So, You Wanna be a Freelancer? Cool Things and Caveats of Making Money in Your Downtime

College life is all about deciding who you want to be. The choices you make in these four years will play a huge role in determining your career (and your life) when you graduate. These are the years you’ll look back on in years to come with fondness and nostalgia… So it’s up to you to make sure you enjoy every day of your time at college. And that’s hard to do when you’re flat broke. Money trouble is a sadly common part of college life. The learning curve of the college experience goes way beyond what you pick up in lectures or read in the library. It’s also about learning to budget and manage your finances. But many undergrads quickly find that their student loans simply don’t give them enough to live on… at least not as comfortably as they’d like. 

On the face of it, freelancing seems like the perfect opportunity for the cash-strapped college student looking for a chance to achieve financial independence. You don’t want to live on loans from the bank of Mom and Dad. But at the same time, you don’t much like the idea of walking through town posting your resume in every store, bar and cafe you come across. Freelancing not only gives you the freedom to earn money flexibly alongside your studies, it also allows you to make money that’s proportionate to your skills, talents and market worth. Why slave away in a low pay, low skill bar job when you can make good money doing what you’re best at?

While freelancing, you have a great opportunity to make real money from your skills as you sell your talents on sites like Fiverr, People Per Hour or Upwork. But while freelancing represents some amazing opportunities, it also has its fair share of caveats. Here are some tips to keep your operation productive and profitable without impinging on your studies…

It’s up to you to keep yourself productive

Managing your own productivity is one of the hardest aspects of freelancing, especially when you have so many digital distractions to tempt you. It’s common for freelancers to turn to their social media apps or mobile games the instant creative block sets in… and these can be real time vampires when you don’t keep a close eye on the clock. 

Here are some tips to help you to remain productive;

  • Keep your phone in a desk drawer while you’re working
  • Work somewhere public like the library or a coffee shop. This will help you to stay focused on the task at hand and avoid the distractions of your dorm room.
  • Install distraction  blocking software on your laptop to help you to stay off social media or shopping sites when your attention starts to wander.
  • Go for a walk. It’s a great way to overcome creative block and alleviate the frustration of staring at a blank screen. It’s also a good mental health booster that will help to keep stress at bay. 

Keep to set working hours and remember to take breaks

Freelancing can get addictive. Especially when you realize that there are lots of clients out there who would be willing to pay good money for your services. While ambition is laudable, however, it’s important to remember that there are only so many hours in a day and that your college years should be about more than slaving away at your laptop.

That’s why it’s essential to keep set working hours and stick to them. This will prevent you from over-committing to too many projects and ensure that you don’t burn out at the expense of your academic progress (more on that later). 

It’s also important to take regular breaks. Your mind is just like any other part of your body… it gets tired. And trying to push it past its limits day after day might seem like a noble goal, but it can do you much more harm than good.

Arrange your working space for maximum productivity

Wherever you’re working, the space around you can play a huge role in determining your productivity on any given days. Whether you’re copywriting, designing a new logo for a client, managing their profit and loss for this tax year or simply working on a college paper, your environment should be arranged in a way that’s conducive to keeping you productive. 

Here are some tips for arranging your space for peak productivity;

  • Make sure you have access to plenty of natural light (Harvard Business Review calls it “the ultimate office perk”). It can keep you feeling positive and productive.
  • Invest in one or two plants. They help oxygenate the space and help you to remain calm while you work.
  • Soundproof your space if possible. Especially if your roommate is something of a party animal or plays a musical instrument.
  • Play soft music while you work. Classical music, nature sounds, jazz and movie or video game soundtracks are proven to be the best for concentration and productivity.
  • By all means add personal trinkets to your desk but be wary of clutter. This can be distracting and can actually exacerbate stress when working. 

Remember your income is taxable

A common misconception among students who freelance is that the money they make while working alongside their studies is tax exempt. The truth, however, is that the money you make as a freelancer is still taxable even if you are technically a full time student. 

The good news is that there are plenty of online tools to help you to determine the tax on your pay or salary. The better you account for your tax obligations, the easier it will be to manage your finances and avoid any unpleasant surprises. 

… but your expenses are deductible

Don’t forget that while your income may be taxable, your expenses are tax deductible and can be written off against your obligation for the financial year. So if you’ve bought equipment like a new laptop or tablet or any books or software to aid you in your freelance endeavors this can all be deducted from your overall liability.

If you use the same equipment for your studies and your freelancing endeavors, that’s good news for you because it means equipment you buy can be deducted from your tax liability even if you intend to use it predominantly for college work.

Don’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth

One commonly made mistake among freelancers at college is that of under-charging. They feel that because they are young and relatively inexperienced that their skills somehow have less market value. But experience isn’t the only metric by which your market value is measured. The quality of your work and the value of your work to the client aren’t affected by your age or the fact that you’re a student.

Being the cheapest game in town doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll generate more interest. In fact, it can actually send a negative statement about the value of your work and potentially attract the wrong kind of client. 

Which brings us to…

It’s okay to turn work down or let go of a bad client

When you’re starting out as a freelancer, it’s natural to want to cling to each and every client that shows interest in you. No freelancer wants to turn down a paid opportunity, after all. But the sad fact is that there are less than scrupulous clients out there who will use your youth and relative inexperience as an excuse to treat you with less professional courtesy than you deserve.

With that in mind, you shouldn’t be afraid to turn down a client if;

  • Their expectations are consistently unreasonable
  • They haggle with you on prices all the time.
  • They don’t pay you on time
  • They don’t pay you at all (and blame their accounts department)
  • They expect exclusivity yet aren’t prepared to pay you for it

These clients can keep your nascent business on the back foot and prevent you from making your freelancing endeavors profitable. You may think that you need them, but it’s just like any other bad relationship… you’re better off out of it. There are always plenty more fish in the sea. 

Your studies should always come first

When you’re making money from your skills, it can give you an incredible feeling of reward. After all, you’re living the dream and standing shoulder to shoulder with other freelancers who’ve been at this for years. However, a sense of perspective is vital. Your studies should always be your first priority, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you have money coming in. 

Try to map out your schedule for every day using a planner (digital or paper, it’s up to you). Block out lectures and study time as a matter of priority before allocating your daily allowance of freelancing time. This will also help you to keep to your set working hours and prevent you from burning out.

Keep the above in mind and you’ll find that making great money while also excelling in your studies isn’t just a pipe dream… it’s your reality!

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