Birthday Parties and Bounced Checks: The Five Situations Every Freelancer Dreads

It's not easy being free

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Being a freelancer is kind of like being the hero of an old western: you ride into town, wrangle a hog or two, and then leave as suddenly as you'd arrived. It's not for everyone, but freelancing can be a rewarding path for those with a bit of elbow grease and a whole lot of personal drive. After all, you get to choose your schedule. You select the projects you want to take on. You spend two straight months eating Easy Mac and playing Call of Duty when the job market is slow.

But along with increased personal agency, there are a number of situations unique to the freelancing life that other workers don't have to deal with, especially on the social front. But fear not: with a bit of tact and good sense, most of them can be easily overcome. No hog-wranglin' required.

1. Birthday parties

Why you dread them: The smell of pizza and the sound of voices singing is enough to send some freelancers into fits of paralyzing terror. Do you awkwardly mingle with an entire office's worth of strangers, risking judgmental glances as you partake in the free grub, or do you simply remain at your desk, head down, and wait for it all to end? Social events can be intimidating if you've only been working somewhere for a few days, and repeated episodes of self-exclusion can cause your soul to shrink and your heart to turn to stone.

What you can do about it: Stop worrying so much. Most people aren't so precious about who's eating their pizza. And beyond that, birthday parties and other social events are a great opportunity for you to introduce yourself--especially if you've only been working somewhere a few days. Baby showers, on the other hand...

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2. Payment issues

Why you dread them: Most freelancers have been through this one. You're nearing the end of your gig, and you still haven't received a single paycheck. The accounting people are ducking your emails, and the office manager has started averting her eyes every time you pass her desk. This can be incredibly frustrating, and it's not that uncommon. A recent study of self-employed New Yorkers placed total lost wages over a 12-month span at more than $3 billion. That's a scary number, but don't start an Occupy-type movement in the lobby just yet.

What you can do about it: Be civil, but firm. Most of the time, companies aren't intentionally shirking you; the payroll system might just be backlogged. Nevertheless, you should be persistent about getting paid: keep sending emails, invoices, or anything else it takes to keep you from getting lost in the shuffle. This is your livelihood, after all. And if you think someone really is trying to cheat you, pursue the matter with an unemotional, professional tone before turning to more serious avenues.

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3. Poor communication

Why you dread it: On a similar note to the above, freelancers tend to be the last people on administrators' priority list. Think about the difference between renting an apartment and owning it--who's the super more likely to respond to first? This can get tricky when you're working under a deadline, and no one's responding to your emails about that one thing you desperately need to get the job done.

What you can do about it: Meet your administrators. Don't just be a disembodied voice in an email chain. Remember that you're working with real people--busy, office-essential people with a lot on their plates--and don't take it personally if they occasionally forget who you are.

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4. Lunch culture

Why you dread it: Every office has its own set of firm, but unspoken rules regarding lunch. Do you taken an hour for yourself? Do you work through it at your desk? If so, is it acceptable to order Thai food you can smell from the other side of the building? It might not seem like a serious matter, but lunch in the workplace, much like lunch in a high school cafeteria, can be a bottomless source of stress and anxiety.

What you can do about it: Just be observant. Are a lot of people noshing at their computers, or does the whole office empty out around 1:00 every day? As for the Thai food, try to keep it to a once-a-week thing.

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5. Unemployment

Why you dread it: Laid-off staffers might complain about how hard it is to find a new job these days, but freelancers need to do this several times a year--sometimes more. In a perfect world, each of your jobs would line up perfectly with the one before it, with no downtime in between. But things rarely work out this way. Freelancers, like anything else, are subject to market forces, which means you could be in the black one week and living on SpaghettiOs the next.

What you can do about it: Open a savings account. It might sound obvious (and it is), but it's easy to put off, and even easier to regret doing so when it's the middle of February and you don't have a functioning radiator. Also: network, and stay in touch with those old job contacts--yes, even that office manager who kept putting you off.

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Mike Browne

As a freelance copywriter I require 50-percent of an agreed upon fee before I begin work with the balance due within 90 days in equal 30 day increments. Advice to magazine writers: avoid magzines that pay on publication. That can take mionths. I have also learned to require final, or "blue line," approval. Dense editors can ruin an article with a single word, and often do. In short: trreat your craft as a business.

February 06 2014 at 7:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Timely article, as I'm currently working as a freelancer for the first time instead of teaching, and working as a foreign language (Spanish) curriculum writer. Like the work and being more my own boss than typically found in education, but also miss having the reliability of a steady guaranteed paycheck and benefits. Am finding there are definitely pros/cons here, like in any work scenario.

February 05 2014 at 6:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I guess it depends on how you define your profession, and yourself as a freelancer. I've done a lot of "freelancing" as a technical illustrator and writer over the past five decades and I never had ANY of the problems that were cited in this story.

You go in, give them your credentials (portfolio, work history, or whatever), review the scope of work, reach a mutual undestanding on where and how you will work, bid the job or give them a T&M estimate, that's the end of it. If you get the job, you get a contract or a purchase order... no one 'smart' works on just word of mouth.

With my work, all but a handful of jobs were done in my studio, in the hours that I chose to work; visiting the client's office, factory, or whatever only when I needed to gather more information or review progress. Unless you have scoped-out "progress payments", you don't expect to get paid until the job is delivered and you send in your invoice (against the purchase order or contract). And finally you get paid, based again on your mutual agreement, stipulated in our work bid. In some cases that would be ten days, but it depends largely on the what the client pay cycle and habits are. Most pay within thirty days, and som stretch you out to ninety. Knowing their payment habits is extremely important.... I usual billed "1% 10-days, Net 30 days" and then charged them an additional 2% for anything past those 30 days. In most all cases, payment was received before any penalty was incurred.

In the very rare case where the client wanted me to work "on-site", that gets sticky and you need to beware... labor law defines that quite closely. IF you are working on their site, using their equipment, under their hours, supervision, and rules..... YOU are NOT a freelancer, but are an EMPLOYEE! For such demands, you become a contractor or an employee of a contractor and that is a totally different game with different labor rules.

February 05 2014 at 3:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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