5+ Ways to Survive Freelancing Famine Periods

Any long-term freelancer will tell you that most freelancers go through ups and downs–periods of high pay and periods of low pay. But the feast or famine cycle can take new freelancers by surprise.

While there are definitely some steps you can take to avoid the feast or famine cycle, for many freelancers the real questions is this–”How am I going to get through this slow period?”

In this post, I’ll provide five tips for surviving your freelancing famine periods (plus a bonus tip). Even if you’ve been freelancing for a while, you may find a freelance survival tip that you can use.

Why a Freelancing Famine Hits Us Hard

Here is what many freelancers face–just when their freelancing business seems to be really taking off, they get a month or two of little to no business. It’s the dreaded “famine” part of the freelance feast or famine cycle.

When some new freelancers experience their first good month, they think they have it made. Many go out and celebrate by spending all or most of what they just earned. Since they haven’t really experienced a work slowdown, they don’t realize that slowdowns are common part of freelancing. They aren’t ready for a famine period.

The other mistake freelancers make during a famine period is to get desperate. They sell their services for far less than they are worth. They take jobs at rates that just barely allow them to get by. Soon they are too busy making ends meet to look for better gigs.

It’s easy to see why many freelancers panic during a famine period. Admittedly, it’s hard to stay calm when your bank account is nearing empty. In fact, the famine periods of freelancing often cause new freelancers to quit freelancing. But quitting is not the only way to deal with a freelancing famine period.

How to Survive Freelancing Famine Periods

A determined freelancer doesn’t let a slow period stop them. You can survive.

Here are over five tips for surviving your freelancing famine periods:

  1. Don’t spend everything you make. It sounds simple, but it’s actually harder than it seems. For the first year or so of freelancing, you may need to tighten your belt. I always recommend having an emergency fund, but you won’t be able to build it up at one time. Set aside a portion of your earnings each month for slow periods.
  2. Get a personal project that earns money. Many freelancers have side projects that also earn them money. Common side projects include coaching other freelancers, selling an eBook, selling themes or designs, or being involved in affiliate marketing. Work on your side product in your down time and every chance you get.
  3. Sell your nearly new “junk.” Did you ever buy something, only to find out later that you really don’t need it? Or, did you ever get a birthday present that you didn’t really want? Did you ever think that someone else may want these items? Try selling them to get extra cash to see you through a slow period. Try listing your nearly new junk on Craigslist and on eBay.
  4. Cultivate long-term clients. I go out of my way to provide excellent services to all of my clients, but the clients that I really like doing business with are the ones who need my services on a regular basis. Try to build relationships with clients and prospects who have a long-term need.
  5. Get a part-time job. Many freelancers start out as part-timers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can work it the other way too. You can get a part-time non-freelance job to supplement the income from your freelancing business until it really takes off.
  6. Bonus tip: Be part of a focus group. If you live near a big city, you may be able to receive pay to be part of a marketing focus group. Marketers are constantly looking for people to test their new products, and if you fit their desired demographic you may be able to earn a few extra dollars this way.

Your Turn

You’ve just read some of my best tips for getting through a slow period. Now it’s your turn.

What are your best tips for surviving a period of freelancing famine? Share them in the comments below.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent post, I think number 2 is especially important, not just for additional revenue but for ongoing long-term goals. If you work at multiple sources of income, all with some relation to your personal skills and overall goals, freelancing makes a lot more sense and the hard times are a lot easier to bear!

    This was a timely post for me as I was just writing my own general thoughts on keeping the freelance panic at bay:
    http://www.copywritenow.co.uk/4-way-overcome-fear-of-freelancing/

  2. says

    Great post Laura!

    Creating multiple income streams is essential. Even if it doesn’t sell well, you can actively market it during the freelance famine and create some income that isn’t dependent on clients.

    What I’ve also found helpful is networking. If you network regularly, it’s simply a matter of shooting an email to the people you’ve networked with and letting them know you a client slot (or two) open up and to let you know if you could help in any way.

  3. says

    I think a combination of networking and searching for new jobs should take up enough time to avoid panic from setting in. Ed Gandia recommends always having something in the ‘queue’ so that there is no boom and bust cycle for a freelancer.

