My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

Advertisements

The old financial records that I do keep

It’s now two months until tax day, which means that it’s time for some financial paperwork. By that I don’t mean starting my 2018 return–I haven’t even gotten all my 1099s yet–but discarding records from prior years that no longer retain any legal relevance.

This tidying up has sent a raft of old statements and forms into the recycling (with every instance of a Social Security Number torn out for subsequent shredding), and now the file cabinet is no longer packed so tight.

But there are some tax and financial records that I’m keeping even though I no longer have to: the 1040s, W-2s, and checkbooks of my college and post-college years.

Those documents tell a story of a simpler and more painful financial time–an annual income in the low twenties, paychecks with only three figures to the left of the decimal point, ATM withdrawals that rarely exceeded $30, and a checking-account balance that I struggled to keep above $2,000.

(Fortunately, rents around D.C. were a lot cheaper then.)

Being reminded of the cramped state of my finances back then helps me feel better about them today, even after all the lousy things that have happened to the journalism business lately.

But the more important part of this exercise is not cultivating nostalgia but renewing empathy–for anybody who’s living paycheck to paycheck, or who’s just a slow month or a government shutdown away from having their bank balance erode enough to show only three digits to the left of the decimal point.

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.

My Sulia experiment, three weeks in

If you follow me on Twitter or you’ve liked my Facebook page, you may have spent the last three weeks wondering “What is this Sulia site and what is Rob doing there?”

Sulia logo

Fair enough. Sulia bills itself as a “subject-based social network” that “connects you to the top social sources on subjects you care about,” both by curating links to postings elsewhere and inviting contributors to post their own short updates.

The New York firm also provides curated feeds to news organizations; I first encountered it as a source for the “Live Topics” section in the Washington Post’s iPad app. It’s gotten some coverage from places like AllThingsD and Mashable but otherwise hasn’t risen to an “oh, that” level of recognition.

Anyway, back in August I got a pitch from Sulia inviting me to become a technology contributor. Its mention of compensation intrigued me, but then I spent most of the next month and a half traveling and I forgot about it until Sulia showed up in this blog’s stats in December. I inquired further; after some negotiation and the realization that I might need an extra outlet for my CES coverage, I signed on for a one-month trial.

Sulia posts should fill a gap between tweets and blog posts: you can’t write anything longer than 2,500 characters, headline included, and you can’t format it beyond adding an  image or a YouTube embed.  The headline and a link to the rest of each update then go out automatically on my Twitter and public Facebook feeds. It’s not Twitter’s microblogging but more along the lines of Tumblr-style mini-blogging–except that unlike those sites, Sulia pays contributors.

It’s not a huge sum. As a per-word rate, this stipend represents the second-worst I’ve accepted after my paltry WordAds income here. (Another Sulia contributor described it as “a bit of extra bourbon money”; I’m doing a little better than that each week, unless we’re talking seriously high-end hooch.) But it’s also infinitely more than the $0.00/word Twitter pays me, and I don’t have to bother with invoicing either. Hence my motivation to post a thought on Sulia that might otherwise require serializing over three or four tweets.

For example, I have used Sulia posts to:

Few of those items would have merited a story of their own for my clients at the time. Some could have surfaced here, but that would have involved more work–I can’t resist the urge to tinker with prose and its presentation using the tools available here–and even less income.

So in that sense, it’s worked well and slotted neatly into my workflow.

I’ve been less happy to see glitches deprive some updates of images I’d uploaded (it seems I found a Safari compatibility issue) and, less often, strip out line breaks or even some of my words. With no editing after posting, my only recourse is to delete an update and rewrite it.

I also need to work on my own approach: I’ve often found myself fiddling over Sulia updates as if they were mini-articles instead of really long tweets, and that same inability to focus has also led me to miss chances to jump on breaking news.

Three weeks in, I can certainly attest that I’m still figuring this out.

What about you? Do you find this exercise in compressed prose worth a click over from Twitter or Facebook?