Financial Transparency: 2021 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make!

Why? Well, I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. And if you’re interested in more stuff like this, check out the results of the 2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey.

My business income comes from a few different sources:

Freelance Cartography:

I mostly make my living by doing freelance mapping for clients. This number, like others here, represents my gross earnings, before taking out business expenses, etc.

Other Freelancing:

I also earn money from some other non-mapping freelance work. This year I did a lot of freelance GIS that I’m counting here (rather than as “cartography”). I also got a $5,000 coronavirus relief grant that’s counted here.


I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, livestreams, Project Linework, and other resources that people draw value from.


Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up for sale in case anyone wants to buy them. This year’s value is super-high because I ran a Kickstarter to print up Landforms of Michigan.


My expenses includes things like software, utilities, shipping, cyanotype materials, the fees I pay to receive donations, etc. It also includes the cost of producing prints: for example, I raised nearly $6000 in my Kickstarter, but most of that money went into paying to have the posters printed and shipped. Cartography doesn’t have a huge overhead, but there is definitely some cost to doing business.

The Summary

So, that works out to a net business income of $93,703.55 (which is a little different than a salary — see below). My pre-expense gross business income was $105,909.9. Here’s how that compares to the last several years:

My Income is not a Salary

If you’re only familiar with earning money as a salaried employee, my income might seem higher than it really feels. After business expenses, I earned roughly $94,000 in self-employment income. For my personal tax situation (single, living in WI), my take-home pay would have been similar if I had worked a salaried job (with benefits) that earned about $74,000. Actually probably less, because I didn’t count the fact that I don’t get any vacation or other paid time off.

This difference is because self-employed people in the United States pay a much higher tax rate, and have to cover their own health insurance, as well as retirement savings contributions.

Concluding Thoughts

This was an unusually good year, though primarily due to non-cartography work, as I’ve been doing a lot of freelance GIS work for a particular client. That will end at some point. I’ve stored away a lot of that income as a safety net for the next lean year (you can see that some past years I’ve earned much, much less). There’s no real guarantee about my income from one year to the next.

As mentioned above, I earn income from prints of my work. Most of the things in my storefront have never sold more than a few copies. Historically, it’s pretty much all income from River Transit maps. But, it doesn’t cost me anything to offer things for sale, so if I can earn $10 from one of the less popular items every once in a while, I might as well take it. I want to do a survey at some point to look at print sales of map posters. I suspect that lots of us have designs that get a lot of social media attention, but not a lot of actual sales, so that we each look like selling much more than we really are.

I greatly appreciate the kindness people have shown me over the years through donating to support the unpaid parts of my work. It’s becoming an increasing fraction of my overall income. If you’d like to add your own support, here are some handy buttons:

Finally, I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

5 thoughts on “Financial Transparency: 2021 Edition

  1. Thanks for keeping the tradition going Daniel! Looks like we both had our best year ever. I can’t really break my income down between cartography and GIS since for most projects they’re intertwined, but here’s my breakdown for 2021 as a comparison.

    Gross Income: $74,310
    ($140 of that is print sales)
    Subcontracted Labor Expense: -$3,617
    Other Expenses: -$8,833
    SEP-IRA Contributions: -$10,000
    Self Employment Tax: -$8,695
    Net Income: $43,165

    Keep up the good work!

    • Congratulations, and thanks for sharing once again! You’re definitely putting away more for retirement than I am — I made a $6000 Roth IRA contribution, but I have been tardy (by several years) in setting up anything that can take more than that. But on the plus side, I bought a condo, so I’ve now escaped the financial quicksand of renting.

  2. Another thanks for keeping this going Dan. I’m a salary man so there’s no means to compare our relative efforts for attention devoted to carto vs gis vs code vs … However to contribute _something_ to the annual conversation. My 2021 gross income was $78.,700 and net of $56,300, CAD.

    • I just have a sole proprietorship at present. I did at one point look into an LLC, but it sounded like it might not be worth the hassle for me. It didn’t seem to carry any tax advantages (I think they did a few years ago, but recent changes have meant those advantages are now available to sole proprietors, too), and I don’t really have a lot of liability exposure, so for now I’ve kept it simple.

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