How to Survive on Freelance Income

When I decided to freelance, my mother gave me a book called How to Survive Without a Salary, by Charles Long.

The first thing this book taught me was that to survive without a salary, I’d have to start earning more money. Much more.

Over the 16 years since then, various people have mentioned the title to me, and I always give them my summary:
1. earn more money
2. delay, delay, delay
3. beg, borrow, and go without


You already know why I said #1. Of course, back then I was just starting out. Now, I do earn more money. Back then I thought “What is this guy talking about!?” I was hoping to survive on 10 cents a word. To meet his minimum earnings, with savings as backup, I’d have to sell 6000 words a week, each and every week. I’d never make it. I’ve since figured out that the title of his book was not “how to survive on nothing” and was probably more geared to helping people adjust to infrequent (but hefty) income, long payment schedules, and an uncertain future.

This book was also written at time when people felt secure in their jobs. Back in 1996, people were just starting to take in fact that layoffs, being surplussed, or corporate bankruptcy can happen at a moment’s notice. They still felt secure in their j.o.b.s and were terrified by the uncertain and irregular income freelancing promises.

Today, I see my contracts as guaranteed income — as being laid off from my last permanent job with two weeks’ notice made me feel that permanent is another way of saying “can end any moment,” whereas contracts must be paid out (barring the case of bankruptcy).


Long’s basic strategy for managing needs was to create lists.

  1. You identify a need — “covering for the hole in the second floor” is my favourite example from the book.
  2. You write that need on a list.
  3. Maybe you will find the item free or nearly free — or simply buy it out of desperation. Desperation seems to be his only reason to spend money.
  4. If the item remains on the list (time not specified), you move that item to another list. Let’s call it the “not urgent” list.
  5. Repeat the “wait and see if it materializes or becomes urgent” process. Then, move it to the next list — we’ll call that the “someday” list.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Just cross that item off the list. It’s obviously not important.

Now, remember that hole in the author’s second floor? Eventually, a friend was throwing out a grate that was the perfect size and completely serviceable. This was after someone fell through that hole on the second floor, the author admits. Which leads me to believe that said friend was not “coincidentally” getting rid of just the right kind of floor grate, after all.

Despite my suspicion at that point that the author was an irresponsible moron, I did see some value in the 3-list strategy. It helps you differentiate the wants from the needs. Well, it does for me; maybe not for the author. He didn’t seem to need that floor grate or indoor plumbing.

This guy would have loved freeganism and dumpster diving. I wonder if they are in his 2003 update?

For another (less cynical) review of the book, which reminds me that it illustrates how to tackle the huge debt that most people are still carrying and how to adjust your need for new or brand-name things, read Cheapskate Must Read.

How to Survive Without a Salary is now out of print. I suggest perusing it in Google Books. Long would approve with this no-cost approach. In fact, buying his work from a book store would probably prove to him just how badly you need his advice.

Adrienne is a cheap-ass not-quite-SOB who has never survived with a salary. Despite this, she does have currently stylish clothes that fit, a newer sedan, tech gadgets, and a house downtown (albeit in a small city). Oh, and she has a partner with a steady income, which relieves a great deal of the financial anxiety.

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