5 Simple Record-Keeping Tips for Freelancers

Depending on what type of freelancing you do, you might be more creativity-centered than numbers-centered. You don’t want — or need — an elaborate bookkeeping system. You just need to know what’s going out (submissions, payments, commissioned work, assigned projects) and what’s coming in (assignments, money, bills). Is there a simple way to do this or do you have to invest in a high-dollar computer program or keep an accountant on retainer?

The tips and suggestions here are not meant to take the place of an accountant or tax professional. Please consult an accountant for more detailed information. With that said, here are some tips for simple record-keeping for freelancers.

1. Design a spreadsheet. When you’re starting as a freelancer, you likely don’t have the finances to purchase a software program for keeping records. Your computer likely came with a spreadsheet program, either Excel for PC or the equivalent for Mac. Figure out how many columns you need. In the example shown in the picture, there are columns for “Title,” “Written,” “Submitted,” “Market,” “Status,” “Rights,” “Genre,” “Length,” “Published,” “Pay,” and “Notes.” It’s also color-coded to be able to see what is out and what is coming in with one look. These columns could be modified for graphic designers, web designers, etc. Updated regularly, the spreadsheet could keep you on track and organized.

2. Use an invoice template in your word processor software. Programs such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect have invoice templates. If your program doesn’t, an invoice can be as simple as a letterhead with the client’s information, job information, and agreed payment. If you want, you can insert a logo image into the letterhead as well, but that is optional. When you send invoices, be certain to log them in your spreadsheet that indicates income. Additionally, keep track of when you send the invoices. Nickolas Furr, a freelancer in San Diego, California, suggests, “For invoicing, I put 30, 45, 60, 75, and 90-day dates in a software calendar. When they pay, they come out. If they don’t, I get an alarm reminding me to invoice them again.”

3. Take advantage of the invoicing option PayPal. If clients want to pay via PayPal, you can send an invoice through their system instead of sending a print or e-mail attachment invoice. When viewing your account overview, click on the “Request Money” tab at the top. You can create invoice templates for repeat clients and send from within their system. Be aware that PayPal does charge a fee for this. Out of a $25 invoice, they will keep $1.03 as their fee.

4. If you’re tech-savvy, design a database. If you’re a freelance programmer, you might want something a bit more advanced than the simple record-keeping providing by Excel. Dana Severance, a freelancer in Tucson, Arizona, says, “I’ve used Access, and as I was using PHP/MySQL I began to develop it in there. These are strictly for freelance, though.” She uses these databases to keep track of client information, project information, and accounts billable/received. She adds, “Databases are quite useful, and if you’re a web developer, php/mysql is a good place to start.”

5. Use your paper planner. Simple record-keeping doesn’t have to be computerized. Heiddi Zalamar, a freelancer in New York City, uses her planner. She says, “I use my planner as a record keeper and actually keep them after using them for the year.”

After you have been using a simple record-keeping system for a while, you might be ready to use a software program to consolidate everything in one program.