What is a Freelancer? Getting Paid in the Gig Economy (2021)

What is a freelancer?

That’s the question on everyone’s mind now that freelancing is all the rage in our new “gig economy.”

If the idea of being a freelancer intrigues you, but you’re not really sure how freelancing works, then read on.

In this post, you’ll learn about the kinds of work that freelancers do, how much they earn, and how to get started as a freelance worker.


Let’s jump in!

What is a Freelancer?

A freelancer is someone who provides services for clients on a contract basis.

Freelancers aren’t employed by a specific company but are self-employed and run their own businesses. This means they decide where they work, what projects they take on, and who their clients are.

What is Freelancing and How Does it Work?

Freelancing is when a self-employed person offers their services to clients in exchange for payment.

In our current gig economy, freelancing is becoming increasingly popular. About 57 million Americans freelanced in 2019, and the numbers keep growing.

Freelancing agreements are usually short-term contracts, but some companies pay freelancers to work a set number of hours per month. This is known as a retainer agreement.

In order to find clients, you’ll need to market your services, and there are numerous creative approaches freelancers can take to land gigs.

Freelancer or Independent Contractor: What’s the Difference?

Freelancers are sometimes referred to as independent contractors, and the IRS puts freelancers and independent contractors into a single category for taxation purposes.

Although freelancers and independent contractors have a lot in common, they aren’t exactly the same.

An independent contractor typically works for one employer at a time, while freelancers usually work with many freelance clients at once.

These projects tend to be short-term, though some freelancers have ongoing projects.

What Type of Work Do Freelancers Do?

what is a freelancer accountant woman

Some of the most common services freelancers offer include:

  • Accounting
  • Administrative support
  • Graphic design
  • Marketing
  • Writing and editing
  • Web design
  • Virtual assistant

Some freelancers work as generalists, while others specialize in a certain niche or industry.

For example, a freelance writer might focus on producing case studies for healthcare technology companies, while a graphic designer may find work designing websites or creating product labels.

Freelancers who specialize are often able to command a higher hourly rate than generalists.

How Much Do Freelancers Get Paid?

what is a freelancer counting money

The amount of money freelancers make varies widely.

According to a 2019 study by Upwork and Freelancers Union, the median freelance income is between $20 and $28 per hour, though some freelancers earn much more.

So what should you charge?

Begin by figuring out how much you need to earn per month, and set your hourly or project rates based on that. Then focus on marketing your services to clients who can afford your rates.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Freelancer?

While the idea of a freelancing career appeals to many people, there are some pros and cons you should know about.

Perks of Being Your Own Boss

1. The Freedom to Choose Your Projects and Clients

One of the big advantages of being a self-employed worker is the freedom to pass on projects and clients that aren’t a fit for you.

Don’t like writing about software or real estate? Well, you don’t have to!

And if you end up with a lousy client, you don’t have to keep working with them.

2. Being Able to Set Your Own Hours and Rates

Another perk of being a freelancer is you can decide how many hours you’ll work and how much you’ll charge.

Some freelancers choose to work part-time, others are night owls who work best after midnight, and some take Fridays off.

Any of these working arrangements are possible when you’re a freelancer.

You also get to set your own rates, which potentially means you can earn more from freelancing than from working a 9 to 5 job.

3. The Ability to Work Remotely

what is a freelancer woman working on scenic balcony

Most freelancers were working remotely long before COVID-19 struck.

As a freelancer, you decide where you’ll work. And if you only want to do remote work, that’s completely your call.

The beauty of working remotely is you can work from your kitchen table, from a cabin by the lake, or from any place with Wi-Fi access. You might even adopt the digital nomad lifestyle, and you absolutely can if you’re a freelancer.

4. You Can Pursue Your Passion and Get Paid for It

If you’ve dreamed of earning money doing what you love, freelancing might be the answer for you.

Wordsmiths can pursue freelance writing, artistic types can offer graphic design services, and computer programmers can build websites for clients.

And these are only a few areas where freelancers can earn good money.

Downsides of Freelancing

1. Sacrificing a Regular Salary and Benefits

No career path is perfect, including freelancing. And one of the biggest downsides is not having a regular salary or benefits.

Because of this, freelancers need to keep hustling up new gigs, especially when they’re starting out.

