Thoughts on 6-Figure Freelancers, Living a Decent Life, and Status Signaling

11 min. read
April 26, 2024

Recently, I’ve noticed some freelancers knocking other freelancers for caring about making six figures—or rather, for talking about it publicly. I want to dissect this phenomenon.

Here’s an example of the type of post I’m talking about:

Nobody cares meme

For starters, let’s consider the first line.

“People that really care about being a 6-figure freelancer”

Maybe we could eventually find a handful of folks who want the title or distinction of “being a 6-figure freelancer,” presumably so that they could strut around like male peacocks in iridescent plumage and impress the rest of us? I mean, maybe a select few care about having this particular plume in their caps?

However, my conversations with hundreds of freelancers over the last fifteen years have turned up no evidence to suggest that this group of people exists.

What many freelancers and consultants do care about is making more money, or more accurately, about what more money means for their lives and families.

And for any of us to set our more money sights on that 6-figure target itself isn’t as arbitrary as you might think.

From 2008 to 2009, Drs. Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman analyzed 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (GHWBI). Their study came out of Princeton in August 2010, and one thing they noticed was that respondents with less than $75,000 in annual household income scored themselves lower on both life evaluation and emotional well-being.

Fourteen years later, if you adjust $75,000 for inflation, what do you get? $107,300.

Living a Decent Life

Though Deaton and Kahneman weren’t exactly sure why that number was so significant, Deaton speculated that “Not having enough money to live a decent life really gets in the way of doing the ordinary things that make people happy.”

The majority of freelancers won’t have read the study, yet we all understand financial constraints intuitively because we bump into them daily.

Imagine that you’re standing in the smallest circle inside a bunch of concentric circles. That circle is your budget, and each of the numbers in the bigger circles—an extra $10,000, $25,000, or $100,000 across a year—opens up possibilities. In this circle, you can’t afford weekly dance lessons. In the next circle, you can. In this one, you can’t tell your husband to quit the job he hates, have that medical procedure, or help your niece out with college tuition. In the circle right over there, you can.

So for many of us, “6-figure freelancer” comes to signify the extra income that, to use Deaton’s words, would enable us to live a more “decent life” populated with specific people, dreams, and freedoms. As I mentioned, it’s not about bragging rights.

Geography & Cost of Living

Let’s also set dreams aside and talk geography and cost of living for a moment. If you were born in or have moved to a developed country with a high cost of living, then there’s no getting around the need to earn more money. No matter where you live, you must care about earning a sustainable income, and such caring reveals pragmatism, not disordered priorities, an ego fixated on bragging rights, or a character defect.

The United States where I live doesn’t have universal health care. In 2023, healthcare spending was $12,555 per person, or 16.6% of GDP, numbers that are twice as high as other wealthy countries.

These are averages. Everybody’s numbers and situation are different. But still, if you take 16.6% as a rule of thumb, the difference between making $5,000 per month in the U.S. and $8,000+ per month (or, $100K per year) may be the difference between going to a doctor, or not.

I’m the primary breadwinner for my family of five, so I don’t just have my health to consider (or neglect).

The post in the screenshot above I don’t really take issue with. It’s meant to be funny, and who doesn’t love a good Friends meme?

We can all have a sense of humor while recognizing that some people want to make more money because living a decent life in many countries costs $100,000+ and they’re not ignorant of that reality.

Let’s move on to the second line.

“They’re usually the ones trying to sell you something.”

Of course they are. Every freelancer, from the 0-figure newbies to 6-figure peacocks, has something to sell. We’re all business owners, and staying in business requires turning a profit.

If you look closely at the meme, it’s not selling that the author of this post took issue with but selling courses related to becoming a 6-figure freelancer. My friend Melanie Padgett Powers made two important points along these lines: “Some freelancers shouldn't be selling courses" and "There's a lot of BS out there.”

True, and Melanie would agree that abusus non tollit usum. Abuse doesn’t negate proper use.

So where does that leave experienced freelancers who have achieved financial stability, maybe even affluence, on this path and have something to say on the matter? Should they just give away all their advice for free? Or should they wade into the morass of bad advice and build a tower with a light people can see from a distance?

I can make the case that those of us with a track record of profitable freelancing and a desire to pass on what we’ve learned have a moral imperative to make ourselves easy to find.

There are a lot of quacks out there, and it’s never been easier to call yourself an expert, guru, or, gasp, 6-figure freelancer with no evidence to back up the claim.

What if you have real expertise to share?

The challenge, of course, is that some freelancers won’t have enough experience of their own to recognize the quacks for what they are. Some may fall for a pitch and waste money on a course or product that an experienced freelancer would quickly dismiss as mediocre.

This happens, and is the best way for expert freelancers to care for their inexpert peers to never talk about numbers? Does silence or reticence about desirable achievements—annual revenue, project size, name-brand clients, lifestyle wins, et al—somehow serve the rubes?

Or is sharing numbers an effective way to get their attention and intercept them before they fall into the clutches of the quacks?

When I look back on the occasions when I’ve written candidly about numbers it was for one of two reasons: 1) those numbers work well as a hook, and/or 2) those numbers reinforce credibility.

If you want to accomplish a specific strength or health goal, it’s easy to walk into a gym and pick out the expert. Want to improve at bench press? Find the guy or gal with the most weight on the bar. Voila!

Separating the signal from the noise in creative entrepreneurship is more challenging:

  • Which freelancers are using numbers disingenuously to shill bad products and advice?
  • Which ones are genuine experts with hard-won wisdom, sturdy principles, and logical, provable frameworks to share?

