Thursday, August 12, 2010

Alive & Kicking

I've had a few queries about where I'm at and how I'm doing. Thank you!

I'm pleased to announce that this year is the polar opposite of last year! I've been working a LOT, and I went to Mexico for a couple weeks earlier this year -- my first proper vacation in about four years. That vacation was supremely satisfying, even though I didn't have any projects lined up for when I returned (though, one fell into my lap within days of coming back).

For the first time ever, I've declined projects this year -- declined because I was already too busy on another project(s)! I also had the first time of being booked for a project in advance (because I was already working full-time on another project) -- and let me tell you, that felt AMAZING!

In short, all is very, very well on the work front for me.

But what about finances? Well, last year was rough -- I worked about 3.5-4 months in all of 2009, when converted to a 40/hr work week. Yeah...kinda sucky, right? And also consider that one of my former clients stiffed me $700 (that was the point in which I made almost all new clients sign a contract, but that's another story).

The most important thing for me, is that I survived last year financially. My cash savings allowed me to live frugally and not have to take a soul-sucking job for $13/hr (and believe me, that would've killed me). As I mentioned previously, I embraced a frugality previously unknown to me (and one that I never want to repeat).

For obvious reasons, I had to scale wayyyy back on paying down my debt, and as you can imagine, I did rack up some credit card debt last year. Those charges were mostly for ongoing monthly or non-frivolous expenses (i.e. cell phone, dentist), so that my cash on hand would last longer. It wasn't a strategy I wanted to embrace, but it made sense and it worked for me.

Now that I'm working much more regularly, I'm once again paying down my debt fairly aggressively. A point of pride from earlier this year: I finished paying off my student loan from college!

And because I've been working pretty steadily since October of last year, my cash savings is super healthy. Even with back-to-back projects at the end of last year/beginning of this year, I wasn't confident about what this year would bring, so I hoarded cash. Now, what is in my savings can be viewed two ways: enough cash to cover ~10 months living expenses (as of last month) or enough to pay off my debt, with a bit left over.

Now, we know what happened the last time I considered paying off my debt in full, so I'm not going to take that route. What I AM doing, is splitting all extra money between my savings and my debt.

So, to all the people who have asked after me: a hearty thank you! I know I hadn't been part of the PF blogging community as long or as deeply as others, so it feels good to know that at least a couple of you missed me. :)

I'll try to write a bit more regularly, and also write about how I survived last year, and the effect of my updated business model on my business.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How I'm Surviving the Recession

As you all know, I lost my primary client 6+ months ago. At the time, I figured my emergency fund had about 4-5 months of living expenses. Am I broke now? No. It's 6+ months on, and I still have about four months in cash reserves (yes, I have earned and received some money during this time). In addition, I have outstanding invoices with one client, and that will be a minor windfall when they pay up.

Here's how I've survived:

1. I've embraced a frugality previously unknown to me. I still go out with friends maybe once a week, but I used to go out more often than that. I stay at home more than I used to, and this is dull -- however, I tend to figure that leaving the house costs about $25 (bus fare, maybe buy a magazine/movie ticket/lunch/drink/etc). As such, I'm more judicious about going out. (Side note: I never want to live like this again -- it drives me nuts; I'm not one of those people who find extreme personal satisfaction in extreme frugality (no offense if you do -- I just prefer the lifestyle I had, and I don't consider that luxurious, in fact, it was fairly frugal to begin with)).

2. My Crock Pot. This was a gift from my mother, and I'm glad I asked for it. Not only am I eating healthier (I'm an expert at veggie soups), it's cheaper to buy veggies than processed foods. I do add chicken or ham to some soups (what would black bean soup be without ham??!), and I have a bag of Ikea meatballs that I sometimes add to soups when I'm reheating them, though this is the exception more than the norm. I'm not eating as much soup as I was a couple months ago, though I attribute that more to the weather finally warming up. I'm planning on experimenting with roasting a whole chicken soon, which while easy, is something I've never done before.

