Freelancing: What’s in an Invoice?

Invoices are the lifeblood of a freelancer: they’re how you get paid! So what needs to go into one?

What you’ll want to make is a template, that you can re-use as you (hopefully) do more work for the same client, or that you can repurpose for use with a new client. Your invoice should include:

Your name and contact information
Invoices usually go through HR, not your contact (or not only your contact), so you’ll need to make sure you have your name, phone number, and email address. I think these days physical addresses are optional, unless you are getting your checks mailed to you! Make sure you update this if any one of these items changes.

Invoice number
You’ll need to have invoice numbers on your invoices for each client you work for. It’s on you to keep track of these, and to keep the invoice numbers for each client separate. Some employers will have a format they prefer, but if not, I suggest coming up with two letter company codes to go before each of your invoice numbers.

For example, if you were working for Pepsi and Coke, you could keep track as follows:

PE001
CO001
PE002
PE003
CO002

Of course, you’ll be keeping a list of your invoices (see below), so they’ll be separate—I’m just demonstrating here for the example.

Invoice submission date
It’s critical for both you and your client to know when you submitted your invoice, so please include the date under the invoice number. And be honest with your dates!

The personal name to whom the invoice should be addressed, the client’s company name, and the company address
You always want to make sure this information is on your invoice, in case it gets misplaced or misdirected within your client’s organization!

A table for filling in the actual work you did
Using a table will make filling in future invoices much easier. The table should include the following columns:

  • Quantity
  • Project serial number (optional)
    • This is meant for jobs where any assignments you get come with a project number (for example, when I was a freelance proofreader, this would have been for ISBNs).
  • Title of project
  • Hours spent/pay rate quantity
    • The title of this column will vary, but it is meant to indicate the quantity by which your pay is being calculated. For some people, that will be hours spent; others, the pages/images/illustrations completed, etc. Label this in a way that makes sense for you.
  • Pay rate (your total pay per that line item)
  • The final line should have a “total” column, for the total due per the invoice.
  • A notes area
    The value of a notes area will become clear as you start freelancing—this is where you can create stipulations for your work and for payment of the invoice. This is where you’ll want to create and include rules for all the things you do/don’t want to happen in your client relationship. For example, if the client says they pay in 30 days, include a “Net 30” here to make sure your payment should be processed on time.
  • Signature lines for you and your client (optional)
    In our digital age, few invoices are actually truly signed anymore. However, by adding a signature line, you’ll give the expectation that the invoice should be signed, and honestly, it just looks more professional.
  • PROTIP: KEEP A RECORD OF INVOICES YOU’VE SUBMITTED
    After you submit an invoice, make sure you keep a record of the invoice number, amount due, date submitted, and date of expected payment. Keep this document private and secure, but refer back to it at least once a month (I’d advise every two weeks) so you can make sure your invoices are being processed and paid.


    When you start working with a new client, make sure you read over their invoicing policies thoroughly, and ask any and all questions you need to in order to make sure you know how it works, and that you and your client are on the same page about how, and when, you’ll get paid. Happy invoicing!

    Freelancing: How to Find Clients/Work

    This is a big topic, and honestly, there isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Here are some tips I’ve found that have worked for me, or that I’ve heard working for others, but please let me know if I’ve missed something crucial!

    Networking

    As with most everything I’ve talked about so far, networking is the most reliable way to get new work as a freelancer; but again, I don’t mean just throwing cards to whoever walks by. It’s crucial to develop strong networks of people who are in your industry, people who use your services, and experts and mentors in your field and adjacent fields, as it’s these networks that may lead to opportunities being sent your way. However, please don’t build your network with the sole intention to get work—build your network to learn from others, to teach what you know, and to find compatriots with whom to share successes and to compare rates, employers, and general industry trends. Your network is your professional base, and can take the place of coworkers as a freelancer. Value these people as your friends and VIPs, as in freelance more than anywhere else they will influence the future opportunities you receive. After all, freelancers generally pass work along to those who they trust to handle overflow from their own clients, and stake their name on sending you as a recommendation. Good standing in freelance networks is everything.

    Industry events

    These are crucial for building your network. As always, I recommend volunteering—this gives you the opportunity to organically meet new people (including crucial people!) in your industry, for them to see you at work (even though your volunteer work may not be your day-to-day job), and for them to associate you with responsibility. Of course, “volunteering as exposure” is a dangerous road. Only volunteer for organizations or conferences which have a demonstrated record of good work and whose mission you support. A great volunteer strategy I heard about the other day is to still invoice for any work you do (this is intended for, say, graphic design work—not for volunteering at a conference in exchange for an attendee badge) and to “discount” your official rate so the invoice zeroes out. Not only does this let others know your real working rates and are aware of what they’re getting for free, but it gives you firmer ground to stand upon when you are being asked too much, or when you want to start charging for the same work.  And as a freelancer, one of the first things you should develop is an invoice template. We’ll go into this next time.

    Previous Jobs

    Many companies rely on freelancers to deal with work overflow, and who better to ask than someone who already knows how to do the work? When leaving a job (if you want to continue working with the company (and aren’t being terminated)), let your manager know you’d still be interested in doing some freelance work. You can always reach out to companies you worked for years before, as long as you left on good terms. Keep in mind that the longer ago the job was for you, the more likely procedures and processes have changed, but some companies may be willing to bring you in and bring you up to speed with some (paid!) training. After all, it will be cheaper for them to train someone who knows most everything than to find and train an unknown quantity.

