3 tips for riding the tricky cash rollercoaster

Illustrator Ben Tallon offers his financial strategy for surviving long-term design projects.

London-based freelance illustrator and art director Ben Tallon works with Channel 4, Russell Brand, the Guardian, Arsenal FC and WWE. He shares his top advice for surviving the cash rollercoaster.

Image: Żaneta Antosik

Confession: I've never been any good at cashflow. When I was 13 I would ask for 90p advances for my paper round so that I could take home Match magazine on the day of publication.

Come the weekend, I'd then have enough to make tough choices such as, on one occasion, either go on the date I had lined up with a local girl or buy fish and chips after swimming.

The only trouble is, as a freelancing adult, the consequences are a little more dangerous than teenage romance and fried food. Now it's rent payments and credit ratings.

2010/11's tax bill was paid on time thanks only to an outlandish and speculative football accumulator bet win. Since the panic of that year, I've taken to piling away an excess of tax money upon payment for my commissioned work, opting for 'just in case' over 'it'll be fine'.

Early on, my work came more or less exclusively from editorial clients. It is fast-paced, revolving-door kind of work and you're never far from two or three payments at once. So I'd operate always under the assurance that no matter how deep into the overdraft I'd delve, the next invoices were due.

My tax account grew fatter and come January, my over-compensation would soothe any cash flow discrepancies that might occur over the next 12 months.

Just recently, however, there's been a shift in the nature of my projects. More confidence in my work and stylistic improvements has brought about more diverse work for clients with longer turnarounds.

Branding illustration for Honest Coffee a not-for-profit co-working space in Manchester, by Ben Tallon

With every confirmed commission came a nice fee and an overall increase in earnings on paper, but after six weeks and the jobs still incomplete/not invoiced, I've spent all my emergency tax savings on my savage London rent and studio, not to mention bills and entertainment.

You can't rely on football results – that's not how gambling works – so here's what I've been doing…

01. Keep the small projects

I've been treating my editorial clients like my old paper-round boss, gently asking for speedy payments or advances with as much politeness as required to mask my urgency.

In an ideal world, I'd concentrate on these bigger projects, but we're all at the mercy of payment runs (most companies do a regular monthly schedule on a set day of the month, so a badly timed invoice can lead to a longer wait than your stipulated 30-day payment term) so I try to keep the smaller, faster jobs coming in and I get increasingly ruthless with the late payers.

02. Don't spend what you don't have

More importantly, I have to be a complete tyrant with myself. Smuggled hip flask to counter the £5 London pint scandal? It wouldn't be the first time. Accounting skills are alien to the majority of us creatives, so the factoring of any job fees into my financial plans happens only upon payment.

03. Speadsheets are the Holy Grail

Spreadsheets have infiltrated my life, but if they aid my effort to treat the football results as only a pleasurable interest in athleticism and rampant unpredictability which I try to keep separate from my finances, then bring it on.

This article first appeared inside Computer Arts issue 244: Earn More as a Designer - on sale now. Get up to 54 per cent off a subscription to CA here.

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