It was a low moment. Brendan and I swept someone else’s crumbs off a table in the cafeteria area of a grocery store in Bend, Oregon, and opened our laptops. As I scrolled through the email from my accountant, the falafel balls I was chewing began to seem extremely dry—and overpriced. I knew the growing pit in my stomach would not be going anywhere until I opened up and told Brendan: I didn’t have enough money in my account to pay my taxes.
A little over a year into my full-time freelance writing career, traveling and living out of a van with my boyfriend, I felt like things were generally moving in a good direction, if slowly. I was selling stories regularly, though they only paid $100 here, maybe $150 there. Thankfully I had an ongoing gig that helped me pay my bills each month—but only barely. My boyfriend, Brendan, had been freelancing for a couple of years already, living out of a built-out van, traveling around the western U.S. He’d built up his freelance writing business in his spare time over the course of a couple of years before quitting his day job and hitting the road.
I think lots of people following Brendan on social media probably thought he had rich parents or something that allowed him to keep traveling, but he’d actually just worked really hard to build up his career and then chosen to live simply in exchange for the freedom of the traveling freelance life. He was a rare exception to the statement one of his grad school professors had made: “To start a successful freelance writing career, you either need to be independently wealthy or have a very understanding spouse.” Brendan hadn’t had either—but now, as much as I wanted to be independent and avoid traditional gender roles, I was beginning to understand the part about needing an understanding spouse.
When you work for yourself and don’t have a boss to take taxes out of your paychecks before you even receive them, you have to put money aside yourself. Unless you want to find yourself in my shoes, living month-to-month and faced with a large tax bill and no money in the bank to pay it. Monthly payments on the massive mound of credit card debt I’d accrued in my late 20’s gobbled away my small paychecks instantaneously. Not to mention costs like the $120 monthly cellphone bill to pay for my mobile wireless hotspot—in case wherever we needed to work for the day didn’t offer Wi-Fi. As hard as I was working, I still wasn’t bringing in enough—or saving enough—for all my expenses plus quarterly estimated tax payments.
I barely breathed while I waited for Brendan to wrap up whatever it was he was typing across the sticky table. I had never been in a relationship like this before, where my significant other was more financially stable than I was and actually spurred me on to be more responsible myself. I’d also never wanted so badly for a relationship to work out the way I wanted this one to work out—I didn’t want to take advantage of Brendan; I wanted to be an equal partner, to be a support for him the way he was for me. I worried he’d be disappointed, maybe angry. But I also knew I had no other choice but to be transparent about my shortcomings. Financially, we’d have to figure out a way to move forward, and emotionally, we’d have to do the same.
He was crestfallen when I explained. But not angry. He graciously paid my tax bill, and I burned with a fresh motivation to earn more, and manage my finances more responsibly. The thing is, jumping into freelance life 100% can be risky. I could have waited longer to quit my day job until I had more savings in the bank—or any, for that matter. But we’d made the jump together, me moving into the van with Brendan and giving up the stability of my previous job. It had been more of an emotional decision than one carefully planned and prepared for. And while I wanted deeply to be able to pull my own weight financially, I knew if I was going to get there, I needed to accept this moment with grace and humility, and then work hard to get to a point where I could, ideally, return the favor.
Two years later, Brendan and I are standing at a grocery store checkout stand, the lady behind the register swiping about two days’ worth of peanut butter, eggs, fruit, greens, and fizzy water. We both pull out our wallets, Brendan asking, “Should we split it?”, and me saying, “It’s OK—I’ve got it.”
It’s been a couple of years of hard work: pitching more work than I can handle and then stressing out about completing it when I get the jobs, asking for raises, completing bigger and bigger projects for bigger and bigger clients. And I just paid my second estimated tax payment for the year, without completely emptying my checking account. Which feels—amazing.
Brendan gave me a huge gift by letting me move into the van with him to save money during those early freelance days, buoying me through that first year or two while I tried to learn to swim in the freelance world. No, picking up a couple of grocery bills won’t exactly cover it, if we were keeping tabs. But this year he’s taking his own professional risks, touring to promote his new book, and I’m happy to finally be in a place where he doesn’t have to worry about me. Where maybe I can be the one to pay for our next vacation.
Finances might be one of the toughest things for couples to learn how to handle together—and when both parties are self-employed, things get even more complex. Income can be, as we say, jagged. Sometimes your mailbox is full of checks, and sometimes it feels like months go by when your bank account is simply draining. Sometimes one of you is feeling rich while the other one is scraping by between paychecks. For me, partnering with another freelancer has been a lesson in humility and honesty. It’s pushed us to be more vulnerable and compassionate with each other. I’m still working hard and fantasizing about the day when I can feel like the sugar mama in the relationship, but for now I’m simply thankful that all our ups and downs as freelancers have brought us closer together instead of tearing us apart.
Hilary Oliver is an outdoor adventure writer, editor, and filmmaker based in Denver. Her work has appeared in Adventure Journal, Climbing, Sidetracked, National Geographic Adventure, and many other websites and magazines. You can see more of her work at junipermedia.co..
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