Tracking Freelance Earnings: April Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Tracking Freelance Writing Earnings
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Hi! If you’re new to this column: I’m tracking my freelance income every month and sharing it with all of you. This is my third year of public income tracking, and my first year sharing my income with The Write Life.

April was tax month, which meant I did a lot of taking stock: of my earnings, of the amount I need to set aside for freelance taxes and of the spreadsheet system I use to track my daily workload. So in this installment of Tracking Freelance Earnings, we’re all going to take stock together.

First, an overview: In April, I wrote 58,000 words and had an average per-piece earning of $64. My highest-paid piece was $300, and my lowest-earning piece was $35.

Completed Pieces: 86

Work Billed: $5,514.50

Earnings Received: $5,178.79

I’m still meeting my goal of earning $5,000 a month, and it already looks like I’m going to hit that goal for May, too.

How do I know how much I’m going to earn in May? Well, right now I earn about $3,800 a month from regular contributor assignments. These are sites like The Billfold, The Penny Hoarder and SparkLife, where I write a steady, predictable amount of pieces every week, which means recurring, consistent income.

As I recently wrote for my Ask A Freelancer column — also a regular contributor gig — turning freelance assignments into regular contributor gigs is one of the best ways to build freelancer security. (Here’s a post The Write Life published recently about how to do that.) Yes, when you’re freelancing you have to accept that clients will come and go, but even if one of my regular clients disappears, I still have several other contributor gigs that will bring predictable income into my bank account.

With that in mind, earning $5,000 a month requires pitching $1,200 worth of work. At this point, I have a lot of “occasional contributor” relationships with sites like Unbounce and Boing Boing, so my first attempt at filling that income gap is sending them ideas for posts. Pitching a client you already know is often more likely to be successful than cold-pitching a new client. I wrote about that in this month’s Scratch Magazine, if you’d like to read more about my thoughts on pitching — but I’m also happy to answer your pitch questions in the comments, so send ‘em in!

I should be very clear: even though I’ve worked with these clients before, they still don’t always accept the pitches I send! That means I have to constantly look for the best ideas that might be appropriate for each of these publications. I also sent a successful cold pitch this month, and began the process of building a new client relationship.

First quarter 2015 and freelance estimated taxes

The first quarter of 2015 ended on March 31, so let’s take a look at how I did:

Actual earnings received between January 1 and March 31 totaled $12,419.77. That’s a little less than the $15,000 I’d need to stay on target to earn $60,000 this year, but I am slowly catching up as more freelance payments come in. If I continue to earn like I’ve been for the last two months, my $60K pre-tax income goal is achievable.

That “pre-tax” designation is important. This year, my CPA suggested I set aside 20 percent of my income for freelance estimated taxes. (Other freelancers suggest setting aside 25 or even 30 percent, but keep in mind that I live in Washington State, which does not have a state income tax. Talk to your CPA about what might be right for you.)

Interestingly, I’m already behind on those payments. My CPA suggested I pay $2,100 for the first quarter estimated taxes due on April 15, but 20 percent of $12,419.77 is $2,484. It’s great that I’m earning more than my CPA predicted, of course, but this probably means I’ll need to pay more estimated taxes later this year to make up for additional earnings.

Now that I’ve paid my first quarter estimated tax burden, I’m proactively preparing for the next round of estimated taxes in June by sending 20 percent of every freelance paycheck I receive directly into a sub-savings account labeled “freelance taxes.” If you don’t save it in advance, it might not be there when you need it!

My freelance tracking spreadsheet

When you complete 86 pieces a month, you need a good tracking system to make sure every client gets everything they need on time. My freelance tracking spreadsheet is an essential part of making sure I write everything, pitch everyone and keep track of whether or not I’ve been paid.

Here’s how the spreadsheet works. Instead of explaining it, I’m going to drop in a visual:

Freelance writing jobs tracking spreadsheet

Click to see a larger version

(I’ve blacked out the “earned” column because, while I’m happy to talk about my income in the aggregate, it’s less appropriate to share what I earn from specific clients for individual pieces.)

Every day, I take a quick look at what needs to be completed before the day ends, both in terms of writing and administrative work. I can also easily see which pieces I’ve invoiced for, which still need invoices and which ones have been paid.

This freelance spreadsheet keeps me on track, and it also helps me plan out both my writing and administrative workload far in advance. Today, for example, a client asked if I could complete an extra job, and I was able to look at my schedule and see that the next two weeks were already fully booked with work.

It’s important to note that this spreadsheet is only as good as the person who fills it in; once, for example, I forgot to invoice for a piece, and didn’t notice there was an “x” missing in the column until a few months later. (I successfully submitted a late invoice and got paid.) It’s amazing what your eyes will skip over — earlier this year, for example, I put some wrong numbers into the “earned” column and thought I had earned a more than I actually did! I was later able to correct the error.

It takes constant vigilance to keep up with freelance administrative work, and as we learned last month, this work requires one to two hours of every workday. However, it’s an essential part of making sure I can earn that $3,800 of contributor work and pitch the $1,200 in new work that I need to earn $5,000 every month.

How do you keep track of freelance administrative tasks like deadlines and invoices? Do you use a spreadsheet, or do you prefer a software program like FreshBooks or Harvest?

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Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.... .

Nicole Dieker | @hellothefuture

Nicole Dieker
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Comments

  1. First, congrats. It’s no small feat to crank out 58K words in a month.

    Second, it’s always encouraging to see freelance writers hit their goals, and I appreciate your transparency with these monthly posts.

    I’d be interested to know how many hours you worked last month. I believe you mentioned that in a previous post.