3. Cooking more. I generally spend about $30-40 on groceries each week. Considering it's easy to spend that much on a moderate dinner, that's not bad (for me). I've expanded the number of "go to" dishes I make, and I've taken more interest in the food I cook for myself (aside from the soup craze I've gone through). In addition, I've pretty much eliminated high fructose corn syrup from my eat-at-home diet, which is fabulous. I just wish I could find a great strawbery jam that doesn't have HFCS. (As a side note, those commercials that try to make you think it's ok to consumer HFCS are reeking of BS -- the prevalence of obesity in the US is eerily related to the inclusion of HFCS in US food.)

4. Diversifying my client list. I wrote about this earlier, and it's one of the smarter choices I'm making as positioning myself business-wise. I learned my lesson about having too much invested in one client, and that's a mistake I'm not planning to repeat.

5. Taking (almost) all jobs offered, even if they pay low. I know I've ranted about this in different places, and I'm sad I've had to resort to doing work for sub-par rates. However, I spoke with an agency a few months ago, and they told me pretty clearly that they wouldn't be able to find me work as a technical writer, because of the type and length of experience I have, and more importantly, that there is a glut of technical writers with much more experience than I have. So, I'm picking up non-writing clients. This is nice in its own way, because these are clients that I never visit (because they are in different states), so I can fit their work in as it suits my personal daily schedule. Because of this, when I land a local client and need to visit them, it shouldn't interfere with my virtual clients much.

Monday, April 27, 2009

For the Self-Employed: What I've Learned About Managing Client Lists

One thing I learned from losing my primary client back in October: create a stable of clients that you do work for. When I lost my primary client, I lost my income source. Yes, I had other clients, but their work is much, much more occasional (I've had a small project from one of them, since October, and another small project is coming my way soon). In limiting myself to one major client, I took the lazy way to managing my client list: I had a client that kept me fairly busy, and paid me well, so why did I need to worry about landing other clients to provide me with other, ongoing work?

A business owner I know commented, when he heard I'd lost my primary client, "we've all done that" and stated it was a learning lesson for business owners, and that most business owners he knew had made the same mistake early on. Though, I think this is one of those things that you have to experience yourself -- especially when you have a client that takes up so much time. I did occasionally look for other clients, and I did work on other projects for other clients, but I never specifically looked for work from a client that had more regular, ongoing work.

Now, I'm working on building a stable of clients. I'm now actively doing work for three different clients. Though, I might be losing the smallest of these clients, and another is kinda in hot water with me. Still though, because I'm working on building a client list that provides me with smaller projects, I'm protecting myself in the long-term. If I lose the smallest client, I still have two others; if I boot the hot water client, I still have the newest client.

The downside to this, is that I'm not yet making enough money to cover my basic monthly expenses. Though, that is also related to me having to take work that pays below (far below) what I'm accustomed to earning; this is just how the economy is, and I live in a city where there is a glut of technical writers and where it's nigh impossible for me to find a new technical writing client. To be clear, I'm not writing content now, I'm editing content. I enjoy editing, but it doesn't tend to pay as much as writing, and these clients just don't pay that much. However, I'm doing what I have to do to work on getting by, and right now, the only clients I can land are low-paying ones, so that's what I do -- low pay is better than no pay, and I also have the benefit of adding more direct editing experience to my resume, which will pay off in the future.

So, like investing, my new maxim for being self-employed is this: diversify. Not only will it provide you with variety, it will help keep you stable if you lose a client (or even if you don't have work from a client for a couple months).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

WaMu/Chase Bankers: Read the booklet!!

Today I received a booklet from Chase, outlining the changes to account rules, etc, for WaMu customers. Normally, I don't read these kinds of things, but I'm glad I read this one. A few items of interest:

1. Money market accounts now need a $1500 minimum balance to avoid monthly service fees;
2. There is now a "replacement fee" for cards. What I read didn't state what was covered and what wasn't (e.g. what about if the card is stolen? if the card wears out and the magnetic strip bites it?).

