How to Avoid Homelessness and Starvation When the Checks Aren’t Regular

This self-portrait, by William A. Clark, is both brilliant and eerily familiar. (Whatever. I love ramen noodles.)

My writer-buddy Stacy Lipson recently moved to NYC to pursue her word-nerdy dreams. Stacy is a hard worker. She has a lot of drive and determination. And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t get enough sleep. Still, the city life is proving a bit tougher than she expected. Especially considering how wishy-washy clients can be when sending out paychecks. So she asked me to do up a post on surviving in the city as a freelance writer.

I was happy to comply. There was just one… small… thing…

Though I once worked at the Feminist Press, volunteered my time to a sex-positive feminist mag for sex workers, and declared that I would never be dependent upon a man, I’m now living in a condo in the suburbs, sponging off my husband’s health insurance and his considerably larger income.

God I hate myself.

Still, I’ve learned a thing or two about best business practices and, for everything I don’t know, I’ve provided tips from freelancer friends of mine living in the city. So yeah. I’ve got you covered.

1. Be financially prepared. Before making your move (to either the city or to a life of full-time freelancedom) draw up a projected budget. Take into account that, in addition to your monthly rent, you’ll probably need to cough up first and last month’s rent as a security deposit. And don’t forget utilities. And food. And a subway pass. And your other bills (phone, Internet, student loans, health insurance, etc.). It could help to keep a spending diary for one month, or to use a site like Mint to track your spending. Once you’ve figured out how much you typically spend in a month, and have added in the additional costs you’ll incur from living in the city, add some padding. Multiply this amount by six. That’s how much you should probably save before throwing yourself to the wolves.

2. Break it down. Now that you know how much money you need to survive from month to month, you know how much you need to earn. Use this amount to figure out your annual salary goal, and your freelance rates. (FreelanceSwitch has a calculator for figuring out an hourly rate based upon your budget.) And because freelance income can obviously fluctuate from month to month, you need to be prepared for the possibility of lower-income months. In fact, know that there probably will be months that cause panic attacks. Hopefully, with a bit of hustle, you’ll be able to counterbalance these months with higher-income months. But still. If you need it, I can recommend a fabulous clinical psychologist in Manhattan.

3. Diversify. Of course, if you rely solely upon those fun assignments from your favorite glossy mags and women’s blogs, there will be more low-income months than not. Do NOT rely upon any one type of work, especially when that work is characterized by pitching, waiting, more waiting, more waiting, maybe landing the assignment, pushed-back pub dates, and payments made at least 30 days after publication. (Why are we doing this again?) I mean, there are some writers who make it work. But they’ve been around the block a couple times. So I suggest you take a look at what else you can do for the bucks. Maybe try proofreading or copy editing at a local newspaper or book publisher. Consider ghostwriting, or corporate copywriting, or B2B publications. (Susan Johnston has a great guest post on writing for B2B pubs.) Diana Vilibert, a writer with a background as a web editor, takes on SEO gigs, and helps magazines repackage their print content for the web. You have so many options!

4. Become a slash careerist. I recommend Marci Alboher’s One Person / Multiple Careers to everyone I come in contact with. It’s just. that. awesome. In it, she writes about the benefits of juggling multiple careers,  insists that “slashes” (those receiving income through multiple avenues) seem more satisfied and less oppressed than those holding only one job, and assures me that I’m not a weirdo for wanting to do so much. (In addition to my freelance writing and editing, I also coach other word nerds, and cantor funeral masses.) So it’s not an admission of defeat if you take on a permalance or part-time job, even if it’s completely unrelated to your freelance life. In fact, getting out from behind your computer can provide you with more fodder for your writing. And that regular paycheck doesn’t hurt, either.

The lovely Amanda Green admits that her two largest sources of income are permalance gigs. One is an Internet start-up while the other is a real estate brokerage firm. “The wrong permalance situation can be stultifying and take your eyes off the prize — you might get treated like a full-time employee for a lot less money. The right permalance situation is great. I get paid every two weeks and my biggest clients know they’re not my only priorities. Start-ups can be especially accommodating and flexible with hours, as they get in late, stay late, and appreciate entrepreneurs.”

