Ashley Parsons is a self-proclaimed “lazy freelancer.” Not in regards to the work she does, but in how much she chooses to work. She almost never works more than 3 days a week. During those other two days of the “work week,” she’s usually adventuring outside, exploring a new area, or working on her own travel project, En Selle.
Ashley is originally from the US, but now lives with her partner near Chamonix in the French Alps. When speaking with Ashley about her freelancing, her golden rule seemed to be boundaries – with her clients, values, work ethic, and income. In this candid interview, Ashley shares how she got into journalism and freelancing through her own adventures and offers advice for freelancing as an American living abroad and working in a way that matches your values.
Year started freelancing full-time: 2019
Age when started freelancing full-time: 27
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?
It’s usually related to whatever their subject already is.
So if I’m speaking to someone in the outdoor space, I’m like, “Hi, I’m Ashley. I’m toxically curious and I’ve written for Earth Island Journal, Atlas Obscura, and Fodor’s Travel and I cover travel adventure with a human and low carbon angle.”
If I’m talking to somebody in the environmental sphere, I twist it and say, “I know how to make carbon credits digestible for a regular audience.”
Especially in the environmental and climate change sphere, I really sell myself as being able to make it digestible. In French, they say “vulgarize it”, so you just make it something that anybody can understand, like explain it to a three year old. I have a really hard time separating the outdoor sphere and the environmental sphere, which I think is a good thing.
What did you do before freelancing?
Before freelancing, I did a master’s in Paris for sustainable development. Then I taught in a university for a year.
Then I worked for a startup in Paris for a year and a half in the equestrian zone. Some of my adventures are in the equestrian sphere so it matches. There, I learned I don’t really love the startup culture, so with my partner, we saved money for about six to seven months, then left on our bicycles towards Bali.
How did you get into freelancing
I think I became a journalist because I just wanted an excuse to ask people questions about everything.
When my partner and I left on our bicycles for Bali, we learned really quickly that we’re both types of people who if we don’t have a project that’s mentally challenging, we’re really bored. So even though we were cycling 50 to 70 kilometers a day, we were like, we need to do something else.
So wherever we went, we started trying to learn about that region’s identity, especially in the outdoors or the food sphere, or whatever was the interesting thing there. A lot of times it was related to the outdoors, because that’s what we were moving in. We weren’t visiting museums, we were camping every night.
That’s how I started doing journalism — fumbling along, stumbling into really interesting subjects and being like, we have to tell someone about this. Sometimes that was really outdoor based. One of the first articles we did was about our first 2000 kilometers bikepacking, we gave our 10 tips.
Then one of the first environmental articles I did was for Earth Island Journal about illegal hydropower development in the Balkans. It really was whatever we stumbled across that was interesting and relevant.
Did you do any preparation before starting to freelance?
In terms of freelancing, no preparation.
I’d been pitching journalism articles for two or three months when I first set up an Excel to track my pitches. I made a clips page where I could just throw my clips in at the end of 2020, but I didn’t really use it and my website went live last December.
But since I’ve started, I’ve learned so much from different freelancing communities.
Are there specific groups you’d recommend someone join?
Absolutely. All of the binders groups on Facebook. There’s outdoor binders, travel binders, non-racist Travel binders, European binders… The binders are amazing, I’ve learned so much from them.
Those are the Facebook ones I really like. There’s also one called Freelancing Females. It’s a little bit more open to many subjects, not just writers. Sometimes you have visual artists and stuff like that. Which is also helpful, because you know better what web of support exists out there.
Then there’s the slack group, Society of Freelance Journalists.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started freelancing?
I think there’s just been things that have required patience. There hasn’t really been anything where I’ve been like, I have to quit this, because since I quit going to an office, I’ve been like, well, that’s done. I’m not doing that again.
So there’s never been a challenge where it’s made me question like, “should I go work in a bookstore?”
Putting together my website was kind of a pain, because I’m not very visual. I guess putting together the systems that you use on a daily basis, like the templates you’re always going to use, was kind of a pain as well, because I’m not very good at organizing things.
