Hungry writers do terrible things.
We take gigs we know we shouldn’t, because we’re desperate and need the money. A few months later, we realize this dysfunctional low-payer is sucking up too much time and making us go broke even faster.
Worse, some writers end up having to give up and go crawling back to those day jobs we hate.
Why do so many writers report feast-and-famine cycles and times when they’re out of cash and scrambling for any sort of gig?
Two main reasons:
- Not enough marketing to get a steady stream of leads
- Lack of understanding of cash flow
What is cash flow? It’s the movement of money through your business. What you want is cash flowing out of your business slower than cash flows in. That leaves you with cash on hand.
When things go wrong, cash goes out too fast and comes in too slow, and presto — you’re broke.
Often, I meet writers who early quite well, but still have cash crises. They make enough, but the money never seems to show up fast enough to cover the bills! The timing is off.
With some careful management, you can improve your cash flow, even if you don’t get a raise or more clients.
Here is my primer on how to change your business so that your cupboard doesn’t get bare:
I know, I just said you wouldn’t have to get a raise or new clients. But in fact, one of the easiest ways to have more cash is to get paid more. So if you can ramp up your marketing, do it. If you have clients you’ve worked for over a year and you have a good relationship, consider asking for a raise.
If you’re sloppy on some of the cash-flow management tips I give below, simply having more income will help keep you from running into a cash-flow problem. (I promise all the rest of these tips you can do no matter what your client situation.)
Charging appropriate, professional rates for your work instead of rock-bottom Craigslist-ad type rates is a quick route to growing your income. Replacing even one lower-paying gig with a better-paying one will improve the picture. And that will help you stave off Empty Bank Account Syndrome.
Unless you are living off the grid in a yurt in rural Idaho or something along those lines, there are probably expenses you can cut. For instance, our family made the decision to go down to one car about two years back, even though we’ve had three drivers at home. It takes a decent bit of juggling and taking the bus, but the savings from not insuring and maintaining a second car have been well worth it.
We’ve also become fans of shopping Goodwill for kids’ clothes before we hit the retail stores. I saved $300 doing that recently compared with hitting Target first last fall.
I recently met a writer who informed me she has no home phone, Internet, or cable TV bill. She gets by using the library computers and her cell phone.
To cut expenses, take this challenge from Your Money or Your Life: Write down every cent you spend for three months. Analyze your spending patterns and see whether you feel you get a good value for each cost. If not, chop it.
Do you have a garage full of vintage movie posters, antique toys, or other valuable stuff? Hit eBay and create a savings account from what you make. I have friends who’ve taken this large scale in the downturn and have sold off boats and second homes to lower their nut.
Whether you take it large or small scale, getting rid of things you’re not using frees up space, saves on maintenance and storage costs, and give you cash to put in the bank. Speaking of which…
Once you grow your income, raise cash from selling off belongings, and/or learn to live on less, you should begin to have excess cash — money that doesn’t have to be spent immediately to pay bills. Don’t get all excited and go to Disneyland with it…at least not until you build up a six-month emergency fund.
If you have no cash cushion, it’s time to cut back on any dinners out and movies and trips and such until you’ve got one.
With money in the bank, your lean times become less of a cause for panic. You have money to tide you over.
Feels less scary already, hm?
Get paid faster
As the years went along in my freelance business, I became increasingly obsessed with asking prospects this question:
When will I be paid?
Too often, writers plunge in without a contract and only a dim idea of payment terms. Many writers make sure they know the rate of pay, but not necessarily when that money has to be forked over.
The fact is, if your contract (you have one, yes?) doesn’t say when you must be paid, then you don’t have to be paid, ever. The client could pay you five years from now and you couldn’t even sue them. This is the kind of stuff that causes major cash-flow trouble!
Moral of the story: Make sure you define payment terms, especially when the final payment is due. It’s easy to keep the checks coming while you’re in the middle of a big project, but often writers are fuzzy on what triggers the final payment.
