Tools for Self-Employment Folks: So…What’s Really Essential?

As a self-described minimalist freelancer, I’m really reluctant to sign up for new apps and tools to run my freelance business. That’s because I feel like there are only so many things you need. It’s far too easy to get bombarded with the latest apps or tools claiming to save you time and money and the like.

So why get caught up in that madness when you can get by just fine with the bare necessities?

In the last year and a half I’ve been self-employed, I’ve only found I needed to pay for two services: data backup and cloud accounting.

Data Backup
If there’s anything I need to protect, it is all the documents on my computer. Now that I work for myself, there’s no IT person I can call when my computer is on the fritz, and if my documents get wiped out, it’s pretty much over.

Besides saving my documents on the regular on an external hard drive, I use Carbonite, which is pretty simple to install. I haven’t had a data crash thus far (knock on wood). From what I know it doesn’t scramble my data, so if I need to recover my files, they should remain in the same order.

Carbonite came in handy when I switched out my SSD drive last year. Carbonite costs $60 a year (well, $59.99 to be exact), and you can test it out with a free 15-day trial. On occasion I’ll come across a 30% off promotion, which is pretty sweet.

Cloud Accounting Software

Xero the Hero
I’ve been playing around with Xero and the first thing I noticed was their clean interface and easy navigation. If you’ve used Quickbooks in the past, you can convert your files from Quickbooks.

Plus, you’ll be able to integrate with more than 500 apps to help you further streamline your accounting stuffs. I took a gander and you can integrate Xero with apps for time tracking, billing and expenses, inventory, and financial services. And when you invoice through Xero, you can receive payments via Paypal and set up an automatic Paypal bank feed to keep track of transactions.
Xero has also has a separate section for Payroll and Inventory, which is pretty sweet if you have several employees and need to keep careful track of your products. You can also reconcile bank transactions to make sure your records are up to date and accurate.

Right now Xero is offering 30% off your first 6 months. And the pricing is as follows:

Starter: $6.30 for the first 6 months, $9 a month thereafter. You can send 5 invoices and quotes, enter 5 bills, and reconcile 20 bank transactions.

Standard: $21 a month for the first 6 months, $30 a month thereafter. You can enter unlimited invoices and quotes, enter unlimited bills, reconcile unlimited bank transactions, and process payroll for 5 people.

Premium: $49 a month for the first 6 months, $49 a month thereafter. You can enter unlimited invoices and quotes, enter unlimited bills, reconcile unlimited bank transactions, process payroll for 5 people, and handle different currencies.

 You can try Xero out for free for 30 days.

Creating Your Own System Using Free Tools
Now you can certainly create a makeshift system. I have some friends who don’t use many tools and they aren’t really missing out. Of course, it just takes more time and work. If you’re just starting out, you may need to use accounting software just yet.

Here are a few ways on how you can create your own system for invoicing and tracking expenses:

Time tracking: Because I do mainly writing and copyediting and I charge either either hourly or per article, I don’t really need to track my time per project. I still like to track my time, just so I can get a sense of how long things take and I can figure out my bandwidth when new opportunities arise. I am a big fan of Toggl, and use their free version.

Inventory: While I don’t have too much experience keeping track of inventory, there are a few free systems for keeping track of your inventory. You can check out Stockpile, which is 100% free and offers customer support. I think the catch is that the company that created Stockpile is building out other tools that they’ll be charging for. InFlow Inventory also has a free plan.

Tracking assignments: I still use good ‘ole Excel to keep track of my assignments. I include the outlet, assignment name, whether I’ve sent over an invoice, if payment is received, and how much I should sock away for taxes (I’ve heard you should save anywhere from 25-50% for your taxes as a solopreneur, and I save 40%).

Staying on top of deadlines: I use Trello to stay on top of my deadlines for assignments. I’ve also created little cards for each publication I write for with logins, links to editorial guidelines, “pitch banks” with story ideas for each outlet, and other details such as my main contacts, editors’ emails, how and when to invoice, method of payment, and the like.

Tracking expenses: Keeping tabs on your business expenses will save massive headaches come tax time. You can use Expensify, which has a free version, or keep track with an Excel Spreadsheet. I would probably create separate tabs for each month, and organize by date, the amount of the expense, how you paid for it (cash, credit card, debit) and which expense category it falls under.

