Summer—it’s a great time to take a vacation and let things slow down a little on the work front. At least that’s what your clients are thinking. Having a slow month or two is to be expected as part of the whole freelancing gig and sometimes the downtime is a good thing. A good thing that is, unless you can’t afford to bridge the gap between your “regular” flow of income and the shortfall. Before you start really sweating about a complete money meltdown this summer, there are things you can do to avoid one. Start with these tips:
Take the long view of your business. First off, don’t freak out completely if you start looking at the next few months and see that your to-do list looks a little more sparse than usual. In fact, this situation is exactly what separates the truly business-savvy freelancer from those who are just dabbling for a little extra cash on the side. If freelancing is your main source of income, then you need to be prepared for the inevitable ebbs and flows by taking a long view of your business and creating a cash cushion of savings throughout the year. Doing this means that a little less volume for a month or two doesn’t throw you into a financial tailspin.
The other way to cut your chances of a cash flow crunch is to, of course, get more work on your plate. Simply reaching out to your existing clients with a friendly email to pitch a potential new project or to follow-up on a project that was put on the back burner can lead to more billable time for you. Of course, if you’re feeling the summer slowdown already, there’s no time like the present to start an email marketing campaign for prospects or taking advantage of good networking opportunities to meet new clients.
Invigorate your invoicing. Surprisingly, many freelancers do not have a good project management or invoicing infrastructure. If you find it difficult to track your projects and time-consuming to send clients bills for work completed, then logic tells us that you are going to have a tough time collecting your full income. Poor time tracking puts you at risk of not capturing all of the billable time and projects you should be invoicing for. A poor invoicing system makes you slower to send invoices. It’s a double whammy crush to your cash flow. To fix the problem, use professional-level software such as QuickBooks or FreshBooks. Both are relatively low cost and will pay for themselves by helping you get paid for the work you do in a timely manner.
Remember, freelancing isn’t free. When you’re feeling flush with cash, it’s easy to let a little extra work slide for a good client. After all, what’s the point of billing for 15 minutes here or there? The point, for freelancers, is to avoid that tight-in-the-wallet feeling later—or right now! While it would likely be poor form from a business perspective to retroactively bill for small tasks you did months ago, if you set the expectation upfront that you will consolidate “incidentals” on a monthly basis and bill for them, you’ll have more cash in the bank and the dignity of being paid fully for what you do.
Use your contracts to keep the money flowing.Every freelancer loves a nice big retainer, but, the reality is that project-based work is much more readily available. That’s why it’s important to structure your contracts in favor of cash coming into your business on an ongoing basis. The contracts you use should define the scope of work, but they should also help you buffer cash flow issues.
For example, consider charging an upfront deposit for larger projects; milestone fees (i.e. charging after each phase of a project is completed); adding cancellation fees to cover projects you start but the client subsequently puts the brakes on; and late payment fees. You should also clarify what happens if there is scope creep once a project is initiated. Having these type of considerations in your contract: a) makes you look more professional and serious; and b) helps you get paid on time and for all the work that you do—even if a client chooses not to finish a project. All this being said, if you do not have a formal contract that you use, put it on your to-do list, pronto!
Make a date with your inner collections agent. What could be more fun on a summer afternoon than calling and emailing clients who have not yet paid the lovely invoices that you have sent? Just about anything, if we’re being honest. Unfortunately, being a business owner means that making sure your clients make good on their pledge to pay you for services rendered is on you. Of course, this task is much easier if you have a good strong cup of coffee (and maybe a shot of whiskey by your side). But beyond liquid caffeination and courage, having the kind of organized invoicing system that we discussed above will make this task a little more bearable. The key is to set a firm date—preferably the same day of each month—to tap into your resolve to collect what you are owed. Start by squaring up who has paid and who hasn’t, then make contact with your delinquent clients in a polite but firm manner.
It is possible to avoid cash flow issues—even as a freelancer. Some might say that cash flow issues are inevitable, but I disagree. If you treat your freelancing income just like any other profitable business does, you can avoid them altogether. Do revenue projections; watch your expense-to-income ratio; plan ahead so you know what’s coming (and what isn’t); collect what you’re owed; and most importantly, create a financial cushion so that you’re not completely up a creek when things slow down work-wise.
While this may seem like a tall order—and it is—putting the suggestions above in place is important so that you can keep your business profitable without having to sweat things out financially from month to month. If you need assistance getting your cash flow back on track, seek it from a qualified financial professional familiar with freelance businesses, they’ll be able to help you make that summertime billing significantly easier.
Jonathan Medows is a certified public accountant licensed in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is also a recognized expert in taxation for freelancers and the self-employed—often tapped for his expert knowledge and perspective on self-employment taxation by national and regional publications such as The New York Post, BusinessWeek, Forbes taxation blog, WebCPA, CPA Practice Advisor, and others. You can read some of Jonathan’s press coverage here.
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