Diana also suggests giving temp agencies a shot. “One three-day gig here and there can make a big difference — plus, it’s a good networking opportunity.”

5. Get out of your damn apartment and network like hell. Right now, you’re probably chasing down work like nobody’s business. But if you pause and take the time to build — and maintain — some authentic connections, the work will start coming to you. Really. That’s how I get almost all of my work now. And I’m loving it. Because when you’re balancing your checkbook and on the verge of rebuilding your diet around ramen noodles and Xanax, a casual email from an acquaintance who’s wondering if you have time for a little project can make you do a euphoric happy dance. Most likely to Duck Sauce’s “Barbra Streisand.” (Well, that’s my happy dance song.)

6. Don’t get desperate. “Don’t take on low-paying, time-consuming work just because it’s something,” says Diana. “You’ll waste your time, set yourself back, and only end up a little less broke than you were before.” You can read more about this in one of my more recent posts: Why It Took Me Four Years to Become a Freelance Hard-Ass.

7. Give people an added incentive to pay you. If you’re drawing up your own SOWs, be sure to specify a timetable for payment, and to institute late fees. If you’re at the mercy of someone else’s contract terms, try negotiating for quicker payment (for example, ask for payment upon completion of the assignment, rather than upon publication). And if the checks are still slow in coming? Don’t be squeamish about following up. It doesn’t matter if you’re being a nag. Would they treat their other service providers so shabbily?

8. Consider living in a slightly out-of-the-way area. Former colleague Natalie Gontcharova decided to forego a Manhattan apartment for slightly cheaper living. “I live in Astoria, pay $900/month for a one-bedroom, live by myself, and my commute is only about half an hour. I may not live in trendy Williamsburg or convenient Manhattan, but my neighborhood is quiet, green, and has lots of awesome, cheap Greek/Mexican/etc. food.”

9. Only buy what you need. Especially if you’re struggling. Because I’m not going to feel sorry for you if you say you’re hard up for cash, yet you’re sporting a new, $5,000 watch. Also, you don’t need that pretty yellow dress from Anthropologie, even if it’s whispering sweet nothings to you, and promising evenings filled with magic and fine wine and brie and smooches. In fact, before purchasing ANYTHING, ask yourself: Is this more important than paying the rent? Or feeding myself? My buddy Charlotte also recommends taking the price of something and dividing it by the number of times you’ll use it, in order to determine the actual cost. Best. advice. ever.

10. Live like a college student. Susan Johnston, who lives in Boston, suggests living beneath your means, and returning to a college-like lifestyle. She mentions “living with roommates, choosing cheap restaurants or happy hour deals over flashier hotspots, and shopping thrift stores for clothes.”

11. Make moolah off the contents of your apartment. This tip comes courtesy of Natalie, who suggests selling off old or unwanted clothing and books. “Beacon’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, and Tokio 7 can be your best friends, if you know their little tricks and quirks,” she says. “If you bring them your stylish, in-season clothes, they’ll fork up some cash on the spot.” She also suggests checking out to learn more about how to make money on your stuff. You can also sell your books to The Strand.

12. Consider hand-me-downs. When you’re living in a hip, urban area where everyone walks around looking like the next fashion plate, it can be difficult to resist splurging on the biggest label or the latest trend. I fell prey to this myself when I was a student in Boston and, though I’ve since stopped using credit cards and buying pretty dresses willy-nilly, I’m still paying off the credit card debt. Natalie suggests using hand-me-downs when you can. “Pilch as much kitchen equipment from your suburban parents as you can. Mine gave me a microwave and a bunch of dishes. And ask for necessary things for Christmas, like a camera or a laptop, not those orange platform wedges that looked so good on Reese Witherspoon.”

