I know that those things are more important this year.

    Naturally I’m doing all of this with a 4-month cushion in my bank account, which I saved up over the course of last year. I freelanced while working a day job. But I’m fully prepared to get a part-time job if my savings run out & I need to have a steady income for a bit. Working part time would pay my bills, while still leave me time to write.

    At this point, I’m all in to my freelance career and am ready to make it work.

    • Carol Tice on

      What a sensible business approach you’ve got, Julia — congrats! I LOVE to hear writers have a cash cushion. I’ve actually been pretty lax on that, and am really just building that over the past year. It feels GREAT to know the unexpected — like the $1700 medical bill I just got presented with for my teen’s recently diagnosed major illness — won’t sink the ship.

  68. Kathy D on

    Bless you Carol!

    I had restaurant a few decades ago where I learned you can never have too much money to fall back on – I made it 11 months and lost 100k that took me ten years to pay back (at times working two to three jobs). I have been trying content mills for ‘practice’ – but how anyone makes money (oh, wait the owners do – not the writers!), is beyond me.

    I am taking it slow now, getting into freelancing, and making sure I have everything I need (website, equipment, communications ) before I start up again. AND keeping my day job – no way am I letting go off the paycheck!

    • Carol Tice on

      Seems like I have quite a few readers with real-world business experience to draw on here! Who seem to get that freelancing is no different. It’s a business. I find there’s a big gap with a lot of writers, where they don’t realize that, and don’t treat it like a business.

      I was lucky when I got into freelance writing, in that I was already running a home business as a script typist. So I was able to just slowly dial that down and freelance writing up until one day my husband said, “I don’t think you need to type scripts anymore,” and I realized he was right — I’d ramped the business to where it was ready to stand on its own.

      I’m actually a very risk-averse person, and made sure my bills were getting paid straight through. I also focused from the start on reliable clients that paid well and on time…so I didn’t have to stay up until 3 am trying to crank out mill crap! I hear so many horrible stories like that. Thankfully, mills didn’t exist when I started, so that temptation was never there. 😉

  69. Phil on

    When folks say they don’t have any money to get started, I think what they’re really saying is that they don’t really believe the business plan being suggested to them by whoever it is will work.

    That is, they’re trying to say, whoever is writing the sales copy for the suggested business plan needs to work a little bit harder.

    Once the supposedly poor person is convinced of the credibility of the business plan they are reviewing, the money will somehow suddenly appear from somewhere.

  70. Sarah Howlett on

    Not to mention THE TAXES! Working for yourself means you’ll pay more of them. Last year my rate was about 13-15%. I highly recommend paying quarterly so you don’t get hit with a huge bill at tax time that can really mess with your budget. Even after deductions, you pay a lot to work for yourself. Seems strange but it’s true.

    • Carol Tice on

      Absolutely, quarterly tax estimates are a must after the first year! And that’s a low rate, Sarah — think mine was more like 20 or 25%.

      But I have a post coming up about this issue…understanding the finances of freelancing and the hourly rate you really need…so stay tuned for that!

    • Nida Sea on

      I’m so moving over to quarterly taxes as well. Last year I made more than what I thought and my refund (I’m surprised that I got one!) is only $4 dollars. 😀 I don’t owe, but wow, I’ll be doing them quarterly from now on.

  71. Bex on

    I found that lowering our cost of living was the key to making freelance writing work for me and my partner. It was definitely easier than coming up with a nest egg – something that was never going to happen. I was making less than $15 an hour before I started freelance and while I had to work hard at things that weren’t totally awesome when I first started, I have never made less than what I made working at a job I hated, and now only a couple years later, average more than double that.

    • Carol Tice on

      Bex, thanks for sharing this great story! I read Your Money or Your Life at an impressionable age, and learned about the importance of living below your means. Right now, we have 3 drivers at home and 1 car. That kind of frugality equals freedom — that saved cash gives you the power to do what you did — leverage a business that can explode your income.

