On Being Self-Employed
As a self-employed music therapist, piano teacher, and musician, I really think there is no due date I dislike more than tax day. Yes, I love finding out how much money we will get back and I love actually getting that money back. But I absolutely detest actually doing our taxes. I realize most people don’t enjoy doing their taxes, but I hate doing mine because it is so involved. There are definitely people who have a lot more to deal with when it comes to taxes, but I can assure you that self-employment is more than enough for me! So in honor of my least favorite “season” of the year, I wanted to shed some light on what it means to be self-employed.
Most people probably never really think about self-employment or if they know anyone who is self-employed, but you probably do. Many hair stylists, in-home daycare owners, housekeepers, massage therapists, musicians, etc. are self-employed. Here are a few facts you may not know about people who are self-employed.
1. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Yes, it’s nice to make your own schedule, but if you’re sick, you have to stay home with sick kids, you have an appointment you can’t change, you go on maternity leave, it’s a holiday, the weather is bad and you can’t get to your clients or they can’t get to you, or God-forbid, you actually take a day off for yourself, there is no such thing as paid time off. Some people choose to “pay” themselves, so they have PTO built into their “paycheck” but those people are also in charge of setting aside some of their earnings in order to give themselves the PTO, which means their rates have to reflect that. When you work for an employer, the employer typically gives the employee PTO days as a benefit. Another thing we have to consider is that someone who is self-employed cancels too often, we stand the chance of losing contracts.
On the flip side of this is that you also don’t get paid when people cancel, unless you have it written into your policy that clients still pay. Many daycares do this and you are still expected to pay when you are on vacation, your kid is sick, they are closed, it’s a holiday, etc. Yes, as a parent, it’s a pain to pay for things like this, but being self-employed, I completely understand why. It takes money to keep a business like this running. See below for a more detailed explanation.
I run into issues with this as a piano teacher all the time, and this is why I am strongly considering rewriting my policy. When I have parents cancel lessons at the last minute or want to change them because of something else their kids are doing after school or sometimes just because they don’t feel like coming (yes, this happens!), I lose money and I can’t always fill the spot if it’s at the last minute. I have always tried to be flexible with my business but the longer I work in this field, the more I am inclined to change my policy so that I am not the one being walked all over every time a parent (at the last minute) decides something else is more important that day.
Another thing to keep in mind is all the unpaid hours that go into the “billable” time. For example, I only bill a company for the hours I am at their facility doing their group. That does not figure in drive time to and from the facility, nor does it take into consideration any planning time that I spent getting things together for the group. There are a million other little things that also have to be done when you own your business, like your bookkeeping, scheduling, marketing, keeping up your webpage, and returning phone calls/answering questions, just to name a few. You are paid for none of these things, yet they have to happen in order to have a successful business.
2. We pay more taxes than someone who is employed. When you are employed, you pay a certain percentage of your earnings to Medicare and Social Security and your employer pays a percentage. When you are self-employed, you pay both.
3. We get to deduct work expenses like mileage, continuing education, etc. That being said, we are also solely responsible for paying for these things out of our own pockets, so while we aren’t paying taxes on this amount, it still costs us money and takes away from our earnings.
4. There is really no such thing as a raise. Unless you raise your rates. I haven’t had a raise since I started working as a music therapist 8 years ago. The only times I have made more money is when I have worked more hours. Of course, I can always raise my rates, but with the rising cost of just about everything, especially healthcare, raising rates could potentially cause me to lose clients, which would then mean a reduction in pay and a reduction in my hours. I know that what I do is worth way more than what I am charging, but it’s very difficult to work up the nerve to raise rates knowing that facilities and people are struggling financially right now. Therefore, I am stuck making the same pay as when I first started out, even though I now have 8 years of experience and a Masters degree. Sound fair to you? Me either….
5. You are never really “off.” I feel like since I work out of my home, I have had to really set boundaries as to when I will work. Otherwise, I will work all the time and never really take a break. It’s much harder to do this than you think!
6. People who are self-employed must charge enough to cover all their expenses. There are few things that make me cringe faster than when someone complains about how much her haircut/massage/babysitter/voice teacher costs. Yes, there are still people whose rates are higher than they maybe should be, but for the most part, there is a reason for this. When I tell people what my rate is, I’m sure it sounds high to some, even though it’s actually too little. But let’s look at this logically.
Let’s say your daycare charges $125 a week for one child. This averages out to $25 a day for a 5-day week. Let’s say the daycare has 10 kids, so that would mean they make $250 a day. Let’s say there are two people working at that daycare and they split the money, so that means each person makes $125 a day. Many daycares here open at 6:30 or 7 and stay open until 5:30 or so. So if a daycare is open from 6:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening, and the workers each work 9 hours a day (only one person is there at 6:30 and only one person is there until 5:30). That ends up being about $13.89 an hour. And that’s before any expenses. If your daycare provides diapers, wipes, formula, snacks, lunch, breakfast, or any combination of these things, that all has to be subtracted from their earnings. If they do art projects, there are supplies associated with that. This is also before taxes are paid, and if you read all of the above points, you know that self-employed people pay even more taxes than employed people. Also, if the daycare is paying a rent or mortgage payment on the location of the daycare, that costs money, too. I’m sure there are also fees associated with state licensure, etc. If daycares did not ask their clients to pay when they are on vacation, they would make even less an hour because their vacations wouldn’t be “paid,” either. The list goes on and on.
If it costs $80 to get my hair colored and cut, that seems expensive but not when you break down the cost of the booth rental for the hair stylist, the materials and supplies needed to do it, the taxes she pays on her earnings, and the 2+ hours it takes to do my hair. At the end of the year, it all comes down to a really normal wage.
I had a facility kind of “freak out” once about how much I was going to charge them for live music and it was really irritating. I really wish more people understood how small businesses work and would take that into consideration before complaining about how much it costs. I really think the cost of living is just expensive. It is expensive to take kids to daycare. Piano lessons can be expensive. It is expensive to have your hair colored. Hiring a musician isn’t cheap, because it can’t be for the musician to even break even.
There are certainly good things about being self-employed, one of them being the flexibility you have with your hours, but with every pro there is a con. Choosing to be self-employed only works for me because my husband is employed and therefore, has all the benefits we need at his place of employment (healthcare, etc.). If he did not have the job he has or if I were single, I would not be able to work the way I am working right now.
One thing you can be sure of is that most people who are self-employed aren’t doing it for the money, because there isn’t as much of that as there seems to be. So chances are, they are doing it because they love it, as it takes a lot of effort to make things work when you are self-employed, and it would be so not worth it if you didn’t enjoy what you were doing. You can rest assured that if you do hire someone who is self-employed to do a job for you, they are probably passionate about it and will (hopefully!) put their best foot forward!