What’s a Commercial Freelancer to Do about Health Insurance?

After getting yet another email a few weeks back from a reader, suggesting a post on health insurance for freelancers, figured it was time. I know this is a hot button issue for any commercial freelancer, often looming as one of the key issues giving salaried employees/aspiring commercial writers pause when considering the leap to self-employment.

If you’re single and in good health (like I am on both counts), health insurance really shouldn’t hold you back from the commercial freelancing life – psychologically or logistically. As I see it, there are far bigger boogeymen (usually imaginary if you’ve planned well) facing free agents like us. Will I go broke? Will I lose my house? Will I be reduced to standing on a corner with a “Will Write Copy for Food” sign? Nonetheless, it’s still one more thing to consider.

Since 1997, I’ve used Kaiser Permanente. I rarely step foot in the place (but you’re paying for peace of mind), but over the years, have been pretty impressed with their offering, services and thoroughness.

I’m not crazy about the fact that, like clockwork, my premiums go up every year by roughly 15+ percent, but all in all, I still pay a not-unreasonable $325 a month. Co-pays for doctor visits are $30, and a surprising number of other services are covered or subject to co-pays (as opposed to coming out of pocket to satisfy your deductible).

Women will typically pay more for health insurance than men of the same age, but depending on the plan, and the deductible and co-insurance level chosen, a single person of either gender can generally find a manageable plan out there.

And with some of the new clauses of the healthcare bill, you’ve got more protections than may have been the case in the past. And do NOT try to drag me into a debate on THAT issue; ain’t gonna happen. I will ignore you and delete your comments. No hablo ingles…;)

For those pondering going without – a temptation for singles in good health and feeling bullet-proof, I wouldn’t even consider it. Not worth it. One accident or illness and you’re in deep doo-doo.

And yes, if you have a family, it’s going to cost a good bit more. Not every freelance commercial copywriter has a gainfully employed and benefits-laden spouse to cover that base. But a quick look at Kaiser’s plans turned up plans in the range of $600-800+/month for a family of four, depending on options chosen (don’t take these figures to the bank; that’s Georgia. Your mileage may vary, etc, etc.).

Not great news, but not necessarily a deal-killer, either. Remember, stay in a job you hate, just for the bennies, and your health will likely suffer. Sort of defeats the purpose.

For the uninitiated, here’s a basic overview of an HMO. As a member of Kaiser, getting insurance on my own, I’m put in with a certain group of subscribers. I have no choice in the matter – that’s the nature of the HMO model – and I don’t know who they are (i.e., we don’t catch up for coffee…).

The nice thing about the HMO group model is that individual consumption of services doesn’t directly affect one’s rates. That’s good news and bad news. Good news: if you use a lot of services in a given year, you won’t be singled out for a skyrocketing rate increase. Bad news: even if you don’t use it at all, your rates will still go up every year.

A few resources:

For more information on health insurance (as well as life and disability insurance), click here.

To find a health insurance agent in your area, click here.

For insurance plans for creative folk, click here.

Assuming you don’t have a spouse with benefits, what do you do for health insurance?

If you have a family and had to get insurance on your own, how did you go about finding the best deal?

Any good health insurance resources you’ve come across for the self-employed?

Any strategies you’ve employed to get the most from your health care dollars?

Got a Place to Flee to from Home Office Distractions?

So there’s this cool space not too far from me here in Atlanta called Strongbox West. Geared to freelancers of all stripes, it’s a place to escape to when you want to flee the claustrophobically-closing-in four walls of the home office and get some work done while in the company (or at least the proximity) of fellow humans. And when you’re not ready (and may never be) to commit to a full-time dedicated office space.

Plenty of comfy chairs, desk space, conference tables/rooms, Wi-Fi connection, kitchen – all in this industrial warehouse-y setting. What really sets it apart and makes it a “hmmmm…interesting” is that pricing is three-tiered: for the occasional visitor, the frequent user and the near full-timer. So, no huge commitments necessary. Oh, and your experience comes complete with the resident Strongbox dog, Paloma, a sweet-girl Golden, who’s just the perfect level of friendly un-neediness: comes to say hello but wanders off soon enough.