    And to answer your questions, I use QuickBooks for invoicing and bookkeeping (because my CPA wife prefers it), Todoist to keep me on track, a Google Spreadsheet to remember what’s done, and Toggl to track time.

    • I really liked using Toggl when I did time tracking for my last post. I haven’t kept up on my time tracking, so I can’t give you an accurate number of hours worked in April, but I generally work between 40 and 50 hours a week.

      58K words doesn’t even count all the emails… so many emails…

  2. Hi Nicole,

    Thanks for sharing your income report and how you have it set up in a spreadsheet. I followed your format and plugged in all the work I’ve done since January. Really gave me some insights on the kind of work I’m doing, monthly income, and productivity. I didn’t track any of this before. Now I can see how important this is to growing a freelance business.

    • Oh, that’s so cool! I’m glad you are tracking your freelance work. It is WAY WAY WAY important to growing your career. 😀

  3. Really helpful, thanks. I’m just curious, were those five items on the spreadsheet all completed in one day?

    • Yes, they were! That doesn’t necessarily mean they were all STARTED on that day, though. But yeah, I do write at least three brand new articles, start-to-finish, every day.

  4. First off, I’m very impressed by your production levels. The fact that you do are producing so much content month after month is impressive.
    However, my question for you is how are you coming up with so many article ideas? You said last month alone you wrote 86 articles. Are you coming up with every idea? Wow!

    • I am not coming up with every idea, but I am probably coming up with 75 percent of them. A lot of what I do is repost-style articles sharing interesting news stories, so I spend a couple of hours every day searching the Internet for the best news. I also write a lot about my own life, and I always have a well of topics to draw from there!

  5. INNOSON GAMOR says:

    please am an Amateur freelancer and i want to know how to write to a client

  6. Nicole, I freaking LOVE these posts every month – thanks for willing to be so transparent and let us into your life a little. I’m just about to switch over from full-time plus freelancing on the side to full-time freelancing. Oh boy!

    My question for you is personal – do you love everything you write? As in, is it your dream to be writing about writing/freelance/finance? I ask simply because I wonder if/how you balance writing the stuff you want to write with client work. If you’re writing exactly what you want to be writing, that’s freaking awesome and I’m inspired! I’m mostly asking for myself because what I truly want to be writing is more personal essays and I’m trying to find a balance between pitching those and eating up all my time pitching/writing about stuff I know I can get hired to do but isn’t in my long-term goals of what I truly want to be wriwting. Curious if you’ve experienced this or not!

    • I don’t love everything I write, but I do love making money.

      I do, however, really enjoy writing about finance and the business of freelancing—I was publicly discussing my income for a long time on my personal blog.

      I think the balance between stuff you’ve always dreamed of writing and stuff you write to pay the bills is important. I also think that for most of us, it will always be a balance.

      • Great answer, Nicole. It IS a balance for all of us! But I also love the truth in your first line: “I don’t love everything I write, but I do love making money.”

        Marian, I’m really interested in how you get on placing more personal essays. That’s my passion, too, and I don’t do enough of it!

        ~Alexis, founder of TWL

        • Yes to all the things! I love both your answers. I’m still not quite freelancing full time (ohmygodistartonmonday), but I’m terrified that the constant pitch-write-edit-pitch cycle is going to exhaust me to the point that I won’t have the time or energy to write the things I truly love to write – books, personal essays, stories.

          That said, the best solution I’ve found (so far) is to write the stuff I’m passionate about first thing – give my best work to my favorite work because the client work will always find a way to get done. It’s so much easier to find excuses to not do our passion projects.

  7. Girl, you are seriously a MACHINE! Good for you you:-) I use Freshbooks for invoicing, but I have my own PNL tracker that I’ve created for income tracking. Then I have a separate Google doc to track my assignments.

    Do you ever write for free anymore? I.e. guest posts for other sites, your own blog? All of these are lucrative for me (to build my platform and for course sales), but I imagine it must be terribly hard for you to?

    Keep it up!

    • I write for free all the time at my Tumblr, but those are super short blog posts. I can’t remember the last time I wrote for free for someone else. No publication has ever asked me to write for free.

      • Hi Gina! I wanted to chime in here, because I occasionally write for free — but only when there’s clear ROI other than a check, such as website traffic, newsletter signups, product sales, brand/name awareness, etc. And sometimes just for fun =)

        ~Alexis, founder of TWL

  8. Well done! I’m trying to make the switch to full-time freelance and having a really hard time figuring out how much to pitch. Right now, I only pitch as much as I can take, so as to not overpromise and not be able to deliver. I.e., as if every pitch was successful and I was writing it right now. If you’ve already explained this, I apologize, but how many things do you pitch? As much as you know you can handle? Or do you expect some stories not to be accepted and pitch “too much,” so to speak?

    • It’s hard to say. I sort of go by instinct here. And sometimes I end up working late if it turns out all the pitches get accepted!

  9. Nicole, Thanks for posting yet another totally inspiring article. I was also happy to see you tackle the tax question in this post. One thing I’ve been wondering is how much a person needs to earn before reporting it.

    • I believe that the IRS likes you to report all income earned, no matter how small! 😉 I am not a tax expert, so I can’t give you a real answer here.

  10. Hi Nicole

    Very cool post, thanks for sharing! I’m curious, as someone who lives outside the US I have no yardstick for measuring how good of an income $5000 per month is. Would you say in your industry it’s average or above average?

    Ang 🙂

    • I’m not sure whether it’s above or below average, but I do know that I’m making a middle-class income according to census standards, so that seems like a positive sign.

Trackbacks

  1. […] keep a running tally of every penny I’ve earned as a freelancer, as all good freelancers should. I also keep a tally of how much money I’m going to earn from […]

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