How any freelancer can save for retirement

May 20, 2021

The freelance lifestyle is filled with short-term financial challenges. Finding gigs, sending invoices, paying yourself, and setting aside taxes all loom large in the mind of the average independent worker.

With so many details cluttering up the present, it’s easy to let one big financial activity slip to the back burner: saving for retirement. According to a survey by Stash Financial, Inc., a whopping 46% of gig workers don’t save for retirement. And yet, it’s setting aside that small amount of money now that can add up to a big payday later in life.

To add fuel to the fire, nearly a third of those surveyed also added that they raid their savings far too often and didn’t have an emergency fund.

If you’re a freelancer that’s finding success and thinking about sticking with gigs for the long term, here are a few suggestions for ways to get your retirement savings rolling again.

Build a Solid Budget

Everything starts with a budget. Is it cliché? Sure. Is it talked about everywhere? Yes. Is it still essential to financial success? Absolutely. A budget is ground zero, not just to pay your bills today, but to retire decades from now, as well.

With that said, budgeting as a freelancer is uniquely challenging. You cannot simply depend on a steady paycheck, automatic tax withdrawals, and so on. You have to crunch all of the numbers on your own.

This makes setting up a solid budget the most important start to your retirement savings. As a freelancer, make sure you have a budget that allows you to set aside the proper amount of taxes that you need to pay. It should also enable you to live below your means. This can help you survive any lulls in income.

Create a Long-Term Financial Plan

Once you are sticking to a healthy budget, you can begin to think of the big picture. In other words, having a budget in place for short-term financial activity can enable you to consider things like tax payments, paying down debt, and setting aside savings.

When it comes to your savings, in particular, it’s wise to start with an emergency fund. Building up one, three, or even six months’ worth of expenses is a great way to restore a sense of stability to your otherwise fluctuating freelance finances. What's more, keep in mind that sometimes investing money can be the same as saving money — especially when it comes to things like regular doctor visits, upkeeping car maintenance, and more, as putting down small amounts of cash now will save the need for larger amounts later when something inevitably breaks or goes wrong.

Once this is done, consider setting up automatic transfers to help you save for the long term. This can ensure that you set aside $50, $100, or even $500 a month to stash away in your retirement account for the future.

Another aspect of long-term planning is determining when you’ll retire. With Social Security benefits shrinking and generally in peril, the concept of “retirement” is already in a state of evolution. Add onto that things like the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, and retiring at 65 on the dot is no longer as common as it used to be. Instead, it has shifted to focus on a wide-open future full of potential, rather than simply endless days spent on a beach or the golf course.

This makes it perfectly acceptable to plan on staying on the job a few more years to help spread out those retirement savings further into your life. In fact, you won’t just delay tapping into your retirement this way; you can consciously plan on saving even more in the interim, as well.

Set Up a Retirement Account

Once you have a solid budget, financial plan, and automated savings piling up, you have to decide what to do with it. This will really depend on your own situation. While each freelancer has different circumstances, a few common forms of retirement savings include:

An IRA: An individual retirement account (IRA) can be set up on a personal level rather than by an employer.

A self-employment 401(k) profit-sharing plan: While most 401(k) plans are out of reach for a self-employed individual, this plan can allow freelancers to contribute both as their own employer and employee.

Investing on your own: You can also research how to invest on your own — billionaire investor Warren Buffet still claims that putting your money in a low-cost (i.e., minimal investing fees) index fund is the best way to invest over the long term.

While traditional retirement options may not be as readily available, there are still plenty of ways to save for the future if you’re a gig worker.

Preparing for a Freelance Retirement

Freelancers tend to march to the beat of their own drum, and retirement savings is no exception. As a freelancer, you may not have the same easy option as an employer-matched 401(k) plan. Nevertheless, if you create a budget, map out a long-term financial plan, and start saving into a retirement plan alternative, you really can get your retirement savings back on track.

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 us your blog post.

Noah Rue

Noah Rue is a journalist and a digital nomad fascinated with the intersection between global health and modern technology.