Freelance Work Versus a Salary Job: The Pros and Cons

Which is better: freelancing or working
in-house?

The answer is not simple. They each have
their pros and cons, and which one is right for you depends on your personality
and how you want to work.

So to help you make the decision, I’m going
to look at how freelancing compares with salaried employment in a range of
different areas, such as flexibility, control over your work, job security, and more.

Whether you’re sitting in a cubicle
dreaming of freedom, or getting tired of freelancing and hankering after a
full-time job, this tutorial will help you make the call. It will also be
useful if you’re just starting your career and want to know which path to take.

First, here’s a quick note on definitions.
The roles of freelancer and salaried employee are blurring to some extent these
days, but for the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that “salaried
employees” are working full-time for a single company with a contract and a
regular paycheck, while “freelancers” are people who are self-employed and work
for a variety of different clients.

Flexibility

How It Works for Salaried Employees

Many companies are getting better at
“work-life balance” these days, but employers in general have still got a long
way to go.

Plenty of employees work
much longer
than the once-standard “nine to five”, and are now expected to
be available on email when they’re outside the office too. While part-time
work, reduced hours and job shares are often possible, most forms of salaried
employment involve an inflexible, fixed commitment to particular working hours,
week in, week out, with just a few weeks of vacation per year.

And while employers do often make provision
for people to take time off for major life events, studies have found that
people who devote more time to their families often suffer in their
careers—particularly women
who take time out to have children
.

How It Works for Freelancers

As a freelancer, you generally have a lot
more flexibility. You can set your own hours, pick and choose your assignments,
increase or decrease your hours, and work around family life and social
commitments. As long as you meet your agreed deadlines, you can take the whole
day off and work at night if you want.

Woman working outside on her laptopPhoto of a woman working outside on her laptop.

But don’t get carried away and think you’ll
be spending all your time playing with your kids and having quality time with
your spouse. Work can pile up, and when deadlines hit, you may have to cancel
your plans and work through the night to get the job done.

As freelance translator Eline Van De Wiele
says in a blog
post on the myth of flexibility
:

Without the structure of regular in-house
hours, colleagues to cover for us, and a guaranteed paycheck at the end of the
month, it’s easy to take on too much. When you put it like that, do we really
have that much flexibility?

What It Means for You

If you like structure and are fine with
being tied to a daily schedule, then a full-time salary job is probably a good fit. If
you want to make your own hours, or have lots of commitments outside of work
that require you to take time off, then freelancing is a great option.

Office Politics

How It Works for Salaried Employees

This HBR
article
says it best:

Office politics tend to eclipse formal
organizational roles and hijack critical organizational processes, making
simple tasks complex and tedious, and organizations ineffective; wearing people
out and accounting for a significant portion of work-related stress and
burnout.

Of course, not every workplace turns toxic,
but in many organizations, especially large ones, there’ll be some form of
personality clashes or power struggles to deal with.

How It Works for Freelancers

As a freelancer, you don’t have to deal with
office politics for the most part. For one thing, you’re not tied to a
particular company, but have multiple bosses in multiple organizations. And
even if you have regular clients, you’re usually detached from the office
politics. You often work remotely, or are only in the office for short periods,
and you just complete your assignments and hand in your invoice. If the
politics get too much, you can fire that client and find new ones instead.

Again, though, there’s a caveat. As web
design agency owner Paul Boag points out in his course on Working
With Clients to Get Design Approval
, freelancers often have to deal with
their clients’ office politics, leading to problems like endless iterations and
design by committee. So it’s something you’re relatively free of, but can’t
ignore completely.

What It Means for You

If you thrive on reading people and their
emotions, navigating complex environments, and sometimes competing with others
for rewards, then you won’t be put off by the office politics that often come
with working in-house. If you get turned off by it, then freelancing offers
partial respite.

Benefits

How It Works for Salaried Employees

One of the big advantages of salaried
employment is access to benefits like health insurance, paid vacation time,
parental leave, and a pension or other retirement scheme. Those things can make
a huge difference to your financial wellbeing and health, and that of your family
too.

And beyond the main items, companies often
organize events for employees and provide things like free gym memberships,
subsidized company cafeterias, and access to a range of discounts and freebies.
They’ll often have a budget for training, too, so that you can develop your
skills on the company’s dime.

How It Works for Freelancers

Generally, as a freelancer, you’re on your
own. You have to arrange your own health insurance, you don’t get paid when you
take time off, and you have to plan
for your own retirement. When it comes to training, that’s your
responsibility too.

What It Means for You

This is one of the few areas where there’s
a clear winner. The extra benefits provided by a good employer are very
valuable, and a major downside of freelancing is the need to arrange things
like insurance and retirement accounts yourself. Our recent Freelance
Financial Bootcamp
series can help you with organizing some of this.

Control

How It Works for Salaried Employees

In a company, you have a boss, and that
person tells you what to do. You also have to work within the rules of the
organization (both written and unwritten), which can be quite extensive. So at
face value, you have less control over your work than you do as a freelancer.

But it’s not clear-cut. If you have a good
boss, he or she will give you some autonomy, and as you rise higher in the
ranks, the amount of control you have over your work should increase. You’ll
still be dependent on others to get things done, but you can certainly carve
out a high degree of autonomy.

How It Works for Freelancers

On the face of it, you have total control
as a freelancer. You choose what to work on and what not to. If a particular
assignment doesn’t interest you, you can simply reject it.