      Everybody else drowns their sorrows in a BMW or a bigger house or the annual trip to Hawaii, while they keep griping about their horrible day job…and it can never change, because they don’t build capital they could use to strike out on their own.

      • Katherine Swarts on

        And every month or so someone who was making $100,000+ a year is arrested for making use of unethical practices to increase his income–having already stretched his credit to the limit and being unwilling to even consider changing the habit of buying what he wants when he wants.

  72. Diana Bisares on

    I totally agree with you, Ms. Carol. Even the freelance career needs money. I’d been a victim of this no-cost craziness. I just didn’t want to spend money; I didn’t want to take the risk of not getting it back. Perhaps that’s the dilemma of those who easily buy the “free online business”, their being afraid of taking risk.

    Here’s my story: I’d been working my butts off just to make everything work until I finally decided to jump into the too crowded, too cheap content mills. It’s a frustrating experience because I have to be up until 3 in the morning just to meet my financial target. The amount I need to pay the bills and bring food on the table. I was always so tired, easily irritated. And I hated it. Then I couldn’t take the stress anymore. So, I finally decided to take money out from my bank account. I launched my website yesterday and gathering info on how I can get more readers. I know (and my whole wallet swears to it) that I need capital to make my site grow. I don’t care. After all, I don’t view this spending as an expense anymore. It’s an INVESTMENT. That makes the difference.

    I’m your avid fan by the way. 🙂

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Diana —

      Thanks for all your feedback!

      And you bring up a real important point. You nailed it — investing in your business is a risk. It might not pay off.

      But if you don’t believe in your chances to earn as a writer enough to do it, it’s probably not going to be a way you can make a living anyway.

      Freelancing is not for the timid. It takes hustle…and a little appetite for risk.

    • Johanna on

      Hi Diana,

      I’m interested to know if you’re still in the freelancing business. I find myself in a similar situation to you: not a lot of money, putting said money in, and not getting much in the way of results. So, I’m approaching this anew, and would like to connect with you so we can share what we are doing, and how we can improve. If you’re not comfortable sharing what you’re doing I’m fine sharing my own experiences. In fact, my business is called Sharing Success: A Freelance Writing Company. If you’re interested you can email me anytime at

      Warmest regards,

  73. Rosa Lee Jude on

    Bravo! Someone finally said it! You have to have a little money (or equipment or suit or something) to launch a successful career! Elvis had to have a guitar, Bill Gates had to have a computer, J.K. Rowling needed paper to writer Harry Potter on!

    And there is no shame in those jobs or choices you have to allow yourself to make a living in the meantime. You can’t get to Point B without first travelling the road from Point A. That travel will be the “fodder” for creativity.

    Thanks Carol…someone had to say, should have known it would be you.

  74. Michele on

    Kudos for being honest. I am amazed at the outrageous claims made by some of these self-proclaimed business gurus trying to sell the idea that anyone can start freelancing without a realistic business plan. And any real business plan involves startup capital. Thanks for being willing to tell it like it really is.

    • Jacqueline A.G. on

      Your statements are spot on, Michele. In a real sense, every start-up business is in a freelance mode, because it’s only the founder(s) who promotes and carries the expenses from the beginning. As others start BELIEVING with the founder(s), thus adding their financial, social, creative, and moral support (i.e. growth like Spanx, Motown Records, Harpo Studios, etc.) that the business concept or idea sheds its freelance skin and takes on wings to soar. Anyone who has dreamed of greater success in life as an entrepreneur will understand this truth that I speak.

  75. Joe on

    Excellent post and advice, Carol. The truth needs to be told. No business can be a success without start-up capital. Just not feasible. Here’s my story to prove it: several years ago, my wife and I created a partnership selling printed promotional products to businesses in our area. The fact that it was so deadline driven made it hairy enough. We subcontracted the printing work and had to depend on others to meet our deadlines (!). The expenses up front were minimal, but they were there: business cards, company registration, travel to prospects, phone line to cold call, etc. If we cut out EVERY unnecessary expense from our budget, we could have made it work in the long term. We just weren’t ready to make those sacrifices.

