Personal Finance Tips for Freelance Writers: Never Feel Broke Again

Carol Tice

Hungry writers do terrible things.

We take gigs we know we shouldn’t, because we’re desperate and need the money.

A few months later, we realize this dysfunctional low-payer is sucking up too much time and making us go broke even faster.

Worse, some writers end up having to give up and go crawling back to those day jobs we hate.

Why do so many writers report feast-and-famine cycles and times when they’re out of cash and scrambling for any sort of gig?

Two main reasons:

  1. Not enough marketing to get a steady stream of leads
  2. Lack of understanding of cash flow

 

Cash Flow for Freelancers

What is cash flow? It’s the movement of money through your business. What you want is cash flowing out of your business slower than cash flows in. That leaves you with cash on hand.

When things go wrong, cash goes out too fast and comes in too slow, and presto — you’re broke.

Often, I meet writers who early quite well, but still have cash crises. They make enough, but the money never seems to show up fast enough to cover the bills! The timing is off.

With some careful management, you can improve your cash flow, even if you don’t get a raise or more clients.

 

10 Personal Finance Tips for Freelance Writers

Here are some personal finance tips freelancers like yourself can use to change your business so that your cupboard doesn’t get bare:

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means at no extra cost to you, we may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

1. Earn more

I know, I just said you wouldn’t have to get a raise or new clients. But in fact, one of the easiest ways to have more cash is to get paid more. So if you can ramp up your marketing, do it. If you have clients you’ve worked for over a year and you have a good relationship, consider asking for a raise.

If you’re sloppy on some of the cash-flow management tips I give below, simply having more income will help keep you from running into a cash-flow problem. (I promise all the rest of these tips you can do no matter what your client situation.)

Charging appropriate, professional rates for your work instead of rock-bottom Craigslist-ad type rates is a quick route to growing your income. Replacing even one lower-paying gig with a better-paying one will improve the picture. And that will help you stave off Empty Bank Account Syndrome.

 

2. Spend less

Unless you are living off the grid in a yurt in rural Idaho or something along those lines, there are probably expenses you can cut.

For instance, our family made the decision to go down to one car at one point a few years back, even though we had three drivers at home at the time. It takes a decent bit of juggling and taking the bus, but the savings from not insuring and maintaining a second car were well worth it.

We’ve also become fans of shopping Goodwill for kids’ clothes before we hit the retail stores. I saved $300 doing that recently compared with hitting Target first last fall.

I recently met a writer who informed me she has no home phone, Internet, or cable TV bill. She gets by using the library computers and her cell phone.

To cut expenses, take this challenge from Your Money or Your Life: Write down every cent you spend for three months. Analyze your spending patterns and see whether you feel you get a good value for each cost. If not, chop it.

 

3. Liquidate assets

Do you have a garage full of vintage movie posters, antique toys, or other valuable stuff?

Throw it on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or any other similar site, and create a savings account from what you make.

I have friends who’ve taken this large scale in the downturn and have sold off boats and second homes to lower their nut.

Whether you take it large or small scale, getting rid of things you’re not using frees up space, saves on maintenance and storage costs, and give you cash to put in the bank. Speaking of which…

 

4. Save more

Once you grow your income, raise cash from selling off belongings, and/or learn to live on less, you should begin to have excess cash — money that doesn’t have to be spent immediately to pay bills. Don’t get all excited and go to Disneyland with it…at least not until you build up a six-month emergency fund.

If you have no cash cushion, it’s time to cut back on any dinners out and movies and trips and such until you’ve got one.

And don’t forget, you’ll also need to be setting aside money to pay your self-employed taxes.

With money in the bank, your lean times become less of a cause for panic. You have money to tide you over.

Feels less scary already, hm?

 

5. Get paid faster

As the years went along in my freelance business, I became increasingly obsessed with asking prospects this question:

When will I be paid?

Too often, writers plunge in without a contract and only a dim idea of payment terms. Many writers make sure they know the rate of pay, but not necessarily when that money has to be forked over.