Now, I’ve never felt the need to move my operation into a separate office. I’ve always been disciplined enough as a commercial freelancer, and fact is, I like my home office – plenty of sunlight, lake view behind the house, everything handy, etc. Course it’s the “everything handy” part that’s the double-edged sword. I’m finding of late that I’m getting a bit more distracted than usual by the fact that, in fact, everything is so darn handy.

Heck, I’ll go do a load of wash. Go check if the mail’s come yet. See if there’s anything new in the refrigerator (since the last time I looked). And the worst one: maybe I’ll just lie down for a 10-minute recharge… Yikes. And geez, as a single guy, I don’t even anywhere near as many distractions as “marrieds-with-kids” would. Pretty pathetic. I know, we’re freelancers, so why can’t we do any/all of the above as long as we’re getting our work done? Still, it’s always easier to glide at home, and also always easier to buckle down when we’re at The Office.

So, Strongbox might be an answer – at least on those days when I’m feeling like a fidgety, over-caffeinated eight-year old. I don’t know about you, but when I need to really focus, seriously hunker down, and get ‘er done (usually in the concepting and copywriting phases of a commercial writing project), I get out of the office and go somewhere – and believe it or not, usually sans MacBook.

In the past, I’ve usually headed to our local library or a Starbucks with project folder of notes, legal pad and clipboard, and aided and abetted by my iPod, shut out the world. In three or four hours, I impress the heck out of myself with how much writing I can get done. It’s a thing of beauty.

Do you find it challenging at times to work at home?

Have you ever considered getting outside office space?

If you have an outside office, what’s the setup, why’d you take the plunge, and after how many years?

What strategies do you use to stay focused and productive in the face of distractions?

How Important is Meeting Clients in Person?

Here we go with Part Two of the previous post. As you recall, I’d gotten an email from a commercial freelancer starting out, asking about business process (i.e., when I write, when I talk to clients, which we covered in the first post) as well as the age-old “meeting/no meeting” issue. Did I meet clients in person to discuss commercial projects, and how often? He was 90 minutes from the nearest big city and didn’t fancy the idea of shlepping himself through such a half-day (minimum) exercise if he could avoid it. He wrote:

One of the things I’m looking forward to as a freelancer is ditching the commute. Going to see a client in person would cost me two to three hours in travel time alone – not including the meeting itself. I currently work evenings, so I could do it, but I’d rather have meetings and project discussions with clients by phone and email.

I understand that you meet with clients locally. How much time per month do you spend traveling to and from in-person meetings? How many of your clients are too far away for in-person meetings? This is one area in which I’d rather emulate Bob Bly.

Referring, of course, to Bob’s well-known aversion to in-person meetings – considering them time-wasters. And I get it. They can be.

Bottom line, if that’s how you want to set up your business, in this day and age, you can absolutely do it. If you position yourself as a competent copywriter who can deliver the results and make your clients’ lives easier and their bottom lines fatter, you can set your own personal “Rules of Engagement.”

But even if you’re just starting out, you can still draw your line in the sand on this issue. Sure, having a rep as a crack copywriter gives you leverage in setting your terms, but you can just as easily play the “logistics” card: I live too far away to make meetings feasible.

Or as one copywriter shared with me: “Once I tell people I’d be happy to meet with them, but will have to charge them for travel time to and from, suddenly, they discover reasons why a meeting isn’t that important after all.” Amazing how that works. Moreover, clients are just as often driving a “no-meetings” policy – knowing as well that they can be unproductive. So, in most cases, it usually ends up being a non-issue.

My story? I will occasionally meet with clients, but that’s MY choice and MY call. Personally, I like getting out of the house now and then, and also like to know with whom I’m dealing and the best way to do that is see them face-to-face. That said, I have and have had plenty of clients over the years I’ve never met. Many are out of town, making it a moot point (and if those clients find you, then they’ve revealed themselves to obviously have no issue with a long-distance copywriter).

