How to work 33% of full-time

RelaxingWARNING: Basic arithmetic ahead.

Don’t worry though, there’s nothing too complicated about this concept. In fact, the first time I thought about this, it seemed far too simple. We all know that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is, right?

However, in this case, I think my logic’s pretty sound. Also, this is roughly how my family and I actually live and we’re…well.. still alive, so maybe it’s not so crazy.

I’ve previously written in detail about one of the specific ways I generate income: freelancing. I do that because it suits my particular skills and temperament. However, doing freelance work instead of being an employee in order to be able to work much less is simply one example of a general principle which I’ll explain here.

These are the 2 steps which you need to take to (reasonably) quickly allow you to work 33% of full-time hours.

Step 1

The first step is by far the least glamorous one.  It’s really simple. Spend a reasonable amount less money than you earn. To make my assumptions work, let’s set your spending level at 75% of your income.

If you earn £50,000 per year, that means that instead of spending the entire £3000 net income you receive every month, you need to restrict your outgoings to £2250 each month. This is roughly the cashflow you would enjoy if you earned £35,000 per year and spent all of it.

(FYI: I used this site to do my take home pay calculations).

I predict that a lot of the mid to high-income earners will be navigating away from the page around this point, so I’ll at least have a go at convincing you why doing this would be a good idea.

First of all, let’s get some perspective. According to this government website, in 2013 a £50k annual income would have put you around the 90th income percentile, whilst a £35k annual income would put you slightly above the 75th. So, if your income actually dropped to £35k, instead of earning more than 90% of the working population of the UK, you’d earn more than 75% of them.

We’re really not talking about living in poverty here, rather having one restaurant meal per month instead of two per week and perhaps having an older car than you currently do. Maybe a move to a slightly smaller house.

Secondly, get a grip (wo)man! You can’t have everything. You need to make a choice between owning too much plastic crap/keeping up with the Joneses and owning your own time.

If you can succeed with step 1, you officially only need 75% of your net pay every month. Only 42% to go to to get us down to the target of 33%.

Now for the exciting bit.

Step 2

This is where things start to get scary. However, rest assured that if I can do this, so can you.

You need to work out a way of earning twice as much as you currently do for every hour that you work. It doesn’t matter exactly how you achieve this, just that the method must allow you to do smallish chunks of work (e.g. a few hours per week), preferably on the side whilst you still have your current job.

It’s possible you’ll find a job that offers these properties, but I doubt it, so you will have to develop at least a minimal amount of entrepreneurial skill.

Here are two methods that I have actually used/am still using:

  • Freelancing (NOT contracting) in your existing professional field. For some people, particularly in the technology industry, this is almost a no-brainer. In my experience, if you go about this in the right way, you can expect to earn a reasonable baseline hourly rate of something like a thousandth of your current annual salary (i.e. £50 per hour for a £50k salary). With a solid CV, the right contacts and some sales skills, the hourly rate can be pushed much higher.
  • Starting a small service business which caters for the needs of wealthy people or tiny businesses. My personal experience with this type of business has involved running a very small computer support company. I fixed IT problems in people’s home offices and gave computer tuition to older people. I charged higher prices than most people who do this and hence built a customer base of people who were willing to pay a premium for the quality of service I provided.

The key here is to ask yourself the question

What value can I provide?

and then to be as open-minded as possible when you try to answer it.

You need to dig deep and work out what you can do that people would be willing to pay for (and don’t be afraid if that leads you somewhere other than your current professional skills). A good way to generate some ideas is to start thinking about what people can’t wait to ask you about if they see you in the pub/on the street/round the watercooler at work.

This is exactly how I ended up fixing computer problems for money – I’d already spent years fixing them for free!

There are a few work skills, hobbies and personal attributes that I could see being a good basis for profitable side-businesses (if you’re willing to put in a little bit of elbow grease). For example:

  • Photography. Be a, erm, photographer. I’d suggest you niche down a bit as many people try this one. I have a friend who has been a wedding photographer on the side whilst also working a regular 9-to-5 for about 10 years. His day rate is definitely comparable with what I get paid as a freelance engineer.
  • Design/making things look nice. Perhaps become a graphic designer who does stationery and simple websites for local businesses such as plumbers and electricians. You’ll notice, for example, from this website that, despite my technical skills, I’m not great at making things look good. If my livelihood depended upon it, I would gladly pay to have somebody give this site the polish it deserves. Yes, yes, I know that you’re competing with people in developing countries on Fiverr, but, take it from me, some local business owners really value being able to shake your hand, sit down and have a coffee with you
  •  Organisation. Become some sort of event planner. I lived through the process of my now wife organising our wedding. It wasn’t fun. Now, we’re pretty frugal and so we wouldn’t have hired you, but not everybody is. Some people really do want to go all out and have a big do. Some of them will pay for help. Also, what about planning kids’ birthday parties?
  • Good leadership skills. Become a coach or a mentor. If you can combine domain knowledge (i.e. knowing a lot about a particular thing) with an ability to lead, teach and nurture understanding, you can probably save somebody a lot of pain. You’ve made (and benefitted from) a lot of mistakes whilst you built your knowledge. Imagine what it’s worth for somebody being able to get that benefit without making all of the same mistakes you did. If the problem you’re solving is bad enough, perhaps having a competent, confident guide is exactly what your potential customers need.
  • Sales skills. Become an affiliate marketer. Find somebody with a product which you think is brilliant (please don’t become a snake oil salesperson!) and use your skills to sell it to others for a commission.

I think the best idea I’ve found for finding flexible, highly paid work was in How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World by the late Harry Browne.

Harry’s technique

When Harry needed a large amount of money quickly, he started looking for problems people had which he felt he could solve. He made a deal to deliver the solution for a fixed fee rather than being paid for his time.

