It's one thing to know that you need to carefully track business expenses and income as a free agent. But how do you actually do that? Collect and manage and track your money? You asked us for real examples of how people keep the business side of Me, Inc., running smoothly. So here's some sound advice (and nitty gritty details) from other free agents.
Cathy Berkley, worldwide programs manager for Sun Educational Services since August 1997, was a free agent multimedia consultant for three years previously in Boulder, Colo.:
"I keep financial and other records in a FileMaker Pro database, and I use Quicken to keep track of my bank account. I keep records of beginning and ending mileage in my calendar-and I keep receipts in an expandable file organized by category: utilities, house payment, medical, clothing, and food. When I was a free agent, I used credit cards for most of my business expenses, and every month, when the credit card bills arrived, I'd go through and highlight them with different colored markers-blue for medical, yellow for hotel and rental car expenses, pink for transportation expenses like gas, purple for miscellaneous expenses such as office supplies and diskettes that I had to keep track of for taxes, and green for food. When tax time comes, I import my FileMaker Pro database into an Excel spreadsheet and pass my records over to a tax specialist who knows the ins and outs of free agency."
Sharon Leili runs a graphic design business in Bridgewater, NJ, designing corporate logos, newspaper and magazine ads, corporate collateral, and other print materials.:
"I started as a free agent in 1989 after working for several ad agencies. I liked working on my own projects, and after working at one agency for four years, I was let go. I took that so personally. Obviously, I'm never going to get fired working for myself.
Working for agencies, I got to see how they itemized their estimates for clients. I had to keep a time sheet. So learning how to track these things on my own wasn't a hard change. Each assignment has a job jacket, and I keep track of the date I took the job, my starting and stopping times when I work on it, my scanning and printing expenses, Federal Express and other delivery charges. I keep the jackets in two bins: active and completed.
"There's also a hanging file folder that I keep organized. There are folders for FedEx, received invoices marked "paid" with the date, receipts for things I bought with cash, receipts for things I bought with credit cards, auto expenses, health insurance, tax forms, and letters-invoices, thank you letters, second invoices. I group the records monthly and use Quicken to manage my bank accounts.
"But at the end of every week, I send out invoices to my clients. If I don't, it just builds up. I need to have those checks coming in. Most of my clients pay me no later than 60 days, but in graphic design, that can kill you. After a month had passed on an invoice, I used to call once a week to remind a client to pay, but people would get irritated. Now I tag people who haven't paid yet with a pink sticky note, and once a month - when I do my weekly invoices - I go through second invoices and send them out. And it works! When I called, it wasn't good; it was personal. The clients felt like I was hounding them for money. Sending a second invoice is impersonal, and they can just send me a check. They don't have to come up with an excuse. It doesn't leave a bad taste in their mouth."
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.