Freelancing
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Feb 1, 2016

21 must-have tools and apps for freelance designers

From time management to billing to collaboration, these are the tools you need to succeed as a freelancer.
The freelancer’s life comes with more ups and downs than your average roller coaster. These tools will help you manage it all with a modicum of screaming.

Best time-management and -tracking tools

As a freelancer, time’s your most valuable asset. So a toolset that makes managing and tracking your time easy is crucial.

Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit

In “4 time management tools for teams and designers,” we discussed how different time management tools can solve different problems, and how these tools can make you a better freelancer and designer. The tools below will help you accomplish both.

Timely

Timely app homepage

Timely is a scheduling and time-tracking tool. It lets you plan your weeks in advance, plus track time (and hourly rates) for your current projects. I always turn to Timely for ongoing projects that require time-tracking, in part because it gives me a better retrospective look at where I spent my time in previous weeks.

Harvest

Harvest app homepage

One of the most reliable time-tracking tools I’ve found is Harvest. The easy-to-use UI lets you send invoices to clients right from the app. But one of its biggest advantages is its integrations with popular apps like Asana, Trello, Basecamp, QuickBooks, and more.

Toggl

Toggl app homepage

Though a little too simple for my taste, Toggl is one of the simplest time-trackers around. If you don’t want to bother with too much setup, or just need an easy-to-access timer, this might be your tool.

Freelancy

Freelancy app homepage

Where other time-tracking tools can feel too focused, Freelancy strives to be the all-in-one tool for freelancers, with time-tracking, project management, and invoicing all in one app.

Best finance and tax tools

Like any businesses, freelancers have to track their income, cash flow, and prepare their taxes (quarterly) — all without the help of a friendly HR department.

Luckily, you’ll find plenty of tools to help you manage your finances, bill clients, and easily keep up with your taxes. While some of these tools work beautifully together, and others are just for billing and/or taxes, each of them can make managing your money much easier!

QuickBooks Self Employed

QuickBooks Self-Employed homepage

A personal favorite — and the one I rely on most come tax time — is QuickBooks Self-Employed. It lets you not only easily track income and expenses by connecting directly to your bank accounts, but also makes it incredibly easy to stay on top of quarterly taxes.

Square

Square app homepage

Another personal favorite, and how I typically collect payment from clients, Square makes it easy to create, send, and collect payments both in person and online with a credit or debit card. There are more robust tools to manage your income, but few that make it so simple for clients to pay you (always the hardest part).

PayPal

PayPal for business landing page

Another long-time favorite, PayPal lets you collect payments in just about any way (in person, by credit card, via ACH, or with PayPal Credit). PayPal’s less-than-stellar user experience design has proven the only reason I choose other platforms.

Invoice.to (with Stripe)

Invoice.to's homepage ... is the invoice

Invoice.to may be fairly new to the invoice game, but it’s an incredibly easy invoice generator that you can link to your Stripe account to collect payments. I’d argue that there’s no simpler or better-designed invoice tool on the web, so if you already rely on Stripe, it may be a clear winner.

FreshBooks

FreshBooks' homepage

While the above tools make collecting payments easy, FreshBooks does a whole lot more. This full suite of accounting tools lets you manage every aspect of freelancer finance. Collect payments, manage expenses (including payments to other employees), and track time all in one place. With all that in one place, it’s sole drawback may be that it’s more than what most  freelancers need.

Expensify

Expensify homepage

If your work involves lots of travel, business purchases, or a lot of expense tracking, then Expensify could be your go-to. Expensify makes it easy to track all sorts of expenses, and bring that data into 3rd-party services like QuickBooks for easy reporting come tax time.

Cushion

Cushion app homepage

If you’ve ever freelanced, you know that the most stressful part is keeping on top of cashflow and planning future projects. Cushion is a great tool for projecting future income, seeing where you have cash gaps (so you can schedule new projects), and managing projects to minimize overlap.

Mint

Mint app homepage

Though most people use Mint for personal money management, it works just as well for managing businesses expenses. See where you’re spending, what you’re saving, and set savings goals all in the app.

Best communication and project management tools

Communication is key when working with others, especially when you’re working on multiple projects in parallel.

Project management tools help you better organize and keep clients in the know. And while nothing beats proactive communication (something a tool can’t do for you), the right tool can make all the difference between project bliss or utter disaster.

So ditch the emails, and get yourself (and clients) on one of these great tools. You’ll be best friends in no time.

Slack

Slack app homepage

Do we even need to explain Slack? Ok, in case you somehow haven’t heard of it yet:

Slack’s incredible chat application will let you and your clients ditch the back-and-forth emails and upgrade to a more reliable communication platform. I set up a new private Slack group for each new client, making it much easier for us to collaborate and get to final product much quicker.

Flow

Flow app homepage

Flow combines project management and chat in one multi-device app. I’d argue that Flow is much simpler than other project management tools on this list, while also packing in a good amount of features.

Asana

Asana app homepage

If you’re looking for a robust and beautifully designed project management solution, you may not need go further than Asana. While it sometimes feels like too much, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a project management tool with more bells and whistles.

Trello

Trello homepage

Trello has long been a favorite for designers and project managers alike. If you’re looking for a flexible and more visual solution, then Trello might be your go-to. I use it for everything from my daily chore list to client project management to vacation planning.

Basecamp

Basecamp homepage

Another venerable favorite for project management (and rightfully so) is Basecamp. Basecamp brings clean, considered design to a powerful tool you can use with coworkers and clients alike. It also has tons of integrations that make connecting it to tools you already use a breeze.

Best contract and proposal tools and resources

We could’ve covered these under finance tools, but contracts and proposals play such a huge part in the freelancing process, they deserve their own section.

The right proposal and contract will literally make or break a project. It’s the single most important part of any project, yet so many freelancers pass it off as no big deal.

This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken about the importance of freelance design contracts, and it won’t be the last, but some of these tools and resources below will get you off on the right track.

Creative Class Contract Course

Creative Class contract course page

Although it’s the priciest item on the list, it’s worth its file size in gold. The Creative Class contract course will guide you through building a bulletproof contract that will not only make you a better freelancer, but also make you even more money.

Bonsai

Bonsai app homepage

Bonsai makes it super easy to create a contract, review it with a client (and make changes), and then sign it. It’s the all-in-one contract tool that I use every time.

Proposify

Proposify app homepage

Although I have yet to use this tool, I know many other freelancers who have (and really liked it). If you don’t want to create a proposal from the ground up, or don’t know where to begin, Proposify is a great place to start. Their proposal generator is really easy to use, and will help you and your clients better prepare for projects.

Funnel

Funnel app homepage

Another hybrid tool that could fit into multiple categories, Funnel lets you easily add forms to your website to collect information from prospective clients. Once you get an inquiry, Funnel makes it easy to create a proposal and get the project moving.

But the most important tools are…

Tools and resources can help alleviate the stress of freelancing, but they’ll only take you so far. Your work ethic, dedication to finding new clients, and superb design work will always be your most important tools. All these apps do is help you deliver all three.

And remember:

Did we miss a favorite tool of yours? Send us a message on Twitter or Facebook to keep the conversation going!

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Mat Vogels

Mat is a web creator and evangelist at Webflow. Follow me at @matvogels.

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