Hot tip, now that I’ve sucked up and bought it, I think the notion app is super super useful and I’d recommend getting their Freelance Pack. It’s $49 and it comes with all the templates.
How did you get clients when you first started?
My first client back in 2016 and they’re still my client, because I love them and they’re nice to me. And they sometimes let me work three or four months in advance, and then I just disappear for four months, but they still pay me every month, that’s cool.
That one I got because someone reached out to me because they had too much work and they knew I was in the equestrian sphere and that I spoke French.
And then the clients that I have now, my recurring clients, I think I saw a post from them in Slack and was like, oh, that’s for me. So I send them an email, like Hi, I’m your person. That’s how that happened.
I have a lot of referrals.
I also use a website in France called malt. Basically it’s like Upwork, but the clients contact you. It doesn’t happen every day, but I probably get one person contacting me every week and I’ve done a couple projects from there. It’s by day rate, so you can kind of see what your max day rate might be.
How did you get referrals?
My adventure account has kind of a nice community for that. One journalist who interviewed us after our horse trek in Kyrgyzstan was like, Hey, I sometimes have too much stuff, and I think you do some freelancing, can I send you some stuff?
My freelance mentor has sent me some stuff.
One of the big projects I’m working on right now, it’s actually a friend of my partner from university. They needed someone who could explain carbon credits to a two year old and who spoke native English and was bilingual. So I think I was the only person they knew.
One thing I also recommend is a website called Catchafire that connects people who want to donate their freelance work with nonprofits. People I’ve worked with on that platform have sent me referrals a few times and I’ve done a short paid project from one.
During COVID I decided I would start donating 20% of my working time to nonprofits, so I created a profile on that platform and I did two projects there. Any kind of freelancer could offer their services.
It’s a cool way to feel good and develop your portfolio. And they did this really fun thing, every time you do a project, they show you how much you saved the company. So then you’re like I donated $6,000 worth of work! To be fair, nobody gets paid that much, but it’s still exciting. And from those I’ve gotten a couple referrals.
What do you usually put down as a day rate and how do you calculate that?
I kind of base it off of what I’m willing to sell my day for.
There’s a lot of passion in freelancing, but at the end of the day, you’re selling your time and your expertise. So what am I willing to sell my day for? How much am I going to have to use my brain? How much is it going to challenge me?
So my rates start, I think my nonprofit rate is €400 a day and my B2B finance rate is like €700 a day.
I’ll also do a monthly discount. I do a 14-15% monthly discount if you book more than five or six days. But to be fair, when I work with this one think tank, it’s not really based on this day rate because they were like, you can work with us for as long as you want forever. And I’m like, okay, that’s fine.
But especially with one off projects, my day rate normally can be around €500. And depending on how complicated the assignment is, for example, a long format blog I can do in about a half day so it comes out to about €250 a blog. That’s before my taxes.
I know in the US people like to do it by project because they might say this copy is gonna bring you X amount of revenue, so I’m going based off of the value of my expertise and my time. But I like not breaking my brain to try to figure out how much the copy is going to bring them. I understand it, but I’m not ready to use that much brainpower to try to figure it out. I’m happy with what I’m making.
You’re an American living in France, how do you manage your business with finances and taxes?
In the beginning the French system was kind of slow. I sent them a request for a tax number like six times. It was fine, I just had to pay backdate so it was not cool at the time.
But once I got my business and my tax number here set up, I became what’s called an independent, which I like that word better than freelance. Freelance, there’s something I don’t like about free, I’m the opposite of free. I’m selling you my day.
Basically I’m taxed in France. I live in France, I’m taxed in France, I was not so concerned about the fact that I’m taxed in the US because I don’t live there, so if there’s a problem, I’ll catch up with it at some point, but there’s not the urgency. The urgency was to organize my French taxes. That wasn’t very difficult because they’re totally online for taxes.
