Full-time v. Freelance: Settling the Deb ...

Full-time v. Freelance: Settling the Debate?

Dec 08, 2023

Pictured: me working in a cubicle, which is not my happy place

I began to yearn for work/life balance and more time off after only a few years of working in an office, and it worsened in my 30s. By the time I became a mother at 40, I was frustrated with the requirements of in-office work—long, stressful commute both ways, missing out on developmental moments with my baby, and costing enormous amounts of money in daycare, and "before" and "after" care once he got to school. I never felt like I had enough time off. I never had enough free time, never enough time to spend with my child, no time for self-care.

Shock and Awe

Be careful what you wish for. In 2017 I lost my job and assumed I would get another right away. It was my 2nd career layoff and I felt I was very employable - degreed, experienced, a dedicated, innovative worker. I panicked and couldn't imagine not going to work every day. I was a single mom living paycheck to paycheck and didn't know how to survive. I even pretended to dress up and go to work for a while as I didn't want to tell my kid I lost my job.

Two years into what would be a 4-year journey before I found FT work again, I wrote a viral article about ageism, unemployment, and poverty. There are a lot of assumptions and judgments made about people who don't work and who use systems to help folks who are down on their luck, and I hate them. During my county record-breaking 3-year journey to try to get child support from my ex (spoiler alert: I didn't), his lawyer screamed at me in deposition that "Isn't going to food pantries a lifestyle choice?" There are people who really believe this, which is sad. I really wanted a full-time job, but as more and more time passed, I imagine I looked unemployable because it had been so long since I'd had a full-time job. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy: I can't get a job because I don't have a job, and they won't give me a job because I don't already have one.

The Discovery

But I was working. I had been freelance writing for years, for newspapers and websites. I worked to ramp up my freelance practice. The work was feast or famine. I did my best to sustain myself on much less money than what I used to make, which meant a lot of lifestyle changes.

What I gained was work/life balance. Time for me. Time to write things I really wanted to write and get published in national outlets. I exercised regularly, paid more attention to my diet, meal planned, saw my friends more, and spent more time with my child. I didn't make a ton of money but I was happier.

I continued to search for full-time work and finally found a wonderful job - only to be laid off a year later, my 3rd career layoff (March of 2023). I'm back to freelancing now, and looking for ways to make as much money as I can from my writing This includes applying for full-time jobs along with networking, pitching, and applying for freelance work (and, of course, writing this blog - buy me a virtual coffee if you like my advice).

I've been asked in interviews why I want a full-time job again, when the simplest and most obvious answer is I need the money - that's why everyone works. I applied because I think I'm qualified to do the job and I want it, period. You have an opening, I can fill it - it's not that complex.

But if we are being honest, there are positives and negatives of both sides of the coin.

Pros/Cons of Freelancing v. Full-Time

Real talk: we need to be honest with ourselves and each other about the positives and negatives so we can work to address them and fix the problems, so people can live their lives in a way that works best for them and so they can make enough money to survive. If someone wants to be a FT worker bee in an office, they can. If they want to work remotely at home, they can. But you should know what each entails and decide how you want to compromise - as both sides require some compromise.

Here are the pros and cons as I see them, supplemented with input from my LinkedIn discussion.

Pros of a Full-Time Job:

  • Regular paycheck. This cannot be overstated in its importance if you want to do anything like buy a house or car, plan for retirement, travel, etc. A reliable paycheck allows you to plan for expenses and pay off large investments over time, so you can get your broken windows fixed or get your sunken, cracked driveway repaired or stop the basement from leaking (yes, I'm describing my house).

  • Deductions made easy (taxes, social security, benefits). Tax time can be fairly simple.

  • Benefits package (usually), which can include medical/dental/vision, paid time off, disability, life insurance, a 401(k), and many other perks including pre-tax HSAs, transportation reimbursements, discounts, etc. Companies that match 401(k) may be the only way some people have to save in a big way for retirement.