But, I’ve also got one right now who I’ve been working with for going on 18 months, who’s local. She’s put tons of money in my pocket and I wouldn’t know her if I fell over her in the street. And she hasn’t insisted or even wanted a face-to-face meeting in that time. Heck, I’M the one who’s been suggesting a meeting after all this time, but she’s strangely unmoved by my entreaties. Oh well.

So, to specifically answer my emailer’s questions, it happens rarely – maybe once a month these days. And when it does, I typically spend 30-45 minutes traveling, in total, MAX. And needless to say, when I do decide to go meet with a client, it’s usually because they ARE close by. Yes, I had more meetings when I first started out, but that was when the Internet was still young (geez, I’m dating myself…).

Do you still meet with clients?

Are you driving that reality or are they?

Have you adopted a “no-meetings” policy for your business? If so, gotten any resistance?

Do you run into (m)any clients who insist on face-to-face meetings?

Your Business “Process” is Up to You, Not Your Clients…

Got an email from a budding commercial freelancer recently, asking about my business “process.” Specifically, when I do my writing, when I talk to clients, if I meet them in person, how often I have in-person meetings (he was a good 90 minutes from the nearest big city and didn’t relish in-person meetings), etc.

I’m going to address the first issues in this post and the part about traveling to meet clients (or NOT) in a follow-up post.

Regarding when to write and accommodating clients, he wrote:

“I like the idea of secluding myself in the morning and just writing, and then leaving the afternoon open for client meetings (by phone or video chat), prospecting calls, etc. On the other hand, I imagine myself as an executive looking to hire a writer, and preferring to take care of this in the morning. Is it practical to expect an executive to wait until the afternoon to speak with me? At the same time, there is a best time for writing, and that time should be devoted to writing, and writing alone. I’m thinking the executive can wait a few hours. If he can’t, then perhaps my marketing system hasn’t done its job with him — at least not yet.”

I think this gentleman has perhaps fallen prey to a common affliction of new commercial freelancers: Overthinking.

For starters, every copywriter’s process and ideal writing time is different, and whatever works for you will generally work for clients. And about the “writing-and-only-writing-in-the-morning” thing… This isn’t like a novelist who sets aside, say, four hours every morning to write – come hell or high water. You won’t have commercial projects to work on every day, and hence writing to do every day. Don’t imagine life as this rigid regimen – unchanging every day. One of the best things about our business is that every day IS different.

But hey, when you do have projects, if you want to shut off your phone and email in the morning and hunker down with your comfy “Well-Fed Writer” sweatshirt (yes, they exist…ask away…) and fave jeans, and Wes Montgomery on the stereo, go for it. You’ll figure out soon enough if the timing works for everyone, and then you can fine-tune.

My process? When I’ve got pressing copywriting projects, I’ll usually get out of the home office completely, leave the laptop at home (yes, you read that right), head to the library or coffee shop with my legal pad, pen and clipboard (I know, I’m SUCH a relic…), bang it all out longhand (okay, pull your jaw up from the floor…), and load it all into the computer at home later. And I’M most productive from about 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. See, we really all ARE different. And that’s okay.

As for accommodating clients’ wishes, sure, you want to be flexible in the beginning to a client’s scheduling preferences for meetings, but if it’s to discuss a big juicy project, I’m guessing you’ll be plenty excited and happy to indulge the client’s wishes. That said, for the most part, you can usually dictate terms of meetings (phone or otherwise) without risking major pushback.

More importantly, your job is not to be at your client’s beck and call whenever they want (unless you’re okay with that AND they’re paying you an obscene amount of money for the privilege…). Don’t be unreasonably inaccessible, but those writers at the top of this craft choose scenarios where there’s mutual respect between writer and client. And fostering that mindset is the first step to being a valued, in-demand professional.