  4. says

    J. Delancy,

    Thanks!

    I definitely agree with Ed about always having something in the queue–if you can manage it. But that’s easier for seasoned freelancers than it is for new freelancers.

  5. Terry Sanders says

    I don’ understand the comment “…always having something in the que”. I’ve been a freelancer nearly 20 years, and occasionally have a job in the que, but ALWAYS? Just how would this be possible, especially when more than half your work is now being outsourced to India?

    This sounds to me like an answer to never running out of money is to…always have some money! Wouldn’t that be a rosy world if everyone could maintain that.

  6. Terry Sanders says

    As far as ‘getting a part-time job’, perhaps for some graphics professionals this is conceivable, but for a freelance retoucher this literally KILLS ALL POSSIBILITY of working additional freelance onsite gigs. Either you’re available, or you’re not.

  7. says

    Hi Terry,

    The commenter was referring to a quote from Ed Gandia. I think the context is that you should continually be marketing your services even when you are busy so that you always have several potential clients in the queue.

    Always is probably too strong a word, though.

    As far as your second comment, I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much about freelance retouching. Are you saying you truly couldn’t take on a part-time job for, say 20 hours a week? Is all your work done on a rush basis?

    That being said, these are tips and comments that many freelancers should find helpful, but not every tip is for every freelancer.

    Good luck to you with the retouching business.

  8. says

    Terry and Laura — This is a great post on a very important topic! I wanted to clarify what I’ve said about this in the past. There are two important strategies here…

    1) If you are continually marketing your business (if you treat marketing as a client project and carve out time for marketing activities every week or at least every other week), the chances of having a steady stream of prospects coming your way goes up dramatically. A lot of solos stop marketing because they are slammed with work or don’t feel they have time. Plus, they figure that if they did so when they’re busy it would be a waste of time anyway, since they wouldn’t have the bandwidth to take on the work.

    But it’s better to turn down some opportunities than to have to scrounge for work. You can also set up a referral network among your peers. That would enable you take care of overflow in a way that may come back to you when YOU need the work.

    2) The second thing I’ve said on this topic is to always have a personal or side business project in the queue for the slow periods. That way, while you’re looking for clients and projects you can also work on something you don’t usually have time for — something that may yield fruit down the road.

    Hope that clarifies things a bit.

    Again, great piece, Laura!

  9. says

    Laura, thanks for all of these suggestions. I’d say for my part, I have to really find a cure to this shopaholic syndrome especially that I’m freelancing full-time these days. I think it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world; this freelancing famine hits everyone of us and you know what makes it even more tough..? The falling dollar rate.. Still, trying to keep the positivity vibe alive.

  10. says

    Hi Marissa Sayno,

    I’m glad you liked the post. Yes, a lot a freelancers do need to cut back on their spending when they start.

    As you point out, the falling dollar can be a problem for some freelancers.

    Best wishes to you in your freelancing endeavors.

  11. says

    Creating multiple income streams is essential. Even if it doesn’t sell well, you can actively market it during the freelance famine and create some income that isn’t dependent on clients.

  12. says

    Nice post.

    I have also found that when im quiet I will fall back on my regular clients and make a few phone calls. Speaking to them and seeing how things are going sometimes leads to little bits or bobs they need doing. Can be a pain travelling to see a number of clients for a small fee but at the end of the week the money made a difference between the ‘sink or swim’ scenario.

  13. says

    Great post. This may also be helpful for start-up agencies or web design companies. Everybody has a ‘low-period’ once in a while. Having things going on aside from the core business helps.

  14. says

    This is a very good post with regards to freelancing. Multiple sources of income is essential. I think the internet holds the answers because there is so much opportunity out there. To join different website which offer money for your time. I also think people are changing the way they do business. It’s sensible to work the new way which is on cowed sourcing websites, there are more and more websites being formed which offer money to you in exchange for your time and can peg you in hard times. Multiple sources of income is the answer.

  15. says

    I think one of the key takeaways from here has to be that you should not spend everything you make. I have seen it happen to many times to people I know where they will blow their pay as soon as it hits their account.

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