To figure out which categories are eligible for tax deductions, you can check out a blog post I wrote about the most common tax deductions for freelancers, and Paco of The Hell Yeah Group also has a great post on business expenses that are tax deductible.

Invoicing: You can send free invoices with Invoice Generator. It keeps a history of the invoices you’ve created, which is pretty helpful. I’ve used the free version and have no complaints.

So there you have it. If you want to go barebones with tools and software when you’re going self-employed, it’s definitely doable. You might want to go this route if you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of beans to spend on running your business.

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links to FreshBooks, Carbonite, and Xero. I only endorse and write about products I know and love. 









What It Means to Be a Minimalist Freelancer

As someone who practices Zen Buddhism and minimalism, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means exactly to be a minimalist as a freelancer. To be being minimalist has to do with your approach and mindset to how you work. It’s about getting rid of what’s not important to you.

And as I’ve nearing the end of my 4th month doing it full-time, I wonder what I could do differently in the future. How can I better align my values with the craziness that comes with being self-employed? I am definitely still figuring that out. Here are some things I am going to keep in mind going forward:

In Your Work
I touched about this briefly in a previous post about optimizing, not maximizing your life. It’s about not taking everything that comes your way—you can afford to do so, of course. Nix projects and clients that add unnecessary stress in your life, or aren’t building your portfolio. Instead, take on work that is either meaningful, pays enough so you can work less and focus on other projects, or could lead to more meaningful work.

Of course, this can feel like a pipe dream but it’s definitely something to aspire toward. Sometimes you have to take a job simply because you need the money or are a regular workhorse who has problems saying “no” to work.

In Your Tools
Do you really need five project management programs and three tablets? I’m all for implementing apps and tools to enhance your system and processes as a freelancer, but too many tools can make your workflow a bit cumbersome.

You might find that you can do more with less, or be smarter about streamlining your work with just a couple of programs. The main tools I use on a daily basis are Evernote for my to-do list, Toggl to track my time, and Freedom, which is an Internet blocker I use when I am writing fiction. All these apps are 100 percent free. And I am landing more clients and gaining more ways of earning money, I am also looking into streamlining how I do my billing and track expenses. It’s starting to get a little messy. Oof.

In Your Digital Communication
This is something I struggle with daily. If you’re like me you have a million articles on your Facebook Newsfeed saved, subscribe to the newsletter of every blogger and website you dig, and check your email compulsively. I’ve installed Periscope, Blab, and Meerkat on my phone and pretty much every single new social media platform out there. And do I use even a fraction of them? Nope.

Try checking and responding your emails just a few times a day. For instance, when you first start your work day, before lunch, and about an hour before you’re ready to wind down. Doing your tasks in batches can help a ton.

In Your Approach
This is probably the biggest thing I have been struggling with. Pay attention to the task at hand. Don’t take on too much in any given day. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to wish you could get all your work done in one fell swoop. Take your time, don’t rush. Take breaks if you need to. Go for a walk, or a short swim at a nearby pool.

If you’re curious to learn more about minimalism, here are a few resources to get you started:

The Minimalists: Joshua and Ryan of The Minimalists have really started a culture on how we can live more fully with less. They have local meetups in different cities around the world where you can shoot the bull with like-minded folk. Joshua’s book, “Everything That Remains,” is a memoir that chronicles his path from living a crash-and-burn, materialist lifestyle to a deliberate, minimalist life.

Blonde on a Budget: Cait Flanders is currently going through her two-year spending fast. It’s inspired me to go on my own version of a spending fast. She’s pretty awesome and inspiring.

And Then We Saved: Anna Newell Jones is the queen of living a life free of material distractions. She shows you going on a spending fast can be done. Besides a bunch of articles on her site, you can also glean tips on how to go about on your own spending diet with her upcoming book “The Spender’s Guide to Debt-Free Living.” She’s also just put out a book that includes wisdom on the minimalist lifestyle as well as interviews with some of the heavy hitters called “How to be a Fearless Minimalist in a Cluttered World.

Zen Habits: Leo Babauta is the man when it comes to creating habits to live a healthier, more meaningful and productive life. I have been following his site for years. He teaches you how you can create real change in your life by changing your habits, little by little. Check out his book “Essential Zen Habits, Mastering the Art of Change, Briefly,” which includes super short chapters on how you can change your bad habits and do all the things you’ve ever wanted to. I got through the book in a couple of sittings and it’s one that I come back to again and again.