By Zachary Paruch September 21, 2018

4 Tips for Managing a Career and a Freelance Programming Side Gig

Is your workday finished when you leave the office? Or are you juggling a side gig on top of an already taxing day job?

If you are, you’re not alone.

With rising living costs and student loans to contend with, plus the intimidating thought of having to save enough for retirement one day, more and more people are turning to freelance jobs to make ends meet or to pad their savings accounts.

In fact, while freelancing has long been a viable means of earning additional income, the modern gig economy has experienced explosive growth among the freelance community over the past few years. One study found that 57.3 million Americans—more than one-third of the United States workforce—freelance in some capacity. The same study estimated that at this rate, the majority of the workforce will be made up of freelancers by 2027.

Side hustles come with many perks, including extra income and the ability to hone new skills. But they also come with a unique set of challenges, specifically when paired with a full-time career.

For both first-time developers and newcomers to the gig economy, finding a way to balance your side gig and your primary employment can be hard enough, but you also need to perform well at both.

Nearly every problem you’ll encounter with balancing these two responsibilities will have to do with either time management or attention allocation.

Luckily, there are some little things you can do to ensure you strike the right balance and avoid unnecessary problems and setbacks.

If you’re one of the millions of people who work a full eight-hour day and then take on freelance work at night and on the weekends, consider these four tips for how to successfully balance your freelance programming side gig with a nine-to-five.

1. Document Your Vision and Goals

As a freelancer, even if you haven’t formally incorporated as an LLC, S-Corp or other business structure, you’re still fulfilling the role of a business owner. You manage new business prospects, client relationships, cash flow, internal processes, and more.

In that role, you’re the visionary leader of your business—even if you’re working solo.

You should spend time developing solid goals and a roadmap for the future of your freelance developer business. Create clear milestones and goals, both immediate and long-term, that will keep your eyes on the prize and lend you some perspective. These milestones can be about anything meaningful to you, from lines of code to revenue figures.

Jot them down somewhere. It’s important to have these things documented, and having them in writing and in your face will make it easier to stay committed to them.

Keeping a roadmap in mind sets you up for success when you’re trying to balance your full-time job and your side hustle and ensures you give your freelance gig the strategic attention it deserves. In order to put together a roadmap that you can stick to, you’ll need to do the following:

a. Write a Vision Statement

A clear vision will encourage success in several ways. First, it will give you something to work toward. It’s not easy to put in eight or nine hours at your day job and then come home and be ready to take on additional client work. However, if your vision is to make enough freelance income to take your family on a European vacation in the spring, it can make the extra hours more bearable.

Take, for instance, this example of a vision statement from the VFW:

“Ensure that veterans are respected for their service, always receive
their earned entitlements, and are recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made on behalf of this great country.”

Although yours may not be as lofty as this one, any vision that you care about and are willing to work toward will make putting in time after work and on the weekends more bearable.

Whether it’s to grow your freelance programming side gig into a full-time job or to afford a new car, document your vision, put it in your workspace, and refer back to it when you need the motivation to continue working after a long day.

b. Set Realistic Goals

Setting goals can keep you on track and prevent you from overworking yourself. For example, if your goal is to allocate 10 hours per week to coding, and you start creeping into the upper twenties, you may need to take a step back and think about whether the current arrangement is right for you.

Maybe it’s time to say “no” to the next freelance project, or maybe it’s time to dive into a full-time freelance career. Either way, documenting thoughtful goals will help you manage your time and your business in a smarter, more intentional way.

2. Establish a Set of Routines

Juggling full-time and freelance careers is first and foremost a time-management challenge; there are only so many hours in a day, and you’d like to enjoy your life at some point as well. To make time in your week for additional work, establish a set of routines that empower you to succeed.

a. Set Aside Blocks of Time

Schedule weekly time slots dedicated to your freelance work, and add some structure around that work time to make the most of it.

Try to minimize distractions. Let your family know that Sunday mornings from 8:00 am to noon are reserved for programming, and turn off notifications on your devices.

