Permalancing: The Good, The Bad, And The Mildly Horrific

The other month, fellow freelancer Stacy Lipson interviewed me for a story on permalancing in The Fiscal Times.* An interesting piece, to be sure, but I felt a bit put off by the fact that the Times portrayed permalancers as disposable victim-types.

Because, in my opinion, it goes both ways.

I’ve had several permalance-style gigs in the past four years. All of them were pursued as a means to an end. Most of them were taken on because I wanted some sort of financial safety net while still having the time to pursue the projects that mattered most to me. None of them were meant to be permanent.

I suppose you could say that I was taking advantage of them.

Still, Stacy’s right. A permalance situation is far from perfect. Which is why I think it’s about time I touch upon the good, the bad, and the mildly horrific when it comes to permalancing.

The Good:

Regular income. I took classes. I read books. I networked like hell. I built up a portfolio. I even got married! (Health insurance for the win!) But when it came down to going full-time freelance, I didn’t feel ready to leave my staff position at an academic book publisher until I’d secured a good number of regular freelance copy editing hours at the New York Sun.

Freelance income can be irregular, especially at the beginning. But there’s no rule that says you have to go all-or-nothing. Securing a regular freelance gig with part-time hours could very well be just the thing you need to achieve that beautiful balance of stability and intelligent risk.

Camaraderie. After the New York Sun folded, I took a definite financial hit. But what was even tougher to deal with was being alone all the time. All the freelance work I did was off-site. And I took on as much of it as I could, until work/life balance devolved into work/work/(and more work). As friends and family would be happy to tell you, I became a bit of a recluse. And as a result, my marriage suffered, partially because I was relying on my husband to be my sole social outlet. (Well, him and my three cats. They’re fantastic conversationalists.)

What I found most attractive about the job I eventually took at YourTango was the team. I wanted very badly to be a part of that. And despite the fact that I’m not officially a staff member, I’ve never felt any less involved than anyone else there.

An open door or five. In addition to moolah and sweet, sweet human contact, my permalance gigs have helped me beef up my resume and portfolio, make valuable contacts within the industry, and gain higher visibility. And while no one should be paid in PIE alone (P.aid I.n E.xposure), the exposure that comes with certain gigs is certainly a huge benefit. In fact, such exposure has led to new gigs… gigs that came to me magically, without me having to seek them out.

The Bad:

Isolation. I know, I know. I already listed camaraderie as one of the benefits of a permalance gig. And being part of an ongoing team is nice… and a nice change of pace from… um… talking to yourself. But not every company will be as welcoming and inclusive as YourTango was with me. (I’ve found that the smaller the company, the more intimate the environment. Obvs.) At one on-site, permalance gig I had, I felt almost invisible.  It was lonelier than being at home. So not being a salaried employee can definitely affect how staffers treat you.

Lack of benefits. This one’s a doozie for all freelancers but, when you’re putting in regular hours with one company, you can’t help but feel that you deserve health benefits, too. Unfortunately, they most likely hired you — a freelancer — because they didn’t want to spend the money on a full benefits package. Pretty shady when you consider the hours some permalancers put in.

The Horrific:

Scope creep. To you, a lack of benefits may the most horrifying thing ever. But I’m lucky. I have a sugar da… um, a husband. So what I find especially troubling is the tendency at certain permalance gigs for scope creep. Without the promise of additional pay.

Listen people. I’m running a business. This gig isn’t my only gig. So I don’t care if your staffers are working overtime every damn day. I won’t do it. It’s just not worth it to me. You’re not offering me more money. You’re not offering me additional benefits. You’re trying to intrude on my other billable hours. I’m not having it.

How can you deal with scope creep at a permalance gig? Set boundaries. Stick to your previously-agreed-upon work hours. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your direct superior so that they know what’s on your plate, and can help you prioritize.

Don’t allow scope creep to happen. Don’t let them take advantage. Because then you will be a victim. But it’ll be your own damn fault.

Becoming strangled by your safety net. With every permalance gig I’ve ever had, I’ve come to a point where I started to resent the time I was spending on it. Because it was time I wasn’t spending on the work that truly mattered to me. And then I had to ask myself: Am I dooming these other projects to failure because I’m not giving them my all? Is the gig that was once a safety net only holding me back? Am I going to fail in my endeavors because I’m not really taking that risk?

