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If you want to learn how to survive the gig economy, ask a woman

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Computer worker surrounded by hands with demands

Seems to me that historically, women have always lived with the idea of precarious work, and specifically the gig economy. Traditionally, we were eligible for only a few occupations, and paid two-thirds of mens' wages. Until the 1950s, employers dismissed us as soon as we got married -- until the 90s, as soon as we were visibly pregnant.  

So women learned to create our own jobs, from taking in laundry to selling our weaving. We set up roadside stands for extra apples and garden produce, or we took it to market and sold it there. We developed saleable skills, like sewing, singing, healing or baking. Barred from full-time employment, we learned to live from job to job, from one fee or one week’s profit to the next -- habits passed on from generation to generation, like recipes.

Of course, the main reason we could manage the gap between jobs is that somebody else was supposed to be the breadwinner.  In theory, although not always in practice, the trade-off for legal dependence was that marriage gave women a cushion against outside employers' whims -- not something most workers can take for granted these days.  

What a myth! Many women managed the family's finances or else negotiated stable and generous terms with their partners. Others had to conceal every cent they earned, and answer for every cent they spent.

Too many women discovered that financial dependence meant that, at best, somebody else held a veto over their spending. At worst, they could be left penniless as well as bereft. That's one of the reasons most women are earning our own money now.

On the other hand, women also learned some useful habits, from enterprising to thrifty, that might be worth sharing with a new generation who grew up expecting (promised!) economic stability and instead found themselves smack in the middle of the digital revolution.

Just as most financial advice never really fit women, neither does it really fit trapeze workers who fly from gig to gig.  Freelancers don't have a bookkeeping department to transfer a regular percentage to our savings account. Self-employed folks can't count on company benefits or pensions. We need to weave our own safety nets.

So here are some homespun observations from a person who arrived in Canada with $100 and a trunk of household supplies, and spent decades creating a web of personal supports.  I'm offering some tips that worked for me, although times may have been different when I was starting out. 

Of course, loving family and partner relations top anyone's list of assets, along with finding community support. Friends will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no friends.

My main tip is to be prepared for setbacks and to have back-up plans as insurance.  This worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

1) I put all my work agreements into writing. My first few assignments were handshake agreements. Then I ended up re-writing one article three times -- a month's work -- and still never got paid. After that, I drew up a simple form with spaces to describe exactly the work I would do, the due date, the payment and when it was due. Talking through those requirements at the beginning, saves everybody from misunderstandings at the end of the project.

2) I lived on 90 per cent of what I made. For the first 20 years, I put 10 per cent of every single cheque into a separate savings account, even if it was only $10 or $1. Then, when a magazine dawdled in paying my invoice, I could pay the rent or the credit card bill from my savings, and replace those funds as soon as I received the cheque I’d been counting on. This takes discipline, I know, but it prevented crises at least once or twice a year.

Gig workers are often stalled or stiffed for payment -- or worse, offered partial payment instead of the full amount. FWIW, I found that having a cushion put me in a much more secure negotiating position when the client offered to pay immediately if I'd accept a smaller amount.

2) I paid my credit card balance in full each month. That way, I could use the bank's money for most of the month, free of charge, while I waited for the damn cheque to arrive -- er, while I used my cash on hand for immediate needs, like food. Some of my friends used their coin jars as back-up, or credit at the local convenience store.  

[I realize the suggestion to clear the credit card balance every month comes too late for many readers. Another idea to consider is the Snowball method of paying as much as possible on the smallest debt while paying minimums on the biggest, building up monthly payments to bury the biggest debt in concentrated savings.]

3) I’ve always found cooking from scratch to be more affordable and nutritious than eating prepared foods. Some supermarket deli counter meals will do in a pinch, or canned soups, but most prepared foods are geared to shelf life, not nutrition.

Cooking is easy, fun, and good for you. Cooking videos are abundant online; sites like Epicurious and Kraft have recipes for every taste. The key to good health is to remember that the more colours you have on your plate, the more nutritious your meal is.

4) I learned to look at value, not price. Since I was paid in lump sums, often that was the most efficient way to spend, too. Larger packages are usually cheaper per unit than smaller sizes.

When the cheque came in, I'd stock up on bulk stationery supplies and food staples. I celebrated by splashing out, but mainly on stuff I really used. Still, even the dog did a little dance when I came home with a big bag of kibble.   

5) I kept wish lists and tracked the costs of the things I wanted. This helped me recognize opportunities, both in my career, and also as a consumer.  Every time I got a big lump sum, I looked over my wish list for an affordable item.

I bought the netbook I wanted at the price I wanted because I had a wish list and waited until the right sale came along. I got the grant I wanted because I had a project outline already in hand when the advertisement crossed my email.      

6)  I paid my health care premiums promptly and went to the doctor when I was sick or hurt. Some provinces offer income-based premium assistance. Most also have an appeal process for emergency costs incurred without coverage. 

There’s a saying that everything we own is a zero, and we could have a hundred zeros that would still mean nothing, unless we also have our health, which is the number One that we put in front of all the rest. I treat my body with the same care as my computer or phone.

7) Whenever feasible, I bought second-hand goods instead of new. Not only is this approach environmentally friendly, but often used goods are higher quality than new “fashion” products in the stores. Similarly, I donate or sell useful stuff I don't need, instead of throwing it away.

8) There’s one thing I wonder if I should have done differently. At tax time, I and everyone who ever helped me prepare tax returns, tried to minimize the big annual lump sum payment on self-employed earnings, including Canada Pension Plan payments.

Now that I’m eligible for pensions, CPP says I’ll receive a whopping $150 a month, in addition to the $573 OAS. In the early years, I did put money into an RRSP instead, which in mid-life turned out to be very useful for a down payment on a house. In retrospect, I think maybe larger CPP contributions would have been smart.   

Finally, many times, I relied on friends. As the economy fractures around us, kinship and affinity networks will become more and more important. We may end up back in a barter economy for a while, where a song or a fresh-baked loaf will matter more than a coin or a bank note.  

The “gig economy” is the ultimate result of toxic deregulation and union-busting. Cleaning up this mess requires us to build strong and diverse co-operatives, collectives, co-housing and other mutual support organizations. For me, volunteering to improve working conditions for everyone has always been part of working for myself.

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