Establishing structured, routine time slots (some people call them “timeboxes”) will keep you on task and focused. If you know you only have two hours to get your work done, you will subconsciously make more of an effort to finish up in that time. Perfectionist ideals plague the programming world, but the added pressure of having strict timeboxes in which to work will cut out some of those impulses and force you to be realistic.

It’s also important to set aside blocks of time to relax. If you plan on keeping your Saturdays free from all work, stick to your schedule, and try to refrain from doing any programming during this time. You should even avoid little things, such as responding to emails, in order to maintain a healthy balance between work and play.

b. Get Creative With Your Day

When it comes to scheduling client meetings, get creative. Although meetings are traditionally held before lunch or in the early afternoon, that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. Arranging a breakfast meeting before you start your day job might make the most sense, but you could also make use of your lunch hour or a happy hour to check in with clients.

Additionally, you could leverage the fact that you are freelancing and possibly not in the same time zone as your client. While you wouldn’t want to inconvenience your client with a late-evening meeting, if you were in different time zones, an evening meeting for you could be a reasonable afternoon meeting for them.

Adding an hour to the beginning or end of your day can help you save time on the weekends for much-needed recreation and relaxation, without wearing on you to the point of burnout.

c. Maintain Respectful Boundaries

Finally, respect both your employer and your clients: Don’t check your freelance email account while at your full-time job, and vice versa. Each of these responsibilities deserves your full attention (or why are you still doing both of them?), and muddying the waters with overlapping tasks will eventually lower the quality of both.

Maintaining your discipline and ensuring that you don’t cross any lines with either of your employment situations will ultimately enable focus and give your employer and your clients the attention they each deserve.

3. Become a Master Project Manager

As much as freelancing is a time management activity, it’s also a project management challenge.

At your nine-to-five job, you’re likely working within a specific role. You are probably in a position where you’re supported by team leaders, project managers, strategists, and more. But at home as a freelancer, you’re solely responsible for all of the tasks above.

This makes it imperative that you develop solid processes and leverage tools as a freelancer. Project management software, asset management platforms, and other collaborative technology can make it easier to communicate with clients while keeping your day in order.

They can also alleviate your workload—if you’re using a tool like Trello or Asana, you can easily share a project board with a client. Once you make an update to the project, the client is automatically notified, saving you one more call to make or email to send.

These are some freelancing tools that can help ease your workload:

There are all kinds of tools available to freelancers. As you’re trying to make the most of your time before and after your day job, they can help you to avoid time-consuming, repetitive, and mundane tasks so you can get more work done.

4. Manage Your Money Like a Pro

As with project and time management, balancing your books in a way that properly rewards you for your work while also considering your costs is too often an afterthought for many burgeoning freelancers. Some swing too far the other way: They spend way too much valuable time trying to manage it.

Whichever the case, you may not be leveraging bookkeeping to your advantage.

By allowing expenses to fall through the cracks or projects to go unpaid, you could be letting all those extra hours programming go to waste. And nothing upsets the delicate balance between a side gig and a full-time job like the thought of working without adequate compensation.

Luckily, staying organized and using the myriad of resources at your disposal can erase the major headache that managing the funds for your freelancing gigs could be.

a. Ensure You Get Paid for Your Work

One of the most difficult areas to navigate as a freelancer is settling the bill with clients. The time it takes to track charges, costs, and projects can add up and subtract from your already jam-packed schedule. And that’s not even including the act of tracking down payments.

There are a few tricks that you can employ when it comes to billing and collecting payments as a freelancer.

Send An Estimate First

To effectively streamline the payment process, pre-empt future disputes and hassles with an estimate before you start work on a project. Doing this will ensure—with documentation—that the cost of a project has already been agreed upon and will stop future payment conflicts in their tracks. Detail the coming costs in your estimate, including price, discounts, and taxes. You’d be surprised at how much time and conflict this could save you.

