Single and freelance – our top tips

Considering going freelance? Already self-employed and finding it a struggle? Our own freelance journalist offers some advice

By Catherine Francis


I’m sick of the rat race. I want to be my own boss, but I don’t know where to start.”

“I’ve been freelance for eight years, but I still haven’t mastered that elusive work/life balance.”

“I love the freedom of working for myself, but it gets lonely and cabin fever can set in.”


There are over 1.9 million freelance workers in the UK. Perhaps you’re one of them – or you’d like to be. From writers to software engineers, musicians to plumbers, personal trainers to academic tutors, many people prefer being self-employed. It often offers more freedom in choosing your hours and the type of work you want to do. It allows you to be your own boss. Many freelancers work from home, which is invaluable if you’re a single parent or care for elderly parents – plus you get to sidestep the wasted hours, expense and stress of the daily commute.

However, freelancing comes with its own challenges. There’s no guarantee of a steady supply of work – often it’s ‘feast or famine’, and you’re either twiddling your thumbs or burning the candle at both ends to meet deadlines. You can kiss goodbye to sick pay, holiday entitlement, maternity pay, redundancy packages and a pension plan. And you need self-motivation and self-discipline to generate work and keep clients happy.

Being single adds extra pressure to freelancers. You don’t have the financial back-up of a partner in employment. If you work from home and you don’t have housemates, you can go days without seeing another human being. So if you’re single and the freelance life beckons, check out these tips from people who’ve been there…

‘Get your finances in good shape before you start’

When you launch yourself as a freelancer, it takes time to build up regular work. For most of us, it’s a slow process of making contacts, convincing clients to give us a try, and building up regular bookings, commissions or customers. It also takes time for the cash to start coming in. Although by law, small businesses should be paid within 30 days of invoicing, the reality doesn’t always match that. There’ll be slow payers and invoice-chasing – and meanwhile, the rent is due and the bills are racking up. So you need a good cushion of money to tide you over – at least three months’ income, ideally six months’, is the recommended amount. While you’re saving up, you can use the time to make contacts and build relationships with potential clients.

It’s worth remembering that it can be difficult to get a mortgage as a freelancer if you don’t have at least three years of accounts demonstrating a reliable income. If you’re hoping to get on the property ladder, you may want to delay either getting a mortgage, or going fully freelance, to avoid scuppering your home-owning plans.

“When I went freelance, I already knew several editors who would give me shifts. However, publishers can take ages to pay, and I’d just taken out a mortgage. I dipped into my savings a lot in those first few months.” Cath, journalist

“I didn’t realise some companies take so long to pay freelancers. I got thousands of pounds into debt in my first few months, and it took me a long time to dig my way out again.” Martyn, designer

‘Join unions, societies and networking groups’

Being freelance can sometimes leave you professionally isolated. If there’s a union representing your profession, it’s worth considering becoming a member. You’ll hear about news, trends and opportunities in your industry. There may be low-cost training available, and if you face problems with clients, you may be able to call on union lawyers.

Societies and networking events can also help you keep in touch with the professional scene, generate work opportunities, make friends, and pick up tips and advice from others in the same boat. Social media groups can also be helpful.

“I’m not a natural networker, but I’ve made some good friends through a professional guild, so events are now more like a get-together with pals. Most of my work comes through personal contact – people want someone who can get the job done, but also someone they get on well with, and who is reliable and pleasant.” Frances, writer

‘Get tax-savvy – quickly!’

If the accounting side of your business is fairly straight forward, you may be able to do your self-assessment tax return yourself. If the finances are more complicated, it’s worth getting an accountant (ask other freelancers in your industry for recommendations). Either way, you need to register with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) as self-employed, and get up to speed on what expenses you can write off against tax.

You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you can claim, including a percentage of living expenses (such as heating and lighting) if you work from home. HMRC has a guide for what you can claim here: Start keeping detailed records of all your income and expenditure, and keep all receipts and invoices. Depending on your business, it may be more tax efficient to set up as a limited company (rather than a sole trader) – an accountant will be able to advise you.

Many freelancers get caught out by their first tax bill – especially when they discover they’re also charged a projected amount for the following year ‘on account’ (although you can ask for this to be waived). After your tax-free personal allowance (£11,000 for 2017-2018), it’s a good idea to put around 30% of earnings into a separate bank account for your tax bill (20% basic rate, plus national insurance).

