When you’re a freelancer like I am—or any sort of contract or gig worker, really—saving for retirement feels like something other people do. It is for grown-ups. But after my wife and I married in 2011, we decided to give maturity a whirl. We put $600 away monthly in a trio of funds, including one for retirement.
The strategy worked for five years. Then we had a child. A year later, I started to write a book. The first part of my advance covered our monthly expenses—if we suspended those $600 contributions for a year. I needed 16 months—and every available minute—to finish the book, and my freelancing income dropped as if an anchor were tied to it. Two years later, our retirement strategy resembles a fond memory from our life before parenthood, ranking somewhere between eating at restaurants without mazes on the placemats and sleeping past 7 a.m.
Priorities during flush times get flushed when circumstances swerve. On the surface, though, we look good. We have a financial planner. We have an accountant. Both return our emails promptly and talk to us without parental scorn. Laura has a salaried job as an assistant professor and a benefits package that features a 401(k). My recreational spending is limited largely to garage sales.
Clarity came a few months ago, when I reflected on the past two years of our savings strategy, looked at the skyrocketing unemployment rate, and realized I had to reassess my strategy.
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Luckily, I had to travel only to my office bookshelf for assistance. I reread The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed, an easy-to-understand guide by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan, both freelance writers. They advise freelancers to divide a portion of each paycheck into percentages for taxes, an emergency fund, bills, and so forth. That makes sense. I had been setting aside only 30% for taxes, a habit courtesy of a long-ago, stomach-clenching tax bill. That left 70% of my paychecks unaccounted for. So I started taking out an additional 10% each for emergency and for retirement accounts that I set up in an online bank. The rest went into our checking account to handle pressing expenses.
Several weeks into this strategy, I was a convert. We socked away over $1,000 combined for emergency and retirement. There was no strain on our finances; we controlled the amount. We simply put away a percentage. Yes, the result varies, but it’s something and we’re not neglecting other bills. If money is tight in the checking account, we postpone the contribution or use money from the emergency fund to fill the hole. If I fall behind on contributions, I can garnish future checks to atone for missed payments—that’s where the final part of the book advance comes in.
“So many people have this number that they feel that they have to have,” says Jesse Abercrombie, a financial advisor with Edward Jones in Dallas. “The key to successful retirement is to keep expenses low and keep debt down as much as possible.”
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That’s not all. He recommends setting up a tax-advantaged SEP IRA for solo entrepreneurs. The SEP IRA allows for a tax-deductiblecontribution of $57,000 for 2020. Theory and practice are two different things. I talked to three self-employed friends to see how they were tackling retirement savings. One relied on his wife, a financial planner. Another just put money aside when he could; now, at age 62, he has the option to retire. Singer-songwriter Sarah Donner puts away $200 away each month, a strategy she developed via her former financial planner, who offered her services after hearing Donner perform in concert.
“I had no idea how to do it,” says Donner, who has never heard any musicians talking about retirement. “I didn’t know where to start. It was only because of my tax human that I was able to get something started.”
Living a dream is insufficient protection for freelancers and small-business owners, even those who don’t have fans or loved ones working in the financial services industry. Don’t panic, though. For many, Abercrombie says, a retirement strategy is a contingency plan in case a business fails or retirement becomes necessary. Imagine pursuing the work we want to do, not the work we have to do—as our savings grow. It turns out there are benefits to being a grown-up.
—Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based near Ithaca, N.Y. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA, is set to publish on Dec. 1.
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