Most creative professionals we’ve gotten to know are at the top of their fields, whether it is photography, design, or any other creative industry. However, in order to be a successful freelancer, one should focus not only on their talent, but also on management know-how. Management skills may not be something you are born with, but you can easily acquire them with experience. While mastery of doing sales allows for ups and downs, financial management is not a playground--you should get everything organized as soon as you start your journey as a creative professional. If you have a bookkeeper who deals with your finances or if you’ve been doing this for a long time, your good advice is always welcome, but if you are making your first steps into the world of freelance, or you have been in it for a while but are still having trouble when it comes to managing your finances, here are some tips for you.
A common mistake creative professionals make when they start out is that they set their prices too low in hopes of attracting more clients. When setting a price, both expenses and the profit margin you want to receive have to be taken into consideration. After making the calculations, the first thought is usually that the price is too high and will scare clients off. On the contrary, a low price does more damage: first, it might not bring you profit; second, a low price scares off bigger clients with better projects. So, do all the calculations and don’t be afraid of setting the fair price. Remember, you are not costing clients money. You are making them money.
When setting a price, start by identifying all of your expenses. As a photographer, for example, along with expenses such as printing materials and fuel consumed, which fluctuate from one project to another, don’t forget about expenses like money paid for the equipment used and their insurance, rent and utilities paid for a studio, and the cost of editing programs, which you should divide by estimated billable hours per month, or even year. Add up the percentage for taxes and the desired profit margin--you can start with a 10% profit margin, and go up to around 30%. That will make up the cost of your working hour. Due to the risk of underestimating and ending up with losses, add about 10%. It is easy to let your customer know about your price for a working hour, but it is not recommended, since the end price charged might be an unpleasant surprise. For this reason, it is better to estimate how many hours the project will take and then fix the price per project. Estimating the price correctly will be difficult at the beginning, but you will get better at it after a few projects.
Generally speaking, budgeting is the process of estimating prices for different projects, but for a creative professional, budgeting is not the same as for a company with employees. Though this may seem controversial or absurd, we advise you to view yourself as a company, with payments from clients as inflows and your daily expenses as outflows. A freelancer has an inflow of money from a project he is working on as, and the expenses are not only those for the project, salaries to employees, or office expenses, but also their own food, clothes, housing spending, and entertainment. There are several ways to organize all these expenses, such as writing them by hand in a special notebook or tracking the data in a spreadsheet on your computer. We advise you to try one of the numerous websites designed for this, but the most important thing is to choose the method that most appeals to you.
There are many websites/apps to help organize inflows and outflows of money, like Mint, Ready for Zero, Money Center, Mvelopes, Payoff, Sage, and others. Almost all of them have numerous functions besides budgeting, which are very helpful for managing a project’s finance. Some are free, while others have monthly fees, but most of them offer a one-month free trial. Although it can be a good investment to pay for a budgeting tool, as it helps you keep track of your money and ultimately saves you money, as a starting freelancer, try the free ones first. You may end up finding a very helpful budgeting tool that you will not have to pay for, which will mean saving on finance management. One common feature these websites have is a connection to your bank accounts to get your balances and transactions, so that you can see the entire picture. These websites assure their customers that they guard this data with bank level security, but if you still have concerns, refer to each website’s policy and find more about it directly from them.
Two of the tools listed above fit a creative professional’s needs better than others, since both of them are free and claim to be highly secured.
Mint.com is a good option for those who are in North America, since for now, it registers users exclusively in the US or Canada. It is user-friendly and has a nice interface. You can see its many features by visiting Mint.com and taking a tour.
Money Center by Yodlee is another free website for budgeting. Although you can link your bank accounts to it, you can use it without doing so, by introducing your data manually. This is an advantage for those who are hesitant to provide their account details to a third party, as well as for those who can’t find their bank on the list.
Rather than finishing a project, telling your customer to pay, and then reminding them to fulfill their liability, use a simple invoicing tool instead. By doing so, a freelancer shows professionalism, and is more likely to be taken seriously by the customer and paid on time. An invoice is an indispensable thing in any business, both for the freelancer and his client, because it serves as proof of rendering services or delivery of goods. It is helpful to list each completed task separately so the client can see what exactly they are paying for. Invoices also help keep track of when bills are due and serve as valid documentation for tax return.
For starting creative professionals, there is no need to pay for an invoicing tool, since there are so many free ones available, as well as a few with a free option that can be upgraded whenever you feel that your business needs it. For example, FreshBooks has a free option that allows the user to manage three clients and no employees at a time, which suits a sole freelancer. Its numerous features include estimates, time tracking, reports and managing clients. If invoicing is the only function you need, you can request the payment through PayPal.com. It’s not feature-rich, but it gets the job done. Other invoice tools you might want to take a look into are Get Harvest, Intuit, Invoice Journal, and Bamboo Invoice. For making proposals, We recommend Bid Sketch. It will save you plenty of time and your clients will receive appealing, professional-looking proposals, which will also increase your chances of getting the job.
- Ask for a deposit. You need to make sure that you will be paid for your work, so whenever you start working on a project, ask for a deposit. Even if there are no expenses at the start of the project, the deposit is for the time you will need to invest in it. It is a financial commitment, thus, the client will feel involved in the project and will take it more seriously. It will also cover any real costs, as well as those of subcontracted help, if any. You can break down the payment into a 50% deposit, with the other 50% paid either upon project end, or in milestones. We recommend the first option when you are sure about the costs and the second one for big projects, where estimating the price is more difficult. If you are still scared of asking for a deposit, ask yourself why a client would not want to give one. That will immediately make you give up on such a customer.
- Keep separate accounts. It is a good idea to keep separate business accounts and personal accounts. Consider paying yourself with a “salary” from your income, which you can transfer to your personal account and use for living. An account for only taxes only is also recommended, but we’ll get back to that.
- Start saving. You never know what the future brings, so start saving. If you want to grow your business without resorting to loans, this is the best thing you can do. As a freelance photographer, put some money aside for the next piece of equipment you want to buy. Additionally, consider saving for retirement, and most importantly, starting an emergency fund. Though you should target saving 30% of your gross income, start with 10%, splitting it among the three saving “buckets.” Hopefully, you will never have to use the emergency fund, but it is good to know that it is there, just in case.
- Pay taxes. As a freelancer, you are considered self-employed and have to pay taxes from your income. When money comes in, put a percentage, depending on the laws in your state, into a separate account, so that you don’t have any unpleasant surprises at the end of the month. If you like getting money back after spending it, research the tax deductions available for your activity. For photographers, some may include travel expenses when doing a photo shoot, studio space, equipment, phone lines used for doing business, education, and many others. These deductions differ from state to state, so see a local tax specialist who can familiarize you with them.
- Share rent. If you are renting a studio for photo shoots, unless you have them every day, share the rent with another photographer to minimize your expenses. This also applies to those who choose to rent an office for work instead of doing it from home. If there is enough space, share the office with another freelancer. Make sure that you get to know them first so that you don’t end up working in the same room as someone who annoys you.
Although managing finances is not the most enjoyable part of freelance, there are plenty of tools to make it easy. Be organized, use the best of what the internet can give you, seek professional help when you need it, deliver the best services you can to your customers, and harvest the joys of being a creative professional!
If you have any tips or advice for other creative professionals feel free to share them in the comments below.