Over six years ago, when I quit my 9-to-5 corporate job in Singapore, I tried not to dwell upon the 26,000$ student debt hanging above my head. In order to finance my college education in Singapore, I had taken a massive loan, and had until 2030 to pay it off.
Yet there I was, quitting a well-paying steady job to experiment with a life of travel, freelancing and blogging. The day I sent in my resignation, I promised myself two things:
One, that I would do what it takes to earn enough money to pay my loan instalments – a minimum of 200$ per month. I wouldn’t borrow money or dig into my backup savings as far as I could help it.
Two, that if by age 35, I still hadn’t paid it off, I would swallow my dreams, head back into the corporate world and work my butt off to repay the loan.
Although I broke my first promise a couple of times by digging into my savings, I didn’t have to wait till 35 to reconsider the second one (phew). In 2017, over six years after quitting my full time job, I managed to pay off the entire goddamn loan – while freelancing, blogging and travelling around the world.
Here are some lessons I learnt along the way; candid tips that I hope will give perspective to fellow freelancers and travel bloggers in similarly challenging times:
1) Believe in yourself and stop working for peanuts
When I first began freelancing, I was writing travel stories for as little as 500 rupees (less than 10$). I had no contacts in the industry, no idea of freelancing rates and no confidence in myself to deliver a decent travel piece. But with time, I built each of these.
Once my travel writing portfolio expanded to include BBC Travel and National Geographic Traveller, I decided to walk away from work that neither excites me nor compensates me enough to be worth my time and effort. Unfortunately there are no standard industry rates for freelancers / travel bloggers, so my formula is simple: for how long can a piece of work fund my travels? My goal is to earn a month’s worth of expenses for a week’s worth of work. It’s a personal thing and must evolve with the quality of work.
Many freelancers complain about poor rates, but end up accepting the same gigs anyway. We’re certain to lose some opportunities when we hold our ground in a negotiation, but it’s the only way to seek out better paying opportunities, deliver higher quality work and strike a satisfying work-travel / life balance.
2) We only get a few chances: Professionalism matters more than we think
I remember the months I could barely scrape up enough money to pay my monthly loan instalments. I remember sleepless nights of pitching and sending proposals, not knowing where my next assignment might come from.
So when I scored a 3-month social media and writing gig, I knew I had to do everything to keep it. Working virtually, I learnt early on the importance of being professional and timely in my communication, deliverables and deadlines. So what if I was a one-woman show with my own blog and social media to manage, simultaneous work deadlines and an insatiable wanderlust? I gradually managed to turn two short gigs into year-long projects that steadily enabled me to increase my monthly loan repayments.
I’ve heard companies lament how they’ve burnt their hands with freelancers, and tourism boards disappointed by bloggers who don’t deliver on their promises. Remember that it’s a small industry and word gets around fast. Right from the first email and deadline, we’re being judged on our professionalism. And cliched though it sounds, under-promising and over-delivering is always a good mantra to hold yourself to.
Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?
3) Freelancers need a forced savings plan too
Like every freelancer and travel blogger, I hate late payments from clients, but I secretly think of them as forced savings. I’m pretty casual about spending what I earn on travelling, so it takes no time for my account to go from six digits to three – and the only way I survive is through forced savings.
In my corporate days in Singapore, a portion of my salary was deducted and transferred into a provident fund account. After I quit, I tried to keep that habit – transferring 30-40% of what I earned on a big project into a fixed deposit or second savings account. Ultimately, all that saved money helped me pay off the last big chunk of my loan at one go – phew.
4) Stop feeling insecure about losing a free trip to another blogger/freelancer
I came face to face with a dilemma that every travel blogger (and these days, Instagrammer) faces at some point: to accept a free press trip to somewhere exotic, or not. Back in 2011, at my first travel blogging conference outside India, I was surprised to learn that some prominent travel bloggers were charging a fee to join press trips. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Besides the fact that creating truly inspiring travel content online is a time and effort intensive job, it also leads to direct revenue for the brand or tourism board involved – and I know because many of my readers write to me to say my stories from a destination made them travel there.
I’ve been part of multiple blogging trips now where it’s turned out that I’m one of the only ones getting paid – and not necessarily because my content is better or my reach greater, but because I’m willing to walk away. I’ve also been dropped from many campaigns because I’ve walked away in a negotiation – and I think that’s okay.
Truth is, if we are confident we create innovative content and influence our readers’ decisions, we need to realise and monetise the value of our work.
Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling
5) Sell your work, but not your soul
I started travel blogging for two reasons: One, I didn’t want to forget the incredible stories and small acts of kindness I came across on the road. And two, I wanted to encourage my readers to think differently about life and travel. The only way I can continue doing both is by staying true to myself – and there are plenty of dilemmas every day.
I struggle to stuff my blogposts with keywords that google wants; I struggle to write posts that people search for (like how to do Europe in 5 days – sorry, no one can “do” Europe in 5 days); I struggle to promote things that I don’t genuinely believe in (no thank you L’Oréal, I can’t support animal testing).
And so be it. I tell myself that the offers will come and go, the money will come and go, but my writing will stay. This blog will stay. And (hopefully) you guys, my readers, will stay… and that’s what matters. Because without my audience, my blog is nothing.
6) Let’s not try to be superheroes: Learn to delegate
The biggest lesson I learnt from running my travel startup India Untravelled, was to delegate to the right people. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve been learning – to split my work (and pay) with other freelancers when my plate is too full, and to gradually grow my team at The Shooting Star. By delegating things that need fresh eyes, are time-consuming and just don’t interest me (hello, google analytics), I’ve been able to free space and time for things I care about and to work on passion projects.
By investing in talented individuals, I’m not only looking at my own work with a fresh lens, but also learning more about running a business, diversifying my income sources and gaining plenty of “me-time” along the way.
7) Naysayers be damned: Turn off the negativity
Ignore the naysayers – that’s the best advice I got when I first took the plunge to quit my job. Maybe I’d make it somewhere in life, maybe I wouldn’t; maybe I’d be able to pay off my loan before 35, maybe I wouldn’t. But the worst thing I could do is fill my mind with all the doubts people had about my choices.
I’ve come to believe that our lives are often a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more positively we think of the future, the better it tends to be. And even if the future isn’t going to be that great, why ruin our present with negative thoughts?
All those years ago, the idea of paying a huge loan through an unsteady freelancing and travel blogging income seemed rather impractical, but I convinced myself that I’ll find a way. After all, what fun is a practical life with no big dreams and no impossible challenges to overcome?