I’m a stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) instructor in Dorset. That means in the summer you’ll most often find me on the beach or out on the water teaching. It’s a great job. It’s fun, it’s active and it’s sociable.
When I’m teaching sessions I often get asked whether my work is seasonal and when I say that it is, I get the inevitable question: “So what do you do in the winter?”
I love getting asked this question because I think my answer surprises a lot of people. The short version is something like this: “I’m a freelance writer, so in the winter I spend more time at my computer picking up writing work.”
Then a conversation often follows about how I’ve got a great balance between my two professions and how lucky I am. It sounds great (and it is) but that’s not to say that it’s easy.
Writing isn’t just a winter job
Firstly, I don’t only do writing work in the winter. I’m still writing throughout the summer and that’s when it can be tough to balance both workloads and still have a life.
I’m not going to pretend I’ve perfected that because I haven’t. The truth is that over the summer I spend far more time working than not. A typical week in the summer involves at least four days of paddleboarding. That leaves me with three days for writing work and a day off.
Over the main summer season (May-September) I try to take one day a week off, but if I have big writing projects on, that doesn't always happen. That may sound crazy, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make in the short term. The upside is that some of my work involves me being outside and at the beach, so I don’t feel like I’m missing the wonderful weather.
The downside is that I don’t get as much free time as I’d like. I’ve just finished my third summer as a SUP instructor and freelance writer. This has been my best summer so far because I made more time for myself. I’m still not quite there; it’s really hard to turn down work as a freelancer, but I’m moving in the right direction.
However, in the winter when I'm not paddleboard instructing, I work a more standard week. Usually five days (sometimes fewer) and mostly pretty regular hours. It's also when I take holidays. I go abroad at least twice every winter, more if I can manage it. As I can do the writing from anywhere, I can go away for two to three weeks at a time and pick up a day or two of work here or there to keep me going if I need to.
Balance takes work
Balancing my life like this, and splitting the way I earn money, hasn’t been easy and didn’t happen by accident. I made a conscious decision to get away from a life of Monday-Friday, 9-5 sitting at a desk. I spent a whole year preparing to do that and take the leap into life as a freelancer.
As well as finding work as a paddleboarding instructor and as a writer, there were other things to consider. One of the most important is tax and dealing with a tax return. A friend who's been self-employed for years advised me to get an accountant. That was great advice.
Because my two streams of income are so different, the money I make from each and their associated expenses are calculated separately. I've found that as long as I keep track of everything as I'm going, getting everything ready for my accountant each year isn't too difficult. But that does mean I need to make time to go over my admin each month. Mostly that won't take longer than an hour, but it's important to factor in.
Admin isn't just recording what work I've done and what expenses I've had, it's also about invoicing. That's really important because without it I don't get paid. I've also learned to allow at least two months from doing work to getting paid.
Every business has different invoicing systems; some will pay within a few days, others at a set time each month and others pay a month in arrears. Once you're getting regular work that's not too hard to balance, but when you're starting out you need to have money saved up for a couple of months to bridge that gap between your last pay cheque and your freelance income building up.
Then there's the challenge of saving money for your tax bill and covering all your costs when you're starting out. People will give you lots of advice about how much you should be saving each month, but the reality when you're just starting, is that the likes of rent/mortgage and bills need to take priority.
That's not to say you should avoid saving money. In my first year I used the money I earned from odd big projects to contribute to my savings for my tax bill. Now I'm able to set money aside most months. I also make payments on account to HMRC. This essentially means paying a proportion of my tax as I earn. The first year that was a bit of a shock – not only did I have a whole year of tax to pay, but also my first payment on account for the following year. As it turned out I'd saved more than I needed to cover my first tax bill, so I had the cash available. But it would have been difficult to find an extra £650 if I hadn't done that.
The best advice with saving for tax is to put away more than you think you need. If you don't have to give it all to the taxman then you can use it for whatever you want. I put it into my holiday savings and use it to treat myself to trips away.
Work doesn't stop
Setting out as a freelancer was scary, exciting and hard work. That hard work isn’t stopping. I always need to be looking for new work and new clients, but I don’t mind. I’m happier because I have more flexibility and more control over my working life, and that’s why I decided to do this in the first place.
I found paddleboarding work with a couple of centres just by meeting people and asking. Finding writing work isn't that different, but because it's where I make most of my salary it's something that I do more consistently throughout the year.
Clients can come from a lot of places. I work with agencies as well as directly with businesses. Some of my work has come from my previous professional relationships; I spent nearly 10 years working as a copywriter in various agencies and organisations before I went freelance. Staying in touch with people and leaving on good terms has really helped me here. I've met some of my clients by networking and had others referred to me as I've built those relationships.
I also occasionally pitch for jobs through sites like Upwork and People Per Hour, but I find the jobs are variable in terms of the pay, the time they take and the kinds of clients you find. If you decide to use these sorts of sites you have to be strict about your rates and not feel pressured to drop your prices. In my experience the clients who want to pay the least for a writer tend to be the ones who take up the most time. I've learned that it's just not worth taking on those low-paying jobs.
This is just one option
If you’re reading this and wondering how to do something similar in your life, understand that the way I’ve gone about this is one of many options. I’ve found it’s worked well as someone who already had a ‘career’ and wanted a change.
I enjoy writing and had been doing it for long enough that I had a reasonable portfolio when I started freelancing. That allowed me to set decent rates and gave me the experience to take on better paying jobs and clients.
There are lots of ways to make money in the winter if you’re an outdoor ed instructor of any kind, and not all of this work is seasonal. Mine is just one example of how you could make this kind of life work, but ultimately you have to come up with a plan that suits you.
I got here by thinking hard about what I wanted from my life and how I could make myself happier through my work. After all, you’re going to spend a lot of your life at work, so you may as well make it something you love.
Katherine Lewis is a freelance writer and paddle board instructor. You can find her on Linkedin here and on Instagram @katoftheocean