We’ve all heard that we’re moving to a gig economy. I think this used to be known as being a freelancer, but there are some important new wrinkles. If you’re thinking of accepting or have been offered this type of job, you need to get out your calculator and run some numbers to see what you should actually charge, and what’s a fair offer. BTW, this has come to my attention based on an offer made to my job hunting child—hourly or salary, with the hourly rate being slightly more. The employer making the offer was genuinely surprised when dear daughter turned it down; she said most people prefer the hourly because the rate was higher. No it wasn’t—at least not enough.
Let’s set up a case study for Sally Onherown. Ms. Onherown would expect to make $70,000 in a salaried position. That position would also include health insurance, short term disability insurance, an opportunity to buy into a group policy for long term disability insurance, paid vacation time of 10 days, 7 paid federal holidays, 3 paid sick days, and a 401k to which the employer contributes 3% of salary (provided the employee also contributes 3%). In 2018 there are 261 working days, so Ms. Onherown is making $268.20/day or $33.53 per hour (I’m using 8 hours, though a 9-5 job with a lunch hour is only 7 hours).
Let’s see what Ms. Onherown’s benefits are worth:
|Paid federal holidays||
|Paid sick days||
|Employer’s 401k contribution||
|Value of health insurance (based on $424.26/month through ACA for a 20 something)||
|Short term disability (usually 1-3% of income)||
|Long term disability (let’s say you’d pay half of 3%)||
|Total value of benefits||
So, in order for a freelance gig to pay as much as a salary, Ms. Onherown would need to be paid at least 20.4% more: $84,305.12, or $40.38 per hour.
But wait, that’s not all. If Ms. Onherown is working out of her own home or apartment, she could deduct some portion of the housing as a home office, and any time she uses her car to travel to a site, the mileage would be deductible. But if all that hourly work is performed at the employer’s site, she loses that. If she has to use her car, she may get a gas allowance, but often these don’t take into account the wear and tear on the car, the cost of purchasing (and financing) a vehicle, the increased cost for car insurance when used for a job, and the inevitably increased maintenance on a heavily used car. And, does Ms. Onherown need to provide any of her own supplies? Depending on the profession, this can really rack up some costs.
While Ms. Onherown could certainly contribute to an IRA, without a match, the amount she could contribute (and the potential reduction of her taxable income) is far lower than the amount she might contribute to an employer 401k. While a single making $70K probably doesn’t have enough to contribute the full $18,500, these jobs are often pitched to married people (as “flexible”)—and if spousal income is sufficient, the couple is losing an important tax saving opportunity.
We’re probably wading into the weeds here, but are those hours guaranteed? Because if the client isn’t available, or there’s not sufficient business, or some time might be taken up with non-billable activities like staff meetings, the hourly person working directly for an organization might end up with far less than 40 billable hours. In fact, many true freelancers are lucky to be able to bill 20 hours per week. If it’s the kind of freelance job where you also need to join professional organizations, pay for professional insurance, do marketing, and supply your own technology (and technology repair and replacement), the costs are much, much higher than my list above.
Many years ago, when I worked at writing grant applications, the Feds used to allow us to include a “reasonable” indirect rate of 31-33% on any proposal to cover just these sorts of costs for personnel. I think that’s a good starting point—add about 1/3 to any salary, and you’ll have a pretty good estimate of what a minimum freelance hourly rate should be.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post used 216 working days instead of 261–an inadvertent transposition. The calculations have been corrected. I regret the error.