Here’s the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses

A friend of mine started freelancing at the end of last year, so I decided to give him a boring but useful present: a blank copy of the Google Docs spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

old calculatorA systematic, easily smartphone-accessible way to record the costs of doing business–organized so you can copy the year-end totals into your Schedule C tax form–is exactly the thing I needed when I started freelancing almost eight years ago. Instead, I had to survive some excruciatingly stupid accounting practices and eventually thumb-wrestle my way to marginal competence.

I was glad to give my friend a boost past that phase, and now I want to do the same for any self-employed types reading this. Here you go: Make a copy of this template (go to the File menu and select “Make a copy…”) to your Google account and get to work.

This template is organized by types of expense, with the biggest categories in my case–travel and meals and entertainment–getting their own sheets. When possible, I’ve aligned types of costs with TurboTax’s vocabulary to reduce springtime tax-prep confusion. In addition, you’ll see a box in which you can plug in the relevant numbers for a home-office deduction, but I recognize that not every 1099-income type will claim that.

I’ve also left comments throughout the spreadsheet (look for the orange triangle at the upper-right corner of a cell) explaining what goes where. If you see ways to simplify this or if you think the spreadsheet is missing an important angle, please let me know in an e-mail or a comment below this post.

I hope this help. Good luck with your business!

2018 in review: security-minded

I spent more time writing about information-security issues in 2018 than in any prior year, which is only fair when I think about the security angles I and many of other people missed in prior years.

Exploring these issues made me realize how fascinating infosec is as a field of study–interface design, business models, human psychology and human villainy all intersect in this area. Plus, there’s real market demand for writing on this topic.

2018 calendarI did much of this writing for Yahoo, but I also picked up a new client that let me get into the weeds on security issues. Well after two friends had separately suggested I start writing for The Parallax–and after an e-mail or two to founder Seth Rosenblatt had gone unanswered–I spotted Seth at the Google I/O press lounge, introduced myself, and came home with a couple of story assignments.

(Lesson re-learned: Sometimes, the biggest ROI from going to conference consists of the business-development conversations you have there.)

Having this extra outlet helped diversify my income, especially during a few months when too many story pitches elsewhere suffered from poor product-market fit. My top priority for 2019 is further diversification: The Parallax is funded by a single sponsor, the Avast security-software firm, which on one hand frees it from the frailty of conventional online advertising but on the other leaves it somewhat brittle.

I’d also like to speak more often at conferences. Despite being half-terrified of public speaking in high school, I’ve become pretty good at what think of as the performance art of journalism. This took me some fun places in 2018, including my overdue introduction to Toronto. (See after the jump for a map of my business travel.)

My focus on online security and privacy extended to my own affairs. In 2018, I made Firefox my default browser and set its default search to DuckDuckGo, cut back on Facebook’s access to my data, and disabled SMS two-step verification on my most important accounts in favor of app or U2F security-key authentication.

At Yahoo, it’s now been more than five years since my first byline there–and with David Pogue’s November departure to return to the New York Times, I’m the last original Yahoo Tech columnist still writing for Yahoo. My streak is even longer at USA Today, where I just hit my seventh anniversary of writing for the site (and sometimes the paper). Permanence of any sort is not a given in freelance journalism, and I appreciate that these two places have not gotten bored with me.

I also appreciate or at least hope that you reading this haven’t gotten bored with me. I’d like to think this short list of my favorite work of 2018 had something to do with that.

Thanks for reading; please keep doing so in 2019.

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Three ways to track freelance income–none of which may be right

My work for this year isn’t done, but my income almost is. One client’s payment arrived today (having that happen less than three weeks after invoicing ranks as a Christmas miracle), another has told me to expect a direct deposit next week, and that’s all the positive cash flow I’m expecting for 2018.

Nearing that taxation-and-accounting finish line has me thinking once again of how I try to keep track of what I’m making throughout the year. I have three different models for this, and each can be wrong in their own ways.

What I file in a month: This approach has has the advantage of focusing on the one thing I can control the most. But a lot can happen after I file my copy, by which I mean it can go through a prolonged edit that pushes back completion of the work by weeks.

Or by months: An editor’s departure at one site earlier this year left a post collecting dust for several weeks until one of his now-overworked colleagues could tend to it between other tasks.