On top of this, in countries without nationalized healthcare, freelancers need to arrange their own health insurance. In many cases, this means freelancers need to purchase their own health plan.

2. Your Income Varies by Month

what is a freelancer empty pockets

Since freelancers don’t have a guaranteed income, your earnings can fluctuate a lot from month to month.

One month you might earn much more than in your previous job. The next month you’re struggling to find enough work to make ends meet. And there’s always the chance that a payment will get delayed.

As a freelancer, it’s crucial to have enough savings to get through the slow times.

3. You Need to Constantly Market Your Services

Since freelancers rely on a steady stream of projects to earn money, they need to make marketing a major priority.

It’s important to have a marketing plan so you know exactly how you’ll promote your business. You’ll also need to decide how much time you’ll spend marketing each week, and then stick to your plan.

As you build up your reputation, you’ll likely get some work from referrals. But it can take a while to get to this point.

4. Maintaining a Work-Life Balance Can Be Challenging

what is a freelancer man working late

When you have your own business and work from home, you might feel compelled to answer your emails at all hours or to work late into the night. In other words, you may struggle to disconnect from work.

To prevent this from happening, it’s important to establish clear work-life boundaries. This might involve setting regular office hours or signing off at a certain time each night.

Giving yourself time to recharge will help you perform your best work and prevent freelancing burnout.

How Do I Get Started Freelancing?

One of the biggest questions aspiring freelancers have is how to get started.

Here’s what we recommend:

Get Some Experience before Niching Down

Early in your freelance career, we recommend taking on a variety of gigs.

This keeps your options open and provides opportunities to discover what you enjoy.

As you gain experience, you can narrow your focus to the specific industries you want to work in.

Niching down will simplify your job search by eliminating industries that don’t interest you. And crafting your portfolio with this information in mind will streamline your marketing efforts.

Set Up a Portfolio

what is a freelancer tara malone writing portfolio

It’s pretty much a guarantee that prospects will want to see samples of your work.

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to create a writing portfolio, and if you’re a web designer you’ll need URLs of sites you’ve designed.

If possible, your samples should be relevant to your ideal client or industry.

Get an Online Presence

An online presence is essential for marketing your services and showcasing your work for potential clients.

No, you don’t have to create a freelance website right away. But you will need a professional-sounding email address, LinkedIn profile, and possibly a Facebook business page.

Your LinkedIn profile or Facebook page should make it clear that you’re a freelancer and include a description of the services you provide.

Land Your First Gig and Level Up

Once you have your portfolio and online presence, it’s time to start hustling up some work.

When you start freelancing, let your contacts know about your new business. Give them a clear sense of what industry or clients you work with, and the services you offer.

You might get your first gig as a result of a referral from your network. But if not, there are plenty of other ways to find your first client.

How Do Freelancers Find Work?

Here are some of the more common ways freelancers find work.

Freelance Job Boards and Platforms

what is a freelancer problogger homepage

There are many freelancing sites and job boards out there where you can find and apply for freelance gigs.

That said, freelance job boards and platforms aren’t created equal.

If you go this route, make sure you stick to high-quality job boards. Here’s a list of quality job boards you can check out.

LinkedIn Marketing

There’s a whole art to marketing yourself on LinkedIn, but it’s worth learning how to do it effectively.

There are tons of companies on LinkedIn, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that your ideal clients are on the platform.

Cold Emailing

Many freelancers also use cold emailing to contact potential clients. But this doesn’t mean sending out spammy mass emails.

Instead, it’s best to craft a letter of introduction (LOI) to introduce yourself and your services.

You can learn more about how to write an LOI here.


Lots of freelancers also find work through agencies, which often have an ongoing stream of freelance work.

Be sure to do your research first to confirm an agency is reputable and treats freelancers well.

What is a Freelancer? Well, Now You Know!

We’ve covered lots of ground, and by now you should have a good sense of what freelancers are.

If you feel that freelancing is the path for you, we recommend you take the following steps:

  • Decide on your target industry or clients.
  • Gather samples of your work and compile a portfolio.
  • Create or update your LinkedIn profile and social media accounts.

Begin with these steps, and soon you’ll be landing your first client. And before you know it, you’ll be making a name for yourself in today’s gig economy.

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