It’s coming up to the end of the UK tax year (5 April) – the CIEP’s wise owls have turned their thoughts to keeping track of income and outgoings.
Here are some things I’ve learned about managing money in 12 years of freelancing:
- Tax is a potential killer. I’m happy and proud to pay tax, but it’s one of the things I’ve found most challenging to manage in terms of cash flow, especially in years when I’ve taken a few weeks’ ‘maternity leave’. It’s really important to set aside more than you think you’ll need: if your earnings fluctuate, so will your tax bills. I’ve found paying an accountant to be a worthwhile cost to help me get my tax calculations right and understand how I can make the most of allowances.
- It’s essential to get into a position where you’re not depending on a particular payment being made on time in order to pay vital bills such as the rent or mortgage. Even with the best clients, timely payment is not 100% reliable.
- I never justify charging clients a high rate by citing my circumstances. As it happens, mine is the main income for my family, but that’s irrelevant to them. They’re paying for my work, not to support my lifestyle.
- I use FreeAgent to manage my invoicing, and my accountant takes the information directly from this to complete my tax return. It’s not free but it’s saved me a lot of time over the past few years.
- I chase invoices as soon as they go overdue. After once losing nearly £2,000 on an unpaid invoice when a client went into administration, I also invoice regularly in smaller stage payments for large jobs, to mitigate the risk of a client going bust.
My nickname is The Spreadsheet Queen! I use spreadsheets for everything, although I’m barely proficient in Excel. No matter, as you don’t need to be. I created a spreadsheet to track my invoicing just by setting up a few columns with headings such as date, client, what the job was, PO number (if applicable), how much I billed, when I invoiced, when the money is due, etc. I have extra columns for notes and to tick off when my client has paid. I also have a spreadsheet for tracking client hours, with my per hour rate in a column. I bill some of my clients monthly, so I can tot up jobs on the tracking spreadsheet and transfer the billable sum to my invoicing one.
My outgoings are minimal – I’m mindful that expenses are tax-deductible (mostly). My biggest expenses are my CIEP fees (and conference, if I decide to go) and my trade union subs. Then there are costs for software, and, occasionally, stationery, plus fees for my accountant and PC fixer (an essential expense!). Again, I track all these on a spreadsheet – it’s useful to see how much I’m spending per year, including versus how much I’m making. I aim to limit expenses to 5% maximum of my turnover, but it’s usually below that.
I check my business bank account on my phone daily to see what’s gone in (or out). Yes, I have a separate business account – I find it easier to track income and expenses without having to trail through my supermarket shopping, Spotify subs and utility bills. It’s not possible to separate business and personal completely, but it’s about 99% foolproof. I set aside 20% of every invoice as it’s paid – it goes into a dedicated savings account for my tax bill after my accountant has filed my tax return. Setting that aside also stops me from thinking I have more disposable income than I actually have.
Managing money is about finding a system that suits your business model. For example, if you’re raising lots of low-value invoices, it might be worth paying for a system that raises, sends and tracks invoices for you, and integrates this data into an accounting package. I’ve seen CIEP members recommend the likes of Crunch, FreshBooks and QuickBooks for this purpose. I tend to raise fewer high-value invoices, so I use an Excel template (which I complete and convert to PDF) and do my tracking in Google Sheets. This lets me geek out with functions to create my own personalised reports. It also means I have no money-management-related expenses beyond the time I take.
It’s definitely not essential to have an accountant, especially if your finances are simple. But naturally this means keeping on top of current tax and accounting requirements, particularly if you’re registered for VAT or invoicing clients in jurisdictions outside the UK. Members often raise very helpful threads on these topics on the CIEP forums.
Finally, there’s a stereotype that freelancers never complete their tax returns until the week they’re due – and then discover we owe the government far more than we expected. I’ve always consciously avoided that approach, because it’s important to me to know my exact tax liability and ensure my cash flow will cover it. To make this as painless as possible, I tend to be one of those insufferable people whose accounts are always up to date. This is inevitably a bit tedious, but it shouldn’t be too tedious. Your system should slot into your work as seamlessly as possible. Money management should serve our businesses, not the other way around.
A wise man – a mentor from my early days as a freelancer – once said to me: ‘Put aside your tax money before you spend it.’ He also advised separate bank accounts. So I have a bank account into which all of my business income goes, and as soon as I have a receipt I put a percentage of it into a savings account to cover tax and National Insurance. I set the percentage slightly over what my tax will be, so that I save something each year just by hiving off my tax money.
I don’t use anything other than Microsoft Excel to manage my business income. I have a spreadsheet with columns for date, project name, invoice number, ingoings and outgoings, with a reminders column for payments due for bills and the mortgage. I have separate sheets for the money put aside for tax, business expenses and income from clients. That way, when my tax return is due my business income and outgoings are all present in one handy file.
These two systems have always allowed me to know how much I have, and to be certain that I can’t dip into crucial money that will need to be paid to HMRC.
My key advice is to do things as you go rather than leaving them to pile up and need sorting out later. Sent an invoice? File it and record it on your income sheet. Renewed your CIEP subscription? File the invoice/receipt and record it on your expenses sheet. I give each invoice and expense a unique reference. Then each month, I download my business bank statement and reconcile it with the invoices issued, marking up each item on the statement with its reference number in my accounts. This reconciliation takes me less than half an hour each month. I do everything electronically, scanning paper receipts on the rare occasions I receive them. I also use a program called Cushion for scheduling, time-tracking and invoicing so my information is all in one place, but do what works for you.
I also put about 20% of my month’s income into a savings account earmarked for tax. This means I don’t dread the total when I submit my return. My accounts spreadsheet has a totals worksheet that collects the monthly figures and gives me an annual total. Come tax return time, I have only to refer to that sheet, knowing that all my invoices and receipts are in order, so my tax return takes me about half an hour. That’s when I am grateful to past me for taking a few minutes regularly to keep on top of things.
Knowledge is a wonderful thing. First, know your money style. Are you disciplined? Does it trickle through your fingers? Track your invoices, and pounce on any that become overdue the first day they’re overdue. Don’t be shy. You’re in business, not pursuing a hobby. Be polite but firm, and repetitive – it works in most cases. Don’t be afraid you’re ‘nagging’ – you’ve done the work, so your client should pay up! Budget for your business and household expenses: work out what you want to spend on training, marketing, CIEP membership and conference attendance, materials, resources and overheads – and know when those become due.
Work out what you need to live on, likewise. Use that knowledge to help you set the hourly rate you want to earn. A simple spreadsheet of your invoices with a running total can be used to forecast your tax and National Insurance bill. According to your money style, either save enough from each paid invoice to pay the tax on that invoice or do your tax return as early as you can and set up a direct debit with HMRC to pay in monthly instalments (more like a PAYE scheme, and there’s no temptation to dip into your tax pot before you pay it to HMRC). With interest rates so low, the satisfaction of knowing you’re paying down that tax bill rather than saving the money and earning on it may balance out easily. Attend HMRC webinars on business expenses and filling in your tax return.
*Louise Bolotin died in October 2022; her contributions are much missed.
If you’re starting out on your freelance journey, the CIEP’s guide Going Solo covers the finance basics, including tax and record-keeping obligations.
Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.