The fact is, if your freelance contract (you have one, yes?) doesn’t say when you must be paid, then you don’t have to be paid, ever. The client could pay your freelancer invoice five years from now and you couldn’t even sue them. This is the kind of stuff that causes major cash-flow trouble!

Moral of the story: Make sure you define payment terms, especially when the final payment is due. It’s easy to keep the checks coming while you’re in the middle of a big project, but often writers are fuzzy on what triggers the final payment.

I prefer “Final payment due within 14 days of turning in first draft if no changes needed or on acceptance of final draft, whichever comes sooner.” That locks it down so if you don’t hear a peep after you turn in your draft — possibly because the client hopes to delay their final payment — two weeks later your money is due.

If your client is a slow-paying magazine, it may be time to try to renegotiate your payment terms. For instance, I got one foot-dragger to switch from paying on publication to paying 50 percent when I turned in my first draft, which made the long wait for final payment easier.

 

6. Bill immediately

Many writers are confused about when to send clients a bill, or just feel nervous to hit ‘send’ on it. My answer? I send the bill right along with my first draft.

No, I do not wait to see if they like it. Or to find out if they want changes. My bill goes out immediately.

One reason I do that is I find I forget unless I do it right away! The other reason is to get into my client’s billing system as fast as possible.

At many companies, checks are only cut once or twice a month. Dither around a week or three waiting for an editor’s feedback, and you could easily find yourself waiting until next month’s check cycle. Where you might have had a check in two weeks, now that stretches to six or eight. It’s exactly these sort of delays that lead to a cash crunch.

 

7. Contact late payers immediately

After when to bill, the next awkward situation for many writers crops up when the check doesn’t arrive.

Try to keep in mind this is just business. You are running a business, and if people don’t pay you when they’re supposed to, you get into money trouble. So you have to collect on your bills.

I keep strict track of due dates and the day after a check was supposed to turn up, I’m on the phone or emailing the client.

Keep it calm and professional. A typical message from me:

Subject line: Checking on invoice #XXX due 04/1/21

Hi client —

I’m just checking in on my bill sent on X date. It was due yesterday, so wanted to make sure you received it.

Can you let me know when I can expect payment?

Thanks –Carol

Even better, you can use an accounting tool like Freshbooks (free 30-day trial) that will automatically send payment reminders to clients who haven’t paid on time.

 

8. Pay bills slower

Remember those old Paul Masson wine commercials? Here the motto is “Pay no bill before its time.”

If you’re having cash-flow problems, instead of paying bills twice a month, note the due date on each bill and don’t send it until the payment is needed. Yes, this can take up a bit more time as you may end up writing checks more often through the month. But meanwhile, the money stays in your pocket.

To extend this strategy further, there are some bills you can pay late without penalty. Utilities and cable bills often won’t penalize you, for instance, and house taxes can go a little late, too. If something must be paid late to keep a bank balance, delay the bills where you won’t be hit with a late fee or interest charges.

 

9. Avoid charges and take discounts

While we’re talking bills, some offer a discount if you pay it all upfront. If so, you know what to do.

Other bills will ding you with a late fee or charge you interest if you’re slow. Make sure you get those bills to the top of the pile and take care of them first.

Personally, nothing burns me up like knowing I could have taken the family out to dinner, but instead paid a $30 late fee on a credit card and $20 of interest because my payment didn’t get there on time. Watch those credit card due dates to keep more cash, and mail those puppies 10 days ahead of the date to make sure you aren’t charged — the mail is slow these days.

If you have a big bill that shows up at a time of the month when you often are low on cash, call the company and see if you can change your due date. Often, they’re happy to oblige, and you can smooth out a cash-flow dip with a single phone call.

For instance, here at Tice Hall we make split mortgage payments — half at the beginning and half in the middle of the month. That’s easier on cash flow than having to pay the whole amount at once.

 

10. Track cash-flow trends

If you’re having cash-flow problems, I strongly recommend tracking your cash flow. Where is money going? When is money coming in, and from where? In the rush of work and family life, it’s often all a blur and you lose track of where the money all goes.

Keep a profit-and-loss statement that records your cash on hand at the beginning of the month, income and expenditures, and cash at the end. After a few months, you’ll begin to see trends.

