Nine tips to survive as a freelancer in Germany
Published on: 17 Feb 2014 13:38 CET
Doing the actual paid work for a client is only half of it. A freelancer must also juggle being their own (unpaid) sales person, accountant, secretary, self-motivator - and avoid going crazy.
But with a bit of planning, freelancing need not be the rollercoaster many fear when leaving the safety of the office to strike out on their own. Follow our tips and avoid nasty surprises:
Make a list of all the fixed outgoings you have to cover every month - rent, bills, health insurance payments, and work out how much you have to earn to live comfortably.
You can split this up into a weekly or daily budget so that you know you're staying on track. Remember that different employers may pay at different times of the month or on different timescales (monthly, bimonthly, weekly) so allow for plenty of time between invoicing someone and getting the money in your account.
2. Get above board
Registering with the German tax office is an important first step. This will allow you to get an official Steuernummer (tax number). German employers will expect you to quote this when you invoice them to prove you are above board and you will need it for your tax return.
Fill in a form at your local branch of the tax office, Finanzamt, and you'll be sent your tax number in the post within a few weeks.
Beware: the form to register as a freelancer or self-employed is in notoriously complicated, official German. If you don't know whether your language skills are up to it, take the form home and have a native speaker go through the questions with you.
3. Know the lingo
Get to know the difference between Gewerbetreibenden (tradesman) and Freiberuflich (freelancer) as you will need to register as one or the other.
As a general rule, self-employed people offering a service (teachers, writers, scientists, accountants etc) are considered freelancers, while all those offering a product are tradesmen.
If you're unsure which you are, ask at the tax office. This distinction becomes important when charging VAT and getting health insurance.
4. Keep a buffer
Once you've submitted one tax return (due in May of the year after you register as self-employed) you'll have an idea of roughly how much you earn in a year and what your income tax will be.
You can arrange to have this taken out of your bank account by direct debit every quarter - but take care to note these dates or you'll get a shock when it disappears from your bank balance.
To be on the safe side, the best thing to do is to always keep a buffer of at least €1,000 in a separate account to act as savings and tide you over for anything unexpected: hidden costs, illness, family crisis or quiet periods if work suddenly drops off.
5. Get connected
While it might be difficult to drag yourself out to socialize in the evening after a day of work, you should never underestimate the power of networking.
Meeting new people and building up a network of contacts is the key to finding new job opportunities. What goes around comes around, so remember to help your contacts out wherever you can. Do them a favour and you can ask one back in future. If you have too much work, pass some on. One day they will do the same for you.
6. Leave the house occasionally
Weigh up whether it would be worth your while to rent a desk in a co-working office space. While a lot of freelancers will see this as an unnecessary expense, it can be psychologically very important to get out of the house and have daily contact with other human beings.
If you don't want to pay what could amount to the equivalent of your rent every month for a space to work, but are going stir-crazy at home, then gather some fellow freelancers and set up camp altogether in a café with free Wi-Fi. Just remember to order a drink once in a while.
If you need peace and quiet to work but want a cheaper option than renting office space, consider joining your local library. It might not be quite as cool as inhabiting a co-working space, but with typical library membership fees of around €20 a year it could save you a load of your hard-earned cash.
7. Stay healthy, get insured
Self-employed people are legally required to sort out their own health insurance.
If you live and work in Germany for any length of time without insurance you run the risk of facing a hefty fine, or worse, an astronomical medical bill if you have an accident or need help in an emergency.
Artists, musicians, teachers and writers etc (all those considered freelancers) can apply to join the state-funded Künstlersozialkasse (KSK) which will act as an employer and top up your insurance and pension payments, reducing the amount you pay every month, which is based on your income.
All other self-employed people must fend for themselves. Many choose to go for a private health insurer. Remember, if you get sick and can't work it means you won't get paid, so try your best to stay healthy.
8. Hoard paper for the taxman
Taxes can be a nightmare for freelancers. From the very start you must save and file all your receipts, statements and invoices in a sensible way - otherwise it will get messy when you come to tell the authorities about your earnings in a tax return.
Well before it comes to tax return time (the deadline is May for the previous year's return), you should start thinking about getting your documents together.
For the return itself it's wise to employ a tax adviser. This might seem expensive at first but getting your return done professionally may end up saving you a lot of time and money in the long run.
Throughout the year, hoard up any receipts you may get for business-related items, from phone bills to business lunches and train tickets. As a freelancer many outgoings are considered business expenses and if correctly documented can be deducted from your taxable profit.
9. Get your taxes straight
As soon as you start earning over €17,500 a year you must start charging your employers Umsatzsteuer/Mehrwertsteuer or sales tax, on your invoices, put it aside and pay it to the tax authorities.
The amount of tax you charge also depends on the work you are doing. In general, those earning over the threshold must charge employers another 19 percent on top of their fee.
But there are exceptions. If your work is published, for example, you can charge the reduced amount of seven percent sales tax.