How to manage your freelance cashflow

Here's seven top tips for taking care of the business side of freelance life.

The relationship between art and commerce is a rocky one, and it's particularly rocky when you're a freelancer. For all its many joys, being your own boss also means being your own accounting department and occasional bailiff.

Freelancers face three key issues: staying on top of the paperwork, getting paid and ensuring the taxman doesn't chuck you in prison. Taking care of all that can eat into the time you'd rather spend on designing. So how do others do it?

01. Start a spreadsheet

One of a series of map illustrations by illustrator Elly Walton

Elly Walton has been a freelance illustrator for 10 years. Her client list reads like a who's who of the advertising, design and publishing fields, but despite her success, she's been using "pretty much the same old Excel spreadsheet with my incomings, outgoings and tax payable on it" all that time.

Walton also records "the jobs as they come in, how I got them and whether it was a result of promotion or word of mouth," she explains. "It makes a nice, pretty graph that I look at occasionally to review my marketing."

Walton uses an Adobe Photoshop template for invoices, prints hard copies – "I like to have a stack of physical paper to check through and stamp a little 'PAID' on it when it's paid" – and invoices jobs on completion.

02. Don't procrastinate

Hand Lettering Headlines, by Ely Walton

Procrastination, says Walton, is the enemy: "[Tax] isn't really that painful, but it's a hell of a lot more painful if you leave it until the deadline."

If you're a sole trader in the UK you'll pay Income Tax on your profits (sales less expenses) as well as National Insurance contributions; limited companies pay Corporation Tax on business profits; and if you're turning over more than £81,000 per year (it happens!) there's quarterly VAT too.

It may be worth registering even if your turnover is less: under the Flat Rate Scheme someone in advertising can charge 20% but only pays 11%.

03. Consider an accountant

An architectural drawing, Belle & Bunting, by Scottish illustrator Willa Gebbie

Doing your own tax return isn't difficult, but if you're VAT registered or running a company you might want to consider hiring an accountant. It isn't too expensive and there's something enormously satisfying about handing over a shoebox full of receipts and never having to worry about it ever again.

Like Elly Walton, beauty, fashion and portrait illustrator Willa Gebbie used a system based around a spreadsheet, in this case Google Docs, but in 2013 she decided to switch to FreeAgent.

"That's when I finally got around to having a proper business account as well," she says. Until then she hadn't felt it was necessary, not least because business accounts come with a plethora of charges after the first year.

"A normal account will do, as long as you keep your work money and personal money clearly separate," Gebbie says. "As a sole trader, it's unlikely that you'll need the benefits (or costs) of a business account, so it's better saving those few pounds."

Gebbie is a big fan of FreeAgent. "I love how it completes my tax return for me, it's truly a godsend," she says, adding that "it's really good at assigning bank payments to invoices automatically, so I can tell really quickly who has or hasn't paid."

Next page: four more top tips on how to manage your freelance cashflow