• Finance, Advice

Sophomore slump or comeback of the year? How to handle variable income

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

When you first start working for yourself, one of the comments you hear an awful lot of is how so-and-so could never handle the variable income. Leaving a steady paycheck behind is one of the biggest things we emotionally (and financially) prepare for before launching a freelancing business. But, like many other aspects of going into business for yourself, preparing for it beforehand and actually living it are two wildly different beasts.

Before I made the leap, a fellow freelancer warned me about the income “peaks & valleys.” I was ready to set out into a valley, ready to spend months toiling only to barely make rent. My emergency savings were swollen and waiting. I knew my business may not find a whole lot of traction in those first few months. I was so ready for that initial valley.

And then after a few months—a peak!—my first $3,000 month.

And with each invoice paid and new contract signed, the term “peaks & valleys” evaporated from my brain. My business was taking off.

That’s what made the inevitable next valley so terrifying. See, I had it in my head that once you have some traction, it’s smooth (well, smoother) sailing. I knew my income would still fluctuate, but by a few hundred dollars here and there, I thought. The valleys would be relative.

I wasn’t ready to go an entire month without a single project. And I didn’t prepare for it—emotionally or otherwise.

During my first peak, I wasn’t worried about next month. I wasn’t sending out pitches, building my network...nothing. And that’s what turned an inevitable valley into the Marianas. I didn’t market myself until the “Oh, shit!” moment when, suddenly, I ran out of work.

I’m back on Everest now, but I’m resolving that the next valley won’t catch me so far back on my heels.
If you’re in the same boat (or you never want to be), here’s what I took from that first panic-inducing valley:

  • Use your down time to plant seeds. It’s tempting to take a few days off, hit the beach. But when your bank account starts dwindling, you need to already have pipeline ready to fill it back up.
  • Make marketing and building pipeline a priority during the peaks, too, no matter how busy you are.
  • Work to find monthly clients whose projects can help regulate your income a little, even in the valleys.
  • Maintain a routine. Hopefully your valleys are never as long as mine was. By the time I filled my calendar back up, I had forgotten how to sit down and be productive on a regular basis. That being said, when you’ve done all you can, give yourself permission to relax a little. That freedom is what we work so hard for, right?
  • Find a slice of sanity in the community. Whether it’s advice, referrals, or even just a sounding board, gaps in work are one of the best times to immerse yourself in our little freelance community.

Kiera's a freelance writer and consultant for software and ecommerce companies. She writes for the likes of Shopify, Wave, and Kissmetrics, among others. Newly located in Boston, MA, Kiera loves cinnamon coffee and a good baseball game.