Money can be an uncomfortable topic to talk about with fellow journalists. However, for freelance journalists, whose income is not fixed, knowing how to plan for a healthy financial situation is necessary to be able to continue to pursue the career they enjoy.
IJNet asked two freelancers about their financial planning, and they shared tips for working on a freelancer’s budget.
Figure out your general expenses to calculate your minimum income.
When Katie Jensen, a Canadian podcast producer and journalist, started freelancing a year ago, she calculated her monthly expenses to find out the minimum income she needed to make in order to survive.
After taking into account her fixed expenses — such as rent, student loan payments and website hosting fees — she calculated how many episodes and stories she needed to produce each month.
Freelancing rates are never standard, and payment can be per word or a flat fee. However, it’s helpful to calculate the average payment to expect per story or episode, in order to plan accordingly.
Didem Tali, an international freelance journalist currently based in Cambodia, also tracks her fixed expenses, such as rent, food and health insurance. She uses these costs to prepare her freelancing schedule for the month.
Use tools to track your projects and payments.
Many journalists rely on Google Sheets or Excel.
“I’m an Excel geek!” said Tali. “I have an Excel file for almost everything, both personal and professional. In freelance journalism, these include budgets, earnings, pitches or stories submitted. Quantifying something is the easiest way of improving it.”
Have a safety net for late payments, sick days and unexpected problems.
Payment for stories can come late, which Tali said is now becoming the norm. “It’s absolutely imperative to have some money aside,” she said. “When I first got going in freelancing, I had some savings from a previous career path. Without these, it could have been pretty stressful to build a career.”
Jensen is careful about tracking her projects and making sure to always have work lined up.
Having a safety net can also be important in case of an unexpected illness or other problems. For example, Tali’s apartment was burglarized in 2017 and her electronics were stolen.
“I have no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have the savings to replace them,” she said. “I cannot even make money without a laptop.”
Don’t overspend on social expenses.
Jensen said she’s very careful not to overspend on food or alcohol when she socializes with other journalists and friends during happy hour.
“I go for fewer happy hours and social nights out so that cuts down a lot,” said Jensen. “I'm not spending US$60 on a bar tab once a week or twice a week — I'm spending that maybe once a month.”
Think carefully about travelling for stories.
Travelling can be a major expense for journalists. Tali often tries to secure grants before she travels for a story. When she doesn’t have one, she weighs the financial outcomes of traveling.
“If the earnings significantly justify the travel, I might go,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t.”
Find free options to keep training yourself.
With a limited budget, Jensen tries to find free options to keep learning and training herself. She watches a lot of online videos and is a big supporter of her local library.
“You'd be really surprised how much information you can glean at the library,” she said.
There are also a lot of free resources online if you know where to look. YouTube has a lot of great videos for technical training about equipment and software, and several media outlets also have training websites, such as NPR training and BBC Academy.
Class Central also lists free MOOCs related to journalism.
Find other sources of income.
Tali said that while many people struggle financially as freelance journalists, discussing money is taboo. Both she and Jensen have side jobs for a more stable income. Tali works in corporate communications, branding and strategy and has also done some copywriting and videography. Jensen is a regular notetaker for deaf and hard of hearing college students in Toronto and has done university research and copywriting.
However, Tali said that having another job is not always accepted in journalism.“I have always been quite open that journalism isn’t my only source of income and had people openly looking down on me,” she said.
But she said that not worrying how to pay rent makes her a better journalist by taking pressure off.
“They stimulate me to think outside the box, give me ideas, prevent journalistic burnout and provide a regular income,” she said. “Doing non-journalism jobs isn’t failing at journalism.”
If you want to learn more, the Rory Peck Trust also has good resources for budgeting as a freelancers.