He also was overthinking this one: Why would you assume a client would “prefer to take care of this (meetings, projects discussions, etc.) in the morning”? And as such, wouldn’t want to be put off till YOU want to talk? It conjures up an image of a client with arms crossed, foot tapping, staring at his watch repeatedly, getting more steamed by the minute. Simply put, the world doesn’t work that way.

All clients are different and all, like you, have their preferences, but few are going to be such hardasses about things like this. And if they are – Big Red Flag. You need to spend far more time thinking about how you’re going to land those clients in the first place – a far bigger challenge than determining the time of day you’ll actually interact.

But let’s hear from you in the trenches:

Do you have set times when you write and other times for client interaction, marketing, etc?

When are you most productive?

If you DO have rigid time divides between tasks, how often do you run into clients unhappy with being unable to talk to you when they want to?

When you have projects pressing, do you like to go somewhere else to get more focused and productive?

Do you shut off your email (a la Timothy Ferris in “Four-Hour Work Week”) and/or phone when you’re battened down in the creation process?

Stay tuned for the next post about client meetings – in-person vs. virtual.

The Joys of Unplugging

A wooden screen door slapping closed. Small waves gently lapping up against a waterside cabin. Delicious lake breezes rustling the leaves and billowing a window’s curtain. The sounds of summer. The sound of leisure. The sound of unplugging. What could be sweeter?

Promise I’m not trying to rub it in, but… I’m in the midst of a well-deserved vacation after my recent book launch (check it out here). I’m on the shores of Thompson Lake – one of the prettiest, cleanest, clearest lakes in Maine – for my annual retreat to The Cape (though the pix there don’t begin to do the place justice…), an indescribably beautiful spot in the southwest part of the state. Highs in the mid-70’s, dry, breezy. Yes, we’ve had some rain, but even the rainy days are lovely in their own way.

40 minutes of swimming every morning in its brisk, bracing, crystal-clear waters (and a few more times through the day). Days spent reading, raspberry-picking, antique-store-hopping, farm-stand browsing (often unattended with honor-system cash boxes), and chowder- and lobster-roll scarfing.

By the way, for those of you who’ve never experienced a lobster roll – certainly one of life’s perfect culinary experiences – here’s the drill: the meat of an entire lobster, cut in bite-size chunks, mixed with a tiny bit of mayo to bind it, a dash of salt and pepper, and all crammed into a grilled, buttered, top-split hot dog bun. Words fail…

And naps. Oh, the naps – utter bliss. No place to be. Nothing to do. Time rendered relatively meaningless. Genuinely unsure of what day it is. Getting back in touch with nature and one’s natural rhythms and a simpler way of living. Reconnecting with family and friends.

Meals bursting with ingredients locally grown, made or caught: yogurt, granola, honey, vegetables, herbs, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries (pick your own at five bucks a quart), lobster, crabmeat, maple walnut ice cream and so much more…

And unplugging… No TV. No phones (yes, I have my cell, but it doesn’t always work…gee, what a shame). Email? I check it just once a day, and guess what? The world doesn’t end. Honest.

I do it from the wraparound porch of the main house (having to walk 100 yards to get a signal prevents more frequent monitoring, and that’s a very good thing…), sitting in a rocker overlooking stunning English gardens and the lake just beyond. It’s enough to make you giddy. Seriously.

I’m the first the admit that there’s no way I could accomplish what I do and have done minus my connection, but that same connection, let’s be honest, often links us to a world utterly lacking in richness, depth and substance. Regular unplugging is healthy. I’m guessing you won’t miss being connected all that much, and if you do, you need to disconnect more than you know. Doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to happen.

Next week, I’ll be all hooked up again, but that’s seven days away. And until then, I’m going to work overtime at being unproductive. Gotta go – it’s cocktail hour.

Do you take time to totally unplug at least a few times a year?

What does yours look like?

What does it mean to you?

If you don’t, have you made plans to?

Unplugging