RELAX, YOU NERDS: Reassurance for Freelancers and Self-Employed Expats in Germany

Freelance Self-Employed Graphic Designer in Germany
“How am I going to design my way out of THIS one?” — (Image Credit: bark [https://www.flickr.com/photos/barkbud/] — Text and Effects Added — Subject to CC 2.0 License.)
I moved from Portland, Oregon, to Hannover, Germany back in 2012. Now, I’ve never claimed to be a brave man, but that was one of the ballsiest things I ever did. I donated 95% of my earthly belongings to Goodwill, sold my car, rented out my house, said goodbye for my friends and family and — most importantly — lost my job. I was a full-time graphic designer working for a well-established marketing agency, and although I made one hell of an appeal to my boss regarding the advantages of having an employee working in a time zone 9 hours ahead, it just didn’t make financial sense for the agency to keep me on the payroll. So, after I finally arrived in Germany and reunited with my German wife, I concentrated my energy on building up a client list of my own. (And by “concentrated,” I mean frantically emailed every single person I knew and shamelessly begged for work while crying.)

Luckily, I had some very good friends and a decent professional network at my disposal, so I was able to eek out a living in my first couple years as a self-employed expat. I could pay for our groceries, part of the utilities, and even help my wife cover the rent for our apartment, which was located on the second floor of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

My client list continued to expand and improve, allowing me to raise my hourly rate from, “Zero-Dignity Creative Prostitution,” right on up to, “No, I Will Not Design a Cheap Logo for Your Daughter’s Remarkably Awful Kitten Blog.”

My wife and I moved into a beautiful house in the suburbs of Hannover, and can now split all of our living costs 50/50 — no easy feat when your wife is a gainfully employed Gymnasium teacher. Some months I earn way more than she does, but others I come up a little short. And that is the nature of freelance work; it isn’t always consistent — there are ebbs and flows — and sometimes the ebbs can be downright terrifying.

Every year, the summer months and winter holidays are quiet because clients tend to go on vacation during these times… leaving me to bite my fingernails down to bloody stubs and mainline 4-8 milligrams of Xanax for lunch. See, there’s always the fear — no matter how irrational — my clients just won’t come back. Maybe they all die in a freakish New Years spelunking accident. I don’t know, but the stress always follows the same spiral of despair:

  1. Three of my primary clients have been silent this month.
  2. This is a sign of the financial drought to come.
  3. Soon, I will need to rely upon my hard-earned savings.
  4. My savings account will be depleted within six months.
  5. I will turn to credit cards in order to survive.
  6. I will drown in a sea of debt.
  7. I will refuse to ask my wife for help.
  8. I will plunge into depression, no longer shaving or showering.
  9. My wife will lose all respect for me.
  10. I will pen the greatest suicide note of all time and then deep-throat a shotgun while listening to Enya.

No, no — if you’re a great designer, dependable and hardworking, your clients will always come back to you. Quite often, my clients like to contact me all at the same time, in fact, slamming me with 3 or 4 different projects simultaneously, so my fears swing wildly from not having enough work, to, Holy shit, there’s no time to sleep! Oh god, oh god! I cannot possibly deliver all of these things before I have a breakdown and some burly men in white scrubs come to my front door with a straightjacket, speaking in eerily soothing tones: “Easy now, Mr. American blogger. We’re here to help. You just need a little rest. Now, we’re going to give you a shot to help you relax, and then… shit! Code Red! Code Red! We got a runner!”

So that’s the lesson I’ve learned over the years: work hard and save your pennies during the busy times, and try not to stress during the slow ones. Everything is going to be fine. But I think my German wife put it best the last time I freaked out, when she gave me a hug and said:

“Don’t worry, mein Schatz; there will soon be a warm rain coming.”*

*From the German idiom, “ein warmer Regen,” which means, “to receive unexpected money.” However, whenever I think of warm rain, I think of some sadistic god in the clouds pissing on my head.

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12 thoughts

  1. As a former graphic designer, this strikes all kinds of chords with me. the only difference is that I left the graphic design field when I left Canada for the Czech Republic.

    The ESL field in the Czech Republic has a lot of similarities to what you’ve described. It’s quite typical for ESL teachers here to be freelancers, a lot of the language agencies will actually push you to it, and then the ebb and flow you mention becomes the factor.

    I had a credit card here for a while, but the Czech republic really isn’t a credit card culture and Czech banks don’t really make having a credit card worth it. I cancelled my credit card and, after a fair bit of negotiation with my bank, secured an overdraft facility on my current account instead.

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      1. On balance, I have to say that I have been happier that way. I still pick up my sketch book from time to time or my own enjoyment, but I certainly don’t miss the unreasonable demands and bizarre deadlines of the old career field.

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  2. Hej, I understand your situation as I am and have been in your situation as a freelancer or timanställd with zero contract since I quitted my job as an officer in the Singapore Air Force way back in 1985.
    Here in Sweden one is allowed to keep one’s unemployment benefits until one finds a full time job. Naturally this is reduced for every day one works.
    In my case it is usually more than full time during the summer months plus December. For the rest of the year it is more relaxing and I can visit my mom in Singapore for several months at a time.
    Can’t you do it in Germany?

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  3. This exactly. I’m a German who moved to the US and just started my own photography business in Boston. The thoughts you described during slower times are exactly what goes through my head. It’s definitely a big change from the 9-5 job with steady paycheck and I’m still getting used to it. Keep on writing, I love your blog! :)

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  4. I quit my last job 23 years ago and became a software engineering consultant. Only difference, I remained in the U.S. For about two years I lived with the terrifying uncertainties you describe here. I know exactly what that feels like. My wife then was a stay-at-home mom and I had two little children to boot. Eventually I had to hire help, and today I run a $5M business. So the moral: Remaining a freelancer will always be rocky, since, like a dentist can only fill as many teeth as there are hours in the day, a consultant or designer can only draw that many concepts. So feast and famine, and the terror of not knowing where the next large client comes from, is ever-present. That is your emotional payment for being “free.” Aber sie hat recht, es kommt immer wieder ein warmer Regen.

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  5. This article absolutely NAILS it.

    I’ve been a Freelance Writer for two and a half years, and now I’m starting out on a path running my own blog about Germany, too.

    When conversion rates are low, or when my clients have been silent for, say…45 minutes? I feel a slight dribble of poo run down the back of my leg every time I stand up.

    I’m yet to starve to death or not be able to pay a bill on time. But still, around the 1st of the month, I find myself worried that I’m going to end up on a Salvation Army Advert around Christmas time.

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  6. And in this country, you don’t really need to be freelancer to face unplanned situation. I married a German, stayed in my country till I completed B2 Sprachetest. I am a doctor and I saw all these headlines that Germany needs doctors. What neither my husband or I had an idea is how hard is it to face German administration or to do Annerkenung. I got my first job, came here, and that I got stuck with Regierung, my chef figured out that it will last longer than he planned and fired me. I am still waiting an official response from authorities (it has been longer than one year) and in the meantime I have learned one thing for sure. When a German administration says one month count six :)

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