I prefer “Final payment due within 14 days of turning in first draft if no changes needed or on acceptance of final draft, whichever comes sooner.” That locks it down so if you don’t hear a peep after you turn in your draft — possibly because the client hopes to delay their final payment — two weeks later your money is due.
If your client is a slow-paying magazine, it may be time to try to renegotiate your payment terms. For instance, I got one foot-dragger to switch from paying on publication to paying 50 percent when I turned in my first draft, which made the long wait for final payment easier.
Many writers are confused about when to send clients a bill, or just feel nervous to hit ‘send’ on it. My answer? I send the bill right along with my first draft.
No, I do not wait to see if they like it. Or to find out if they want changes. My bill goes out immediately.
One reason I do that is I find I forget unless I do it right away! The other reason is to get into my client’s billing system as fast as possible.
At many companies, checks are only cut once or twice a month. Dither around a week or three waiting for an editor’s feedback, and you could easily find yourself waiting until next month’s check cycle. Where you might have had a check in two weeks, now that stretches to six or eight. It’s exactly these sort of delays that lead to a cash crunch.
Contact late payers immediately
After when to bill, the next awkward situation for many writers crops up when the check doesn’t arrive.
Try to keep in mind this is just business. You are running a business, and if people don’t pay you when they’re supposed to, you get into money trouble. So you have to collect on your bills.
I keep strict track of due dates and the day after a check was supposed to turn up, I’m on the phone or emailing the client.
Keep it calm and professional. A typical message from me:
Subject line: Checking on invoice #XXX due 00/00/13
Hi client –
I’m just checking in on my bill sent on X date. It was due yesterday, so wanted to make sure you received it.
Can you let me know when I can expect payment?
Pay bills slower
Remember those old Paul Masson wine commercials? Here the motto is “Pay no bill before its time.”
If you’re having cash-flow problems, instead of paying bills twice a month, note the due date on each bill and don’t send it until the payment is needed. Yes, this can take up a bit more time as you may end up writing checks more often through the month. But meanwhile, the money stays in your pocket.
To extend this strategy further, there are some bills you can pay late without penalty. Utilities and cable bills often won’t penalize you, for instance, and house taxes can go a little late, too. If something must be paid late to keep a bank balance, delay the bills where you won’t be hit with a late fee or interest charges.
Avoid charges and take discounts
While we’re talking bills, some offer a discount if you pay it all up front. If so, you know what to do.
Other bills will ding you with a late fee or charge you interest if you’re slow. Make sure you get those bills to the top of the pile and take care of them first.
Personally, nothing burns me up like knowing I could have taken the family out to dinner, but instead paid a $30 late fee on a credit card and $20 of interest because my payment didn’t get there on time. Watch those credit-card due dates to keep more cash, and mail those puppies 10 days ahead of the date to make sure you aren’t charged — the mail is slow these days.
If you have a big bill that shows up at a time of the month when you often are low on cash, call the company and see if you can change your due date. Often, they’re happy to oblige, and you can smooth out a cash-flow dip with a single phone call.
For instance, here at Tice Hall we make split mortgage payments — half at the beginning and half in the middle of the month. That’s easier on cash flow than having to pay the whole amount at once.
Tracking cash-flow trends
If you’re having cash-flow problems, I strongly recommend tracking your cash flow. Where is money going? When is money coming in, and from where? In the rush of work and family life, it’s often all a blur and you lose track of where the money all goes.
Keep a profit-and-loss statement that records your cash on hand at the beginning of the month, income and expenditures, and cash at the end. After a few months, you’ll begin to see trends.
Ask yourself: Is cash increasing or slowly draining away? Is there one client whose consistent late payments are the main source of trouble?
You might also track hours for a month to see which clients is truly your lowest hourly rate. How many hours are you giving that client? Maybe it’s time to make a change.
Getting a raise from one low-payer, or finding one new client who pays more promptly can make a big difference.
The whole secret of how I built my income to six figures was consistently analyzing cash flow and adjusting accordingly. I dropped low and slow payers and replaced them with better and more prompt payers – simple as that — until I had the income I wanted.
How’s your cash flow? Leave a comment and share your tips for keeping more cash.