Create a Professional Invoice

It can be tough as a solo operation to exert the same air of professionalism that companies can. But just because you don’t have the same resources as a corporate office, with everything from administration to accounting, doesn’t mean your clients need to know that—especially when it’s time for them to pay up.

To create an air of professionalism, customize a professional invoice template to send to your clients when each of your projects is complete.

The truth is that clients will often pay more respect to those that they perceive as more professional. It’s a common complaint among freelancers that clients will try to stiff them or act less-than-accommodating when it comes time to settle the bill.

Presenting your clients with an invoice that’s custom, professional, and aligned with your brand will help you exude an air of authority and collect the funds you deserve for your work—and ensure you’re not having to sacrifice your hard-earned money.

Send Reminders

As a freelancer, the onus of tracking down payments ultimately falls on you. While you don’t want to get weighed down by that burden, you should factor it into your everyday efforts.

If you’ve already scheduled a time of day to commit to your freelance work, factor in 20 minutes or so dedicated solely to managing payment. During this time, follow up with clients who have yet to pay their bill. This process is as easy as following an email template and filling in the blanks or sending a reminder from your invoicing app.

b. Balance Your Budget

Juggling freelance work and a full-time job means keeping a few degrees of separation between the two. Not only does this apply to your schedule and workload, but it also applies to your finances.

It’s critical to ensure that your freelance income and expenses are completely separate from your day job—and your personal life—for both organization and tax purposes. Here are a few basic rules when it comes to managing the books without mixing up revenue from your full-time job and side gig.

Track Your Finances Accordingly

Not only do you need to handle two sets of expenses like most people, but you have to juggle three:

  • Work expenses
  • Freelancing expenses
  • Personal expenses

Stay on top of your financial records and avoid potential problems by staying organized in tracking your funds.

Record your expenditures for your freelancing work separate from your nine-to-five and your personal expenses. Then, store those records—along with accompanying receipts—in a designated place. Keeping this information meticulously separated will help you budget better and will help you ensure you maintain clear, clean, and accurate records while also maintaining that necessary degree of separation.

There are also budgeting apps out there that can make it easy for you to monitor your various incomes and expenses.

Keep Separate Accounts

Open a bank account that’s dedicated solely to your freelancing work. That way, when you get paid for a job or need funds for a freelancing expense, you won’t be mixing up money between your day job and side gig.

This makes calculating and keeping track of expenses easy, not to mention that you’ll be more than happy to have your financial records and histories in the right spot when tax season rolls around.

Treat Your Taxes the Way Your Other Job Does

April can be a dreaded time of year if you’re a 1099 independent contractor. While your full-time job automatically deducts taxes from each paycheck, as a freelance programmer, you’re in charge of saving up for a potential tax charge come spring.

Use a program like Painless1099, which will automatically withhold the appropriate amount of taxes from the payments you receive and distribute the funds into an account that will be waiting for you when it’s time to file.

Find a Healthy Balance

Striking the right balance between your full-time and freelance programming careers will take some trial and error. There’s no perfect way to approach this constant balancing act.

Whether it’s your time, your finances, or your personal management, there will always be an obstacle to navigate in your career as a freelancer. Factor a full-time job into the equation, and you have an awful lot on your plate.

But by leveraging some of the tips above to craft your own personal vision, time management routines, project management processes, and money management, you can build a stable career as a full-time employee and a part-time freelancer.

Keep in mind that you also have a slew of resources at your disposal, like online tools and platforms, forums and publicly-available information, and communities of people doing the same thing as you.

No doubt, freelancing on top of a full-time job is an enormous undertaking. But you have the tools, you have the talent, and you have the ability to succeed—it just takes a little planning and a lot of commitment.

About the author

    Zachary Paruch

    Zachary Paruch is a product manager and small business expert at Termly, where he helps to develop legal policy software for small businesses. When he’s not saving SMBs from lawsuits and financial ruin, he can be found playing soccer, binging a Netflix series, or getting a beer with some good friends.