7 Ways a Freelance Writer Can Create Retirement Income

Do you worry about whether you’ll ever be able to retire from freelance writing?

I got this question from a reader recently:

After a 20+ year career in nonprofit fundraising I’ve been consulting in the field for the past six years and really focusing on writing for them for the past two. So far, so good.

On a recent “weekend retreat” with my wife, we were talking about the business’ future and how when I go, it goes.

So having “the end in mind,” what’s the end game in freelance copywriting? How do you create something so that when it’s time to “fade into the sunset” there may be something to offer someone to buy as a result of my hard work?

Thanks — Matt.

There are a few ways freelance writers can get themselves in a position to retire, Matt:

  1. Create your own ebooks. If you can create ebooks over the years, they could sell for you more or less on autopilot, through word of mouth from people who’ve already bought them, and continue to earn for you. I’m just getting started on this myself with the one ebook I have out, but I’m hoping to create a whole list of ebooks with writing-biz basics that can keep earning for me in future.
  2. Create your own e-courses. With Webinar and video technology where it’s at today, it’s not hard to create courses that can keep on teaching for you and bringing in revenue, long after you’ve stopped actively teaching. All the live events I create for Freelance Writers Den fall into this category.
  3. Create a blog you can sell. Some blogs offer so much valuable information to readers that they eventually grow a big enough audience to attract a company that wants to buy the blog outright. Examples I know offhand include the finance blogs Mint.com (which sold for a reported $170 million) and Get Rich Slowly, as well as Freelance Writing Gigs in my own writing-advice niche. The key here is that the blog not be a cult of personality that’s all about you, but about a topic of high interest to a broad audience, where a buyer could hire other experts in your industry to run it after you depart.
  4. Create a Web-based service business you can sell.  Sometimes, in the course of pursuing your writing career, you get an idea for a related business you could start. That’s what happened to Peter Shankman with Help a Reporter Out — and it became a smash hit. Ad revenue rose to a reported $1 million a year. It was sold to Vocus in 2010.
  5. Write direct mail copy. In some direct mail writing scenarios, the writer earns a royalty on sales made through the copy they wrote. I don’t have any of these gigs lined up, but I gather some of the biggest copywriters have created ongoing revenue streams this way.
  6. Write a smash-hit, evergreen business or how-to book. I’m sure the authors of perennial business besteller The 1-Minute Manager don’t worry about whether they can retire, for instance. If you have nonpareil information that could keep selling for years, write that book proposal and start pitching it around.
  7. Sock money away and/or live on the cheap. Any way you slice it, freelancers are really just like employees when it comes to retirement. If you save money, you can retire on it. If you don’t, your options are fewer. It’s just that we don’t have easy 401(k) plans set up for us — though our options are growing. If you’re serious about retirement, master the art of living below your means. Look at your expenses and make a commitment to cutting back. Then, start saving money, every month. If you’re young, you can use the magic of compound interest to grow your small savings over time. Even if you’re not, it’s never too late to start saving. Money in the bank gives you the power to say ‘no’ to assignments you don’t want, and to say when you want to call it quits on working. I think too many writers just wring their hands and give up on ever retiring — dooming them to poverty-stricken later years — rather than figuring out how to acquire the habit of saving. Also…not everyone envisions retiring to a 7,000-square foot beach villa and traveling the world.  You may not need $1 million to retire on if you are a simple-living type.

Are you planning to retire? Leave a comment and tell us how you’re making it happen.

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35 comments on “7 Ways a Freelance Writer Can Create Retirement Income
  1. hmmm nice tips.. but i think better to create blog:)

  2. Lori says:

    Good advice. I’ve done some of these. Selling established websites can be very lucrative. It takes time to grow them though. I’m working on the ebook angle now! Always enjoy your newsletters.
    Lori recently posted..I CAN Pray

  3. Great ideas for long-term income…. and important ideas for limiting your expenses. There’s a few other things you can do too: When you think of yourself as being in business for yourself (which you are, like it or not), it can change the way you make/manage/measure your money and risk. (including the risk that you’ll want to retire one day!)

    I put together 7 more tips for reducing risk when you are self employed: http://rocksolidfinance.com/avoid_business_risk/

    They apply to freelance writers as well as any self-employed business person. Manage your risk and retirement gets a whole lot easier to imagine.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for adding more info, David.

      I personally don’t really envision myself retiring — I just like writing too much! But I definitely could enjoy working LESS than I do right now.