“I can’t be bothered doing my own tax return – it’s worth it to me to pay an accountant and know it’s done properly. He also saves me money by knowing about expenses I can write off. You still have to keep good records, though.” Edward, electrician

“I do my own accounts and tax returns – my accounts aren’t complicated and I’m not paying an accountant to do a job I can manage myself. Some of my income is taxed at source, when I do in-house contracts. Any that isn’t taxed, I put a percentage into my ‘tax’ account for when the dreaded bill comes in. Some of my colleagues have come unstuck when faced with a bill of several thousand pounds and nothing in the bank.” Ellie, marketing and PR manager

 ‘Don’t become a hermit’

If you work from home, and you don’t have housemates, it’s easy to become lonely and isolated. It’s important to get out regularly and plan time with friends – sometimes working from home can actually boost your social life because you’re more in the mood for company in the evenings when you’re not ‘all talked out’ from a day at the office. Social media can also be good for staying in touch with the outside world – as long as it doesn’t replace face-to-face contact. 

Churches are great for keeping you plugged into a community through services and social events, so it’s good to prioritise these. Some self-employed people get together with freelance friends for a monthly “work lunch” or “freelancers’ Christmas party”, to make up for not having colleagues.

“I’m a ‘people person’ so being alone all day researching and writing, and not having company in the evenings either, is draining and makes me unhappy. I’ve learned to make sure I have lots of evening social plans. I also use Facebook in the way people in offices use coffee breaks – to pause and have a chat – and I don’t feel guilty about it.”  Charlotte, journalist

“Make the effort to get out of the house and have a conversation with another human being, otherwise you can become a crazy cat/dog person! Even a walk to the shops helps, but it’s better to arrange coffee with friends and other freelancers.” Kia, editor

‘Consider other ways to generate cash’

Freelancing can be precarious, so it’s worth considering ways of adding an extra income stream – for instance, renting a spare room to a lodger (try or through Airbnb (, or renting out a parking space or garage (try Taking in a lodger comes with the added benefit of being tax-free for up to £7,500 a year.

Some people get a part-time job, and build up their freelance work alongside it before going fully self-employed. Others maintain more than one career in the long-term – such as teaching or coaching in their field, or a completely different part-time occupation – to keep the money rolling in. So consider what other skills you have to offer.

“Jobs in TV can be patchy. Fortunately, I’m also a good painter and decorator, which keeps me afloat between contracts. I put a shout-out at church when I have some free time, and the good people of my congregation give me a steady stream of decorating jobs.” Gareth, TV producer

“Music a vulnerable profession. I rent out my spare room through Airbnb and, now I have several trusted regular guests, it’s low-stress and gives me an extra income stream. It’s very reassuring when singing bookings are unpredictable.” Anita, singer

‘Guard your work/life balance’

Many people go freelance to have more control over their own working patterns. However, without set working hours, it’s easy to feel you’re never ‘off duty’ as there’s always something you could or should be doing. Sticking to set working hours makes it easier to down tools at the end of the day and enjoy your downtime. Make sure other people also know you’re ‘at work’ and not to be disturbed. Booking time in your diary for other activities, such as hobbies or going to the gym – just as you would for a work meeting – can help to make sure they happen.

Procrastination during the day can leave you working late into the evening or night. Some people find it helps to work in a different location – for instance, taking your laptop to a library or coffee shop, or even renting a desk space. If you work at home, designating a room or area as your work space helps to divide work and home life – working in a living or sleeping space makes it harder to relax there after hours. Although it’s tempting to work in your pyjamas and slippers, getting washing and dressed tends to make you feel more professional and ready for work. Staying away from social media is a must for most home-workers – disconnect your internet if necessary!

Freelancers often work longer hours as they’re afraid to turn down work in case it dries up later or they lose a client. As you build up a regular flow of work, you’ll probably feel more confident about turning down work when necessary.

“I’m strict with working hours. I walk my dogs and have breakfast, and I’m at my desk by 9am. I work until 5pm (taking an hour for lunch) and then I switch the computer off, close the study door, and forget it until the next morning. It takes self-discipline but it means my evenings and weekends feel like my own, and I can go running or veg out in front of the TV without feeling guilty.” Richard, software engineer

“My friends and neighbours often assume that if I’m at home practising and preparing lessons, I’m not really working. I have to make it clear that this is how I earn my living and I AM at work, even if they can see me through the window playing the violin!” June, violin teacher


With thanks to: Anita, Cath, Charlotte, Edward, Ellie, Frances, Gareth, June, Kia, Martyn and Richard.

Catherine Francis, 7 February 2017