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Self-Employed? 10 Must-Have Tools to Keep Your Finances Organized

Maryalene LaPonsie

Whether it's working as a freelancer or opening a business, self-employment is an appealing career choice for many people. However, working for yourself comes with a lot of responsibility.

"Self-employed people wear many hats, namely, all of them," says Krista Fabregas, e-commerce editor for FitSmallBusiness.com. Those include playing the roles of financial planner, tax preparer and bookkeeper among other things.

To keep all these duties in check, self-employed people will need some or all of the following tools:

Multiple bank accounts. At the very least, those working for themselves should have a separate checking account for business or work expenses. However, some experts say it's even better to set up multiple accounts. "Have one [account] for taxes where at least 20 percent of each invoice paid or product sold is automatically deposited," says Kelley Long, CPA and member of the American Institute of CPAs' Consumer Financial Education Advocates.

[Read: Using Self-Employment to Transition to Retirement.]

Business credit card. Not every self-employed person needs a credit card, but those who do should use a dedicated one just for work. Dawn-Marie Joseph, president of Estate Planning & Preservation in Williamston, Michigan, is partial to her American Express card. She owns several small businesses and says, "I use [it] for everything." The card categorizes her spending and makes it easy to tally up expenses for budgeting or tax purposes.

Emergency fund. Everyone should have an emergency fund, but it is especially important for those who might have irregular income. A cash reserve can smooth out the bumps of lean months and help workers avoid having to seek employment elsewhere to fill in budgetary gaps.

Tax preparation service. Taxes are significantly different when you're working for yourself. Not only will you likely have to pay more, but you'll need to submit quarterly payments. "I've seen taxes destroy more than one self-employed person's chance at success because they honestly had no idea how much they'd actually have to pay," Long says.

There is an added burden for those who employ others. Joseph, who provides tax and payroll services, says she sees clients who don't understand their obligations as employers and miss important deadlines. Regardless of whether you hire a professional or do it yourself, have a plan for how to handle tax issues in advance so you're not scrambling in April.

[See: How to Reduce Your Tax Bill by Saving for Retirement.]

Payment processor. Self-employed people need to have a way to get paid, and a number of platforms are available to process payments for small businesses and independent contractors such as Square, PayPal and Stripe. Plus, there are specialized services available that will both process payments and deliver digital content.

"With Stem, we created an application that makes it super easy to distribute work for sale," says Milana Rabkin, co-founder and CEO of Stem, a payment distribution platform. The site sends creative works to Apple, YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud, and then divvies the proceeds of sales among all partners in the project. "It eliminates the need for one person to pay out collaborators," Rabkin says.

Budgeting software. Managing a budget used to be a time-intensive process. "When I first started, you did everything on an Excel sheet," Joseph says. Now, software such as QuickBooks and Quicken allow for simple data entry and custom reporting. "All I have to do is hit a button at the end of the year," Joseph says, describing the ease of tabulating income and expenses.

Expense tracker. To have an accurate budget, self-employed workers need to meticulously track expenses and keep documentation for tax purposes. There's no shortage of apps to help people manage their finances. MileIQ is one way to track business mileage automatically, while Expensify will pull expense data directly from credit card statements.

Matt Goolding, a freelance digital marketing consultant and founder of the collective KYO, is partial to 1Tap Receipts. This app lets him take photos of receipts he needs to save. "It allows me to store my receipts in the cloud, extract the relevant information and it automatically feeds into my tax return," he says. "This takes a load off my mind and makes tax returns much easier at the end of the financial year."

Invoicing system. You could create your own invoice template, or you could use a digital system. Rabkin recommends Invoice2go as a good, flexible option. "It's really difficult for an artist to keep track of when they are getting paid because the terms are always different," she says. However, apps like Invoice2go allow people to manage multiple invoices and flag overdue payments.

Bundled service provider. While you could use a collection of apps and software for budgeting, expense tracking and invoices, a bundled service ties them together in a convenient package. "Seventeen years ago, there was one game in town," Fabregas says. "It was either QuickBooks or an accountant."

QuickBooks is still around, but it has been joined by competitors such as FreshBooks, Xero, Square and Due. Fabregas notes that not all options will provide every service, and it's important to consider future needs before settling on a particular program. "One thing I've learned the hard way is that some of that data is hard to take with you [if you need to upgrade to a different provider]," Fabregas says.

[Read: How to Save for Retirement Without a 401(k).]

Retirement plan. Saving for retirement falls solely on the shoulders of the self-employed, but it's an easy expense to skip. "Self-employed people, especially solopreneurs who operate as consultants, often neglect saving for retirement because the prospect of opening an account seems too confusing or overwhelming," Long says. However, having an IRA or other account in your toolbox is essential if you want to eventually go from being self-employed to enjoying the fruits of your labor in retirement.



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