As 2023 approaches I started to lay out new spreadsheets for tracking various elements of my business, and figured I’d share my process in case other freelancers could find it useful. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and every year it looks a little bit different as I learn from the previous year how I can make it more efficient for myself. As someone who is chronically disorganized, tracking this stuff has been vital for me.
I personally use Google Sheets now to keep track of everything as it’s cloud based, accessible from multiple devices, and accessible across both Apple and Android, but the general concept could be applied in a variety of digital or non-digital ways.
First of all, I keep everything in one document with multiple tabs for ease of use. I bookmark this to my browser’s toolbar so that I never have to go searching for it. I name it something clear and easy such as “Business Tracking 2023”. In the tabs section of the document, I create 5 different sheets for different purposes. Profits, Expenses, Hours, Applications, and On Loan. I’ll break down how I set each of these up and why they’re each important.
For my profits sheet, I track every penny I earn, even if it’s just $0.50 from a sticker sale on RedBubble. I do this to make my life easier come tax time, and also to get a very accurate idea of what’s working and what’s not. I like to organize it like so:
For the date, I always record when I actually receive my money. Even if a print on demand site sends me a notice that I made a sale on the 3rd, I record the date of the 30th or whenever that money actually hits my account. I may record the transaction sooner, but I’ll leave the date blank until I actually get paid. This creates consistency and makes it easy for me to find records should I ever be audited or something. Also you might catch discrepancies if the amount deposited to you doesn’t match what you’re actually supposed to earn. This has happened to me multiple times. For the client/payor section, this could be an individual's name, a print on demand website, a gallery, or wherever you’re making your income. For category, this is a quick way to break down what type of source your money is coming from. For me personally (and I think for many artists), I have multiple streams of revenue so I divide it into things like book royalties, commissions, gallery sales, print on demand, etc. This will look different for everyone. Next under details I try to be as specific as possible while keeping it short. This may be the title of a piece of art, the name of a project, or the month and number of copies of book sales. It’s up to you how specific you want to be. If I have a gallery show and sell 10 pieces I don’t write out each piece, I just write the name of the show and number of pieces sold. The payment method is important if you ever need to track down records. Examples could be cash, Square, Venmo, direct deposit, etc. Lastly, the total is how much you made. That one’s self explanatory. If I’m doing a commission where I collect a percentage up front I always list it as two separate lines and indicate it as such (“50% - 1/2" and “50% - 2/2”). Think of things as transactions, not projects. This profits section of the document is the most vital section as you may need it when it comes time to file taxes.
This is where you want to track every single expense you have relating to your business. This is also so important for taxes as you’ll want to make deductions and avoid being over taxed. I treat this sheet just like profits in the sense of thinking of things as transactions.
I record the date of the purchase, what sort of category it fits into (Art Supplies, Marketing, Merchandise, Shipping Costs, Fees, Technology, etc.) I record specifics such as “Shipping Iggy portrait to John Doe”. You may want to be more specific and include things like the size and country of destination if applicable. The purchase location is wherever you spent the money (e.g USPS). I also track the payment method, as well as the total. Lastly, I note the receipt location. I used to keep every single receipt in a file and label it, but this became cumbersome since most of my receipts are digital anyways. So now I just scan paper receipts and upload them to a Google Drive folder, and everything else I just notate where I can find it (e.g. “Amazon Account”, or “Gmail”). If I wind up needing it, I’ll search for it then. VERY important though - do scan or photograph those paper receipts. That receipt paper breaks down over time and in a few months the ink is completely illegible.
So to be honest, this is a new experiment for me. I’m TERRIBLE at tracking my hours and estimating how long I spent on a project. This is important though because it can help with determining prices and making sure that you’re earning at least a minimum wage for your efforts. So after a bit of research and planning, I’m attempting this sheet this year.
I’m going to keep track of every project, whether commissioned or not. I decided to do this because so often I create something just for fun and just for me, but wind up using it for some other purpose where I do earn money from it. This could be slapping it up on RedBubble, or selling the original in a cafe. It will also help me determine how many hours per week I’m actually working, and inform me whether I need to kick my own butt or ease up. I plan to track all of the above categories to the best of my ability, as well as time spent doing administrative work. As for actually tracking time, I’ve downloaded an app that is basically a glorified stop watch that I can start and pause as needed on different tasks. The big hurdle will be remembering to actually use it. I’ll report back at some point on how this has gone.
This one’s pretty straight forward. I track how many things I apply to, how many minutes I spend applying (often less than 10), and what, if anything, came of it.
This isn’t necessarily vital for a business, but for me it helps me from feeling discouraged because it shows me that yes, I actually am making the effort and hustling. The result tends to be that I apply to a LOT of things, but only get a handful of follow through. This may sound bad and like I’m wasting my time, but since I’ve been doing it a few years now I’ve noticed an upward trend in that my applications are paying off more and more over time. I once read something about how freelancers are going to face a LOT of rejection over their life and how it’s going to often feel like you’re screaming into the void. So rather than feeling discouraged about it, we should swap our mindsets to think of it as “collecting rejections”. Because if you collect that many rejections, you’re statistically going to collect a few acceptances also. This can also be used as a tool to see WHERE you’re getting accepted. For me, I’ve been learning that large companies don’t really want to license my work and won’t reply, but that cold-emailing cafes and bars to hang work is very much profitable for me.
Lastly, if you exhibit your work, or if you put your work in stores on a consignment basis, you need to be keeping track of where your shit is. This is especially important if you put work up indefinitely somewhere and you could easily forget about it and move away or something.
I simply track the location, the number of pieces, the titles, their value, the commission rate if there is one, and the pick up date if there is one. I would also suggest keeping inventory sheets separately for each location that have more of a description of the work and the individual prices. That way you can reference that if someone several months down the line contacts you to purchase something. Then you’re not like “oh fuck, I forgot about that and I don’t remember anything about it or how much I listed it for”. Personal experience taught me this one.
Tracking my business activity has been helpful not only for taxes, but for understanding my client base, which types of my work perform the best, and what the most lucrative paths to follow are. At the end of the year I can make sweet little pie graphs like this:
Though 2022 isn’t quite over I have a good understanding of where the majority of my remaining income is coming from, so I was able to easily pop in numbers from the categories on my profits sheet and figure this out. The realization is that commissions and gallery sales make up a bigger chunk of my income than I thought since I was under the impression that royalties were the sole thing keeping me afloat. It also shows how miniscule my earnings from print on demand companies are, and though there’s no reason to take my work down since it’s passive income, there’s really not much advantage to investing a lot of time in uploading new work.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk, and I hope that my tracking methods can be helpful to my fellow artists and freelancers out there.