This had the obvious benefit that if Harry estimated accurately and priced his solution appropriately, his return on time invested could be very high.

Perhaps you could master this technique. You could be a ‘fixer’ of sorts. You could still focus on areas in which your skills were valuable (e.g. technology for me) but you wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into a particular job/hourly rate-based freelance role. You would be somebody who could accurately reckon what it would take to make a problem go away and then make that happen for a pre-agreed bounty.

This idea both excites and scares me in equal measure due to the massive transfer of risk to the service provider. It’s really worth thinking about though.

Whatever route you take to earn double your hourly rate, it will (in most cases) be immensely difficult when you start. It’s likely that you’ll have to put a lot of work into your alternative income generation system before you start to reap the benefits. If you give up straight away because it seems too hard, then obviously you won’t be working 33% of full-time any time soon.

Anyway, assuming I’ve convinced you that earning at least double your current hourly rate for a handful of hours every week is possible, we just need to do some maths!

The science bit… concentrate!

Having successfully reduced your expenses to 75% of your income, it’s reasonable to conclude that, even with your current job, you could work 75% of full-time hours assuming that your employer would accommodate this working pattern.

The last bit is important. In my experience, most employers are reluctant to deviate from the norm unless you give them a reason to. On the other hand, I worked for more than a year at 80% of full-time hours in my last job and so I know that such arrangements are not impossible to negotiate.

However, we’re aiming for 33% of full-time which, I’d imagine, most people would struggle to pull off in an employee scenario.

Luckily, because you did Step 2, you’ve managed to become twice as productive for every hour that you spend working and you have a flexible way of doing this that you control.

It seems sensible to assume that you can now produce 75% of your original income in half the amount of time as that would take in your current job. To accomplish that, you would need to put in 37.5% (i.e. half of 75%) of full-time hours.

So far, so good. But 37.5% is not 33%! Worry not, as there are a couple of further advantages to this strategy that we’ve not yet touched upon.

The first thing to note is that, if you live in a country with a progressive tax system such as the UK, it’s likely that you will pay a higher effective rate of tax on your current full-time income than you would on an income that was 25% lower. This implies that earning 75% of your original salary before tax equates to taking home more than 75% of your current after tax pay.

To turn things around, if you want to be able to take home 75% as much as you currently do, you will probably only need to earn 71% or 72% of your current gross income (depending on where in the world you are and what that current income is).

The next point to consider is that, as you will be a business owner (instead of an employee), you will benefit from the tax advantages that accompany earning your income in this way, for instance paying for your business travel expenses before tax is deducted.

Taking those 2 things together, I am confident in standing by the title of this article and suggesting that, if you follow the steps above, the amount you would have to work to achieve a take home income that is 75% as much as you currently produce would be approximately 33% in a lot of cases.

This all sounds great, but I imagine you have some reservations. Let me try and address a few of the common ones.

Common objections

You’re oversimplifying this Andy. You’ve assumed that a business owner gets to keep every penny that they bill their clients. This is unrealistic – they will need to account for costs like advertising and buying tools. 

This is true. However, if your side business or freelance career involves doing repeat work for the same group of clients, you pay most of the costs when you start your venture. Once you’ve established yourself, these costs reduce massively.

In my case, I worked for about 4 months on my computer support business for zero cash reward as all of the income I made from early client work was ploughed back in to advertising. Likewise, you might have to buy tools once (or at least very infrequently). These costs are examples of getting your boulder rolling.

Andy’s obviously gone crazy. There’s no way I could bill out my time for double my current hourly rate – nobody would pay that much. What world are you living in?

Have you tried? Honestly? I used to think the same as you, but I have successfully performed IT support work at rates between £10 per hour and £45 per hour. I know that, with my current skills, I could improve further still on the latter figure (perhaps doubling it again). My engineering skills earn me significantly more than that too.

One tip I have for you is to use your desired billing rate as a filter. You don’t want clients who are unwilling to pay you the rate you decide upon. This makes the cost per client acquisition higher but works out better in the long run.

OK Andy, it sounds like this would work for a single person with no kids. But I couldn’t walk away from 6 months’ paid sick leave and private medical cover. 

Have you at least looked into how much it would cost for you to buy those benefits in the market from an insurance company? If not, go and look into it and then come back and have a whinge in the comments section if necessary.

Also, if you’re even considering my strategy, I’d strongly advise you to get some cash together. If you have a year’s living expenses covered, do you really need quite so much insurance?

It’s OK for you Andy – you’re obviously quite confident and outgoing, but I could never be an entrepreneur. I don’t like the thought of selling myself. 

OK, here’s some tough love.

In order for you to provide value, somebody is going to have to sell whatever it is that you produce. If you work for somebody else, you might get to hide behind a sales team.

Unfortunately, if you’re not willing to learn how to do this yourself to some degree, then it’s very likely you’ll need to continue to be a cog in somebody else’s machine and that probably means having a 9-5 (or at least being an agency contractor).

You choose: which is most important to you? Do you value being able to hide from ever having to close a sale yourself more than the freedom that acquiring skills in sales can afford you?

If you really can’t see this ever working for you but you’re on board with living on less, check out Mr Money Mustache’s blog for an approach to breaking free which might be more suitable for you.

Wrapping up

I hope that this article has been of some use to you and, as always I’d urge you to do your own research and calculations. Remember that I am not a financial or tax adviser and I’m merely attempting to offer the benefit of my experience. If you’re unsure about any technical/legal details, please seek professional advice.

On the other hand, if you’d like some one-to-one help with implementing this strategy, click here now to get in touch.

I’d love to hear what you think about my strategy for working 33% of full-time in the comments. Are you doing something similar? Is there anything I missed out here that you’d like me to write about in the future?


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at]