    You are doing a great service to some of your readers here, so don’t apologize. If you are not willing to a) spend up front for what you need and b) call yourself a salesperson and market your business for at least one to three years, you are not ready to freelance at anything. I wouldn’t dream of doing it without having it funded by the compensation and benefits of my full time job.

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks Joe. I think the biggest advantage I had when I became a freelancer was that I was coming off 12 years as a staff writer covering…business! So I knew the fundamentals and plunged right in spending on my freelance effort.

      With this blog, it’s the same story — when it was earning almost nothing, I invested more than $1,000 to go to SOBCon in Chicago. There I met Derek Halpern, Chris Brogan, Liz Strauss, Jonathan Fields, and many more…and came home committed to stop talking about building a writers commununity and getting off the dime and launching it.

      When you invest in your business, you can build it into something really lucrative.

      I just heard from so many writers recently saying, “I’m down to my last dime, so I thought I’d start freelance writing,” that I felt like something needed to be said. Apparently I struck a nerve there! But it’s an important thing to know.

      • Katherine Swarts on

        On hearing your “last dime” comment, why do I find myself thinking of the would-be book authors who say “I’m starting off with picture books because they’re easy”? No, they aren’t, and most successful children’s book authors find that idea little short of infuriating.

        Closer related to the “freelancing should be cost-free” idea are the people who take their books to freelance editors and try to get professional-quality work for next to nothing, playing on sympathy for their poor disadvantaged circumstances even after signing an official contract for a higher rate. I have one contact in the religious-publishing field who swears she hears this version repeatedly: someone contracts for well-priced professional-level work–and then, after the work is done and the bill presented, says, “But I was praying God would move your heart to decide to *donate* your time.” (These are probably the siblings of the people who send terrible manuscripts to religious publishers with the claim, “God gave me this message” and the implicit assumption that it is therefore a sin not to publish it as is. For some reason, considerably fewer people seem to think about putting their prayer efforts into requests that *they* would do a good job in due diligence!)

        • Carol Tice on

          I hear this sort of story over and over again in the Christian publishing world, Katherine — not sure why Christians think people don’t deserve fair pay for their labors!

          • Katherine Swarts on

            And the quote “The laborer is worthy of his hire” comes from the Christian Bible, too–originally from Jesus himself, according to Luke 10:7. Perhaps Christian tradition has laid a little too much emphasis on the virtues of poverty and the temptations of wealth. Of course, human nature (of any religion or none) loves to urge *others* to “do the right thing [to my advantage at the expense of yours].”

          • Katherine Swarts on

            That’s true also; much of what Christians call the New Testament quotes or paraphrases from the Jewish Scriptures–and with both having been translated many times into multiple languages, far be it from me to presume to assign the status of “official version.” :-). I was referring only to what came up on a search for one exact phrase.

          • Marie Youngblood -Krebs on

            Carol, loved and appreciated the unvarnished truth BUT I beg you, don’t paint all who call themselves Christian with the same brush. We don’t ALL expect handouts. I pay my way & NEVER charge a speakers fee as an Evangelist. I believe as you. Shame on those who use Christs name as some kind of discount program! Thanks for telling it like it is on the business end.
            GhostbloggerMarie and Pastor Marie

          • Carol Tice on

            Hi Marie — well, glad to hear it! Obviously, I don’t pitch any Christian pubs myself…but keep hearing about situations where they expect freebies. By contrast, the Jewish pubs all pay pretty well, and in a very timely fashion. I’ve written for and they pay $200 for personal essays — and the check comes the day your post appears. Just something that fascinates me.