What I invoice in a month: Sending in the form itemizing your work and requesting payment has a pleasing finality, but not everybody sends the direct deposit or the check on the same timetable. Thirty days is typical, but USA Today and Wirecutter usually beat that number by at least a couple of weeks (having two of America’s largest newspapers turn around a payment that quickly continues to amaze me). Sometimes the same client’s payments arrive on wildly varying schedules for no apparent reason.

Last year, I also had a client reject an invoice because of a glitch with the bank deposit information I’d provided, and because the parent firm of this site picked an invoicing system for its fundamental meanness, I had to start the invoicing process for that story from scratch. Fortunately, I’ve not yet had to send more than a few nagging e-mails to get a invoice paid out, which is not a given in this line of work.

What I get paid in a month: There’s no arguing with the numbers on a bank statement, but this can often be a fake metric because it reflects work done months later. And for every month where a round of overdue payments finally land and make me look like a business genius, there’s going to be another where a couple of invoices get processed just late enough to have that money hit my account not on the 29th or the 30th but on the 1st or the 2nd of the following month.

As it happens, it looks like I’ll get a reasonably large deposit from one site early next month. I’ll try not to let that cash flow get to my head… because I really thought I would have seen a chunk of that change by now.

Should I be on Patreon?

I’m not a millennial and I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, so I would appear to be wildly ineligible for Patreon.

Yet I’m still curious about using that crowdfunding site to give people a chance to underwrite my work if they feel so inspired. I can’t tell if that is me being entrepreneurial or vain, so I’m writing this post to try to untangle my thoughts.

I first encountered Patreon when founder Jack Conte gave an exuberant presentation on the site’s backstory at 2013’s XOXO conference. (His talk rambles a bit–which is fine if you enjoy dancing robots–but overall merits 24 minutes of your time.) I decided that letting fans pledge as little as a dollar or two a month to indie creatives was a smart response to declining ad rates and the overall horribleness of the content industry. And then I thought little more about that concept until I started seeing more people and sites I know pop up on Patreon.

You can sum up the Patreon proposition as “Kickstarter over time.” Instead of asking for support for a particular project, creators invite fans to kick in a defined sum each month to support their ongoing efforts–and can also offer extra rewards for contributions above a certain level.

For example, my friend Glenn Fleishman‘s typographic-centric pitch includes exclusive or early access to his articles, science-minded podcaster Rose Eveleth offers a patrons-only newsletter, and the Arlington news site ARLNow.com touts a private Facebook group for more-generous contributors.

After conversations with a few Patreon fans at XOXO this September, I e-mailed Glenn to ask how that was working for him.

His two bits of advice: Find something you can provide to Patreon contributors that they couldn’t get elsewhere, and show what their support lets you do that you couldn’t accomplish otherwise.

I think I have a good answer for that first item: my time. As most people who have e-mailed me can attest, getting my attention when I’m constantly changing channels between stories and clients is… problematic. If I could offer something like a private Slack group or some other closed forum, I’d like to think that would appeal to people who miss the Web chats I did at the Post. (I miss them too.)

The second thing, though, is harder to answer. I think I do a decent job of selling enough stories from each out-of-town event to cover my travel costs… although conferences like the Online News Association’s annual gathering routinely defy my attempts to monetize them. Would that be enough of a what-you-helped-me-do story?

My other concerns: I wouldn’t have enough time to tend a Patreon page (note that I’m typing this near 10 p.m. on a Saturday); nobody would support it; worst of all, nobody would support it, and outsiders would then point and laugh.

At the same time, I like the idea of generating another stream of income, even if it only underwrites one trip a year. Getting acquainted with the inside of a crowdfunding platform seems like an overdue to-do item for me. And the last few months have made me increasingly uneasy about relying on my Facebook page for occupational banter with readers.

Having spent this much time musing about crowdfunding, I might as well crowdsource part of this decision. Please take the poll below, and if you have suggestions for what you’d want me to do at Patreon or another crowdfunding platform, please share them in the comments.

 

Year-end cash considerations

Yesterday, I forgot to invoice Yahoo for the last month’s worth of stories, and my stupid oversight may save me a little money next year.

That’s because the odds of payment for November’s work at Yahoo Finance arriving by Dec. 31 just got two days’ worse. And if I don’t get paid by then, I don’t owe taxes on the money until 2017.

