Ten things I wish I’d known when I started …

When I started as a freelancer in Belgium (all those years ago), life would have been so much easier if I’d had the following (mostly financial) information at my fingertips. So, hopefully these ten tips while save you a lot of heartache when you start out:

  1. You absolutely MUST find yourself a good accountant. He/she can make the difference between financial success or failure. Find one that you can not only communicate with, but who can also get on with your taxation authority in their native language. Taxation for freelancers often seems so arbitrary (accountants here will tell you this), that this is essential. I was on my 3rd accountant before I stabilised my financial affairs.
  2. Social security contributions are finally assessed three years after you commence your work or employment. For freelancers and one-man companies, this means that you can pay the minimum contribution for three years. Do NOT do this! Make sure that you pay the full rate if at all possible. Otherwise, at the three-year point you’ll become liable for the total balance of your contribution related to actual salary, backdated over those three years. Payable immediately!
  3. Get into the habit of asking for receipts for everything, and keep them! We work in a high-contribution system, so every means of offsetting your contribution should be exploited. So keep those bits of paper – your accountant will sort out what is allowable and what is not.
  4. Tax in Belgium is high-contribution environment. You pay a lot, but you can benefit a lot. Families with children can benefit from generous child allowances for up to four kids.
  5. You protect your health by contributing (it’s compulsory) to an insurance scheme (via a ‘mutuel’). Varying levels of illness protection are available, with corresponding premiums. Freelancers and owners of one-man companies pay higher contributions.
  6. Related to the above, if you want to set up as a freelancer or as a company, consider where you want to set up. In the beginning, it is often easier to set up in your country of origin, since you will understand the tax system. In the longer term of course, if you stay you’ll want to establish your business here. You will need a good accountant / financial adviser, one who understands your home taxation environment as well as the Belgian one. But get lots of advice.
  7. Contacts are everything. Networking is everything. Your day-to-day meetings, telephone calls, involvement in professional societies or leisure clubs are how you find work. You have to get your face out and about. Grapevine is pretty useful here too!
  8. If you want to stay freelance, do not be tempted into working 100% for one client. You will lose your other clients, and when the job is finished you might as well go off on a pilgrimage…
  9. If you think you might stay and are considering buying property, think about the following. Buying costs are up to 16-17%, including the various fees. Values appreciate slowly, so you have to think on a scale of 5-10 years to get a return on your costs. You can get a lot of space for your money, which also means higher heating costs and higher maintenance costs. Essential – get a full survey done, especially for older houses or flats. Finding out later that you have dry rot can be expensive.
  10. Join the NUJ. You’ll learn a lot from the old-stagers. And all for only the cost of a couple of beers!

© Philip Hunt, NUJ Brussels, 2005

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