Breaking Down My 2019 Freelance Income
At the end of February I left my job as an in-house designer to pursue freelance and be my own boss! With the year coming to an end, I thought it would be insightful to do a breakdown of project categories and fees that made up my income for 2019. I mainly wrote this for myself so I can make future comparisons, but I'm sharing my experience as it may be helpful for those considering freelance full-time. Please note the figures are based on gross income without taxes and expenses. (Click on the image for close-ups if you're on a mobile device.)
From January to December, I completed a total of 43 projects. This included a few freelance gigs I did before I left my job in February. The average fee for a project came out to be $2k. The lowest payment was $40 (quick collaboration for a friend) and the highest payment was $25k. Most projects are local to Utah and only a few are out-of-state clients.
Let's talk about the elephant in the room, which is the $25k project mentioned above. This figure is misleading as it was a public art commission where the budget was inclusive of artist fees, supplies, insurance, and vendor fees. 60% of the funds went to the installation. Since I was paid the entire budget, I’ll have to report all $25k for taxes, hence why I'm including $25k as part of my income in this post. The payment to the installation vendor will then be a business deduction. If you're interested in seeing this project, the completed work can be viewed here. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for public art calls. If you’re curious about public art opportunities and how to apply for them, I wrote a post all about it here.
Out of the 43 projects, 60% made over $500 and 40% made under $500. The 40% totaled $2.5k and included commissions and collabs for friends and families, and production work. This is stuff I only agree to if I’m available or it's not time-sensitive. I know this statistic is weird to point out, but I try not to work for under $500 for commercial clients because most jobs require more than 5 hours. While I don't charge hourly, anything under $500 means I'm working for less than $100/hr.
Now let's breakdown the projects by categories and see how they contributed to my income.
From the pie chart, my biggest earning category was murals and I completed 9 projects this year. My second top earning category was commercial art and it made up 26% of my income. Commercial art is any lettering or illustration for print, digital, and product. I completed 13 projects in this category. I'm pretty happy with this finding as murals and commercial illustration are the two services I promote the most on my website and Instagram.
I was a bit surprised by the number of private commissions and collabs I did for friends and family (10). They contributed to 1% of my income as most projects were under $300. I don't know how much of my time went into these smaller gigs. While I enjoy doing stuff for friends and family and appreciate them for supporting me, I do need to be more protective of my time and not say yes to everything.
Something that helped me a lot was having reoccurring gigs from the same client. I had 3 live lettering customization events and it was a continuation of a project from 2018. I'd love to do more live lettering events, but I haven't figured out how to get more. If you have some advice, I'm all ears!
One of the reasons I left my job was to get away from production work. However, 5% of my income actually came from this category. Production work comes in many forms. For those in graphic design, this often involves photo editing or laying out text. Thankfully, mine were all lettering related. I helped other artists complete their client work by refining their lettering digitally. I don't expect to get production work often nor do I want to dedicate my energy to this service, but I super appreciate these opportunities as they kept me busy and my spirits up during the slow months.
Something I haven't mentioned is product sales. Freelancing is not my only stream of income. I own an online shop through BigCartel and Etsy. I also sold products through local markets and consignment. This category isn't a huge priority for me as it's very time-consuming to fulfill orders. However, I do enjoy designing products and seeing my art in tangible forms. I'll probably always have some products on the side, but I currently do not have plans to expand in this category. Although, I do want to look into selling creative tools or resources for artists. Another thing under product sales was a Kickstarter I launched earlier this year. The funds went to production and fulfillment but I'm required to report the Kickstarter as part of my income for taxes.
So how much did I make from freelance?
Thank you for reading this far! I'm very happy to share that I earned a little over $100k this year as an independent artist! While I consider this a huge accomplishment, it doesn't mean I'm swimming in $100k. Let's not forget about taxes and business expenses! I had almost $15k in expenses that went to setting up an office, equipment, insurance, taking workshops/classes, and hiring assistance for murals. My biggest regret is not having a business credit card at the start of the year. I paid everything through a business debit card. I cringe when I think about all the points I could've earned! Nonetheless, I'm proud of myself for exceeding my expectation by miles. Some facts that made this more awesome is 98% of my freelance income came AFTER I left my job. From March to December, I made more than my 9 to 5 office salary job where I worked 40 hours a week. However, I'm sure there were times where I worked 40 hours or more to hit deadlines. Honestly, being self-employed means your brain is constantly calculating the next move. Even if I don't physically work 40 hours a week, my mind is definitely working all the time!
Since this was my first time being self-employed, I opened my arms wide for almost everything! I was definitely desperate and a mess the first two months of freelance. It was so slow that I even considered giving up and started looking at full-time jobs online. However, I gave myself the chance to see this through. During the slow months, I continued to create and share my art on Instagram. Then things started rolling after that with people finding me online or word-of-mouth. I expect to encounter slow months again in the future but I'm more equipped to handle it!
A big problem and something I'm still working on is negotiating. While I'm comfortable pricing for murals, commercial art feels like a different ballgame. I did very little negotiating for editorial and advertising work. I often went with whatever the client proposed, especially if I wanted to add the project/client to my portfolio. I fell easily into the mindset of "I don't deserve more because I'm new to freelance" or "I'll lose the job if I try to negotiate." There was one occasion where I gathered the courage to ask for more and the client said yes immediately! And that’s how you know it’s still under their budget. So the lesson here is “if you don’t ask, you won’t get!” Another mistake I kept making was not being clear about the number of revisions allowed within the budget. There were a few gigs that kept getting edits and I felt powerless to push back because the details weren't clarified prior in writing. I'm still learning to advocate for myself and I know this is going to be a work in progress. I'd love to hear from you if you've experienced situations like this and how you handled it.
While money isn't my main motivation in life nor the reason why I entered freelance, I do think it's important to have a certain degree of financial wellness. Being able to support myself and my family is definitely one of my priorities. I've always told myself if freelancing becomes a continuous financial burden and affects my mental health, then I'll find another full-time job. This year I gave myself a goal of earning $75k as this was my former salary and I wanted to prove to myself I can make just as much through freelance. While I'm proud that I surpassed my goal, I definitely would've been happy if I earned $35k during my first year of freelance. Even though I made ambitious goals, I actually kept my expectations low in the back of my mind. I knew freelancing would be a challenge and I don't want to give up too quick if I failed to meet the $75k mark. I'm looking forward to 2020 but I won't be pushing myself to hit another $75k or $100k. Now that I know it's possible to earn a living through freelance, I want to focus on establishing a healthier work-life balance where my physical health is the priority for the new year. I'll still work on improving my craft and business but I want to enjoy my life without thinking about work all the time.
There are many rewarding aspects to being self-employed and money shouldn't be the sole measure of success. Please remember that everyone's journey is different and my goals and values may not be the same as yours. I love learning from other people's experience so I hope being transparent and sharing my freelancing adventures will be useful. If you have questions about this post or want to share some comments, you can reach me on Instagram. Thank you for reading!