2016-in-changeThe downside of this scenario is that my 2016 income, already assured to fall below 2015’s because I wrote less than usual in early summer, will drop even more. That potential embarrassment bugs me, but apparently not enough that I remembered to get the payment machinery in gear by Friday.

Deferring income isn’t exactly an advanced financial hack, but it is something I couldn’t do when I worked on a salary.

Tax calculations should also drive me to go on a moderate hardware-spending binge this month. My laptop and my desktop are both ancient, and replacing either now would put a nice big expense on my Schedule C.

Alas, Apple seems uninterested in shipping a new laptop in my price range, or a new desktop at any price. The Windows universe offers a few enticing options, but on closer inspection I realize that the laptops I like all omit at least one feature I’d appreciate.

More important, CES is now only a month away. And I can’t possibly make any big electronics purchases before using that event to see what the gadget industry has in store for this year–its no accident that electronics rarely land on my Christmas list.

That leaves me another way to lower my tax burden: a late-December spree of charitable donations. You may have read a lot on Twitter about #GivingTuesday this week, but for me that day comes on the last Tuesday of this month–when I know the donation will count for my 2016 taxes but won’t come due on on my credit-card bill until sometime in February. Please do the same if you’re financially able.

Five years of not having a real job

Monday marked five years since I’d last been on the clock for an employer. The continued absence of a salary still doesn’t bother me.

Five years of 1099sA lot has changed since the day that started with my failing to sleep in, then involved the hilarity of filing our taxes and ended with a few retellings of my what-happened story at an Online News Association meetup.

My top sources of income have changed almost every year, so I’ve gotten used to answering such vaguely existential questions as “where are you at?”

I’m no longer incompetent at accounting and have even gone back to doing our taxes, Schedule C and all.

I’ve traveled to places I might have never seen on the Post’s dime. I did enjoy marking the fifth anniversary of my independence in Hong Kong, although I can’t say the same about spending the preceding 16 hours in seat 21K. One contributing factor to all that travel: Sufficient practice at public speaking has begun to pay off with more invitations to moderate a panel or give a talk, and accepting them doesn’t require multiple layers of newsroom approval.

I’ve been able to say what I think on Twitter and Facebook without worrying about running afoul of some newsroom social-media policy intended to fool readers into thinking we have no opinions about what we cover.

And I don’t know if I can call myself a hustler, but I’m definitely a more aggressive capitalist than I was in 2011.

In an alternate universe flipped to a different page in this Choose Your Own Occupational Adventure book, I might have landed another full-time job. I half-expected that to happen within a few months of leaving the Post, but instead a variety of interesting freelance opportunities appeared and I chose to follow them. (Lesson learned that most people unfortunately can’t apply: It’s not that hard to start as a freelancer if you first hold down a column for a major newspaper for over a decade.)

I may yet regret going this route–yes, I have been following the news about Yahoo. But every new round of newsroom layoffs and every job-destroying pivot at a new-media startup reinforces my sense that having a full-time employer provides little more security than cultivating a good set of regular clients that can’t constitute a single point of income failure.

Check back in another five years, and I should be able to report if I was right about that.

I survived doing our own taxes (I think)

Over the last few weeks, I did the one thing I was sure I’d never do after leaving the Post: prepare my own taxes instead of paying a tax professional to do the work.

I’d outsourced my tax prep over the last three years with generally satisfactory results. But this time around my tax guy had raised his rates while my own financial situation had not gotten more complex; I felt like I had finally disciplined my once moronic, then merely slovenly accounting; it seemed wrong to go four years without even looking at a category of software millions of Americans do battle with every spring.

1099s and TurboTaxAnd so I renewed my acquaintance with Intuit’s TurboTax for the first time since 2011–not as a reviewer, but as a paying customer. It went better than I’d feared.

The biggest upgrade from my earlier agonies was effective record-keeping: I’d entered every cash expense last year into a Google spreadsheet on my phone within hours or, at worst, days, then imported business credit-card transactions into the same sheet every quarter. Between that and being able to consult last year’s return for guidance on what should go where, I had the outlines of my Schedule C knocked out in shockingly little time.

That’s a great reason to go to a tax pro in the first place: If you don’t know to do this stuff, you need somebody who can coach you. The results don’t just help at tax time, but throughout the year.