      Knowing that I don’t plan to totally stop means my retirement savings needs are less…which is a good thing, with 3 kids and 1 of them at the UW right now. ;-)

  4. Great tips, though I would note that the price tag for Mint.com wasn’t just for the blog, it was also for the personal finance software, which had over 800,000 registered users at the time of acquisition. I think Mint’s blog is a fantastic example of corporate content marketing, though – the blog helped attract tons of backlinks and traffic to increase pagerank and grow the user base quickly. Intuit, which bought Mint, seems to have taken their lessons about producing high-quality content to heart – I’ve been writing for their “Small Business Blog” for over a year now, and I know the Mint blog is still going strong.

    • Susan says:

      I was going to say the same thing about Mint, Kathryn, and you beat me to it! As far as my own retirement plans, I maxed out my SEP-IRA last year and I always try to live below my means.

      Laura Vanderkam writes a lot about money and time, and her suggestion (which I like) is to find a job that you don’t *want* to retire from. That doesn’t help your beloved ones once you pass away, but if you work longer (even part time or as a freelancer), you can accumulate more wealth and avoid spending through the money you’ve accumulated so you can hopefully leave a larger legacy. I could see myself scaling back as I near the traditional retirement age but perhaps not retiring completely.
      Susan recently posted..Twitter: Breaking the Four-Figure Follower Mark

      • Carol Tice says:

        I feel like I’ve found that gig for sure. I’m not concerned about leaving a legacy — more like keeping my house from falling down around my ears for lack of maintenance funds! But very grateful that I love what I do. I just figure eventually I’ll be writing for the AARP magazine a lot ;-)

        • Susan says:

          AARP Magazine has gotten much hipper in recent years. Haven’t broken in yet, but I hear it’s a great market! There are also some great websites that cater to active seniors (or whatever term you want to use). Of course, you’re versatile enough to write about lots of things, so I’m sure you wouldn’t limit yourself to those markets.
          Susan recently posted..Twitter: Breaking the Four-Figure Follower Mark

          • Carol Tice says:

            Oh, definitely not…just saying as we get older, our interests change, and the markets we might target may change too. But there are always more markets we could connect with. And AARP is one of the largest-circulation and best-paying markets in the country.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Good point. Some sites are building additional value through the creation of software — Copyblogger certainly springs to mind, as well as All Freelance Writing in our niche.

      I’ve been approached about writing for Mint as well…I know they are still creating more content, which is more than we can say for Freelance Writing Gigs, which seems to have pulled the plug on that a while back and be mostly just posting their jobs and recycling old posts.

  5. John Soares says:

    Important advice Carol.

    Overall, #7 is the most important and the easiest to achieve. We all have control over our expenses and how much money we make. I always fully fund my traditional IRA and my SEP-IRA, and in recent years I’ve been putting substantial amounts into my health savings account.

    And I can vouch for #6 also. Though they aren’t best sellers, I have two how-to books that have been in print since the mid-1990s and still make me a few grand a year in royalties.
    John Soares recently posted..Claiming Copyright Protection for Your E-Book

    • Carol Tice says:

      OK, you’re making me jealous now! But I knew when I adopted the extra two that it was the poverty vow…and we did it anyway. Adventure of a lifetime but definitely changed the financial picture.

  6. allena says:

    My husband and I hope to retire to Mexico, where the COL is much less. We up his retirement withholding to make up for my lack of employer matching, etc. I also teach adjunct, so I have that retirement money. I need to add something to these, though.
    allena recently posted..18 Steps to Writing an Ebook

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s funny — I was just eyeing this recruitment brochure recently from a synagogue in rural Alabama and thinking how cheap it might be to live there ;-)

      I think given how easy and accessible digital publishing is today, we should all be thinking about how to create additional income streams that would earn passively for us for years to come.

  7. Retirement? What’s that?

    I chose to change careers and Re-Invent. Myself, that is. I am now a full-time, professional writer, and darn proud to be that.

    I think that the time has come, what with healthier life styles and the longer, richer life that issues therefrom, that we retire the word “retire.”

    I plan to work until I drop. And create multiple streams of income to invest in my life and others. And have fun doing it to boot!

    What say you?

  8. Jeanne H says:

    The not-so-funny part about not having a 401k from an employer is the fact that many 401ks aren’t doing so good, have lost money, and employer contributions are being cut way back. It’s not quite the reliable cushion we’ve been led to believe.

    I admit that having retirement income is something that I wonder about, but I figure I’ll just need to contribute a higher percentage of my income to IRAs and such, rather than relying on employer match.