  • Clearly defined job duties. You usually know what you're going to do when you show up at work each day. You don't have to wonder what's going to happen or what you'll do all day.

  • Sense of belonging. At many companies, there are social benefits to being a member of a team or department. A "we're in this together" feeling that drives teamwork and caring about your co-workers.

Cons of a Full-Time Job:

  • Meetings. Anyone who has had an office job knows just how many fucking meetings there are, and the higher you go in an org, the more meetings you must attend. COVID changed some of this - people got so weary of Zoom/Teams that they focused more on meetings only when necessary. But still. Soul-crushing meetings where you would rather be anywhere but there and someone is always asking "just one more question."

  • Requirements. OKRs. KPIs. "Goal setting." 360 reviews. Self-evaluations. Honestly I think it's gotten out of hand. Can't people just do their job really well every day without constantly having to reevaluate, set new goals, be forced up a ladder they might not want to climb? I understand companies want more more more so each individual has to do more more more each year, but why am I evaluating myself? Isn't that what managers are for? If it's completely up to me, I'm giving myself the maximum raise every year and I'm giving everyone 5 stars who wants a review because they showed up consistently and did the job, let's all get the maximum raise.

Sidebar: I once mused that I wanted the job of a parking attendant at the hospital. It's so FINITE. Take their ticket, insert it in the machine, they pay you what the machine says. Give them change if needed, raise the gate, bye. If they lost their ticket or don't have any money, you press a button and the manager comes and they sort it out with the driver. Nobody tells you to charge people more or try to get them to buy stuff on their way out. You don't have to be an ambassador for the hospital or wear a uniform or even say anything other than the details of the transaction. You can't get in trouble for not checking enough people out because you don't control who uses that parking garage when. Just show up, read your book, check people out when they leave and go home. Now that job is done by a machine, so that wasn't a great long-term goal I guess. But this is what a lifetime of goal-setting and self-evaluations can lead you to feel.

  • Their way or the highway. Good workplaces have some flexibility, but by and large you are expected to show up to your job virtually or in person every day at the same time, work a full day and end work the same time. This can not only be monotonous, but inconvenient. If you have a doctor's appointment, you may be expected or required to work to make up the time you missed, even if you are salaried. You are expected not to do things in the middle of the day that you enjoy, such as take off and go to the gym or go to the hair salon (though executives do this all the time) - it's only acceptable to miss work for a "have to" and not a "want to," and sometimes you have to provide an excuse, like a doctor's note if you were sick, or fill out a bunch of paperwork and use up all your vacation first in order to get short-term disability so you can take time off for surgery. They make the rules. Two hour lunches are not ok. Certain clothing is not ok. They are your boss, and (justifiably) they can and will tell you what you can and can't do with your day.

  • Eggs in one basket. Though there are a few people out there managing side hustles and even working two FT jobs at once, for most people, just doing one FT job is exhausting enough and they don't have spoons for any more work. The problem with this is the same thing with not diversifying your investments. When times get tough, when mergers happen, when the new manager has it in for you, your days are numbered. Security is an illusion. We all know someone who has been in a very difficult position and got let go at the worst possible time - one year before retirement, right after a cancer diagnosis, just after buying a house, whatever. All the things you regularly paid for suddenly can't be paid, and you are dependent upon finding another FT fix right away to keep the plates spinning.

My advice: Be prepared for every day at your job to be your last day, and know what you would do immediately if that happens, especially if you never find another job. How will you make money? Do you know how to apply for aid? What would you do if you lost everything?

Pros of Freelancing:

  • You're the boss. You don't have to do any work you don't want to for any company or person you don't want to work with. You don't have to write copy about how great we are at getting companies out of trouble for illegal waste dumping or write speeches for an executive who treats you like crap on the heel of his shoe. If you hate PowerPoint presentations, you don't have to do them. You agree to each assignment and can walk away from the work anytime, as long as you can afford to.