TurboTax’s ability to import tax forms for all of our mutual funds–something I’ve complimented in earlier reviews–was a great time-saver. And seeing each investment firm’s numbers flow into our return meant I got a direct look at the tax hit inflicted by some actively-traded mutual funds versus index funds. Ouch.

I was relieved to see that the stupid date-validation bugs I’d complained about in 2011 were gone–well, in most of the app.

Did I play this unnecessary game of tax-code-optimization as well as I could? I believe I did, but I won’t know for sure until after we actually file. Yes, although the 1040 and our assorted alphabetical schedules are done, I opted to file an extension. I will be dropping a sizable chunk of money into my SEP IRA to chisel down our tax bill, and I’d rather not completely clean out my account in the process.

I also did our Virginia taxes in TurboTax. Then I deleted that return after writing down the total it had calculated and the two numbers I’d need to put down on my state return. Intuit may have convinced a gullible General Assembly to scrap the state’s free iFile site in 2010, but that doesn’t mean I need to reward its successful regulatory capture with my own business when state taxes aren’t that hard and I can always file on paper.

 

 

Tax-time thoughts: now with slightly less incompetent accounting!

I have survived, I think, another tax season as a self-employed individual, and I’m increasingly convinced that if I keep doing this I will someday know what I’m doing.

Misc. incomeOnce again, my worst enemy was my inattentive and sloppy accounting. I was still forgetting to tag some expenses as business transactions in Mint until last spring, and It took me until mid-September to lock in the habit of logging every cash expense within minutes of it happening. Memo to Google: This would be easier if the Google Drive app could edit spreadsheets offline.

For cash transactions not properly noted at the time, I had to recreate records months after the fact. That involved the tedious, time-consuming routine of cross-referencing my calendar, e-mail and Foursquare check-ins.

Importing the credit-card purchases that Mint had recorded automatically was the same as ever, which is not good: Intuit’s site still provides no way to limit a transaction search to a date range short of hand-editing a Web address. Intuit, this is idiotic. Try spending some of the money you sink into astroturfed lobbying into adding this most basic of features.

Last year also saw client income (Sulia and WordAds) arrive via PayPal deposits, a first for me. I liked the invoice-free convenience of those payments, but I made two rookie accounting mistakes. The big one was not identifying all of the subsequent PayPal transfers to my bank as freelance income; the little one was using some of a freelancing-inflated PayPal balance to reimburse my share of an Airbnb apartment rented for Mobile World Congress instead of first moving the sum of those freelance payments to my bank, then covering the lodging expense with a separate withdrawal from my bank.

The fact that I realized most of these errors in late March by itself represented my single biggest accounting failure–I spent too much of 2013 in a financial fog, which is stupid. So after cleaning up last year’s records, I set aside a couple of hours last weekend to do the same for those from the first quarter of this year. Like I said: I do learn, just not quickly.

A love letter to XOXO

PORTLAND–If you write for a living, hope and fear are part of the deal. Hope, because you believe your ability to make words appear on a screen in a pleasing sequence will lead other people to give you money. Fear, because you worry that other people will realize you are not all that good at that work, and that other writers can do it for less anyway.

XOXO badgeI spent three days here last weekend at XOXO, a conference staged to lend hope to independent creativity. That was a fairly abstract concept to me three years ago; I was approaching my 17th year at the same employer and had (fraying) ambitions of retiring there.

Then other things happened, I didn’t get another job as I’d expected, and after two and a half years of freelancing full time, my indie existence no longer feels like a fluke.

But it can still feel lonely. So it was tremendously empowering to commune with smart, talented, hard-working people who had taken a similar course, then see some of them testify about it. I kept finding myself nodding vigorously at things I could have said, or wished somebody would have told me a couple of years ago.

Co-organizer Andy Baio opened the event with an introduction that was part release notes explaining how he and co-conspirator Andy McMillan had designed XOXO to function unlike the average corporate conference, part pep talk for those assembled. “It’s about making new things and putting them out in the world,” he said. “That takes a unique kind of bravery.”

Cartoonist Erika Moen evocatively recalled her own I-think-I’ve-gotten-somewhere moment: “I’m self-employed. I’m creating. I’m in love. I’m happy.” In my notes, those sentences are set off with one all-caps prefix: THIS.

