Making Freelancing Work

Over the past few weeks I’ve had some colleagues and recent graduates ask me about the current employment landscape for public history. Well, it’s no secret: today’s job market is capricious with us recent grads, especially in the arts and humanities. After our years of education, we’re ejected into this place called “the real world” where most jobs are contract-based and every position seems to be either low-level or executive. (And that’s without considering the issues in academia.)

Knowing this, myself and many others have sought out university programs that offer practical components and professional development opportunities. One option that doesn’t get discussed often, however, is freelancing. During my studies we often talked about being “entrepreneurial,” but almost never about actually becoming an entrepreneur.

Freelance can take many forms. Some people take contracts / produce material to supplement their income, while others are entirely self-employed. But the fact is, there are people out there who are making freelancing work. Freelancing isn’t uncommon in public history. For example, even though I’ve been consulting for a firm, I’m considered a subcontractor rather than an employee. That means freelance. And that also means that I have to take things into consideration that wouldn’t apply in other circumstances.

With that being said, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my first six months as a freelancer along with helpful tips I’ve received from others.


Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Networking is essential to marketing yourself and building a clientele. It’s also a great way to learn from and be inspired by people who are successful at what they do. If you haven’t already, get business cards. Attend conferences or events on subjects you and your potential clients care about. Join professional associations. Be intentional about it. Networking as an introvert isn’t the most natural thing in the world (speaking from personal experience) but it does get easier. And you never know where opportunity might strike. A quick conversation might lead to some interaction on Twitter, which might lead to lunch and an exchange of business cards, which might lead to someone checking out your LinkedIn profile, which might lead to them asking for assistance on a project, and suddenly, bam! you’ve started to freelance. Sounds far-fetched, but I’ve had this exact experience.


Disclaimer: I’m not a financial expert. This is general advice taken from my own experience freelancing in Canada. Follow it or not as your discretion sees fit. Okay, moving on…

Have a clear idea of what salary range you’re willing to work for, and don’t be afraid to ask for the wage you want. Remember that as a freelancer, you’re on your own. You aren’t getting benefits, sick days, a pension, or employment insurance. It may also be up to you to pay for equipment, software, supplies, research trips, and overhead costs if you’re running your business from home. If you’re unsure about what to charge, try using a freelance wage calculator. It may also be worth asking similar freelancers about their charges if you have the opportunity to do that. Depending on the scale of your work, you might charge hourly or by the project.

I’ve also had to adjust to sending monthly invoices rather than receiving biweekly paychecks. You may need to wait a significant time before money starts coming in, depending on the agreed-upon window between sending your invoice and receiving payment. It’s also important to remember that nothing you earn will have taken income taxes into account. That means it’s up to you to budget a percentage for taxes. Right now I’m setting aside a generous 25% of every paycheck, but depending on my return I will adjust that accordingly. Freelancing means you’re going to become best friends with your budget. And your accountant. Which you should get, if you don’t have one. (Did you know freelance projects are great motivation to get your life organized and act like a bona fide adult??)

One last financial question to consider: to charge or not to charge GST / HST? If you haven’t registered with the Canada Revenue Agency, you can’t charge GST / HST. You’re not required to register until you make more than $30,000 in a year. Note: that’s any 12 consecutive months, not necessarily a calendar year. However, it may be worth registering anyway, because that means you can begin to claim business expenses on your taxes. Visit the CRA website for all the financial information you need if you’re self-employed / run a business.

There are lots of resources out there for people just getting started. Informational interviews are also fantastic. You would be amazed at how many people are more than willing to share their expertise and their time. In person is great if you can manage it, but I’ve also had some wonderful conversations over email. Just don’t be obnoxious about cold-calling people.

Prepare for the future

If stability is of highest importance to you, it may not make sense for you to turn freelance projects into a main source of income. Freelancing means your future is about as nebulous as it can possibly get (when you’re starting out, anyway), which is both exciting and terrifying. But there are lots of things you can do to make it less scary. Keep an eye out for future opportunities well before your current project ends. Get an RRSP. Get a financial advisor and start investing. It all adds up to peace of mind when the unexpected happens.

And that’s all I have for today! In my next post I’ll be listing some helpful resources for public history and related job searches.


One thought on “Making Freelancing Work

  1. gabriellebossy says:

    Great post Stacey! I’ve been thinking a lot about freelance work lately, and have done some semi-freelancey things. I think you’re giving me the push I need. I love your practical insight and advice. Go you!

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