As the tax deadline looms, we asked self-employed readers to share the highs and lows of being their own boss
Simon Davies: ‘Being in a routine job is not the point of existence’
I am a self-employed rock guitarist. My earnings as a live performer in one of Europe’s foremost AC/DC tribute bands plus weekly guitar tutoring are enough to pay half the mortgage, and I rely on my wife’s self-employed work as a calligrapher for the rest, or will borrow money (often from credit cards), sell personal items or temporarily bury my head in the sand – anything but get a “normal” job. I do anything that comes my way, including cleaning work at the local rambling village pile – but still, I feel an immense sense of satisfaction that, at age 44, I still manage to scrape by without having to be in an office by 9am and that my two little girls are fed, dressed and happy.
I’ve always felt that being in a routine job for the sake of paying the bills was not the point of existence at all. I also believe that everyone has a talent – not always immediately evident to them perhaps, but a leaning at least – which they should follow and try to nurture and allow to grow.
My abilities as a guitarist were evident from the day I picked up a guitar aged 15. I’ve written and recorded a rock symphony, made relaxation music and played folk, blues and rock throughout the UK and parts of Europe because I instinctively knew that was what I wanted to do from an early age. But it’s been really tough at times, and sometimes I wonder whether a nine to five job might have been easier to bear.
Tax return season is one of the most stressful of the year. HMRC has a horrible system and its employees are ruthless, as well as being terribly difficult to contact – this is the one thing that has got me thinking about the upside of being employed by a company. But could I work nine to five all year, sacrifice my freedom, just so I don’t have that nightmare? Nah. Despite the hurdles one has to jump through, self-employment is worth it.
Juliet England: ‘Your relationship with tax changes’
No one tells you about the loneliness, about waking up to a diary page that’s as blank as the Sahara, devoid of appointments to get you across it. And no one warns you what it’s like having to do everything yourself, from tax to chasing late-paying clients, to the horror of a laptop tea tsunami – with no IT department to hand you a new machine. But this is the path I have chosen. Sort of.
When my corporate copywriting job ended, the options seemed limited. No one was giving writers full-time work, and the last job put me permanently off office life anyway. Time to strike out alone, start afresh. And so began that first, strange day of self-employment. Four years on, office life would feel like a basic human rights infringement, and having to wear anything other than slanket and pyjamas before noon would have me dialling Amnesty’s number. For what I do, paperwork is minimal, unproblematic. I have a cosy arrangement with my accountant: I write for him, he does my tax return.
Your relationship with tax does change: you’re more aware of it leaving your pocket, keener for it to be spent well, and, oddly, more grateful you are contributing. I’ve probably seen my income dip by up to a third since becoming my own boss, so news that the self-employed face greater debts came as little surprise. Could the government do more? It could do something. Business Link got axed and when I left my last job, the jobcentre was beyond hopeless. But, still. Go back to gainful employment? Overcrowded 7.45am or slinking back to bed with a cuppa and a book? No contest.
Melanie Davies: ‘Spending time with my children was stress-free’
Having risen through the creative ranks from junior designer to senior art director within just four years, I was surprised to find myself out of a job at the start of the 1990s recession. This forced my hand into re-inventing myself as a self-employed designer. A year down the line, I’d only picked up a few local clients, and was starting to feel the pinch. A fellow artist suggested that I enter a national calligraphy competition; adding that I had nothing to lose, as I was barely scraping a living together. I won both first and third prizes in the competition and consequently launched as a calligraphy consultant.
Life couldn’t be better. I was my own boss, had cornered a niche market and had money in my pocket. After a run of 10 years, I started a family. Having such flexible work parameters meant that spending time with my children was stress-free. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to start an apprenticeship to an illuminator and heraldic artist. After just a year, I inherited his business, which spanned some 300 years. I now create illuminated vellum manuscripts, as well as a diverse range of calligraphic projects. I’m not quite sure what my job description would be, but I’ve certainly never seen a similar position in Situations Vacant.
The annual HMRC self-assessment routine is the only blight in my otherwise rosy enterprise. The nature of self-employment presents a financial rollercoaster ride; any saved money being devoured in hard times. The current recession has hit my business particularly hard with this year’s income tax payments being borne from reduced earnings. In my opinion, the system is flawed and does nothing to help the self-employed. Having been self-employed for the majority of the past 22 years, I can happily say that I’ve never looked back.
Emma Reilly: ‘A charity helped me start up, no bank would touch me’
I started my business mainly because it was my only viable option. I’m classed as having a disability and during the times that I have been employed, I was unable to happily settle into my role due to other people’s opinions of my condition. In fact I was bullied out of my last employment by my boss when he discovered my illness.
For me, self-employment has been a life saver and path to a more fulfilling existence. I’ve gone from £400 per month sickness benefits to an income that allows me to go on holiday, afford new clothes and socialise with friends. However, the most important thing for me was the feelings of self-worth associated with it: I’ve created something from nothing. I understand that not all areas of business are flourishing in the current climate, but I do believe that being self-employed does allow the individual to have more freedom to expand, and do things you wouldn’t be allowed to while in employment.
I have found getting my head around tax difficult, but it hasn’t put me off growing my business. I do however feel the government offers little in the way of help for young people in business. I started up with the help of a charity, as no bank would touch me. The usual council grants that would have helped half my startup costs have all been cut. There are good business ideas out there, just very few resources for those that need a helping hand.
Martin: ‘The precariousness scares me rigid’
Returning to the UK in the autumn of 2010 after having spent the majority of the last decade living and working overseas, I was prepared for hardship, but not on the scale that I encountered. After a period of sleeping rough during the coldest part of that winter, I ended up in the eponymous “Homeless Hotel” in Nottingham.
I furiously trying to find work of any sort, using the homeless hotel as my postal address. A combination of strong arm tactics from the local jobcentre and a belief that there was little alternative eventually led me to launch my own business, largely based around writing and providing copy. I now live to work: anything else is accidental. I do not think that I have gone out for eight months.
I took advantage of a scheme that promised to continue paying jobseeker’s allowance for a period of time and access to a loan of £1,000. Acceptance on to the scheme was provisional on attending weekly “mentoring” sessions and producing a business plan. The biggest issue was convincing a group consisting largely of retirees that there was mileage and money in an internet-based business model.
I would say that I have been financially worse off ever since. The holiday period has been the toughest Christmas I have ever experienced; Christmas day was another round of limited amounts of the same lentils and rice that I had been surviving on for the previous three weeks. I wearily checked my email on New Year’s Eve to find a commission waiting from a known contact who pays commensurately and promptly. I packed in 80 hours of researching and writing over the next seven days and nervously awaited news that my piece was accepted. With even greater trepidation, I waited on payment being transferred. I was able to pay off a few debts, phone an understanding landlord, pay rent arrears and buy food.
Since then, it has been back on the treadmill of finding the next gig, punctuated by submitting a tax return and fretting about whether I can meet a bill for national insurance due at the end of the month.
Would I have taken this route if I had known what would be involved? I would not have chosen self-employment if I had any familial responsibilities whatsoever. The day to day, hand to mouth precariousness scares me rigid, but I see little alternative. The worst aspect of being self-employed is probably the isolation and the gnawing fear of poverty. I would not inflict this on another person.