13. Don’t be afraid to let your friends know you’re trying to be thrifty. “Don’t just say no and sulk at home when a friend invites you out for a drink and you’re on your last $5,” says Diana. Ask them if you can do coffee instead, or split a bottle of wine at someone’s apartment instead of going to a pricey bar. No one will think less of you if you don’t go broke in your attempt to be social.”

14. Get creative with your diet. These hilarious, money-saving tips are courtesy of my buddy Claire Daniel, who’s making it work while living it up in Brooklyn. One tip? Build your diet around oatmeal. Why? Claire insists that it’s “cheap, filling, and nutritious. Pair it with frozen berries and sliced bananas and you can have a well-balanced yet affordable meals three times a day for little cost.” She also suggests going dumpster diving. “Live near a Trader Joe’s? Get to know when they move old products off the shelf. There’s plenty of still-good food they’re throwing away simply to make room for new inventory.” And that’s not all. Claire also suggests scoring free meals by getting involved. “Many organizations, especially religious ones, offer up free meals as incentives to participate in their programs.” And finally… try online dating? This one makes me laugh, because I know that Claire tried it out as research for a story. “As a woman, you can use online dating both as a source of cheap entertainment and as a meal ticket,” she says. “Sign up for a free site such as OKCupid or Plenty of Fish and simply put in your profile: ‘Hit me up if you want to take me out for sushi… or tapas… or Italian.’ Take up every offer. When the bill comes, go to the bathroom. If they are gentlemen, they will have already paid. If they haven’t, simply put your hand on theirs and say ‘I’ll get the tip.’ Cheap eats.”

Natalie also suggests going to PR parties and events that feature free food, open bars, and other swag. Not only that, but Natalie went so far as to create a free food Twitter list. You should follow it. “There are all sorts of websites, such as and, that chronicle/gather either reduced-price or free food (and other stuff) in NYC. As long as you’re OK with trekking a bit further to get a 50-percent-off coupon on a restaurant, or eating a greasy slice of pizza just ’cause it’s free, this is a pretty fun endeavor. Sort of like a scavenger hunt.” And speaking of the Twitter angle, you should work it: “Follow new/relatively new bars, restaurants, etc. on Twitter and tweet at them about how much you loooove their hip, candlelit coolness. They’ll get really excited that people are paying attention to them via social media and give you a couple of free drinks or something.” And: “Don’t drink Starbucks. Deli coffee is your friend.” Oh, and also: “when all fails, steal sugar from Burger King.”

Lord. Claire and Natalie are the thriftiest eaters I know.

15. Do not be too proud to ask for help. You should eventually be able to stand on your own two feet. But don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen right away. Your loved ones want to help you as much as they can, so ask them for help if you need it. Secure a loan from your parents, and set up a payment plan to pay them back. And if your spouse makes a trillion times more than you, repeat to yourself this little mantra that I like to use: What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine. 😉

In the end, there’s no cure-all, but thriftiness and hustle can go a long way in keeping you afloat.

Tell us: How do you save money as a freelancer in the big city?

Related: Permalancing: The Good, the Bad, and the Mildly Horrific, Why It Took Me Four Years to Become a Freelance Hard-Ass


  1. This is such a good post, Steph. I have the SAME EXACT thought process around my income vs. my husband’s. What’s funny is he’s never the one pointing out how much more than me he makes; it’s always me harping on it. Sometimes it sucks feeling dependent on your spouse… I totally wouldn’t be living in a house right now if I just had my freelance income to support me. But I remind myself what you say at the end of your post: we share. Since I work from home, I handle a lot of stuff on this end, whether it’s laundry, errands, walking the dog, dealing with people who come to do repairs, etc. I’m pretty sure without his income, I’d be living off Ramen or still sleeping in my bedroom at my parents’ house. So while it sort of sucks sometimes, at least I get to write and make money while doing it.

    Great post!

  2. Great topic, Steph! (And thanks for the mention.) I know it’s scary, Stacy, but I hope it’s exciting, too. Good luck!

  3. I LOVE the mantra. 😉

  4. Love you guys! It may be tight, but we’ll see what happens.


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