Ask yourself: Is cash increasing or slowly draining away? Is there one client whose consistent late payments are the main source of trouble?

You might also track hours for a month to see which clients is truly your lowest hourly rate. How many hours are you giving that client? Maybe it’s time to make a change.

Getting a raise from one low-payer, or finding one new client who pays more promptly can make a big difference.

The whole secret of how I built my income to six figures was consistently analyzing cash flow and adjusting accordingly. I dropped low and slow payers and replaced them with better and more prompt payers – simple as that — until I had the income I wanted.

 

How’s your cash flow? Leave a comment and share your personal finance tips for keeping more cash.

 

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57 Comments

  1. Nora King

    I realize it has been a while since anyone has contributed to this post, but I hope this does not matter…
    Re: use of the library, I would like to know how someone has made that work for them.
    I am currently trying to use my local college’s computers because my laptop is no longer functional. I can not afford to replace it right now. I am unemployed and otherwise unable to pay my bills.
    I am not yet established with copywriting and have no clients but have been trying hard to get my first clients.
    The primary thing I am having difficulty with is that the college’s computer system is very secure. I am unable to get through their firewall to send attachments like resumes, samples, etc… Although staff here have assisted me with this, it often does not work and, at the very least, consumes much of my time.
    The college is closed evenings and weekends and this severely cramps my productivity.
    HELP!

    • Carol Tice

      Nora, you shouldn’t send any attachments out anyway — editors often delete emails that have them, if they’re from people they don’t know. Instead, set up a website you can link them to that has your portfolio. Though it’s not ideal, there are many free platforms for that, such as Weebly.

      Also, have you tried your local library? They may have better hours.

      But there’s a bigger problem with what you’re trying to do, which I outline here:

      https://makealivingwriting.com/spend-money-freelance-writing-business/

      It’s very difficult to start and grow a freelance business with no resources. Consider getting a part-time job to tide you over in the meanwhile, and give you cash to help get you on your feet in business. This post may help:

      https://makealivingwriting.com/easy-jobs-leave-days-free-writing/

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  3. Holly

    On the “Bill Immediately” tip. So what happens when they do want to take you up on the 2nd or 3rd draft you allowed in your copy. Then you are asking the client to pay you before you finish the work?

    • Carol Tice

      If your contract builds in multiple drafts, you build in payment milestones around those. You want 50% up front or more, then maybe 25% when you turn in first draft or 15 and 10% on 2nd draft, and then 25% on final or 30 days after you turn in a draft, whichever is sooner.

      That’s a key clause for final payment because otherwise they may disappear or pop up 6 mos later wanting revision 3 and you’re still waiting to get paid.

      The general philosophy should be, you don’t wait to get paid. They can drag their heels on drafts and you’ll be happy to fulfill it and help them out whenever they get it together, but the check does not get delayed.

  4. Terri D'Arrigo

    You’ve touched upon three key issues for me–getting paid faster, billing immediately, and contacting late payers immediately. I’m a stickler for all of that. Or, so I tell myself. You’re right about hesitating to hit send, but really, there is no reason to. As you say, this is just business.

    Submitting the bill with the draft has the added advantage of knowing the client received the bill. There’s no chance of “Oh, gee, didn’t get that email. Resend?”

    I also encourage ACH transfer on the grounds that it’s better for the environment and easier for everyone around. A couple of clients have paid me that way and I love it.

    Finally, I try to find out when check-cutting cycles are. I have one client who pays on the 15th and 30th, and I know their internal deadline for making each cycle (usually about 5 days before).

    Nudging clients for money is my least favorite thing about freelancing. But hey, my rent, utilities, and other bills are due every 30 days, so I really don’t think net 30 to be unreasonable or that it’s too much to expect to have a check in my hands by the 30th day. This, as opposed to clients cutting a check on Day 30 so they can say they paid it on time, but not mailing it for three or four more days so that by the time it arrives, I deposit it, and it clears the bank, it’s Day 42 before I actually have the money. That, to me, is a major warning sign of trouble ahead. However, I *love* what you said about 14 days after the draft or upon final acceptance, whichever is sooner. I might have to switch to that!

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