The Independent Contractor’s Survival Guide

Following these tips can boost the finances of the self-employed

covers medical and dental care.

Generating new business isn’t easy for Raynelle Swilling, 36, a freelance writer in Studio City, California, who has worked on television sitcoms such as In the House, Moesha, and Meth & Red. When she’s not busy on a show or other project, she’s constantly writing and pitching ideas to producers.

“When it’s good, it’s good,” Swilling says. “In 1998, my second year in business, I made more than $150,000.”

She celebrated by taking trips to New York City and spending $400 a night to stay in the swanky Soho Grand hotel. “I was living it up.”

The next year wasn’t so great. “In my third year I made zero. Some years you could make $200,000 to $300,000. No one ever told me this. When you are on a show you have so many friends, but when it’s over, honey, it’s over.”

That experience taught Swilling to save a year’s worth of expenses from current projects so that she would have a cash reserve during leaner times. Now, when she gets a big project she puts a chunk of money into another account that she never touches — even when work is bountiful. She hopes to use that money to finance her own projects.

Since independent contractors have to look for work, they must learn to handle rejection. Swilling will often pitch a project to studio executives only to find out later that her idea didn’t make the cut.

“Throughout the year, I may get one job on a television show or a film, but I may have written eight scripts. You have to be passionate about this business. You have to want to do it 100,000 percent,” says Swilling, who says she often stays home, turns off her phone and writes for days at a time. “You get rejections every single day.”

Unlike many independent contractors, Swilling has some benefits through her membership in the Writer’s Guild, which includes a health and retirement plan. It cost her $2,500 to join, and the Guild gets 1.5% of her income each year, but she’s currently entitled to about $1,000 a month in retirement based on her earnings as a writer. One catch is that she has to make a minimum of $28,000 a year to get benefits. During one of her leaner years, she lost medical coverage for a while and had to have surgery. She is still paying that bill. In situations like that, buying a temporary insurance plan to get through a short period can be a good solution.

Eric Childress, a 33-year-old father of four, was a college junior when he left to attend cosmetology school and become a hair stylist. “When the kids came to me, I needed to do something to make money,” he says.

His relationship with his children’s mother ended and Childress eventually got custody of his daughters. He was renting a booth in a Los Angeles salon, but it was still a struggle to finish work in time to shuttle the girls to and from dance and cheerleading practice.

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