Tax season may be but a distant memory, but I get so many queries as to how I keep track of my various income streams and payments that I thought it was time to spill the beans.
First of all, let’s be upfront: I don’t get super fancy when it comes to tracking expenses. Credit card statements are now electronic, and I see no need in downloading unnecessary programs that are just going to go unforgotten on the fifth page of my apps and take up precious storage on my already full iPhone.
While I admit that my methods are far from fancy, they are thorough, which is important, right? (Tell me I’m right even if you disagree. I seek approval, ha.)
For pitching—which I admittedly don’t do much of anymore, thankfully, now that I’m more than a decade into the magazine part of my career—I have subfolders nested in my email account where I can file away all correspondence in an organized and easy-to-find manner. (I am nothing if not organized, just ask my husband and our overwhelming, overflowing shared calendar.)
This is helpful because if a pitch is downright rejected, I put it in the corresponding folder and then can repurpose the idea elsewhere. Additionally, every couple weeks, I browse through the “maybe” folder—and follow up with any editors who gave me a glimmer of hope that they might want to work with my idea. Once I’ve sent a pitch, it goes in that folder so I have a record of every idea I’ve ever formulated into a pitch.
In terms of actually keeping tabs on my income, which can be difficult with more than 30 different companies paying you a year, I set up Excel spreadsheet templates. It all depends on personal preference and how many different projects I’m tracking at once; some years, I use one spreadsheet for the entire calendar year, while others I divvy it up in different pages by the month in the tabs at the bottom.
Note that this spreadsheet is entirely fictitious, merely an illustration for how I keep tabs on my expenses, though I do typically take on anywhere from 8 to 15 assignments or projects a month (not counting my staff position as an editor at our city magazine).
It’s also important to point out that there’s no right or wrong way; every freelancer does things differently—personally, I always love reading Lola Akinmade’s end-of-year freelance reports, which are far more involved than my own—but for me, this is a simple method that allows me to keep track of who I have invoiced when, who hasn’t paid me in a timely manner, with whom I need to follow up, etc. You’d be surprised how much time freelance journalists spend doing paperwork and tracking down missed payments. One time, it took one of the biggest magazines in the United States a full 11 months to fulfill our contract, as well as reimburse me for expenses accrued, which exceeded $1,500. It’s not all travel and free meals and schmoozing with celebrities, y’all.
I also have a handful of clients on a monthly retainer; for consistency, I—and by I, I mean SVV, who handles all billing through our side venture, Odinn Media—invoice them all on one set day of each month (usually the 15th, though there are some that started on a different cycle, so the 1st made more sense).
In terms of creating invoices, I have a basic template I made in Word that I go in and modify for each client. From there, I save the Word doc as a PDF and submit via email. Every magazine varies; some want your invoice the second you turn in an assignment so they can get it going in the system (it often takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days to get paid—and sometimes that’s after the story is actually published, which is a whole other beast), while others insist you wait until the story is approved by all parties involved. It’s a lot to keep track of, which is why freelancing is definitely not for the forgetful mind.
And while I generally use my credit card statements when categorizing deductibles at the end of each year, there are many times when I have paid for things in cash, usually for parking and tipping, and those expenses can add up and need to be accounted for. This is when Office Lens comes in handy; I can create a new note in the OneNote app, take a photo of the receipt, save it as an image, whiteboard or document, then add any additional information that might be helpful, such as an audio note. Plus, it automatically syncs so I can access the receipts directly from my computer with no added hassle.
Easy, right? And one less piece of paper to keep track of.
Questions, class? What’s your best tip for tracking income?
Disclosure: I am a Microsoft Champion and have been asked from time to time to share how I use the Office suite, which is pretty much the Bible for all journalists everywhere so it’s hardly a difficult task. No one tells me what to say or how or when to say it.