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This is a hybrid business/tech article, as I’m not about to tell you how to go about investing or actually managing what you do with your money. What I do want to talk about is the basic process of balancing your checkbook and just keeping good records of where your money is. I know this sounds ridiculously juvenile, but so many of my fellow freelancers – be they writers, designers, or photographers – to a piss poor job of keeping tabs of where their dollars and cents go. I think in this day and age, when online billpay and electronic financial records are getting more and more sophisticated, there’s no excuse for not knowing how to balance a budget or invoice properly.

Here are my current favorite online and electronic tools for managing GLK Creative. Keep in mind, I have yet to find the perfect solution – the one slam dunk tool that can handle all my financial needs. But the programs listed below have allowed me toss the checkbook and go 100% digital.

Here we go:

1. Microsoft Money Home & Business Edition: MS Money has been my go-to money solution for the past seven years or so. I balance my check book on it, catch up on investments, and keep tabs of my credit cards. On the business side, it allows me to send text invoices and track what I can and can’t write off. The big problem is that it’s PC-only and I’m a MAC. In order to run it, I have to load it onto Parallels and then back it up to my main machine through a virtual network. It’s not a huge deal, but it can get annoying, especially if Parallels crashes.

2. So I decided to try Quicken for MAC. Not a good idea – the interface is clunky, the software is hideous, and everything just look so corporate. Compared to MS Money’s stunning reports and colorful design, Quicken might as well be a DOS program. I did give the free Quicken Online a shot, but it didn’t support most of my financial institutions, and I was too lazy import everything manually.

3. Which leads me to Mint.com. The online-only financial service is basically MS Money online, but better. It downloads all your financial information upon sign in, knows every single account I have (including all my store credit cards), and automatically categorizes all my purchases. Additionally, the budgeting tool is slick, the reports are as good as those in MS Money, and best of all, it’s free. However, the site has two big deal breaking downsides. First, you can’t manually add transactions. So, if I write a check that doesn’t clear for weeks, I have no way of noting it. If I forget it, I risk going below my balance and bouncing bills all over the place. The second problem isn’t as severe. I wish it had a bill calendar so I can track when to send out payments. That’s not the biggest woe, but those two together are the only components keeping Mint.com from besting MS Money.

4. Everyone needs an invoicing tool, and while the one in MS Money is capable, there nicer ones to be had. I started out using the free version of Blinksale.com, which gives you a limited amount of easy-to-use invoices to send out each month via email. It tracks said invoices and allows you to mark when payment has been received. Every, the site resets, so you get another three or four invoices. You could upgrade to a paid account if you start getting more and more clients, but I decided to move to the Intuit invoicing program that gives me an unlimited number of forms and does basically the same thing as Blinksale, albeit in a not as pretty package.

5. While not a financial tool, I have to mention MobileMe. Apple’s replacement for Mac.com had its bugs at the beginning, but I find the online syncing tool to be a blessing for keeping all my calenders, notes, tasks, and client contacts in sync between three computers and a Blackberry (via Missing Sync). In addition, I use Google Docs for all my spreadsheets and Word documents. That’s probably the best cloud service on the market right now.

So there you go. Five tools to keep your business in order and mostly stress free. While Mint.com is my favorite program right now, its two blemishes are all that’s keeping me from leaving MS Money for good. Until they solve them, it looks like I’ll be juggling software and hosted applications for a little bit longer. Do you have a free or cheap business solution that you use? Please feel free to mention it in the comments section.

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