My Cheap-Ass Freelance Life
The “2/@” key on my keyboard doesn’t always engage. I have to stab it with fervor to make it work. My standing workstation is cobbled together from a hand-me-down desk topped with a wood floor mat with coffee-table legs in between. I bought my laser printer back in 2009 and I re-stock it with 2-for-$23 off-brand toner cartridges.
I’m a certified (certifiable?) cheapskate when it comes to my business as a freelance writer in journalism and creative writing. Freelancing has been a lean-times/fat-times endeavor over the years, and it’s the ghost of the lean times that still shapes my financial habits. There’s also a certain flair of joy I get from managing my slim budget, but it’s not all orange sherbert and dream dragons in Pennypincherville.
Here’s a frank rundown of some of my key freelancing expenses, and the thrills and pain points that come with them.
Cell phone: Google Pixel 3a ($299 in 2019)
Cell plan: Page Plus ($31 per month)
I’ve got the hots for the new Google Pixel 6 Pro and its sweet camera, but at $900, that’s a no-go. My Pixel 3a is practically vintage in cell-phone years, but it’s serviceable, so I try not to let my tech lust dictate my phone purchases. I tend to only upgrade my phone after I’ve ruined my old one by accidentally dropping it in my backyard pond. Truly, a watery death is the only reason I bought my last two phones. I upgrade based on necessity. If I were an Instagram influencer in need of lavish photography of myself lounging on a beach on the French Riviera, then perhaps I could justify a fancier phone.
On startup each morning, my Acer desktop greets me with a grinding groan and I answer with, ‘Me, too, my friend. Me, too.’
When I pay my $31 phone bill every month, I feel like I’m getting away with something. That’s because Page Plus quietly re-sells the Verizon network, so I get pretty killer coverage for my trio of Hamiltons. But here’s the compromise: I only get 3 GB of good data speeds, and after that I get punished with slower data. Usually, the quota is plenty, but it also means I’m constantly reaching for the pause button or shutting down my browser every time a video starts to auto-play and I’m on mobile data. “Don’t eat my data!” I scream inwardly. In an era of all-you-can-eat data, I’m a throwback. It helps that most of my work happens in a home office where I’m not fretting about limits. Your mileage may vary.
Internet: CenturyLink ($45 per month)
I just ran an internet speed test and hit a blazing maximum speed of 16 Mbps for downloads. I’ve contemplated an upgrade to Comcast and its promise of 100 Mbps speeds, but I always balk at the thought of going to battle over my rate every year. If that wasn’t enough, then the extra cost of shelling out $150-$300 for a compatible modem and router keeps me with CenturyLink’s pitiable but workable speeds.
Do I recommend this? No. But at least I’ve never been a Comcast customer-service casualty and I rarely run into technical issues with CenturyLink. If I have to upload a large file, I take it as a sign from the universe that I should go make a cup of Constant Comment decaf tea, drink it and check back on the upload progress later.
Acer desktop computer ($450 in 2017)
Lenovo Yoga laptop ($990 in 2019)
On startup each morning, my Acer desktop greets me with a grinding groan and I answer with, “Me, too, my friend. Me, too.” It flickers to life across two flat-screen Dell monitors that are so old I can’t remember when I bought them. I’ve always been platform-agnostic, flitting between Apple and Microsoft, but I now spend more time in the Windows camp simply because the equipment is cheaper. If I were a graphic designer or videographer, my computing life would look a lot different, and cost a lot more. But I mainly need Chrome to research with and Google Docs to write in, and so Windows fits me fine.
My laptop was pretty splurge-y for me, but I placed a premium on the touchscreen and pen capability since I read and annotate a lot of PDFs and Word documents and I like to pretend I haven’t lost sight of what a writing utensil feels like.
There are some places I don’t skimp. My accountant costs more than I spend on an entire year of internet. I’m a writer, not a mathematician, and it’s worth it to have someone else calculate my quarterlies and sort out the home office deduction. I drop $79 a year on membership in the Society of Professional Journalists. If you read its magazine Quill, then you understand. I don’t overthink Submittable submission fees as I gently send my essays, poems and short stories off into the oblivion of literary magazine slush piles.
I’m not advocating for running your fingertips across every penny you spend in your freelance business. I probably take it too far. See me as an inspiration, or see me as a cautionary tale. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
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