  • You control your schedule. If you're more productive early morning, you can get your shit done and then go for a hike or spend hours pursuing whatever hobby you enjoy. You can finish the work at night or on the weekend if you want. You never have to miss things like early bird sales at stores because you can be there when the store opens. If you want to and can afford to take a whole month off, you do it. People can invite you to meetings but if it doesn't work with your schedule, you don't have to go - if they want you there, they schedule around YOU, not the other way around. This allows for ultimate work/life balance.

  • You could make more money. Working the same job for 10 years, you might get a nominal increase every year that doesn't even offset the cost of living increasing. Maybe you get 1 promotion and make a little more money. But the trajectory can be slow. I've worked jobs where I made the same money for 5 years straight - sorry, we have no money for bonuses or raises this year, keep shoveling shit. As a freelancer, you can charge whatever you think the work is worth and if they don't agree to pay it, you can find another client. I have clients that pay me top dollar because with my years of experience, I can produce excellent work in half the time that it takes other people. This frees me up to do work for other clients. So I can have multiple income streams while working work fewer hours than at a full-time job. Or I could work FT hours and make more money.

  • Diversification. Eggs are in several baskets. If one basket is gone, you don't lose everything all at once. This is incredibly important if you are a freelancer, especially because companies that once had money for a freelancer often suddenly decide to bring work in-house. Or the manager you worked with is terminated or leaves and the new manager wants to use their friend for the work. It also helps keep your mind sharp because you're not spending hours sitting in meetings or in traffic, you're doing all kinds of different work for different clients and continuously learning, which can be exciting.

  • Not boring. The sameness of a daily office routine can feel dependable and safe, but you can get into a rut and become stale and uninspired. Work is ever-changing as a freelancer. You might have a client for a month or a year, and there is often a continuously changing mix year over year.

Cons of Freelancing:

  • No regular paycheck. This can be a huge barrier. Without at least a couple of good anchor clients you can depend on for work, the feast or famine way of making money can be tough for people who aren't strict about budgeting and saving. You have to put it away when you have it so you can pay bills when you don't. Even the highest paid, top freelancers have dry periods.

  • No benefits. This can't be underestimated as it can be a HUGE cost for freelancers. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, you can now obtain medical/dental/vision through the marketplace, but the premiums and co-pays can be very expensive for someone with inconsistent income. In lean times, you will qualify for subsidies that can reduce how much you pay, but when your income changes you have to report the change and your contributions adjust accordingly.

  • Marketing. As a freelancer, you are running a small business, whether you actually incorporate or not. You have to constantly put yourself out there to try to stay on people's radars. You're regularly looking for work, asking friends and connections for work, and participating in tasks (like running a blog, ahem) to try to get people to choose you for work. It can be exhausting and take hours every day to market yourself successfully.

  • Paperwork. The good news is as a freelancer you can write off a lot of expenses that you can't write off as a FTE. The bad news is there are mountains of paperwork. Tax time can be a nightmare what with reconciling all your receipts, bank statements, credit card statements, etc. You have to keep meticulous records. If you work from home you can write off things like your cell phone bill and internet costs. The cost of entertaining clients, doing research for work, office supplies, mileage, and so forth can all potentially be claimed as business expenses on your taxes. P.S. I AM NOT AN ACCOUNTANT and am not giving financial advice, but you should definitely pay someone to help you with these things if you are a freelancer. Getting it wrong with the IRS is not something you want to do.

There's more - so much more that could go into all of the pros and cons above, but these are some of the biggest takeaways. As to settling the debate around which one is "better," the answer is that there is no answer. What works for one person may not work for another. Your life circumstances may not be the kind that can tolerate risk or dry spells without income, even if it means better work/life balance or enjoying a drink poolside in the middle of a sunny day. As someone who has navigated both positions more than once, my personal answer as to which one is better is "it depends." I am still looking for a great full-time job but if I don't find one ever again, I'll still be out here, providing words of wisdom, writing for clients, and hustling to make the mortgage payment.

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