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Work / Life Balance

Take a Break: 5 Ways Freelance Creatives Make Unpaid Time Off Work

“If you don't take full advantage of the schedule flexibility that self-employment allows, you're doing it wrong.”


Vacations are a minefield for independent creatives. While the full-time, salaried workforce can take holidays and still get paid, freelancers have to tread carefully—taking time off means not making money. And it’s not just a day here and a day there. Add up national holidays and the typical 15 vacation and personal days per year, and you get about five weeks of unrealized earnings per year.

Whereas the rest of the world takes vacation breaks according to corporate calendar dates, freelancers have both the freedom and pressure of unlimited time off. This is both a blessing and a curse.

One of the primary perks of going solo is the ability to have complete control over your time off. However, if you work independently, your vacations must be planned with the same kind of purpose and attention to your budget as your work week. Otherwise, you’ll get urgent client phone calls when you’re lounging poolside or end up with sizeable hits to your bank account.

Make the most of your freedom by applying the strategies of these longtime freelancers who successfully balance work and play.

1. Go on Offense

To prevent holes in your income during time off, build up your cash reserves well before you head out of town. This way, you’ll have a cushion that sustains you through multiple unpaid weeks a year.   

Mike Campau, a Michigan-based digital artist who has worked with ASICS, Mercedes-Benz and Under Armour, recommends padding your bank account with 6 to 12 months’ worth of income. “If you have that, you can take regular vacations without feeling guilty or stressed,” he says. Before Campau even struck out as a freelancer, he saved up three months’ worth of income from his full-time job and also lined up clients to give him financial momentum heading into working on his own. Then he saved during his early years by pretending that he made less than he actually did—and stocking the difference in the the bank.

When it comes to the unpredictable, year-end budgets of companies, don’t leave anything to chance, says photographer Tim Tadder, who has shot campaigns for Pepsi and Coca-Cola. By the end of November, Tadder has locked in all of his assignments for the final four weeks of the year. “If you haven’t booked jobs for December by Thanksgiving, you’re not going to work all December,” he says.

When it comes to the unpredictable, year-end budgets of companies, don’t leave anything to chance.

Because corporate decision makers are rushing to close their department budgets they’re in wrap up—not ramp up—mode. Don’t leave one month of your income in their hands when they have their plates full and their eyes on their own holiday plans. Instead, act like your fiscal year closes in November.

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2. Take an 80/20 Vacation

Just because you go on vacation doesn’t mean that your work matters will stay at home. Fire drill emails from clients tend to come in at the most inopportune times, like when you are heading out to the beach or the slopes. Or some aspect on the project you have set up for the week following your vacation needs immediate attention. Find a happy medium that allows you to address these needs, while still enjoying your vacation by creating your own 80/20 policy. Spend 80 percent of your time on vacation and 20 percent keeping your day-to-day operation moving along.

Campau has taken nearly seven weeks of vacation this year—the most, he says, since college. To do this, he has built bits of work time into his time off. “I tried to get away with the ‘I’m on vacation’ automated email response, but, if something is urgent, I don’t want to leave the client hanging,” he says. So Campau sets aside time to manage active projects. “I take the vacation, but I’m not totally unplugged,” he says.

Spend 80 percent of your time on vacation and 20 percent keeping your day-to-day operation moving along.

The 80/20 approach could mean checking emails every morning, knocking out the pressing ones, and then getting on with your free day. Or, you can use use the pre-dinner hour to scroll through your phone to see what requires a response. (Plus, doing work with a beer in hand makes it feel less like work!)

By knowing ahead of time that you might have to accomplish a few tasks, you’ll be mentally prepared for when it happens and have a window reserved specifically for it. 

3. Pay Yourself the Equivalent of a Salary

Once you have built up a steady roster of existing clients, pay yourself a monthly “salary” that is one twelfth of your annual earnings. A predictable pay structure allows you to take vacations without having to worry about covering a lost week of income in any given month.

JUCO Photography co-founder Julia Gardo and her co-founder Cody Cloud—whose clients include Target, Lexus and Apple—use this system at their two-person agency. Incoming checks are distributed among the various JUCO business expenses—including agent fees, taxes and overhead—and the rest is put in a compensation account. Gardo and Cloud then pay themselves the same amount every month, whether they did a $10,000 or $50,000 job that month. “We can’t have less than $40,000 in the account,” says Gardo. “That is so we know we are able to pay ourselves out.”

And, if you find yourself with a substantial amount of money above your account threshold at the end of the year, then maybe it’s worth giving yourself a bonus.

 

4. Play with House Money   

It is inevitable that your work and your play will significantly collide at some point. Maybe one week before you’re about to go on a trip, a major client calls with a last-minute assignment that overlaps with your trip. The pay is great, but it is worth revising your vacation?

Writer Ann Friedman puts it back on the client to see what it is worth to them for her to move around her vacation. She treats the project like an urgent delivery and charges a corresponding premium. “When my schedule is flexible, lately I’ve been using it as an opportunity to ask for more money for the assignment,” she says. “If they agree to increase my pay rate, only then do I move my vacation.”Rather than saying yes or no to a client immediately, consider playing with house money like Freeman. If you get a higher rate, it’s a win. If you don’t, you still win because you’re going on vacation.

5. Embrace the Tradeoff

Being your own boss is great—until you have to forgo a vacation in order to finish a project or simply pay your bills. You’ve traded stability for freedom and yet you might need to sacrifice free time in order to make your independent career work.   

For the first three years with JUCO, Galdo didn’t take regular vacations, with the exception of visiting her parents in Florida every year. “Whatever it takes to get afloat is what has to happen at the beginning,” she says. “If vacations don’t happen for a couple of years, you have to keep in mind that you’re working towards something that is more lasting.”  The early hustle is now paying dividends for the L.A.-based Galdo. She has vacationed in Italy, Cuba, Miami, New York, and French Polynesia this year.

If large chunks of time aren’t in the cards, take time off where you can find it, even if it’s not around a holiday or part of a vacation. A day playing hooky around town won’t hurt your pocketbook and you can jump right back into a project if necessary. “A random Wednesday, a few hours on a Monday morning, whatever,” suggests Freeman. “If you don’t take full advantage of the schedule flexibility that self-employment allows, you’re doing it wrong.”  

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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