Sole traders are struggling with everything
Working for yourself can be a dream. But with so many rising costs, it can quickly become a nightmare.
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A few years back, I tried my hand at a freelance career. Working for yourself is, for some, a dream – but I found it really hard. The constant paperwork, the daily hustle, and chasing overdue invoices became overwhelming. I lasted a couple of years then rejoined the nine-to-five, and I’m happy with that decision. But 20% of the country work for themselves. As inflation rises and the cost of living crisis continues to bite, what’s it like for sole traders right now? How are they coping? I had to find out…
-Chris Schulz, business editor
'Where is all my money going?'
Samantha Haehae was living in Auckland in 2021 when she had a revelation. The 32-year-old had a good job in her chosen career that paid her a decent salary, but it wasn’t enough. “I found it incredibly hard to save money and have a life all at the same time because it was constant go-go-go and the cost of living was getting quite expensive,” says the graphic designer and photographer. “I realised I was just living to pay bills. I felt like I was stuck in a cycle, ‘I'm miserable, I'm working crazy hours, I don't have any time for myself or my family, or my social relationships.’”
She hated “working for the man” so decided to switch things up. In the middle of last year, she jacked in her job and her flat, left Auckland and embraced a nomadic lifestyle. Now, Haehae works as a full-time housesitter, moving around the country depending on where her next sit is. “I bounce around quite a bit,” she says. She needs less money, has more free time, and can choose when and how she works. “Living in rich people's houses … enjoying their spa while I pat their cute dogs and take them for walks [is] more like me. It’s an upgrade.”
Despite trimming her living costs to the bare essentials, with no mortgage or rent demands on her income, Naenae’s found the cost of living crisis is starting to bite. Her travel costs have increased. So has her food bill. Buying groceries in the wealthier suburbs she tends to housesit in is far more expensive, she says. Recently, she looked over her digital subscriptions, both for work and for entertainment, and realised she needed to cut those right back. “You look at your accounts going, ‘Where the fuck is all my money going?’”
She’s not alone. About 20% of New Zealand’s workforce – that’s about 400,000 people – work for themselves, and many are taking a close look at where their money is going. “We're seeing people tighten their belts,” says James Fuller, the co-founder of digital accounting service Hnry. “They’re heading into some tough economic conditions … they have to make some hard decisions around where they put their money, how much they spend on equipment, how they get the maximum value out of their business expenses, and how they plan for the future at quite an uncertain time.”
Hnry’s co-founder knows a thing or two about this because, every quarter, his team asks users how they’re coping. The latest data, released earlier this month, found some alarming statistics: 63% say business is getting tighter, 74% are saving less or eating into their savings to pay for rising living costs, and 90% are avoiding taking on debt. “Around a third of sole traders have had to put their prices up or work longer hours to make ends meet,” says Fuller. “They’re paying more for fuel, supplies and services, and that money has to come from somewhere.”
The worst thing they can do, says Fuller, is begin dipping into money that they should be saving. “When inflationary pressures hit, the first thing that people tend to do is to dip into the money that's not theirs and start to spend their tax money.” Instead, Fuller suggests sole traders look at their costs, cutting where they can, and review their prices. “Unlike large corporations … freelancers are quite hesitant to raise their prices,” he says. But it’s one of the many benefits of working for yourself. “They have the opportunity to set their own prices and adjust them for inflationary pressures to make sure they’re not being hard done by.”
It’s something Haehae may need to think about. She’s enjoying her freedom too much to consider re-joining the nine-to-five workforce. Back when she was employed full-time, Naenae sometimes felt she was being used in a tokenistic way. “It’s very popular to have a Māori on your team. It’s very handy to get grants,” she says. Now, she can pick and choose her jobs, and make sure they’re in line with her own beliefs. “I now have the freedom to go, ‘Actually, I don't want to work for you’. Or, ‘I'd love to work on this project, because it's going to help somebody and be useful.’”
But she worries about the future and dreams of the day she earns enough to invest in KiwiSaver, Sharesies or crypto. “Absolutely I worry about it,” she says. “You hit your 30s and you’re like, ‘I’ve spent all my money and I’ve got nothing to show for it. I’ve never saved it or done anything good with it.’” Yes, once her nomadic lifestyle loses its lustre, Haehae would like to settle down. “Ultimately I would like to look at buying property,” she says. “That's the ultimate goal of most Kiwis, right?”
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Here at Stocktake, we cover all the business news that isn't boring. I've tracked down a Hokitika adventurer who takes American CEOs bush for a week, a woman who helps pull struggling businesses back from the brink, and, my personal favourite, the guy picking sea cucumbers off rocks and exporting them to China.
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A handful of quick links…
Is the great townhouse boom over? Stuff reports Williams Corp is offering staff voluntary redundancy, saying soon many will have “nothing to do”. The Herald has an update (paywalled) on how many staff have taken the option up.
Should you really be doing all that work travel? Liam Rātana on the climate case for ditching the commute.
The price of onions is sky high. RNZ explains why.
My Food Bag has a new CEO, reports NZ Herald.
Xero is also getting a new CEO after Steve Vamos announced he was stepping down. Xero saw A$1.2b wiped off its market valuation last Thursday and anaylsts are divided on where to from here for the company (paywalled).
The Lipstick Index (somewhat debatable theory) hangs on the concept that women exchange larger retail purchases for small goods such as cosmetics during hard times. New figures show makeup had its biggest quarter in three years (paywalled).
If you’re wondering what’s about to happen to your mortgage when you next have to fix it, The Detail’s explainer is definitely what you need to listen to.
Frances Shoemack began creating all natural perfumes in 2011. Since then, Abel Odor has gone global and challenged an industry that relies on synthetic ingredients. On Business is boring, Simon Pound asks her how she did it.
Finally, I’d encourage everyone to read this (paywalled) New York Times story on Christchurch-based YouTuber Danny de Hek, who brings down crypto ponzi schemes “one rant at a time”.
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