Self-Employment vs. Being Employed: Which Is Better?
I've now been self-employed for almost 10 years, while a lot of the time at the beginning I still had a full-time job too.
I remember those first few months of self-employment, it felt absolutely terrifying and invigorating. I was so excited to do what I wanted, but I had no clue how to do any of it, taxes, national insurance, keeping track of the receipts, invoices and so on… kind of a weird feeling. And I can’t say I’ve ever felt like that when I was working for someone else.
From nearly the minute I quit my job in warehousing, later on catering as to go full-time employed as a graphic designer, I started getting questions about how “worth it” entrepreneurship is. People want to know exactly which one is better, self-employment or being employed.
With so many people choosing to be self-employed – from freelancers, trades contractors, etc. – you kind of wonder if there really is something you’re missing as a traditionally employed person.
So, is it all rainbows with a pot of gold in the end?
For some people, it can be… but for other people, self-employment is its own kind of hustle. Some people absolutely thrive in a self-employment situation, but some people try it and absolutely hate it.
However, for the majority of people who have experience working as both traditionally employed and self-employed, they’ve realised that both have their ups and downs. That’s definitely been my experience, and since I’ve spent a fairly equal amount of time with both, I think I can give a solid comparison of the two on this occasion.
First, defining employed vs. self-employed
I think it’s important to take a minute to really differentiate the two because there are a couple of key points you need to know.
Being employed means, you work for a company or business who has you on the payroll. And when you’re on the payroll (either salary or hourly work), your employer is responsible for withholding:
Depending on the area you work in and type of your job, you might have more perks. Your employer is also responsible for unemployment insurance and worker’s comp.
For full-time employees (30 hours a week or 130 hours a month according to the IRS), employers may also offer benefits like:
Health insurance (you may even get vision and dental)
Paid time off, like sick days and vacation time
Some kind of retirement package
Discounts at particular stores
Being self-employed means…
You are a sole proprietor, independent contractor, freelancer, you’re in business for yourself, etc. We’ll start splitting hairs here if we go much farther.
In terms of withholdings, the biggest difference between employed vs. self-employed is that you’re on the hook for all of it when you’re self-employed. That’s because you’re both the employer and employee. You are responsible for paying:
VAT if applicable
Submit all expenses fort tax return reasons
And even if you don’t owe anything – this does happen to some self-employed people – you still have to file a HMRC Tax Return Form.
So, which is better? Self-employment or being employed?
No matter how you work, there are going to be pros and cons of both. That was the case for me and nearly everyone I’ve ever talked to about this kind of thing. Honestly, you can love what you do and still occasionally complain about your situation.
Because of that, I want to give you the pros and cons of both self-employment and being employed in a traditional sense.
1. Your income potential is higher (but not always)
I'll just get this one out of the way because it's probably the most obvious. Yes, you can make more money as a self-employed person in most cases. But honestly, it really depends on the type of business that you create.
One of the biggest reasons that I started a graphic design and SEO business instead of a working for someone at an IT (which I was seriously considering) was that I knew I could scale the online business faster and easier, especially that I had so much love and passion for it.
Now, there are still limitations to my business because money focuses on me and the content I create. But I can still scale to a nice level before that limitation really makes itself present.
2. Speaking of scalability, if you need to work and it’s there, you can earn money
What I mean by this is that you’re in control of how much work you take on. That’s not the case 100% of the time, like if you’re just starting off as a freelancer and still trying to find clients. But once you build a solid reputation, you can take jobs when you need the cash.
I’d say this is really true for side hustlers. If you are trying to save up for a large purchase or need to make more money to pay off debt, there are tons of ways to earn extra income. It might take a bit of juggling, but the work is out there, especially online these days, a lot people might be very sceptical about it, but it’s there.
If you were solely employed by a company, you can usually only earn what your salary dictates or during the hours you’re scheduled to work. This is actually one of the reasons so many people are choosing to find side hustles in the first place.