There are also a variety of other charges (e.g. "Non-ATM Cash Fee") that seem new. As far as I remember, the international transaction fee used to be 1.5% of the amount, and now it will be 3%. Hefty change, especially considering international conversions always seem to be done at a slightly higher rate anyway. It also looks like if you want to transfer money via an ATM (it doesn't specify whether in network or out, though presumably you can only do this in network (note: all my transfers are done online)), there is a fee for that.

Regarding the digital records they keep of cancelled checks, they clearly state that they reserve the right to discard the digital files at their own discretion, after an unstated period of time of their choosing. While I haven't actually written in a check in some time, I will need to get a copy of one check in particular. So if you have checks for things like rental/service/other deposits, certain types of payments that you need a paper trail of, then it behooves you to request copies of those now.

Even if you normally don't read these things, take the time to do so. There are tons of fee changes, and they will likely be unforgiving if you call them up in July protesting a fee that is outlined in this booklet.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Vacations

I need a vacation.

However, I'm still not working enough to cover my basic monthly expenses. In addition, I'm looking at losing the two active (though minor) clients I have right now.

Aside from all this, it's been six months (six!!) since I lost my primary client. I've sent out my resume hundreds of times, done some piecemeal work here and there, and gone on a few face-to-face interviews. It's tiring. I feel myself becoming cranky often (which is not pleasant for anyone). And I need a vacation.

Yet, how do I justify the cost of taking a vacation? Part of me says 'well, if you aren't fresh and enthusiastic, prospective clients will sense that and will send you packing' and part of me says 'so what's a couple hundred bucks on the credit card?' I also know that I need to leave town, not just take a break from the work hunt [like I did a couple months ago]. Wondering if that perfect client will post an ad online in the time I take off is just counterproductive. If I haven't found a new stable of clients by now, what difference will several days or a week make? And I've responded to ads from some 'perfect' clients...and not received responses. So...

In the end, I'll probably head to Victoria BC for a few days. It's quiet, it's pretty, and there's not a huge amount of things to do, so I don't feel guilty if I'm not gogogo each day. It's still hard to think about spending the money for a trip, even though the benefits are pretty clear.

If only I could fly to Mexico for a week or two...sigh.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Backup the Laptop (or Desktop)

This morning, my laptop showed a 'battery [something or other] or incompatible with your computer' error message. I clicked OK, and then my laptop just died.

Died.

I swore. I tried to call the store I bought it at (they're not open yet). I tried to remove the battery, but couldn't (sticky bugger) and I didn't want to force how I thought it should come out, and risk damaging it or the laptop.

Finally, I dug out my laptop documentation to verify just how to remove the battery, and with the help of a butterfly paper clip, I did. Thankfully, popping and reinstalling the battery did the trick and my laptop is working again. Though I do have battery-life problems, so I will be buying a new battery soon.

The moral of the story: backup your computer files. Now. Not tomorrow, not next week. I was ticked because changes to my novel weren't archived on my flash drive -- and my last backup was about three days ago...

I know it's easy to let time go by without archiving files, etc on an external drive, but do it.

Do it now.

(If you ever go through what I did this morning, you'll thank me.)

Now, I'm off to the first of two interviews today. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Only slightly MIA

I've been wanting to post, but this is one of those weeks that whooshes by and suddenly it's almost the end of the week. I'm still doing a little bit of work (hurrah!). It's not enough yet to cover my basic monthly expenses, but it helps take the edge off the emergency fund drain.

I also caught a particularly nasty 24 hour bug (food poisoning? flu? dunno...but suffice to say it was brutal), and I'm still reeling from being weakened so deeply, a day later.

One of my articles was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance this week, hosted over at Free Money Finance. Go and check out the plethora of great articles!