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. Lauren

    Forgive me, I am a newbie and trying to do my research before getting into the freelance game. I have a couple of questions:

    Many of those big companies who pay the big bucks pay by check but how does that work for those of us writers who aren’t living in the west? I live in Thailand and I don’t want to market to Thai magazines because I can’t write Thai. Are there big US companies who are willing to pay via paypal or should I give up the hope of marketing towards them?

    Also, when it comes to invoicing, do I need to register a business in the States in order to bill them?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Lauren — I’m not sure about the registration issue — maybe one of my expat readers will respond on that!

      But you can use Paypal or electronic funds transfer for payment cross-border…I’ve had Australian, UK, and Canadian clients and done that, and also taken out of country checks. Bank charges a fee, but they cash them. I certainly didn’t take out a license in their countries, so maybe that answers that question?

      I’ll share my secret for accepting Paypal for clients…I use Freshbooks for invoicing. You can read all about my great experiences with them on my Products I Love page — see the navigation bar up top.

      Freshbooks has a plan with Paypal called Business Payments, where if you invoice through Freshbooks you can elect to only pay $.50 per transaction of any size. I’ve saved a fortune that way, and it makes it easy to work with clients in other countries.

      It’s an increasing global business — feel free to look for clients anywhere.

    • Lauren

      Thank you so much for your reply Carol. I have already taken your advice and signed up for a trial of freshbooks.

    • Carol Tice

      Awesome! Yeah, I forgot to mention it’s free for the first three clients, so it’s easy to try it out.

  2. Heather Harbord

    If you use credit cards, keep track of your expenditures by writing the amounts into your check book as you use them – at the point of sale! And deduct the amount from your bank total. That way when you receive the bill, you have the money and can pay right away. Sometimes store clerks think you are writing a check. I then explain what I am doing and why and they think it is neat. (If there’s a long line-up behind you, do it when you get home from the receipts).

  3. Joanie

    Like you, Carol, I try to always send my invoice with the draft, and do so in PDF form as an additional email attachment. Then, when they respond that they’ve received the draft, I know they’ve also received my invoice. And yes, I do reference both the draft and the invoice in the text of my email. That has eliminated editors later saying they didn’t get my invoice, and they can simply forward the electronic email along to the accounting department.

    One risk I see with getting too frugal regarding not having an internet connection is that always using public access service leaves your emails open to more risk. A lot of my client send “confidential” information, and their emails to me acknowledge that this material cannot be shared without permission. I don’t think any of these clients would like to know I’m sending and receive their data via a public service like the library or coffee shop. Just wanted to mention this, as it was something people might need to consider before taking such a step.

    • Carol Tice

      Really good point, Joanie — I actually did a big piece about computer security for an airline mag not that long ago, and that’s what the experts told me — don’t send anything sensitive or do online banking at a free wi-fi spot. Thieves troll those to intercept keystrokes and heist passwords.

    • Joanie

      I had a feeling you were on top of it, Carol, you’re such a pro! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you

    • Carol Tice

      Of course, right after I did the story I fell for a phishing email of the type I had expressly advised others against in the article, and nearly had $3,000 stolen from my Paypal…felt like such an idiot!

    • Joanie

      There are pros in every field, Carol–you simply found the pro in the field of scamming. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just goes it can happen to everyone, and the bad guys are just getting better all the time.

    • Amandah

      Oh no!

      I hope all is well. Those pesky phishing scammers could use their skills for good instead of scamming people out of the money they’ve earned.

  4. Patrick icasas

    Great article Carol! I especially like the advice on avoiding charges and taking discounts. My wife is a whiz with coupons and sniffs out grocery deals. Cash flow is extremely important in my house. I’ve been expanding my business to the higher paying markets, but I have a pair of regular clients that are a great source of comfort and support to me. It doesn’t matter to me that they pay a little less than others; they pay on time, every time. Very helpful when I’m trying to chase down the delinquents!

    • Carol Tice

      It’s amazing what a powerful factor being a prompt payer is in my own evaluation of whether to keep or get rid of clients, Patrick. As you found, often the cash flow benefits can outweigh a lower pay rate vs a client you have to expend hours beating the check out of with numerous follow-ups and it’s always 60 days late.

      I used to be heavy into coupons, but I’ve given up, because these days my husband does most of the shopping and he just won’t do the coupons! Forgets to take them, doesn’t collect them, doesn’t use them.

      I have friends who are extreme couponers and save a ton, and I’d love to get a focus on that. For now, we are definitely king of the sales we spot in the aisles, and of buy one get one free offers. When hubby gets home with six boxes of the same cereal, I know what happened. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Diane S

      Carol, when you dump a client, do you tell them? Do you pass them onto friends who are looking for happier gigs and willing to deal with issues like that (someone still struggling to reach your level), or are they so bad you wouldn’t wish them on your worst competitor before you give them up? Thanks for any insights you’re willing to part with on this. (As the say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.)

    • Carol Tice

      It would be pretty unprofessional if you stopped working for a client and never told them you weren’t going to do their work, Diane!

      I do sometimes refer them, unless they’re truly awful.

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