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How to Manage Slump Months When Your Income Fluctuates

Slump months happen to the best of us with variable incomes.

My first came recently, eight months into full-time self-employment, and it caught me by surprise. As I tallied up my income spreadsheet, I was shocked to learn I’d barely cover the month’s basic expenses, let alone business costs or incidentals. Sure, I’d brought it on myself by pressing pause on new projects to focus on my book launch, but that didn’t help me any feel better.

Fortunately, I could rely on savings, but not everyone has that luxury. Plus, hearing the advice to “just save more in advance” when you’re already in the throes of a slump month is pretty unhelpful. (Although having a safety net really does lower stress.)

How else to weather the storm? Try these tips from people who’ve been there.

1. Don’t Turn Away Lower-Paying Gigs

“The highest-paying jobs are usually the least consistent, and the lowest paying are the most consistent,” says Cory Kleinfeldt, a paintless dent repair technician who works on commission in Sacramento. “I had to learn to value the lower-paying, but more consistent work, while [aiming] to make the higher-paying work more consistent.”

For some, this means picking up a side gig you can do on your own schedule, like driving for Uber. Or it could mean reaching out to lower-paying clients you don’t typically work with during busy months, but who are likely to have work available.

2. Renegotiate Your Rates

Unlike full-time employers, clients don’t give us annual reviews or opportunities to negotiate higher rates — it’s on us to engage those conversations. What better time than a slump month?

Start by reevaluating your existing relationships to determine if you can re-negotiate your fees. You’ll likely have the most luck with long-term clients you’ve worked with for at least a year. Just like you’d prep before asking your boss for a raise, be able to defend the increase and explain what added value you’ll bring.

3. Review Your Contracts

Look for contract stipulations that can stabilize your cash flow. For example, I’ve been asked to pay for my travel costs — like flights and hotel — for speaking events, then wait to be paid back until the event wrapped. After fronting several hundred dollars on several occasions and not getting reimbursed for months, I changed my contracts so clients are obligated to reimburse me within 30 days of booking.

“There’s also no shame is asking for half your payment upfront — or all of it — if that works in your industry,” says Kleinfeldt.

Or consider changing your business model altogether. “If you have a client you could work with on a regular basis, selling them on a monthly contract can give you some regularity when your other income sources are variable,” suggests Liz Theresa, an online marketer and web designer in Norwell, Massachusetts.

4. Slash Unnecessary Lifestyle and Business Expenses

Concentrating on the bare necessities can help carry you through a down month or two. That goes for lifestyle expenses, like avoiding takeout, and business costs. “I usually cut back on ad dollars and invest more time in creating valuable content, especially since ad results can be so variable,” Theresa says.

Zina Kumok, a freelance writer in Denver, scales back on buying educational courses and books and reduces hours she needs from her virtual assistant.

5. Look for Patterns for Future Slump Months

Some contractors can predict future down months, which presents an opportunity to double down during the high season. That’s the case for both Lauren Cafrelli — a personal trainer in New York who can generally count on a January boom and a slow summertime — and Kara Perez, a money writer and founder of Bravely in Austin, Texas, who’s figured out that summer is slow for her, too.

Knowing a slow month — or season — is on the horizon allows you to relieve some pressure by prepaying big expenses or getting ahead on other yearly goals. With some foresight, having a slow season is basically a built-in vacation, Perez says.

While Kleinfeldt doesn’t have seasonal predictability, he uses slow months as motivation to build his book of business. “Every time I have a slow month is because I spent too much time earning money and not enough time seeking more jobs,” he says. “We can all get caught up in performing our skills and not spending enough time marketing, selling or finding new revenue streams for the future.”

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