The Truth About Making Six Figures as a Freelancer

Among many freelancers, there’s this much-coveted, highly-lauded achievement: breaking six figures from your freelance income alone. Just a quick Google search shows you tons of blog posts and articles on how to supposedly do it. Forbes, Business Insider, the LA Times — all your typical suspects have covered the topic.

This year, reader, I made it. I pulled in more than $100k as a freelance writer, something I honestly never really thought I could do, and something that I wasn’t even really trying to do. However, thanks to a pandemic, lots of anxiety and a bad habit of channeling all of my negative feelings into work, I did it. And, on top of that, I also finished writing two books and signed with a literary agent. (Yeah, there was a lot of anxiety this year and when you’re thinking about work, you’re not thinking about your own problems. Use my “life hack” as you will.)

But hitting this milestone wasn’t at all as glamorous as I once would’ve thought. When little baby Holly bought her first book on freelance writing (The Six-Figure Travel Writing Roadmap, fyi), she was really just hoping she could maybe make half that. The idea of making six figures from just writing? That was for the already wealthy, the well connected and most definitely not me.

If you’re in a similar spot as I was a few years ago, here’s what I learned, my truth about making six figures as a freelancer. Yeah, it’s not going to be the same truth for every freelancer, but it was and is true for me.

Truth #1: I had to abandon some of my priorities in order to make $100k.

I didn’t become a freelancer to make a certain amount of money. I became a freelancer so that I could make what I needed, and then have complete control over my life, time and projects. I don’t like working in a controlling environment whatsoever, and any client who tries to get all micromanage-y with me finds themself writer-less pretty quickly.

But as soon as I saw that I was within reach of that oh-so-coveted six-figure milestone, I zeroed in on it with laser focus — and my life, and my control over my life, suffered as a result. My work suddenly became all about how much money I could make. I gave up free time, time I could’ve spent with my husband, time I could’ve used to work on my fiction writing, all so that I could reach that goal.

Over this last year, I definitely didn’t have the work-life balance that I wanted when I first started freelancing. I gave up that priority so that I could focus on this new one: hitting this new financial goal. As I go into 2022, my aim is to make a conscious effort to reprioritize and put my time (and enjoying it) first, money second.

Truth #2: I had to get tough with some of my clients.

With a lot of my clients, I’m a people pleaser. I crave validation. I want my clients to like — no, love me. That’s led to a lot of detrimental people pleasing in the past. I let clients slide on payments on occasion. I do work that I know is worth more money, for less money. I give discounts. I work on rush projects.

But you don’t make six figures by letting people walk all over you. This year, I got tough with some of my clients before I even considered the financial aspect. Maybe it was the pandemic. Maybe it was just my completely barren field of fucks. But I dug in my heels and channeled all of my stubbornness in quite a few instances this year, all of which helped me.

I stopped offering endless revisions and edits. Now, clients get complimentary edits on 25% of a project and anything above and beyond is my normal per-word fee. I stopped taking rush projects. Clients can wait or find someone else; I typically have a wait list, so those rush jobs going somewhere else? Not a problem. I raised my rates, for both new and existing clients. I let some clients go completely. When clients didn’t pay on time, I became the nightmare in their inbox, following up every two days.

Was this uncomfortable for me? Absolutely. But doing the right thing for yourself is often uncomfortable.

Truth #3: I didn’t make my six figures off of my “big” clients.

Look to a lot of freelancers who boast about their six-figure income and they’ll tell you they spend a good portion of their time either (a) working for retainer clients that pay the majority of their income or (b) pitching endlessly to large publications like the NYT, WSJ, etc. But you don’t need to do either in order to make six figures and I’m evidence of that.

I hate pitching, so I keep my pitching to a minimum (it’s literally unpaid work, guys). I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket, so I stay away from clients who are going to need more than 10 hours of my work week, every week. (When that client’s business shutters (I saw a handful of travel-related clients close during the pandemic) or that editor who loves you retires and is replaced with someone who hates your guts, what are you going to do to make up that income? I don’t like to scramble.)

So, yes, most of my clients are “small.” I work with many different clients over the span of a single week (usually 10 or more clients per week) and a lot of those clients are either small, niche publications (as a side note, the biggest publications typically take forever to pay, 90 days or more, and are usually the worst to work with) or small businesses. But all of that small work adds up in a big way.

Truth #4: $100k is not that much money to a freelancer.

I know that I am incredibly, incredibly blessed to be in my position. I am very privileged that all of my hard work has paid off. However, if you’re thinking of getting into the freelance game and that you’ll suddenly have oodles of money to spend, think again.

Forty percent of all my money goes into savings for taxes, because, every quarter, I find myself writing a big fat check to the government; thank you, self-employment taxes. Another chunk covers business expenses (I write on a lot of travel and food topics, which comes with costs, and then there are my general admin costs, like paying for interview transcription services, web hosting, etc.). Another chunk goes to retirement and general savings. And then I’m left with the remains to cover my actual, day-to-day cost of living.

So, don’t think that these freelancers making six figures are jetting around the world, living the high life. Their $100k is more like the average office employee’s $60k, or less.

Truth #5: It wasn’t as hard as you might think.

But the weirdest truth to all of this, in my eyes? That I made $100k this year primarily in my pajamas. Any time someone refers to me as a business, I have a tendency to correct them. I’m not a business. I’m just me. This whole freelancing gig is just me in my pajamas, writing my little stories on my little laptop in my little office. It’s simple, and that’s how I like it.

So, I guess my point is, if you want to make $100k as a freelancer, I fully believe that you can. You might not be able to make $100k your very first year. And you might have to reprioritize in order to do it. But is it possible? Absolutely. Just make sure to acknowledge the truths of the matter before you set out for this audacious goal.

Holly Riddle is a freelance travel, lifestyle and food journalist and copywriter who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her Twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.

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