  9. Another note on this post – I would add that another strategy for scaling back, if not outright retiring, is to delegate as much as possible. I’ve been trying to implement this strategy by moving from working as an individual freelance writer to an agency model (run by me and my husband). While I still have plenty of clients who hire me directly, I also have a number that are contracted with my agency, which allows me to commission other writers to do the articles and focus my time on editing and marketing, though we’d like to eventually even hire people to manage those tasks once we have a bigger agency client base.
    Kathryn Hawkins recently posted..Why You Don’t Need an SEO Guru to Optimize Your Content

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Kathryn –

      If you find you are doing LESS work with the agency model, let me know! Guess my experience is you’re doing different work, but not necessarily less. Most of the people I know go to the agency level in order to earn more, just because they have more work than they could possibly do themselves, not because they think it’ll reduce their workload. So fascinated to hear how that goes.

      • Thanks, Carol, I’ll keep you posted! I definitely don’t foresee less work straight away, but I recently did quite a bit of work for a small agency where the owner delegated everything out – I know he has weekly calls with the people he’s appointed as managers and meets with some potential clients, but otherwise, he seems to spend most of his time surfing in Costa Rica, which seems like a pretty nice life. I think the key is finding really good employees who you know you can trust.

        We’re definitely not at that point of expansion now, and I do enjoy doing a lot of the writing myself anyway – but I’d like to get to a place where I’ll be able to step back from the day-to-day work and still have a steady income stream at some point. Like the company I worked for, we’re building ours as a virtual agency with contractors, which takes off some of the pressure in terms of overhead (office space, staff salaries, etc) that a lot of agencies need to deal with.
        Kathryn Hawkins recently posted..Why You Don’t Need an SEO Guru to Optimize Your Content

  10. Carol Tice says:

    True. Hopefully though as writers’ careers mature, they have the confidence to see they can create products that could be a source of passive income for the future.

  11. Loved this post Carol! I just turned in a manuscript for a book called Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement (Ten Speed Press, January 2013) and I devoted a whole chapter to the subject of creating an information empire. Amazing how technology has opened up some very interesting avenues for monetizing expertise.

  12. These are all terrific idea, but like John I personally would like to see #7 at the top of the list. That’s one that we have the most control over. One friend who writes a retirement blog recommends saving and investing something like 30-40% of your income over your life time. This means living and spending mindfully, but it creates a more solid base for your retirement.

    I also like the idea of creating products that are continual income generators. Whether they will be a smashing success, we never know but they can contribute some stream of income to our retirement.

    I’m glad you addressed this issue. It’s an important one. Especially for women who tend to be more adversely impacted in retirement.
    Sandra / Always Well Within recently posted..The Wisdom of Flowing with Change: An Interview with the Vizier

  13. Awesome advice, as always! I’ll be researching e-courses today!
    Kerrie McLoughlin recently posted..The Pope Told Me to Have 5 Kids So I Obeyed

  14. Really good roundup of retirement options! And even if we writers love what we do, we still have to plan for a day when we may want to do less of it. I’ve run a writing business for ten years, and I think any writer who takes to heart even one or two of the options you mentioned will be very happy over the long run. Thanks for sharing.
    Monica Carter Tagore recently posted..Three Points to Remember When Using Social Networks to Get Clients

  15. This is such a cool topic Carol,

    I’ve heard Jon Morrow in more than one occasion say that if you don’t don’t what your product is or what you want to do specifically, you should craft a consulting offer around your particular skill set and let the audience tell you what they need most.

    Then you can always design a product and build from there …but at least you are getting paid while getting the right kind of data regarding your audience needs and pain points!

  16. Carol,

    In any business one should plan for the future. Thanks for the specifics for freelance writers.

    You know what I find amusing. That many people that love what they do, I mean a passion, think that one day they will retire. But they don’t. They “retire” and then wonder “what the heck do I do now, I loved what I was doing.” LOL. And many times go back to the field they were in.

    These tips are not only great for retiring but to secure a better future and more financial freedom.

    Thanks.

    ~Allie
    Allie | Ramblings of a WAHM recently posted..Transitioning from Blogger to WAHM: Preparing Myself, My Readers and My Blog

  17. That’s GREAT stuff… I never even thought about it… Of course, I’m not retiring any time soon, but you never know what’s coming for you :)

    Carol, this post takes what Sean Platt is always preaching to the next level: build assets instead of working your heart out for your clients all the time.
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..How To Improve Your Blog – 7 Things Your Blog Readers Are Dying For

  18. Clara says:

    The book proposal pitch resonated with a bang! I’ve been writing my motivational & developmental blog for over 4 years…It’s no time like the present to get the book out:) Already tweeted, linkedin and facebooked working title, premise and expected publication date. Maybe I should have written the proposal first?
    Clara recently posted..A Season For Greatness

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