But the trouble is, you have to pay the
bills at the end of the month. Unless you’re in a very good position, you’ll
probably have to take on some assignments that you’re not that happy about.

You also have a “boss” for each assignment:
your client will give you instructions, and expect a certain standard of work
from you. You may get some autonomy or control over how to do the work, but if
you depart too much from the client’s expectations, you’ll run into problems.

What It Means for You

The myth is that being self-employed gives
you more control over your work than working for a company. That’s partially
true, but as we’ve just seen, there are mitigating factors.

Motivation

How It Works for Salaried Employees

When you’re working for a single company,
your motivation often comes in very structured ways. You get performance
reviews at the end of every year, and those reviews determine things like
whether you’ll earn more money next year, or get a bonus, or even get a
promotion.

Even the much-maligned “daily grind” serves
a motivating purpose: if you show up late to work, your boss will be angry, and
if you show up late too often, you’ll get fired. So that should motivate you to
get out of bed when the alarm goes off!

How It Works for Freelancers

As a freelancer, you have to motivate
yourself. You have to find your own clients, do your own marketing, set up your
own website, negotiate your own contracts. You have to keep putting yourself
out there all the time, with nobody at your back telling you to do it.

And when you get the assignments, you have
to manage them yourself. If you land a massive job that’s due a month from now,
for example, there’s nothing to stop you spending the next 29 days getting up
late and watching daytime TV. Nobody will be angry or fire you. But there will be consequences on day 30, if
you’re unable to meet your deadline. So it’s up to you to organize your own
time and make sure you stay on top of things.

Calendar photoPhoto of a Calendar.

What It Means for You

If you’re not good at motivating yourself,
the more structured environment offered by regular salaried work may work well
for you. As a freelancer, you need to take the initiative yourself. But don’t
worry too much—I don’t consider myself highly motivated, and I’ve survived as a
freelancer. An empty bank account is a pretty strong motivation.

Security and Stability

How It Works for Salaried Employees

The “job for life” may be a thing of the
past for most people, but still, in general, salaried employment is more secure
than freelancing. You get a regular paycheck, and as long as you do a good job,
you can rely on that paycheck each month. Even if you do get fired, your
employer will usually have to give you some notice or provide some
compensation.

How It Works for Freelancers

Freelancing can be very unstable. You may
end up in a “feast or famine” cycle, where one month you’re swamped with work
and the next you can’t find a single assignment. That makes it hard to plan and
hard to manage your financial affairs. And even if you have regular clients,
you might lose them at a moment’s notice.

But it’s not all bad news for freelancers. Those
poor salaried employees have all their eggs in one basket, so for them, losing their
job is catastrophic. As a freelancer, on the other hand, you have multiple
clients, so if you lose one, you can simply rely on the others for your income
until you find a replacement. It’s unlikely that you’ll lose them all at once,
unless there’s a huge economic slowdown or upheaval in your industry—and that
would affect salaried employees too.

What It Means for You

Generally, salary job is more
stable, offering more predictable income from one month to the next. So it’s a
good option if you don’t like the idea of worrying where your next month’s rent
payment is going to come from. Working freelance, on the other hand, can be very up
and down, so you’ll need a strong tolerance for uncertainty, especially in the
early days. Keep in mind, however, that having multiple income streams does
give you some extra security.

Community

How It Works for Salaried Employees

When you work for a company, you get a
ready-made social network too. You work with the same people every day, and
you’ll likely become friends with some of them. Companies often organize social
events and training programs, and even trips for employees.

How It Works for Freelancers

As a freelancer, you’re often a lone wolf.
You may work from home most of the time, or from your own rented studio space.
Even if you do work on site for a company, you’re only there temporarily, and
it’s harder to form the strong bonds that permanent employees do when they’ve
worked together for years. There are plenty of opportunities to meet people,
but you’ll have to make more effort to go out there and do it.

What It Means for You

If you like being surrounded by other
people and being part of a strong social group, think twice about going out on
your own as a freelancer. If, on the other hand, you’re an introvert like me,
you’ll probably love being able to work in your own space, listening to your
own music, with no distractions.

Summary

So to summarize, here are some of the main
pros and cons of each:

Advantages of Freelance Work

  1. Lots of flexibility to choose
    your own hours.
  2. Ability to choose the work you
    do.
  3. Little involvement in office
    politics.

Disadvantages of Freelance Work

  1. No employee benefits.
  2. Lack of community.
  3. Unpredictable income.
  4. You have to be able to motivate
    yourself.

Advantages of Salaried Employment

  1. Provision of benefits like
    health insurance, paid vacation, and retirement contributions.
  2. Generally more stable and
    predictable than freelance work.
  3. Strong sense of community, of
    belonging to a social group.

Disadvantages of Salaried Employment

  1. Fixed hours, lack of
    flexibility.
  2. You may have to get involved in
    office politics.
  3. Often you have to defer to the
    boss over what work you do and how you do it.

Next Steps

In this tutorial, you’ve learned about the
pros and cons of working as a freelancer and in a full-time job, as salaried employee.
The next step is to decide which career path is right for you.

As you’ve seen, there are good and bad
things about both choices, so it’s impossible to say that one is “better” than
the other. It depends entirely on your personality and what you want from your
work life.

So engage in some self-analysis, understand
who you are and what you want, and then see how freelancing and salaried
employment will work for you. The following tutorials may be helpful for you:

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