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Most conversations I have today with freelancers is about getting paid. More and more are working towards the goal of leaving the mirage that is “job security” to take full control of their income only to face the inner voice of doubt.

Ahhh...sweet, sweet masochistic freedom.

This is easier said than done though as anyone who dares this path knows just how rocky it can get when it comes to getting paid and you have to be downright vigilant if you want to keep it consistent. So before we go further I have a message to all aspiring freelancers: It isn’t for everyone.

But good news buckaroos! If you’re ready but fearful about income we’ve got some tips to get your billing razor sharpened and get you on a healthier path to getting paid. And while we can’t guarantee your financial success we can lay out what has worked for us.


You Need Two Things
01. Bonsai:
I’ve never promoted software on our site and I won’t make it a habit but the best bang for your buck in billing software today is Bonsai. It does the dirty work for you when it comes time to get paid and as a bonus handles proposals and client agreements like a dream. I won’t bore you with the nuts and bolts so just download it for free and get to know it because it’s about to be your strongest ally in making money.

02. Any Calendar:
The next thing you need is a reliable calendar that you can share with your clients for projects. This one’s up to you because there are hundreds just make sure you have one that works for you and your client that you can manage painlessly.

Got it? Good.

Accountability Makes More Than Talent
Ready for a doozie? You’re completely in charge of when you get paid (not how much, we’ll get to that – but WHEN).

When you take on a project a timeline needs to be set for the entirety of the project, yes including a completion date. Give yourself room for the unexpected to happen (it always does). Scopes can change mid-project so it’s vital your clients know timelines are tentative but as a professional, you should treat them as gospel. If something gets pushed then the shared calendar should be updated immediately to reflect.
Getting consistently paid as a designer beats from the pulse of accountability.
Do the work, present, get paid. Clients love this dynamic as they’re watching their
vision come to life and you’re excited because you’re delivering with tenacity. This is how you keep billing coming in.

What about net 30, 60, 90?
Try to stray from these payment types as they’re awful for client/designer relationships but if you must, don’t deliver anything until each net payment clears. Don’t be afraid to push back a little here. You’d be amazed at when companies can pay up when they really need something.

Tip: Spread out payments on milestone achievements. This tackles two objectives; One, your client knows exactly when to expect deliverables which keeps you accountable and two, everyone knows when the next payment is due.

How Much Should I Charge?
Welcome to the most worthless question of your career. Instead of asking “how much should I charge?” you should be asking “HOW should I charge?” Getting paid for your work happens before the work (work is the easy part).

When talking to a new client you should be thinking about billing first and the work second.

Approaching how you get paid is imperative and it begins on the first conversation with a client. Prospective new work is exciting and euphoric but put the rose-colored glasses on one frame at a time.

Don’t Charge Hourly:
I don’t advise charging hourly when it comes to digital work. No job is the same as the last and billing hourly is equivalent to concrete boots. Work in the digital realm requires extensive exploration, fine-tuning, even bashing your head against the wall and clients don’t want to pay hourly for that. Take it from us, we tried billing hourly for a brief period and it was a disaster.

Fixed-Rate is Better:
Every project at some point in time will get a wrench thrown in the gears that you likely didn’t account for. Sometimes small, sometimes big but it will happen so you need to factor this in accordingly with estimates – *cough* Bonsai. The beauty of quoting with fixed rates is it forces you to itemize the project’s specifications and needs. We suggest separating each section in chunks (design, development, illustration, et al). Get a price you are comfortable with for each section – and here’s the important part – pad in some extra to account for the inevitable wrench because it’s coming.

Is My Work Valuable?
Awww, look at us with our self-doubt. On the world’s timeline the internet just became operational so being a digital architect is new and leaves more questions than answers, but yes it’s extremely valuable. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re ready to take control of your billing:

  • How long have you been in your practice?
  • Can the sum of your creation make your client more than what they pay you?
  • What do my peers charge for this type of job?
  • Have you paid your professional dues?
If you can’t answer these confidently don’t fret, right now freelancing may not be for you. But if you can and are ready then you know the numbers you can live comfortably with. Notice I said comfortably, not lavishly (if you get to that point more power to you.)

Tip: Go with what you believe is fair for the job paired with your experience level then work your way up with each executed job under your belt. It’s ok to scrub the deck for a while but eventually, you need to steer the ship.

Take a Knee and Propose
Proposals are the life force of your billing. It’s not just how you send proposals, but also when that is so vital to securing new work. The trick to getting new clients consistently is making new leads a priority especially when they’re not a client yet. You should be aiming to deliver for them from day one – Accountability.

Here’s how to make a new client fast:

  • Send over a questionnaire to the new client. Once received back schedule a call ASAP.
  • Discuss the project in full detail.
  • Once the call ends draft up a proposal immediately while it’s fresh with a detailed breakdown and the entire project timeline.
  • Send the proposal within 8 hours from the conversation.
  • If the proposal is accepted send a deposit request the same day to secure the job.
This may sound overeager but prospective new work can die on the vine from lethargy so time is of the essence. I’m not suggesting you start the work tomorrow but aim to secure the work on the same day and be upfront with a comfortable, solid start date for all parties in the proposal.

Tip: We don’t suggest sending proposals or taking conferences on Fridays. If it’s Thursday and you need to schedule a conference make it for Monday.

Mob Money
Let’s talk about taxes. As you know I would never say anything bad about my good pals in the IRS – Ha! No way, we play tennis together and drive each other’s kids to school. They’re my best friends. Yes, they have some mafioso type tendencies but who hasn’t shut down businesses and put people in prison once or twice? I suppose the IRS is a bit like the mafia. Ok, they’re the literal mafia. There, happy?

We all know this song and dance by now. If you’re making money you owe money; simple as that. The IRS can turn the lights off on everything in your life and we would know. In 2011 we nearly collapsed with a $20k bill on back taxes we owed for filing wrong when we set up our business. So let me state clearly – if you’re going freelance get a CPA to handle your taxes. One of the best parts of being your own boss is being able to admit when you’re not the boss so delegate accordingly.

Tip: Taxes are the single biggest pain point you will deal with as a freelancer so don’t even bother trying to handle them all yourself.

Find Your Zero
This is a small step but it’s essential to stay alive as a freelancer and you can implement it right now. No matter where you are in your career you should determine exactly what zero dollars means to you. What I mean by this is zero should never be zero.

As you watch your billing coming in and going out determine what the catastrophic number is to you so if a drought comes your way you have a bailout plan before it gets bad. Maybe your zero is $500, maybe $5,000, higher is always better with this rule but whatever that number is only you can determine it.

Tip: Be over-prepared.

Have You Met My New Wife Capitalism?
I wrestled with not sounding like a capitalist here but I can’t escape that my hair is greying and I’m no longer willing to die on the hill of ‘designer purism’ that scoffs at money. Yes, the background behind me changed with kids, a mortgage, and a wife that likes to travel but that doesn’t negate my want is the same; to help people like myself be successful in life and carve out a path they can stomach.

There is a fire inside each freelancer that usurps money so it makes sense we match with the adage of the starving artist on a personality scale and don’t necessarily like this area of business any more than they do. But being filled with passion and broke sucks. Besides, who wants to live that way forever?

Getting paid is critical to everyone. I’m not championing caviar for breakfast, I’m revering a professional life on your terms where visits to the grocery store isn’t a fire drill. I want up and coming freelancers to know there is a higher ground to reach here and while it won’t be easy it can be obtained with strategy.

Tip: Money isn’t everything until you don’t have any.

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