Tools for making and saving money as a freelancer
By Chris Gillespie, writer and founder of Find A Way Media
What's your why?
Few people get into writing to make money. They do it for the expression, the joy, the challenge, the purpose, and the naked compulsion. I have never met a writer who announced plans to make their first million. Yet, such is our economy that make money they must.
I believe that if you're going to do it, don't dabble. Do it well and know your why.
My why is that I want to leave the world a better place to my children. I think I can do that more easily by accumulating wealth than not. When I write stories, accept projects, and bill clients, that motivates me to be more discerning. It's not for me, I tell myself. It's for someone else's future.
What motivates you? I think this question is integral to considering the mechanics of this process -- the accounting software, the billing practices, and the client outreach. The more these are tied to your goals, the more objective and effective you'll be at making and saving money.
I don’t claim to have anything figured out but, as of the time of writing, here is what I use. I'd love to hear about what you use at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The top 4 tools I use for making and saving money:
*The author has no affiliation with any of the following services aside from being a customer.
Making money - LinkedIn Sales Navigator
Upside: The most effective way I know to find new clients.
Downside: Costs money.
I don’t just pay $80 per month to LinkedIn – I pay $780 upfront for the entire year. That might sound excessive, but the returns are so high I’ve stopped even doing the math. In the past 18 months, every large client I’ve landed – save for two referrals – came from LinkedIn searches I couldn’t have performed with the free version.
Sales Navigator offers additional features that allow it to operate almost like CRM. I use it to search for prospects by granular segmentations like job title, interests, whether people switched companies, and whether they were mentioned in the news. I can save leads and notes on those leads to remind me why I thought they were worth reaching out to. I can create alerts for when leads I’m following change roles – a key indicator that they might need writing help. Finally, I can use the increased InMail allowance to start a conversation.
Want to learn more about sales? Read The Big Book of Freelance Sales Strategy.
LinkedIn Sales Navigator is great for finding clients.
Managing clients - Google Suite
Upside: It’s an all-in-one client communications tool.
Downside: Some formatting limitations.
Practically everything I do as a writer happens in Google Suite. Two of its services – Google Inbox email and Google Drive document management – account for two out of the three browser tabs I always have open. (The third is LinkedIn.) At $10 per month, it’s perhaps the highest return I get on anything I pay for.
I use Google Suite to:
Communicate with clients, including sharing and co-editing documents.
Communicate with freelancers.
Store almost all documents, from finished articles to invoices.
Keep a calendar.
And that’s not even the half of it. The Google team is always adding and improving features, and it has plenty of extra capabilities I’ve never even explored, like conference calling.
Google Suite is not without downsides. It’s a fast and efficient partly because it’s a stripped down version of Microsoft Office. In text documents, for example, you can’t create text columns (that I’m aware of), which forces me to create a table and then hide the lines by coloring them white. There are even more formatting limitations in the presentations tool, Google Slides. Whenever I create a slide deck, I start with feature-rich PowerPoint and then upload the file to Drive.
Google Suite is how I share my writing with clients.
Keeping track of taxes - Quickbooks Self-Employed
Upside: A simple way to categorize your income and expenses, file taxes, and invoice customers.
Downside: Limited reporting, estimated taxes are close but wrong, and your data is stuck there.
For me, Quickbooks is like having a bookkeeper on staff. It has its downsides, but it performs the essential function of categorizing all my expenses for me. You can integrate your bank and credit card accounts and over the course of a few months, create rules to sort every purchase automatically.
After one year of using it, there’s very little I have to do manually. I have the app on my phone and a once each week I’ll check it to swipe right on personal expenses and left on business expenses for anything the filter didn’t catch.
There are more benefits. Quickbooks is integrated with TurboTax – also owned by Intuit – which makes filing taxes easy. If you pay estimated quarterly taxes, as most freelancers do, Quickbooks integrates into the federal government’s EFTPS service so you can pay estimated taxes without leaving the software.
Quickbooks also offers the ability to invoice your clients. You simply input their name, email, and fill out the ledger to send an invoice. Quickbooks allows you to accept credit cards, albeit for a fee, paid by you, the seller. The downside to its invoicing is that once you get paid, Quickbooks holds your money for what feels like an eternity – 5+ business days. Because of that, I usually skip Quickbooks and send PDF invoices to clients.
A few more words of warning. Quickbooks seems to overestimate your quarterly estimated taxes, perhaps because it doesn’t consider your deductions. I’ve since hired a CPA to manage my Quickbooks and by his math, Quickbooks wanted me to overpay by about $7,000 last year.
A final note is that once you begin using Quickbooks Self-Employed, your data is stuck there. Should you ever upgrade to the regular version for better reporting, which I am currently in the process of doing, you’ll have to export your data to Excel like a neanderthal. This causes you to lose your tags and categories.
Quickbooks Self-Employed is a good, light accounting software.
Saving money - Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios™
Upside: Save time and increase your returns with robo-investing.
Downside: Schwab doesn't accept cash, even at its branches. And like all financial products, you could lose your investments.
I have to preface this by saying that this is not investment advice. I’m not an expert, just a writer with strong opinions who’s read a few books on portfolio theory.
The average U.S. household saving rate is an appalling 2.4 percent. To scratch together a rainy day fund and set yourself up for retirement, you need to be putting away a minimum of 10-15 percent. To close that gap, you both need to put more away and you need to invest it intelligently.
I’m a huge advocate of the idea that unless you know something the rest of the country doesn’t, investing in individual equities is tantamount to gambling. There is plentiful research to show that people picking stocks do not beat the market for very long. You can save all that time and get better returns by investing in indexed mutual funds, also known as robo-investing.
Indexed mutual funds aren’t as complicated as they sound: Rather than paying people to manage your money, you invest it in a portfolio that buys and sells stock based on a list of the top companies. It’s the technology behind the profusion of personal investment apps like Robinhood, Wealthfront, and Acorns.
Indexing, as it’s sometimes called, saves you a tremendous amount on fees and when the market goes up, your portfolio goes up. But when it goes down, yours goes down. According to ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, indexed funds beat 92 percent of funds managed by people over the past 15 years.
I love Charles Schwab as a bank for the little things: They don’t charge account fees and they reimburse me any time I get charged for using another bank’s ATM. They also have an auto-invested indexed mutual fund service called Schwab Intelligent Portfolios™ which I’ve found very useful.
Above all, I don’t spend any time thinking about what to do with the money I save. I simply put away at least 15 percent and allow it to invest itself.
Finally, let’s not forget a few honorable mentions:
Evernote - Cross-device notes on the go
Squarespace - Beautiful, low-effort websites
Free image sites - Free is better than not free
Power Thesaurus - Crowd-sourced thesaurus with a superior selection of words
LegalZoom - Incorporate your business, avoid being sued