Musician Jack Conte provided a succinct description of the basic business problem for any freelancer–or, for that matter, any newspaper: “You have to make good stuff and convert it into money.”

One of my favorite talks came from musician Jonathan Coulton (longtime readers may recall his guest spot on my Post podcast, the audio of which has apparently gone down the bit bucket). He spoke bluntly about his moments of self-doubt–“there are times when I say to myself, I wonder if I have ever done anything that’s really good?”–but also showed a cheery defiance of standard-issue career advice.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that there’s A Thing you have to do to make this work,” he said before a slide reading “Be a Snuggie,” “You’re doing it right,” and “Fuck ’em.” Instead: “Here is the only metric you need to care about…. Is what you’re doing making you more happy or less happy?”

And Cabel Sasser, co-founder of the Mac software firm Panic, Inc., gave a wonderfully human recounting–who among us has not sometimes thought, “I needed to file a bug report on myself”?–about what it meant to keep his company independent.

What if it fails spectacularly after he’d passed up a lucrative exit? What if it slowly sputters out? I liked his answer: “You won’t know the end until it ends, so let’s fill the middle with as many amazing plot twists as we can.”

The other part of XOXO that lit up my brain was the other people I was able to meet there. Baio and McMillan’s attempts to limit the audience to people who made things, their  exhortations to say hi to whoever’s next to you, and the inevitable random conversations while waiting in line at the food trucks outside the Yale Union building all made this one of the more welcoming spaces I’ve occupied.

Many Internet-famous individuals are jerks, but I did not meet any jerks at XOXO. I was particularly delighted to meet people I hadn’t seen in months or years, or had only known as usernames in Twitter, e-mail addresses in my inbox or a remote voice on the same radio show. You know who you are; hope to see you again soon.

Between-meetings workspace options in downtown D.C.

One of the weirder aspects about freelance life, beyond being able to work without pants, is the feeling of statelessness I have when I’m between appointments in D.C. The only desk, power outlet and room that I can call mine are across the Potomac at my home; in the city, I have no one place to be.

But when I’ve got time to spare in the District, I need some place with a chair, wireless Internet, a power outlet, air conditioning and heating and, usually, access to caffeine. Here are my usual options; maybe they should be yours too?

Kogod Courtyard

Kogod CourtyardThis beautiful atrium between the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art is near perfect–it looks fantastic, it’s centrally located at Eighth and F Streets downtown, it’s got a good little cafe off to the side, the sound of children playing can keep you grounded–but for two irritating defects. One is what appears to be a complete lack of outlets. The other is the bizarre way the WiFi blocks IMAP and SMTP ports, meaning my laptop’s e-mail client can’t get or send any messages.

Coffee shops: This would be a “duh” option, but it can’t be just any coffee place. Everywhere chains like Starbucks and Cosi seem just too obvious–if I’m going to spring for a latte, I might as well get something I can’t replicate in any other city in America. I don’t have any one go-to spot in this category, but if there were a downtown D.C. equivalent of Arlington’s Northside Social or Adams Morgan’s Tryst, that might change.

Libraries: If you don’t need coffee on the spot, the District’s library system is an underrated resource. The branch locations are all in much better shape than the MLK Library (901 G St. NW): I love the Mies van der Rohe architecture there, but it’s uncomfortably overheated in the winter and, like it or not, will reacquaint you with the state of homelessness in D.C.

Dedicated coworking spaces: I don’t need a separate office often enough to pay for one, but every now and then places like Canvas (1203 19th St. NW) will have free days. And I’ve had a couple stops in the last month at the Regus business center at 1200 G St. NW (one of nine in the District), courtesy of the free membership United Airlines handed out to me and other people who spend too much time on its airplanes. This is a great place to nap–its tiny, windowless “business lounge” was empty both times–but for the same reason is also seriously deadening.

What options am I missing? Enlighten me in the comments.

Update, 3/29/2014: A couple of days ago, I finally got around to following up on a suggestion a reader left on my Facebook page after this post first went up. Hence the following addition…

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress: You can’t even get in without first obtaining a “Reader Card” at the Madison Building across the street (don’t worry, it’s only a five-minute process), and then you have to check your bag and coat before taking a roundabout route through the Jefferson Building’s basement. But then, wow: You’re typing away in one of the most beautiful spaces in Washington, a regular basilica of books. And the WiFi is fast and reliable.