10 Steps to Managing Your Finances When You’re a Freelance Writer

As a freelance writer, you sell your time, talent, energy, and skills in the marketplace; and you expect to be paid for those things. Supposedly, you know how much time you have invested in a project, what your efforts are worth, and how to carry on such a transaction in a civilized, professional manner. But have you mastered the basics of managing all of the financial aspects of your business? Here are the ten steps you should be taking

  1. Hire an accountant 

    …preferably one who specializes in small businesses and will be accessible when needed. Work with that person to set up your business, even if it is just part-time freelancing. Ask him or her to answer the questions you don’t know enough to ask and to give you a road map for what to do and how to do it.

  2. Open a separate checking account for your business. 

    This will eliminate the confusion of trying to sort out what is a business expense and what is not. It also will clearly spell out what is coming in and what is going out—the point being that supposedly you can’t spend money you don’t have.

  3. Use one credit card for business purposes, 

    and don’t use it for anything else. If you get one that sends you an end-of-the-year itemized report of charges, that will simplify your record keeping enormously.

  4. Invest in a time-and-billing software program. 

    I use iBiz (for the Mac), but I would also recommend TimeSlips. And I’m sure there are several other good ones out there. Such software does amazing things and often interacts with check-writing programs so that everything becomes part of a seamless process. It will keep perfect track of your time with a simple on/off switch and multiply that by your hourly rate. It will maintain a record of every client’s or publication’s information, agreements, projects, invoices, and payments. It will create reports in as much or as little detail as you desire. And it will serve as proof that you put in the time you said you did.

  5. Get it in writing. 

    Don’t start anything without a signed letter of agreement stipulating what, when, and how much. Then, be prepared to live with your estimate or arrangement. This sounds easy, but you have to be extremely disciplined and self-confident to tell a client or editor that you won’t begin the project until you have the signed contract in hand.

  6. Send out invoices, 

    at the same time every month, upon completion of a project, or at specific intervals—whatever has been agreed to on the front end. A time-and-billing program will set up a template for your bills and allow you to customize any aspect, from marking up expenses, to listing every activity and expense, to including personalized messages. These are just the basic things such software can do for you. Read the manual, or take a course to learn the finer points.

  7. Follow up on late payments. 

    Spell out your terms at the outset and on your invoices. Send second and third notices. Then, make the phone call, or perhaps more than one. If you say, “My lawyer will be in touch,” be sure your lawyer writes a letter on firm letterhead. (It won’t do any good unless you are planning to bring suit, but it looks impressive.) If you threaten to turn the matter over to a collection agency, do it. If you say you will take the case to Small Claims Court, do it. A word of caution though: Small Claims Court is great in principle, not so great in practice.

  8. Keep orderly records. 

    Keep track of everything, especially your expenses. Ask for, record, and file receipts. Know what is deductible and what is not. A good accountant will find legitimate deductions you never dreamed of. Immediately record mileage, parking charges, tips, reimbursable and billable expenses. If you don’t do it on the spot, you will not remember. Believe me, it will go up in a puff of smoke.

  9. Save for taxes. 

    That means putting away the correct percentage of every fee in a separate account. If you’ve never paid quarterly estimated taxes before, the first time they are due and you are caught unprepared will be the rudest of awakenings. It’s a mistake you are not likely to make twice.

  10. Keep your own credit record clean. 

    That means paying your own bills on time, not spending more than you can afford, and making wise purchasing decisions. While your clients may get away with not paying, you never will. Don’t ask me why.

Sound like a lot of work? Well, that’s because it is. On the other hand, when you set up the systems at the very beginning, with the help of your accountant and computer guru, managing your business finances will become as routine as checking your e-mail.

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