By David Bakke
For all the benefits of working as an independent professional, there is one common challenge: an unpredictable income stream. According to MBO Partners’ latest State of Independence in America report, the top source of concern for freelancers is a lack of predictable income, followed by similar concerns—worries about job pipeline and planning for retirement.
Getting by without a predictable paycheck requires organization, preparation, and budgeting. Fortunately, in response to this need, a plethora of online services and software have become available to help the growing number of freelancers and contractors manage their incomes and stay prepared in the face of financial uncertainty.
An architect doesn't build a skyscraper without a blueprint, so how can anyone expect to build and manage a financial structure without a plan of attack?
The key tool in getting a handle on fluctuating finances is a budget. Online services like BudgetTracker, BudgetPulse, and Billster all provide a platform to organize every financial aspect of life. They help users set reminders and priorities, and collect information so that potential problems can be spotlighted and solutions offered.
The first step in most of these programs is to project a monthly income. The second is typically to plot out expenses. It's also common to classify expenses according to importance. For example, home payments, energy costs, and food expenses are non-negotiable musts. Gym membership dues, cell phone insurance, and high-speed internet may be priorities, but not vital, while other expenses like vacation budgets, movie tickets, and restaurants are luxuries that can be slashed from the list if a monthly income doesn't allow them. This kind of categorization can be particularly useful for adjusting a budget as you go, in response to a fluctuating income.
There are countless financial management and online accounting tools that go beyond basic budgeting and also address a range of financial strategies and situations (check out our review of the top options here).
Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax are reliable tools for managing finances and preparing taxes. There are also tools, such as Manilla, that incorporate financial management with online bill payment and tracking.
Expenser is one of many innovative programs that allow users to compare their spending habits with other users in similar financial situations. PearBudget relies on common third-party software like OpenOffice, Microsoft Excel or Word, and nests its program within it. The very popular online tool Mint.com allows users to link checking, savings, and credit card accounts under a master password and to make money transfers and bill payments within the program itself. There are also programs, such as Personal Capital, that offer both investment advice and personal budgeting services to high-income users. And these days, most programs have apps available on both Android and iOS platforms.
Managing personal finances can be difficult for any type of earner, but poses unique challenges to freelancers. Fortunately, freelancers have a variety of products and options to choose from, and most of them are free. As the workforce continues to evolve, there will undoubtedly be additional tools and innovations that appear in this space, so stay tuned.
Do you use any of these tools for financial planning? Do you have any favorites to add to the list? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
David Bakke is a contributor for Money Crashers Personal Finance, a site that covers online business, money management, technology, and more.