How much can you realistically earn as a freelancer?

The short answer is: “As much as you want to earn.”

I know that sounds smartass and unsatisfying. But it is as close to the truth as I’ve found. Virtually all the freelancers I know end up making precisely what they want to earn. Period.

The key word is “want.”

Not hope for, or fantasize about, or wish for, but want, deep in your bones.

There may be technical and economic realities at work in your profession, but their effect will be tiny compared to your desire. You can override all sorts of “realities” and “practicalities” if the itch is insistent enough.

Your income thermostat

It all seems to be governed by an ‘income thermostat’ in the brain circuitry.

Let’s say your thermostat is set on $100K a year. Which means, to you, making anything less would be unthinkable, intolerable or outright painful. Or unacceptable to your spouse.

When you’re set on $100K, the sensors in your gut will continually monitor your income by whatever metrics you’ve chosen.

Maybe the metric is the money owed to you. Maybe it’s the number of works in progress, or how many weeks you are booked. For me, it seems to be the number of assignments on my desk. For you, it might be the money in your checking account, or the number of invoices you send out on Fridays.

When things cool off, you turn up the heat. Until you're coasting again.

Whenever your gut senses that your income is slipping below $100K you will instinctively and subconsciously turn up the heat. You throttle up. You hit the desk earlier. You call people back sooner, send out quotes or estimates faster. Or you reflexively raise your fees (or lower them, in the hope of attracting more work.) You start calling people, sending e-mails, working your network.

You may find that inspiration strikes. You work faster. You quit checking Facebook. You over-deliver. You do stuff you were scared to do last week.

Your burners will stay lit like this until the sensors detect that you are back on the $100 K pace.

At which point, you will reflexively and subconsciously back off a bit. Never mind returning every phone call or e-mail within the hour. Tomorrow is fine. You may blow off assignments that seem dull and small. You may coast through the afternoon and knock off early.

Whenever I put a juicy check in the bank, my productivity sags for a day or two. (Or longer, depending on how fat the check was.) It is hard to nail myself to the desk when the bank account is bulging.

“Bulging”, of course, is a relative term. I have one low-energy friend whose notion of bulging wouldn’t fill my cookie jar. I also have a hard-driving neighbor who isn’t happy until the rafters creak under the weight of the gold stashed in his attic. By comparison, I am a slacker.

The same dynamic is at work in salaried folk. Which is why some are continually angling and finagling their way up the organization; their thermostats are set on CEO level salaries and perks. So they instinctively — involuntarily — fidget and maneuver till they hit the number.

What determines your thermostat setting?

Most new freelancers seem to shoot for the income they last made on their staff job, or some suitable percentage over that. “I made $80K on staff. I bet I can make $95K freelancing.” Or maybe they set their sights on some salary they heard about somewhere. “I read that Francesco Scavullo gets $25,000 for a one-day shoot.”

It could also be an arbritrary number that seems ‘realistic’ or ‘fair’ for their line of work. “Even the world’s best proofreader can’t earn more than $62K. It just can’t be done.” (This, of course, is pure crap.)

Or maybe you pick a number that matches what your peers earn. A figure that would make your parents proud. A number that would get you off the hook with your bookmaker or credit card company.

Sometimes it is inborn. There was a kid at my high school known for his endless ambition and hustle. He went on to make millions and make headlines. (Except the dope did it at Enron and got 10 years in prison for his trouble.)

Do you truly and earnestly want – ache – to make $100K a year? $300K? Is it horribly painful when you don’t?

Then you will. You will figure it out. Up in your brain, the boys in the back room will be working the issue around the clock. Even while you sleep, when you shower. They will be restless and anxious. They will be cranking on ideas.

Do you want to make a million a year? Just figure out how to generate about $20,000 per week. Or about $4,000 each work day. There are fashion models who earn that. Film directors, writers, photographers, app designers. (Probably several times over.) Self-employed people make huge piles of money all the time. But only because they truly WANT to do so, and believe they can. For them, it is horribly painful NOT to.

So the simple answer is: if you’re content and happy and feel lucky to earn $50K a year, that’s pretty much what you’ll earn as a freelancer.

If you itch and burn to earn $196K, that’s what you’ll end up earning. Same for $472K or $1.58 M.

You will earn, to the penny, pretty much what you want to earn.

So if someone asks, “Why didn’t you earn a million bucks this year?”

You can answer, “Meh. Didn’t really want to.”

And you’d be right.