So I organize my French taxes. And then if you’re an American citizen, or American passport holder and you live abroad, you’re still required to report your income in the US if you make more than $12,000 or if you have student loans, which I do. But there’s a certain amount you don’t have to pay taxes on ($112,000) if you’re paying taxes on it to another country that’s part of the foreign earned income exclusion treaty.
So I do my taxes here and then I use a service called Brass Taxes for US filing. The first few years I tried using TurboTax, but it’s not at all adapted for anyone living abroad. Basically, if you have more than $10,000 in a non US bank account, TurboTax is like we can’t do it or you have to pay extra. But Brass Taxes is super helpful and easy. It’s already a tax service designed for freelancers, and they’re used to working with freelancers abroad. Plus, you get a one hour phone call, so you can ask them questions. I totally recommend it.
This year with my income taxes. They saw I was in Kyrgyzstan for six months for work and told me I could subtract a per diem, which in Kyrgyzstan was €50 a day. I didn’t spend that much a day so I was like let’s take out $3 a day. Finally, the taxes that I reported was like, nothing because we took out six months of living in Kyrgyzstan.
Everybody kind of wants that accountant that gets you the best deal, and they do.
How did you get a visa to be able to live in France?
My first visa was a student visa. I had two of those. Then I had two work visas. Then we started calculating taxes and my passage to a passport. And I’ve been with my partner for five years, so at that point we were like, maybe we should get PACS, which is this civil union that’s recognized in France. So I get a visa, but it’s not recognized in the US. We’re not married and he doesn’t have to report taxes with me.
What do you do about retirement funding in a different country?
For retirement, what I am doing is working on setting up a company with my partner and his family to invest in some small apartments, but that hasn’t happened yet. We’re in the visiting stage, so hopefully between now and September, we’ll get our first one.
So like I mentioned earlier, my average day rate is around €500 euros. Out of that €500 already comes 22% tax. And then I’m supposed to put away for unemployment and retirement. So even if you’re pulling in five or six grand net per month, what you have afterwards, if you’re effectively putting away for retirement is not great.
Also in France, they’re talking about pushing retirement back to 65. I already don’t wanna work more than three days a week, so I don’t wanna work till I’m 65, clearly. So I’m kind of trying to plan the retirement myself, basically. I’m not in any kind of US retirement scheme. I do have a US trading account, so every month I invest in that and I just hope that the financial system doesn’t explode.
Do you work with clients with different currencies and how do you manage that?
Yes, I work with Euro, Pounds, dollars, mostly. I don’t do anything special.
I either use PayPal or Wise or if they’re in Europe, I just give them my IBAN. If they’re in the US, and they don’t understand how to send me money abroad, then I let them send it to my US account.
Have you ever had any issues with magazines or other companies from you living abroad?
Normally the ones that are kind of iffy about paying an account abroad are small copywriting clients, especially if it’s a smaller company or an independent company. In terms of journalism, most companies are used to it. If it’s a small artsy magazine, they just use PayPal and that’s fine.
How did you start writing for the different outdoor and travel publications you write for like Atlas Obscura and Earth Island Journal?
I just pitched them. I followed a typical journalism pitch. So you need a proposed title like a sexy two-sentence thing, and then a why it’s important.
Also, if you’re pitching to somewhere like Atlas Obscura or Earth Island journal and the story is fully reported and not about your adventures, you need to give them a list of who you’ll probably interview.
For Whetstone, for example, I did an article about burek, so I obviously was not in the story at all. I gave them a couple of the books that I’d be citing in terms of research. You kind of just give them a layout of what you’re going to write about. Then it’s up to them to say how long they want it, if they like that angle, or if they want a slightly different angle.
How do you manage to stay inspired and come up with those story ideas?
I only work three days a week.
I really think that it’s important for me to not be glued to my computer. To go outside and wherever I’m living, I go talk to people all the time. I’m just curious. When I go to a new place, when I arrive somewhere new, I want to know, what are the weird dishes that people eat at home but not in restaurants? Or what are some cool festivals or traditions or what’s something somebody’s making.
