Why to take a pay cut and become your own boss

Anna Brech

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Here’s why to take a pay cut in going freelance – as told by those who took the gamble

The leap to go freelance is a daunting one, not least because it will almost always involve a pay cut.

Often, this dip is temporary and people go onto make a lot more than they ever did as a payroll employee. But that uncertainty alone is enough to stop many would-be entrepreneurs in their tracks.

It’s a shame because – although money is essential – it’s not always the deal-breaker we imagine it to be. And those who get caught in an endless struggle for the next pay rise can all too easily find themselves losing sight of other important things.

Read more: How to take a pay cut and become your own boss

Rebecca Newenham quit her job as a buyer for retail giants Superdrug and Sainsburys in her early 30s, taking a dramatic pay cut to found a virtual assistant company, Get Ahead VA.

“Being responsible for your own destiny can be frightening but it can also be empowering,” she says. “It enables you to achieve more than you ever thought possible.”

Here’s why you too should make the freelance jump (or read more about how to manage the transition):

What you want isn’t always what you think you want

One of the fallacies of the career ladder is that we’re so conditioned to climb it, we barely stop to think whether doing so is what we really want.

“It creates this expectation of ‘when,’” says Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of London’s Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “We think, ‘When I get that promotion then I’ll be happy.’”

When we do finally hit the top, we may well realise “work makes up just one part of what it means to live a full, rounded life”.

It’s this realisation that can prompt a “a discovery process”, says author Lucia Knight, who interviewed 100 midlifers following a major career change for her book, X Change: How to Torch your Work Treadmill. People typically hit a pause point that forces them to consider “what they want and why”.

Read more: 6 ways to create a major life change

This certainly rings true for communications consultant Emma Heesom, who quit what she thought was her dream job split between Bristol and London.

“I thought I would love the commuting, the buzz, the ‘power’ but I learned that I am not rewarded by any of that stuff,” she says. The segway eventually led her to move to Cornwall and set up her own business, the You Say Agency.

Londoner Kirsty Reid, 33, had a similar experience. She left a senior role at a PR agency four months in, taking a £20,000 pay cut to retrain as a purpose coach (kirstyreid.co.uk).

“That feeling of ‘completeness’ never materialised,” she says. “I ended up feeling burnt out, with severe anxiety. I felt like I’d reached a crossroads in life. I wanted to be happy when I woke up each morning, and to feel like I had more purpose in my life.”

The treadmill can tie you down

It’s not just about disconnect, through. As we progress upwards, salary and stability – the very values that are seen as the hallmark of a “good” career – begin to bind us in. 

“Often the salary can become a golden cage as people don’t then leave. They’re worried about having a pay cut and the impact it will have on their lifestyle,” says business mentor and author Ruth Kudzi.

Read more: Things Americans can learn from Europe’s work-life balance

The same motivators can lead to unhealthy habits and a relentless sense of grind. London-based Nicky Guymer of Someday Studio quit her £65,000-a-year job as a retail buyer to retrain as an interior stylist, starting over aged 34.

“Buying always felt like a struggle where I was only as ‘good’ as my last collection/sales figures/meeting,” she says. “Every single day felt like a test that I didn’t want to take and one that I was always set up to fail at anyway. I’d be first in and last to leave. I’d cancel drinks at the last minute and I’d spend weekends just trying to emotionally recuperate.”

Taking a pay cut allows you to jump off this treadmill and reassess what it is that you truly want.

Room to flex means you’ll feel less stressed

When you take a pay cut to set up solo, you’re generally paving the way for a calmer way of life. This doesn’t necessarily mean less work – often, the opposite is true – but crucially, it’s on your terms.

“I work harder now than ever before, and much longer hours,” says Mark Norman, who took voluntary redundancy from his management role at the University of Exeter four years ago, in his mid-40s. He now co-runs Circle of Spears Productions, a Devon-based  independent audiobook production house, on roughly half his full-time wage.

“The enjoyment level makes that worthwhile, and the flexibility is so important,” he says. “It’s about the ability to create your own ways of working which may be more outside of the box, but more effective and more tailored to what you do.”

Read more: How to recover from a mid-30s burnout

It’s this freedom that Rebecca credits with a dramatic improvement in her stress levels. 

“My wellbeing has definitely improved knowing that I can work flexibly, when and where I want,” she says. “I can attend my Pilates class or catch up with a friend without having to ask permission from someone else.”

Becoming self-employed affords a chance to escape certain entrenched working habits. However flexible a workplace claims to be, it will rarely match the kind of stretch room you can allow yourself – and that balance between work and life becomes less fraught as a result.

“I think valuing sitting at a screen from 9-5 all week as worthy of a salary and stability is wrong,” says Emma. “I think we put too much on presenteeism. Nowadays, I can take myself off to the beach when I get writers block, or I can stop something and come back to it. I often get clarity on something on my morning walk with Woody, my dog.”

You’ll be fired up in ways you can’t imagine

It’s perhaps this realisation of freedom that makes the leap to self-employed so liberating. The moment you hand in your notice is often dressed up as scary – but many people find the opposite is true.

“Handing in my notice gave me the biggest sense of relief and a genuine euphoric feeling – as cheesy as that sounds!” says Kirsty. “A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My stress levels have changed beyond belief.”

Emma felt a similar wave of elation, even as she burned the midnight oil. “I worked all the hours, I was so excited, I was totally free,” she says. “Even not knowing when my first client would come. I worked until the small hours. I had to have a notebook by my bed for all the ideas that came tumbling out.”

Read more: 9 unexpected things I discovered about going freelance

For Mark, the joy very much came in having agency over the direction of his career. “My previous position had long since ceased being enjoyable,” he says. “This was a golden opportunity to try and forge a new career in an area in which I had originally trained to work, but with the flexibility of controlling my own destiny.”

Dr. Elena says another benefit of this freedom is the scope to nurture close relationships that may previously have ended up by the wayside.

“For our relationships to thrive, we need to devote time and effort into nurturing those connections,” she says. “When we create better boundaries between our work and home life, we’ll naturally see our relationships benefit whether that be with our partner, friends or family.”

You can craft a career that aligns with your values

Perhaps the biggest benefit of taking a temporary pay cut to become your own boss is the opportunity it affords to tap your values.

When you’re working for someone else, even the greatest job in the world means you are playing to someone else’s vision. Flying solo, you extract yourself from the pay-promotion trap and instead have the freedom take on clients and projects that drive you.

“With my PR work, I now choose to work with brands that resonate with me and that I feel passionate about,” says Kirsty. “This makes it so much more worthwhile. I do feel like having less burden has helped me to express my creative side much more.”

“I think working somewhere that is aligned with your values – where you feel that you are making a difference and you are fulfilled – is really important,” adds Ruth. As your own boss, not only do you have control over your job and what you do, you can also craft “the physical environment that you work in”, and the networks that form around that.

Read more: Swamped by work? This simple and brilliant tool will help

“My business reflects who I am as a person, my values,” says Emma. “Don’t get me wrong there is self doubt, there is imposter syndrome. But I am proud that I craft my PR work as I want, and people want to work with me because of it.”

You may be one of those lucky people whose full-time, senior job exactly chimes with what drives and motivates you. But if you’re not, no amount of money or fancy job titles can compensate for that inner fire. Having a career that reflects who *you* are really is the golden standard.

“Building my business does have its ups and downs, as do a lot of big changes, but it’s mine,” says Kirsty. “It allows me to really put my own personality, passion and creativity out there for the world to see.”

Images: Shutterstock,  Harry Sandhu and Katika Bele on Unsplash

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