    Industry-oriented sites

    I suggest these with a huge grain of salt: Many internet forums and databases for freelancers can be rife with predatory clients, and with fellow freelancers based worldwide who may be able to work for cheaper than you can compete with. That being said, good clients can still be found on these sites. Do some Googling and ask around your network to find the appropriate sites for your industry, and to ask how they work—best practices for applying for jobs, posting, etc. And if you do find a good client through one of these sites, make sure to follow up with them after the job is done to ask if they’ll keep you on their roster and keep you in mind for future work. If they offer feedback, take it—people rarely take the effort to give feedback if they don’t think you’re able to improve.

    Social media

    This one is risky, so again, take the big grain of salt. By posting your portfolio and rates on social media, and by posting your expertise and engaging with others when possible, you can broaden your reach and find clients through Twitter, Instagram, and especially (for some industries) LinkedIn. Building your organic network is still your priority on these sites, but you may find work coming your way through them, too.


    No matter which method you use, remember that vetting your clients is a crucial step. Make sure they know your rates beforehand, and that you establish a pay schedule that works for both parties.

    Freelancing: Starting Down the Freelance Path

    I promised I’d talk about freelancing, too, and here we are. These posts will be interspersed throughout upcoming topics, because freelancers may need to handle certain concepts differently from those employed at an established company.

    I’ll start with a disclaimer: I freelanced for about five years for three different consistent clients (and little projects for others here and there), but freelancing has never been my sole income or activity. I freelanced through language school and graduate school, which was the perfect part-time job for me. Thus, my advice is not intended to be the end-all resource for building a freelance career. I hope to provide some advice and resources for you to think about if you’re interested in becoming a freelancer, but please read across people’s experiences and advice for a better view. Freelancing is a very individual experience, and with it more than anything, your mileage will vary for any advice you receive. However, I also work with freelancers on a daily basis, so I hope I can provide some insight from the client side as well!

    Whew! That’s out of the way. Still interested in pursuing freelance work? Before you get your business cards made and website open for business, consider the following:

    Freelancing is a slow-build business
    Freelancing requires clients, and clients take time to develop. You may leave a job which will want to keep you on as a freelancer (hey, great!), but often that won’t be enough to pay the bills, and basing your entire paycheck on a single client that doesn’t have regulated supports for you (as they might a full-time employee) is risky—what happens if they go out of business? The real rub is that developing clients is always easier after you’ve already been hired a few times, which makes those first few jobs and clients absolutely excruciating to find.

    That being said, be strategic and proactive about your networking and about building clients. You’d be surprised how long it some prospective clients will be radio silent before reaching out to you for work, so just keep networking and checking in (more on this later…there’s more than one right way to check in, but at least one absolutely wrong one), and go out and hustle some more. For now, just keep in mind that it could take a while until you’re totally self-sufficient as a freelancer.

    Few freelancers are financially stable all the time
    This, of course, ties right back into my first point. Clients can disappear, be put on budgets, or projects can end, leaving you with a vacuum. And even though your June could be totally empty, everyone will want to hire you in July. Freelancers often find themselves in feast or famine conditions, and so you’ll need to adjust your finances and cash flow expectations as you learn the ropes. You’ll also need to plan to buy your own benefits and withhold your own taxes, for which I recommend you save half of each paycheck to pay (and you may need to pay your taxes as estimated taxes to avoid being fined, so be sure to look that up, too!). Keep rigorous track of your income and expenses, especially expenses you can write off at tax time. Only by keeping track will you be able to come up with a structure for becoming a financially-stable freelancer.

    Your publicity skills will set you apart
    I wish being hired as a freelancer was based strictly on skill and merit, but it, like many other things in this wide world, is not. Though sometimes your clients will recommend you to others based on your skill, or take you with them if your contact person switches jobs (which is awesome), there are very few instances (save for the arts, perhaps) where you’ll be pursued and hired based on the quality of your work. More often, your clients come from your hustle. Find networking and industry events in your area, and concentrate on making personal connections. Bring business cards, but don’t just hand them out to anyone—have real conversations with potential clients about what their needs might be. Have an elevator pitch for yourself and your business. Mention previous clients, if you have any, and if the appropriate moment comes up in the conversation. Keep your LinkedIn and any other online portfolios up to date.

    Online spaces are included in this, too. Expertise-sharing gives you credibility. Start a blog or contribute a guest-blog. Become an active member of industry forums. Connect (politely) with others on Twitter. And listen! See what others are talking about—your industry may be moving toward or settling on a certain program or best practice, and by becoming the expert in it, you may be able to score more work. No matter what, your skills selling yourself are going to be more initially critical than your active work.

    “Setting your own hours” is rarely as glamorous as it sounds
    Freelancers are infamous for working a lot, and that’s often the draw of freelancers—hiring someone who can work outside of a 9-5 workday, or someone who can turn something around overnight or over the weekend. As a freelancer, you may be hired with the expectation that you are always available, and even though you may initially be okay with a totally open schedule, trying to work crazy hours over a long period is how many fledgling (and, who am I kidding, even expert) freelancers find themselves in burnout, unable to work at all. Establish your preferred and possible working hours early on, and keep an eye on them as you develop clients.


    Freelancing can be fantastic, with its flexible hours and “be-your-own-boss” mentality, but it comes with many drawbacks and potential pitfalls. Just make sure you’re prepared to do a job where most of the effort will come from you.