Last week we kicked off our new series, How I Freelance, by interviewing Worklife illustrator Nicole Album. This week, we caught up with Jackie Lam — a freelance writer with a niche covering personal finance — to learn about her journey to 1099 life.
Jackie started out pursuing a side hustle by blogging about living on a budget in LA, back when blogging was becoming a thing. She did this while also working a somewhat soul-sucking full-time job (a classic freelance love story.) That blog led her to all types of opportunities. She eventually went full-time contract and never looking back.
Now, she writes, helps her boyfriend with his immersive art gallery operations, and coaches other freelancers and creatives about personal finance and pursuing their passions. We got into the nitty gritty of freelance life, including specific rubrics she uses to decides what clients are worth her time, ways she re-energizes throughout the week, and the problem with the scarcity mentality that can plague first-time freelancers.
Read on for lots of helpful advice.
Worklife: Hey, Jackie! Love your background on Zoom right now, are you at your house?
Hey! Thanks for having me. No, I’m actually at my boyfriend’s art studio manning the front desk, so I may need to pause briefly if people come in. It’s a great place to come to write.
Very cool, looks like an inspiring place to work. Could you start out by telling people who you are and what kind of work you do.?
I live in LA and I’m a personal finance writer, I coach other writers and freelancers about their money. Also, I help my partner with his immersive art gallery with operations.
Got it! How did you end up on this freelance path, and how did you start out your career?
I started by getting a side copy editing job at an arts magazine when I was working at a day job in a communications department for an entertainment union. I started doing freelance writing after blogging for a few years. My blog was called Cheapsters, and it was about embracing frugality and the freedom that comes with that. It was during the recession. I know, it sounds really nerdy — this was so long ago when blogs were a relatively new concept and there wasn’t a lot of stuff about frugality. And now it’s everywhere. I was always into having freedom around being frugal at a time when I didn’t have much money and was living on my own in LA.
Then I went to a money blog conference, FinCon, and checked out a freelance marketplace there, where I met the VP of Talent at Contently. They were looking for writers in the financial space and he put me on a team. That first month I realized I was making almost as much as my day job’s take home pay. Which tells you how much I was making at the time (not a lot.) I saw early on the potential to do freelance full-time one day.
I then got a contract job as a writer for an insurance company in downtown LA. I left a full-time job with benefits for it, and it turns out there was all of these internal changes, they had no work for me and let me go about a month in. It was not great. But I was still lining up more freelance work and meeting with recruiters.
I was then offered a job, a six-figure job at a big financial firm. I was going to make more than I ever thought possible doing proofing. But my friend was like, why are you going to take that? He sat down and asked me what I wanted to be doing in a year — proofing or writing? I said, obviously writing. He asked me how much I had in savings, how much other work I had, and it became clear I should just do my own thing. Even though it felt safer to take the job, I went freelance. I’ve been doing freelance for 6 years now full time.
Looking back at that time, making that leap, what did you do that was helpful to make the transition easier, and now knowing what you know, would you have done anything differently?
It was helpful that I had work already, at least some work, and I knew more work would be coming.
Also, having a niche — personal finance — really helped. Knowing this is the kind of work I want to do, that I was already a money nerd. A pragmatic thing was having some savings. Some people are fine without savings, but having that helped me realize if the first year sucks, I had something to fall back on financially. I looked at it as an experiment for the first year or two, to see if I could make it work. Because it was scary, after all. I’m generally a risk-averse person.
What about advice to others, things you would have done differently?
I’d say, to not be so afraid and to be more proactive. It would have helped me to go out and look for work more actively.
I’ve always been someone who leans on the community a lot, for better or for worse, for referrals and people who I know who have connections. But I could have also made cold calls or more letters of introduction.
And in some ways, I wish I could have done freelance even sooner. I didn’t need to wait that long.
What were some of your major struggles at the beginning?
Definitely the scarcity mentality. Feast or famine. Either you have way too much or not enough work, and it never feels like it’s going to even out, and it doesn’t really ever even out. Work-life balance is really hard to achieve. I’m a lot better now, but those first few years took on a ton of work, because I never knew when I might run out of work.
Also, making decisions about what to take on. It’s easy to say yes to things in front of you, but harder to say no to things so you have room for new opportunities in the long term.
And then burnout. It’s definitely a real thing when you work for yourself. I’ve learned to take time off, carve out time throughout the week to relax and do my own thing. I would hit a wall at times.
