Ask Aunt Elizabeth: Help me navigate the stormy seas of financial insecurity!

By Elizabeth d’Anjou

Looking for advice on editing the editing life? Whether you’re a beginner looking for tips on starting out or an old hand looking for another perspective, veteran editor Aunt Elizabeth is ready to address your queries. Submit them to [email protected]—you may find the answers you are looking for in next month’s column.

(1) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’m a freelance copy editor in my early 30s, with a partner who also freelances, albeit in another field. We want to start a savings account and eventually a family, but due to the feast-or-famine nature of our work, we are not sure about where to start. What approach should we use to set aside money for the future amidst financial uncertainty?


My Clock Is Ticking

Dear Clock,

No wonder I never had kids—given the huge frustration I recall early in my career of just trying to plan a modest vacation (when I had the time I never had any money to spare, and when I had a bit of money I never had any time). I couldn’t even have imagined trying to arrange for a maternity leave. Since then, the government has introduced an EI maternity leave option for self-employed Canadians, but its restrictions are such that its appeal is severely limited.

There’s no easy answer, alas, as to how to balance current needs against savings for the future in any financial situation. But the fact is that you and your partner need to be prepared for both feast and famine anyway; arranging your lives so one of you can take some time off as your family expands is just an extension of standard freelancer money management. Imagining a future life where you have responsibility for one or more other human beings—creatures who will depend on you and who, darn them, want to be fed every single day, not just when you’re having a good month—should bring into focus a larger truth: you want to eat every day, too. Not to mention you’ll want to be able to pay your hydro bill without worrying about whether a postal strike will delay that already-late cheque even more. (How is it, by the way, that in 2016 I can pay my dog groomer instantly on her smartphone, but my biggest corporate client still mails me a cheque 30 days after the project is done?!)

You ask what approach should you use to start setting aside money. I have a simple answer: start setting aside money. Stop worrying about how to plan for when you can “start a savings account.” Like many people, I assumed early in my career that as my business grew I would one day have enough money that I could start saving. But as my early career became my mid-career became my getting-kind-of-late-career, I realized that the day when I had more money than I had uses for was never going to come. Saving should be something you do at every stage of your career.

Begin right now, as soon as you finish reading this: open a new account (savings accounts are usually free) and put some amount into it. From now on, allocate some of every payment either of you receives into it. Make this a priority category of spending, right up there with groceries and the hydro bill. If you aren’t making enough money to put some aside, then you aren’t making enough money, period, and you need to change something immediately—either start spending less or start making more.

For your first savings goal, I recommend this simple target: live on last month’s money. Do whatever you need to do to build up, within the next six months or so, a buffer of at least a month’s expenses.

The point is to separate, in your mind and in your life, the amount of income you have coming in right now from the amount of money you have available to spend right now. Doing this is a good idea for anyone, because nothing in life is certain. But for a freelancer, it can be literally life-transforming. First of all, the resulting reduction in stress cannot be overstated. But even more importantly, it enables you stop thinking like a worker and start thinking like a small-business owner, that is, someone who makes decisions that take the longer term into account.

In your case, your longer-term decisions will be shaped in part by your plan to expand your family. (Notice, by the way, that I don’t say “start a family”; if you and your partner are looking at a long-term future together, then the two of you already are a family. Realizing this is important; it means you need to make your decisions together, and you need to talk to each other about your finances, regularly. Why do so many couples find it harder to discuss money than to talk about politics, sex, or even the minefield of whether or not “impact” should be used as a verb?)

Your next goal may be to work on increasing your buffer to several months’ worth of expenses, or a year’s worth, so you can use it while one of you takes some time off. Focusing on what it takes for you both to live for a month might lead you to find ways to reduce your expenses. You may decide you’ll feel more comfortable if one of you looks for a more steady job. Whatever you decide, you’ll be in a better position to make it work once you’re no longer in a mindset of living hand-to-mouth.

The other pieces of advice I have are the obvious ones:

  • Budget and track your spending (modern tools make it much less painful than you might think—check out YNAB, which, by the way, also stresses the importance of “aging” your money).
  • Don’t hesitate to seek the expertise of a professional (one whose services you pay for directly, so there are no incentives other than improving your well-being).

But the advantages of living on last month’s money are less obvious until you start doing it. Start doing it! It has been the most useful financial lesson I’ve ever learned as a freelancer. (Well, that and learning that some of the money I received from my clients actually belonged to the CRA. Ahem.)

Good luck to you and your family. And remember to teach your kids to be good to their aunties.

(2) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I know successful freelance editors who juggle multiple projects simultaneously—sometimes up to four or five. I’m thinking of going into freelancing but have no idea how I would be able to apportion my time so that I could manage such a workload and still conduct a thorough, focused edit for each client. Will I make enough money to live if I only do, say, two projects at once? Am I too much of a wuss for the freelance life?


Afraid of Underperforming

Dear AOU,

You may be too much of a wuss for the freelance life, but if so, that fact has nothing to do with your ability to work on several projects at once. Some of the busiest times in my freelance life have been periods where I was working on one huge project that was always behind schedule.

Juggling multiple projects has its challenges: there are time costs to starting work on something new, attention costs to switching back and forth among tasks too often, and, yes, sometimes sanity costs to keeping multiple styles and multiple schedules straight in one’s mind. But it’s not necessarily any harder—or any more lucrative—than working on one project at a time.


Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years of experience. A past chair of Editors Toronto, she has worked freelance, in-house, and in-between; teaches both grammar and copy editing online courses for Ryerson; and is a sought-after presenter on all subjects editorial. She is also a rather competent tomato gardener and tweets as @ElizdAnjou.

This article was copy edited by Berna Ozunal.

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