Now that I’ve been in the game for fifteen years, I can quickly pick out the people who know their stuff. Numbers are one credibility-boosting signal I look for. Logic is probably a better one. Testimonials, case studies, and a deep knowledge of the audience’s problems, pain points, limiting beliefs, and common mistakes are most convincing of all.

That said, there’s simply no way to stop amateurs and bad actors from masquerading as experts in any industry, and the presence of bad actors should give conscientious experts a clear incentive to be vocal and to make themselves easy to find.

Before we move on to the last point, I must point out a choice piece of irony I already alluded to: hooks.

Caricatures do get attention.

One incredibly reliable and effective way to get attention online is to cites specific numbers. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see hooks and post templates using numbers:

  • “I made $47,316 in just 3 months as a freelance writer. Here’s how… .”
  • “She lost 42 pounds in 6 weeks following this simple (and delicious!) meal plan.”
  • “A digital agency got 11 new highly qualified leads in 5 days following this simple process.”

Want to know another equally effective way to get attention?

Reduce the opposing camp to a caricature, poke fun at it, and elicit strong emotion from both camps: those sympathetic to your point of view, and those being poked. (Often, it’s good entertainment, too. Ask comedians or ask Nick Huber about purple hair.)

Nick Huber tweet about purple hair

If some of the writers are sincere in their criticism, I can't help but wonder, if the title or distinction of “being a 6-figure freelancer” isn’t something many people care about, why go to the trouble of setting up a straw man fallacy? Because disparaging 6-figure freelancers gets attention, stirs up emotion and engagement, and thereby woos the algorithm.

If we sincerely care about protecting unsuspecting freelancers who are about to get fleeced, then we must ask ourselves, "Does this post truly serve my peers or am I contributing to the noise problem?"

What else might be going on here?

People are complex, freelancers included, and here are three things I’ve noticed in myself:

  1. Envy. Sometimes, other people have what we want: objects, relationships, freedoms, experiences, audiences, you name it. Sometimes, we haven’t even admitted that to ourselves. If we truly didn’t care, we’d let the “perpetrators” pursue what’s important to them and ignore them when they write about it, kind of like your gym rat friend whose feed has all the post-workout selfies. Ignore. Move on. It’s only when a hidden, unacknowledged part of us wants what that “clown” has that we feel the need to discredit their achievement, take them down a peg, and thereby feel better about ourselves.
  2. Bids for status. In “How to Get Rich” Naval Ravikant points out an interesting social dynamic we see all the time: “There’s always a subtle competition going on between status and wealth. For example, when journalists attack rich people or the tech industry, they’re really bidding for status. They’re saying, ‘No, the people are more important. And I, the journalist, represent the people, and therefore I am more important.’” Before you turn a group of people into caricatures, you should ask, “How do I benefit from this? What’s my motivation here? Is this really a justice issue? Can I really say I’m protecting someone? Or am I really making a bid for attention and status with the people who will agree with me?”
  3. Money hangups. I wrote an entire chapter on this subject in Free Money, and that wasn’t enough. When other people don’t have our same beliefs about or inhibitions with money, we feel confused. When they give themselves the freedom to talk openly about their finances, we feel threatened. Isn’t that… bad manners, tacky, faux pas? Like, how dare you charge a client more money just because you can?! We seek to resolve this cognitive dissonance by dismissing the person rather than reconsidering our own beliefs about money.

Closing Thoughts

This essay wasn’t about the person who wrote that LinkedIn post, or really even about the post itself. It was about you and about me. It’s about having the courage to go after what you want, no matter how you might be misunderstood or what people might say.

You’ll make mistakes, but that was always going to be true.

Take this as an opportunity to map your heart and understand the watchworks of motivation ticking away inside of it:

  • If you aren’t making six figures and truly don’t have to two craps to give about that, fantastic. Contentment is a rare orchid. Inhale its subtle perfume at every opportunity.
  • If you do care about making six figures because you want to tell people that you are, you might consider other, more lasting means of winning people’s admiration.
  • If you know you know your stuff and want other freelancers to avoid the mistakes that helped you learn that stuff, keep selling.
  • If you’re shilling cure-alls to unsuspecting freelancers, please stop.

And if you care about making more money because you’ve put dreams and want to unpause them, Paul Graham recommends that you listen to your discontentment: "If you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial."

There are better and worse ways to make six figures, just as there are better and worse ways to bench press 300 pounds. I discovered several of the worse ones by hurting myself, and I sincerely hope you’ll go with the $300K Flywheel growth strategy instead.

Guess what? It’s free. You don’t have to buy anything to read the entire piece.

Finally, if you think I’m a cold-blooded capitalist who’s clueless about what really matters, chalk it up to my being an American. Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole 6-figure freelancer debate I’ve followed was Melanie's observation that different cultural norms might be at play. For example, do Americans feel more comfortable talking openly about income and pricing than Brits?

Whatever money you make, wherever you are on your solopreneur journey, remember that “success” is a slippery thing. It’s a greasy knife. Be careful whom you listen to and whom you copy. You may succeed at getting their results, and only to get cut by their problems, too.

When you’re ready, here are ways I can help you:

  1. Free Money. A pricing and money mindset guide for freelance creatives. If you’re unsure about your freelance pricing, this is the book for you.
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make  6 figures as a freelancer.
  3. Custom Business Roadmap. Gain clarity, confidence, and momentum in your freelance or consulting business.
  4. Business Redesign. Raise your effective hourly rate, delegate with confidence, and free up 40 hours a month.
  5. Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (, a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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