Let’s segway to your schedule — have you set up any schedules or systems that work best for you?
I’ve learned to work in my windows of productivity. I don’t have kids so I don’t need to work around family obligations. After working two or three days I’ve learned I need to take a day where I don’t do any writing. So I may work Sunday but then take Tuesday off. That has helped. It can also help to work just a little bit each day to avoid long, heavy stretches of work work work.
I usually get up at 6 and work for a couple of hours and then around 8:30 or 9 I’ll go to a water aerobics class or go for a walk, ten work more. I try to work in 2-4 hour windows and take a break. I’ll take a lunch break or run some errands and work for a second chunk of time later in the day.
When you’re looking at clients, deciding who you want to work with, how are you evaluating what you want to say yes to?
It can still be a struggle sometimes, but it’s become easier because I’ve had to spend time figuring this out. I believe not in exchanging money for time but exchanging opportunity for time. Which sounds like a pie in the sky thing, but it’s actually helpful.
The writers co-op also recommends looking at the three P’s: prestige, pay and passion. If you get two of three of those it’s good.
It can also think on a spectrum. On one end is what you want to work toward and on the other, what you want to work away from.
What is what you want to be working toward?
Right now a lot of my work is content marketing for consumers and B2B stuff. And I’ve started to do a bit more coaching stuff. I’d like to diversify more, do some non-personal finance stuff. I’ve started writing for BuzzFeed on the money side, which is fun. And doing more coaching. I like to think of it in percentages. In 6 months, I want to bump this area up a little more, rather than trying to do it all overnight.
Tell me more about your coaching business.
I coach people who are freelancing and / or dealing with variable income. It involves financial and business coaching, but also helping them identify where there’s synergy, what points connect based on their goals and values. A lot of people need help figuring out where they should focus with their art or creative work.
Any major themes from those coaching sessions you’d want to share with freelancers reading this?
The biggest thing is something we all do: not seeing our value. Undervaluing ourselves. Thinking ‘I can’t make money doing this.’To me the potential in their talents and passions may be obvious, but to them, not so much. So many of us have ideas that can turn into businesses. I strongly believe if you can make $100 from something, you can make $200. And then you can make $1,000. I try to help people see the inroads, the baby steps, they can make $5,000 a month on anything they want to do.
In this day and age, it’s great because you don’t need a certain number of years of experience or have worked at this company or that, it’s more about: can you do the work and can you do it well. And can you build a community around it.
Since you’re the personal finance guru, let’s talk about one of the hardest parts of freelancing: pricing. How do you handle pay negotiations and advise others on it?
Everyone I know, even those who have been doing this for a long time, struggles with this. I have a few things that help.
First, establish a need. Especially when I was starting out, I calculated how much I’d need to pay the bills. So let’s say I need $4,000 a month to cover everything, I’d need to make $200 a day 20 days a month. That’s good to know.
If I have a new potential client, I’ll look at who else is writing for the pub, and if I know them, I will reach out and ask about rates. I’ve found people are usually open. But it’s also helpful to phrase it like this: “I was wondering if you could share your rates from the pub, and if not, could you tell me if it’s below or above [insert number]? If they say above or below, you have a range.
I’ll also track my time to know how long something takes me. That way, next time this same kind of work comes around, I’ll know. Especially if it’s an ongoing project, you risk scope creep with something gobbling up your time.
It can also help to itemize everything you’re offering. You may not realize all of it until you write it down. For example, with a performer, the costumes cost money, you’re giving time at a rehearsal, etc. Even if you don't show this to a client, it’s good knowledge to have.
Lastly, this advice from StefanieO’Connell Rodriguez it’s not what you’re worth, it’s what your work is worth. Distancing your self worth to the worth of the project itself is good practice.
How do you like to find clients?
I mainly find clients through referrals, but sometimes on LinkedIn or calls for pitches on Twitter. I prefer referrals or some kind of connection. The relationship with the editor is the most important thing. Having a good editor you trust can elevate your work so much more, and I’m willing to put in extra work if the editor is willing to put in the work, too.
What I’m reading:
Back issues of The Economist gifted from my Buy Nothing group, personal finance books for my coaching certification, random garbage on the Internet when I'm avoiding work
What I’m listening to:
Drab Majesty, Fatal Jamz, The Ezra Klein Show
laptop, sometimes pens, washi tape, stickers (I'm a huge sticker nerd)