That’s how I stay inspired in my life. And then when I stumble upon a story or a subject that I think is important, it could be something cultural or food or outdoor, it could be environmental, I just ask more questions. And usually a story will pop up or I’ll be like, oh, who else could I ask about this? Journalism is really just a product of me being very curious.
How do you manage to work just three days a week?
By hour tracking.
I just turn off my phone the other two days. I just don’t answer anything. It really is about boundary setting. So for those three days, sometimes I’ll do a 10 hour day. Especially if I really don’t want to be weighed down by the thing the other two days.
It really is about boundary setting and saying no when you don’t have that bandwidth and that’s really really hard because you’re like somebody is willing to pay you €500 a day, but you want to go outside.
It’s also a mental shift, saying, I know how much I need every month to live, to enjoy myself and to save money. After that, I need to say no. And it’s really hard. Especially as Americans, we’re conditioned to hustle. And I don’t want to hustle.
I think a lot of people maybe discovered during COVID that it’s really fun to hang out in your garden, go outside, and chat with your neighbors. I really believe that Americans don’t have time to even be involved in politics, more than posting stuff on Instagram, because they’re so stressed out working. Like, no. You need time to be part of civic society. You need time to be part of your community. We all want to have a community, but if you go outside, and you see, I don’t know a neighbor stacking wood, I guess our generation, our first thought is not to go help them stack wood. And why is that not our first thought? If you go to countries where people are not working or they’re working to survive because they’re subsistence farmers, they can go help the neighbor and then sit around have a cup of tea and there’s not this stress of being like, “I have to go. I’m too stressed. I have to go buy duct tape.”
Like, I am not someone who will take my car to the store just to buy tape. So it’s also a mental shift. And I realize that I’m really privileged to be able to have that. I spent six weeks in the US last year and I was like, Wow, you guys are stressed.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
No. I’ve dealt with accepting too many projects and I’ve dealt with learning curves when starting a new freelance role. But I try to be compassionate with myself especially when it comes to learning. Like I know I’m smart. I know I can make things understandable for people.
What’s hard for me sometimes is maybe not feeling like I shouldn’t be there, but feeling like “okay, give yourself time to grasp it, to understand, slow down, breathe.” So that compassion and patience for yourself is important.
How much did you make in your first full year freelancing full-time as your primary source of income?
I really have no idea because my partner and I split our adventure income… Less than €15,000 probably. But knowing that for six months out of that year, I was camping in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and I spent like €30 a week. I think if I needed more money I could earn more money, but I don’t need it.
Approximately, how much would you say you make annually now?
This year I am trying to not make more than €35,000 because then I have to change my tax status. So I’m capping myself and I’m kind of getting nervous. I think we’re gonna have to leave to go travel in September, otherwise I’m going to make €35,000 so I’m gonna have to stop working in September. Boundaries.
I mean, there’s definitely sacrifices that you make. I wouldn’t be living this lifestyle if I lived in California. But I do live in an expensive part of France. I live 20 minutes from Chamonix, Geneva is an hour away. So it’s not cheap where I live, but I cook my dinner, I don’t go out to eat every night.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?
Don’t compromise your values. Really think about your values before you get into it, and then stick to them.
Like, for me, even with our adventure brand, I’m really picky about the companies we do influencer deals with. I mean, every influencer is like, I want to sell a product that I believe in, okay, obviously, but also you’re in a position where you can change things, and you can change who gets to see the product. As a copywriter, when I work with brands, I’m giving them more visibility. So if I don’t believe they deserve that visibility, I’m not going to give it to them. Maybe someone else will, but if it doesn’t align with my values, I won’t.
Want to see more of Ashley Parson’s work?
Read some of Ashley’s work:
- Commission’s Pesticide Proposals – what’s in them? Arc2020
- Tracking Turkey’s Wild Horses Atlas Obscura
- A Case For Cross-Generational Climate Action The Trouble