3. There is more flexibility in your schedule
This aligns a bit with that last point, and was a major selling point when I was starting out. It’s also dependent on the type of business that you start. If you run a pet store with normal hours, there's a good chance that you'll have to work those hours.
There's nothing wrong with that of course, but it's just something to keep in mind if you're wanting to start a business that has flexibility. Even with my business, I try to have a general set of hours (but I actually work all the time, which I bring up in the “cons” list).
I hear many, many other self-employed parents who love this aspect of their job. Just like me, if my kid is sick or school is called off, I can free myself at any time most of time and get back to it once everything is sorted, with nobody telling me off for not being at work…
1. It's not steady at all in the beginning
Starting a business can be surprisingly slow. You have to build up demand for your product or service (for me, it's my brand identity design studio services, including web design, logo design and also marketing) or grow your client list. This can take a long time.
Eventually, it does pick up, if you do it right from the beginning, customer focus, care and passion for what you do is the key here.
Now? I had to hire someone to help me with tight deadlines, web development and marketing, as sometimes it’s simply too much work for me to handle by myself.
Seriously, I spent months not making a single dime, which was totally different than anything I had experienced as IT Technician.
If you want to survive self-employment, one of my biggest suggestions is to have a financial cushion going in and keeping that padding as your business grows. You can have a couple of really busy weeks or months and then nothing. You’ll have to plan for those lean times if you want to sustain yourself.
2. It's scary as hell!
Don't be self-employed unless you're ready to be worried about everything all the time. I’m not trying to scare you; I just want you to be ready for those feelings.
The day after I quit my IT job, was the first time in my life that I have ever experienced a panic attack. Fortunately, it’s never happened again, and I never want it to. That sucked.
But even when things are going pretty well, there is an underlying fear that everything could fall off the rails.
That fear isn't necessarily a bad thing – I have always felt like fear was one of the best things that you can experience as an entrepreneur. It forces you to try new things, step out of your comfort zone, etc.
But it's still not a good feeling.
3. Turning off is really hard
“You can take vacations all the time, you're self-employed!”
Ha. I used to buy into that one too, but whoever came up with that is a complete liar.
Maybe you can get to that point eventually, but it has been really hard for me to take time away from my business. Most of my friends that are self-employed have a similar issue.
It goes back to fear (you don't want things to blow up when you step away from the business temporarily) and being too busy. Taking a week off takes a lot of planning when you’re self-employed. You have to work really far ahead on things to be ready for a vacation, and even then, you still worry about your business.
The only way I’ve been able to balance time off is to make sure I have internet access. I also have an assistant now who can manage things while I’m away, but that doesn't mean I can just completely shut off.
Even balancing your day-to-day work tasks with the rest of your life takes setting specific hours aside to work. It might take setting “away” notifications or literally turning off your computer and phone and walking away.
Being Employed Pros
1. It's much steadier
One thing that I remember about being an IT Support was that there were never any major surprises waiting for me at work. I went to work, did my job, and then went home.
That's not to say that it was boring or anything like that, but I never went to work wondering if I was going to make any money that day or if I'd randomly get fired by a client.
For the most part, I was able to really focus on just doing my job instead of constantly worrying about clients and tight deadlines.
I know that not all jobs are created equal when it comes to retirement plans, but I get a little jealous when I hear people talk about their awesome employer matches. When you’re self-employed, there are plenty of times when you have to make the choice between saving for retirement or reinvesting back into your business to grow it.
Even when I was an IT Support Technician with a great retirement pension, it was still less stressful than having to figure out my own path. The money just came out of my paycheck every month. It was awesome.
A final word on which is better – self-employment or being employed?
It all comes down to your personality type. If you don't mind being totally freaked out about where your next dollar is going to come from but want more control over your destiny, try self-employment.
If you just want to be able to go to work, make money, and then chill every night and turn work off completely, stick with being employed.
But honestly, why not try both?