The danger of putting all your eggs in one basket. Finally, the biggest drawback in giving too much of your time to one client is the possibility that the whole damn thing will fall through. And then? Well, you’ll be screwed. Think about it.

Are you — or were you ever — a permalancer? Were your experiences mostly positive or negative?

Related: Wanted: The Career Equivalent of an Open Marriage, 10 Side Jobs for Freelancers, How To Juggle Multiple Careers

*I would link to the piece, but I’m getting an error message on the site right now.


  1. Great post, as usual! I relate to every single point you make and I’m glad you included isolation in “the bad”–it can definitely be tough to be part of an office but not quite, especially when you’re capping off at X number of hours while everyone else is working overtime.

  2. Funny, I was just having a long conversation with my cat today about the pros and cons of working from home. (Kidding! Sort of.) Your point on scope creep is something I should have tattooed on my forearm for ALL my jobs, just so I can reference it quickly and often.

  3. starting march 1, i will be a permalancer for my current full-time employer. my ceo agreed to letting me switch from my full-time position into a contract-employee arrangement so that i can begin building my own freelance business. i’m thrilled, excited, nervous, and a little scared when i started thinking about it too much. most of all i’m happy.

    (your site has been a huge help with this step i’m taking. thanks so much.)

  4. I have a motto … (about being onsite for even big clients) … leave the house, lose money. That’s why I rarely do onsite work. I do have some clients that require travel, but in those cases, I’m getting a respectable per diem and other expenses covered. Heck once, during a long layover, the client even sprung for massages for the whole team. (The airport had a spa.).

    I do like the team feeling of some projects, but you are quite right … putting to many eggs into one basket can really mess up your cash flow if/when things go south … and they do go south.

    I think it’s a mistake a lot of new freelancers make.

    • Someone mentioned co-sharing spaces as a way to keep from speaking to your cats …yet not losing creativity by becoming part of some company’s ‘cube ville’. 🙂 Any suggestions on great ones in the Bay area (especially San Fran)? Thx guys.
      I just heard the word ‘permanence’ this week and when I googled it, your blog came up on top. So great job Steph!

  5. I permalance and have for the past 3 years. I do it to indulge in more selfish endeavors such as teaching and pursuing writing. But I do worry a lot about scope creep and need to get better at sticking to my boundaries. Thanks, Steph!

  6. I know what you mean about the ambivalent feelings and about becoming strangled by your safety net. Sometimes it seems like no option is the “right” option. Hang in there.

  7. I guess I have to classify myself as one of those “Gen Y” just-out-of-college permalancers that just ‘might’ be getting taken advantage of. On the one hand, it allowed me to walk into a marketing gig that would probably NEVER have happened (and beef up an essentially empty portfolio), yet a strange thing happened: they like me so much they want me to become a fulltime employee. The problem? their “salary” doesn’t equate to anything remotely close to my freelance pay. Their benefits are minimal, and I don’t need their mediocre health benefits. Now they’d like to revoke the contract entirely and force me into more and harder worker, longer hours, and a LOT less money. Well, we all learn our lessons I guess. As a recent grad, this was definitely a steep learning curve.

  8. Great post. I’ve been ‘permalancing’ writing copy, blog posts, press releases and the like for an online marketing company and it has been a pretty good experience so far. Of course, as your article points out there are downsides. I am need to network more and will be looking seriously into to co-working spaces. I am grateful to have had this to fall back on when I was recently laid off of my regular gig, but I will definitely be diversifying my income sources and trying to find new clients to avoid the same issue in the future.

  9. For me the terms “Permalancer” and “1099 Contract” have become a reoccurring nightmare. Working numerous jobs under 1099 and recently a span of a 10-month permalancer position at a tech start-up, I felt that I never was truly cared about as an employee. I was a cog-in-the-wheel, a graphic laborer, with zero benefits. Where the company was constantly hiring new employees by the week and keeping me in “permalance” colleagues were asking me why. The only reason that I could conjure up is that the CFO was trained to pinch pennies and neglect certain assets to the company than others. I agree with the whole, Do not Put all your eggs in one basket, because they have me running 1099 for 40-hours a week to work in their offices, although they are not giving me any benefits and unemployment safety. I can just say that Permalancer is a word that can haunt you.

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