          • Katherine Swarts on

            My own thought there is that, nominally and in the Western world at least, Christians were in the comfortable majority for too long and forgot how to use the principle “we take care of our own because we can’t count on the larger world to automatically give us an easy ride.” Individual churches and Christian organizations have certainly been quick enough to support their own members as well as fellow Christians who were members of the same minority group or active in the same not-always-popular cause.

      • Jacqueline A.G. on

        On your comment to Joe: When you mentioned your 12-year stint as a staff business writer, I thought “Ah ha! There it is.” Being well connected in media or having a network of contacts as you launch your own freelance business is half the battle. The “cold calling” is reduced or nearly not necessary. Do you agree, Carol? (Please reply via my e-mail or LinkedIn group, too, in case I don’t look back at the article. Thanks for posting a great article.)

        • Carol Tice on

          There is an option to follow the comments, I believe, Jacqueline? I’m afraid I’m not able to individually email my blog commenters…especially on threads like this one.

          I don’t think my staff writing work gave me a huge contact network, though I did get one initial freelance gig from a startup I’d once reported on. That’s about the extent of it. I definitely didn’t think of myself as “well-connected.” I had worked for one arcane trade publication for five years that covered the home improvement industry, and a city business weekly for seven. It wasn’t exactly Vogue or Vanity Fair.

          What I did get was the experience of writing 3-4 stories a week on deadline, 50 weeks a year. That’s more than 2,000 professionally reported articles. Those chops helped a LOT in overachieving on assignments I got as a freelancer and becoming their go-to writer.

          But remember, being a staff writer teaches you nothing about marketing. That I had to learn from scratch when I started freelancing!

    • Nadia McDonald on

      I have a current blog that I started for absolutely no cost. With the knowledge I gained I can overcome the odds. I disagree with Carol. You can break ground starting somewhere. Yes, you need the money. But having the funds doesn’t label success. Writing is not for everyone! For writers who feel insecure and broke get working! There is networking channels, social media, writing sites, free blogs you name it. But you have to have the passion and energy to make it work.

      • Carol Tice on

        Yes, you can start a blog for free…but turning it into the basis for a money-earning business is a lot tougher, since you can’t sell anything from many free platforms.

        If you have a blog…why not fill out the URL when you comment and use commentluv so we can check it out?

    • Sherry on

      I totally disagree with your post. I started my career with a full time writing job that paid $3,000 per month without paying a cent. I feel that so many people are trying to make money on the internet that they will take advantage of those in need of an income. Freelance writing is not like starting a business you don’t need a website, you need published articles and blogs. volunteering to write posts to get published is a much better tactic than paying to start a website.

      • Carol Tice on

        Sherry, read the headline of the post — it’s the item you need for *freelance* success.

        If you’re able to land a staff or full-time job, then you’re covered. I think of that as entirely different from building a typical freelance business that relies on developing a stable of many prospects and clients.

        I don’t make any money by telling you that your business has a high likelihood of failure if you have no money to invest in it. You might notice you’re reading this on a blog where all the content is free to consume.

        If anything, I’m sort of shooting myself in the foot, since I may be driving away people who are broke and now think they should find another career!

        I take the time to say you need money because I’ve spent 20 years covering business, and the past 8 years watching freelance writers succeed and fail, and seeing what it takes.

        I’m a big fan of starting on a shoestring — to the point that I wrote an entire business book on it, The Pocket Small Business Owner’s Guide to Starting Your Business on a Shoestring. But sooner or later, you do need to put some money in. What happens when that first big client disappears?

        And starting a freelance writing business *is* starting a business. For sure. If you want it to be sustainable, you need to invest in it, like any other business. Maybe you need to learn more writing skills, or have a wardrobe for meetings. Everyone’s freelance business is different, but somewhere along the line, most of us need to invest some money in our business.

        I don’t know when you started, but at this point it’s very difficult to present yourself as a professional freelancer of any type without a website. There is always the one-in-a-million situation where someone gets it off the ground without a dime…but what about when the hard drive breaks down, or your car? You need some cash to fall back on when things go wrong.

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