A common worry among the freelancers we speak to is whether they’ve got enough put aside for their next tax bill.

Failing to make this kind of provision frequently catches those new to freelancing out. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are not known for their understanding in these matters, with penalties and interest being charged as soon as you miss deadlines.

The rules for working out the tax bill, and when it’s due, vary according to your company structure and can be quite complex. An accountant will take your invoices and receipts and sort this out for you, but it can cost hundreds of pounds and you won’t know what the answer is until after the tax year is finished.

For all freelancers, Self-Assessed income taxes are due by 31st Jan in the year following the end of the tax year (so 31 Jan 09 for the tax year 6 Apr 07 to 5 Apr 08). There will be payments-on-account from the previous year, and those for the next year, to consider when working out what’s actually due.

For those running Limited Companies, Corporation Tax bill deadlines vary according to when your company’s accounting year ends but you have a similar amount of time to pay. And of course there are VAT Returns and Payroll Taxes to keep track of too.

We don’t know anyone who enjoys this, and even with the best will in the world many of us leave these matters to the last minute. A nasty surprise or missed deadlines can be the result.

There’s some good news, though, in the shape of a new breed of online accounting and tax calculation services which can help you understand what’s due and when, well in advance.

One example is Sam’s Tax (www.samstax.co.uk), dealing with Self Assessment for Sole Traders but also able to work out VAT as well. You subscribe to their online service, which costs £9.99 a month (with the option to pay £99.99 annually instead) and enter your income and expense transactions into the system.

It then gives you access to a set of reports and graphs which detail where your money goes, a monthly breakdown of profit, information to fill in VAT returns and of course the numbers you need to complete your Self-Assessment Tax Return.

Also available is the popular service FreeAgent (www.freeagentcentral.com), which is built primarily for freelancers and provides plans to suit Partnerships and Limited Companies as well as Sole Traders.

Like SamsTax, FreeAgent handles Self-Assessment Tax Return figures and VAT Returns, but also handles Corporation Tax and PAYE/NI (payroll) taxes, and provides a ‘Tax Timeline’ – a calendar of tax due dates and amounts that you can view in your Outlook, Apple iCal or Google calendar.

FreeAgent is slightly more expensive at £15 a month for Sole Traders, £20 for Partnerships and £25 for Limited Companies.

Both services offer a 30-day free trial, and FreeAgent also provides access to a number of demonstration accounts so you can try it out without signing up.

We’ve checked out both services, and they both look like they would take a lot of stress and hassle out of managing your money.

Now there are no excuses for not knowing how much you owe and when you owe it. But it’s still up to you to ensure you set that money aside!

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People per Hour are pleased to have negotiated a 10% discount for all our Providers when you sign up to FreeAgent using the the ‘Recommended by PPH’ FreeAgent page. We’re also working to provide you with a fully integrated solution so that all your PPH invoicing is synchronized with the rest of your accounts automatically without having to re-enter data.

To help new buyers get up to speed (without having to learn everything by doing) and assist in and managing their projects suvvessfully, we have produced a list of useful tips based on the learnings/experiences we have obtained from the thousands of projects posted on PPH.

1. Communication, communication, communication

a. Write a clear, precise project description – writing detailed and comprehensive project descriptions will avoid problems down the line that may arise from ambiguities. If you haven’t provided enough detail when posting your project, make sure to send a more detailed description of your requirements to the provider prior to starting any work.

b. Be clear on project deliverables from the start – agreeing the exact scope of the project from the outset is key. If done correctly, the provider will know exactly what he/she needs to deliver and when. Be upfront asap if you have realised that something has been left out of the scope by mistake – certainly, bringing it up at the end of the project will only cause disputes and delays.

c. Communicate with providers during bidding – make sure to check on the progress of the project at regular intervals. Having frequent communication makes it easy for providers to ask you for any clarifications needed and provide you with updates on the project timelines.

d. Be proactive asking for clarifications – ask questions on anything you are unsure about to ensure that you and the provider are on the same page. Clearing up details early on will prevent misunderstandings and will save you both time and effort.

2. Selecting the right candidate

a. Define your selection criteria in advance – while it is tempting to post a project first and think about selection criteria later, it is better to do things the other way around. Deciding which criteria are important to you in advance (e.g. feedback, price, experience etc) will help you make better/quicker decisions once the bids are in.

b. Shortlist providers based on your criteria – use your initial criteria to create a quick shortlist of the bids you have received, eliminating any bids that do not satisfy the criteria. If the list is too short, perhaps it’s worth re-evaluating some of the criteria and reviewing the bids you have rejected; equally, if the shortlist is too long you will need to do a second round of screening so that you can narrow down the shortlist to a manageable number of proposals that you can examine in detail.

c. Check providers’ feedback & repeat buyers – while it might be tempting to look at the ‘price tag’ of each bid and decide based on that, looking at the providers’ feedback, experience and portfolio will save you money down the line. Repeat clients are a great sign you should look for. Make no mistake, hiring someone that charges half the price but does not have the right skills for the job will only end up costing you more in the end.

d. Interact with your shortlisted providers – once your shortlist is down to a manageable level, get in touch with the shortlisted providers and ask for questions to help with your due-diligence. Ask for concrete examples of previous work they have done and specifically what their personal involvement was. If anything sounds too good to be true (e.g. one provider states they can complete the work in half the time as anyone else) dig into the detail to understand if this is a sales pitch without much thought or if their estimate is based on solid assumptions/facts.

e. Ensure the candidate can commit the time you need – communicate clear milestones for your project in advance and ask specifically whether the provider is confident they can meet these deadlines. Set business terms that ensure accurate and timely delivery – there is hardly any point in receiving half-finished work on time!

f. Ask for an interview – before making the final decision, if appropriate, ask for a remote interview with your chosen provider. This can be done via Phone, Skype or even by online chat (e.g. MSN messenger). There is no point repeating the communication that you have had already – be prepared to ask more detailed questions to assess the provider’s suitability and commitment to the project.

3. Manage projects like a pro

a. Be clear on your milestones – have clear deadlines for delivery from the start, and ensure that you have the provider’s agreement to these milestones in writing. Make sure that milestones are not too far apart – this will minimise the risk of the project timescales not being met.

b. Set business terms to define delivery and payment – setting clear, agreed terms on when everything will be delivered and when payments will be made will avoid discussions and disputes further down the line.

c. Pay securely using Escrow – do not be tempted to pay directly; payments outside the PPH Escrow service are risky and you will have no control over the money once it has been sent. Instead, deposit the necessary funds into the Escrow account and only release them once the work has been completed to the agreed standards.

d. Pay on time – in the same way that you expect your project to be delivered on time, providers will expect to be paid on time. Paying on time sets the right example and incentivises the provider to complete the remaining milestones on time, as agreed.

e. Be upfront and fair – do not make last minute changes or try to add to the project scope, without discussing with the provider first. If you have additional requirements to those agreed, ask the provider for a quote. Never assume that the provider will undertake to complete tasks that have not been agreed; this will only cause delays to your project.

4. More tips

a. Know your requirements – the less you know about what you need, the higher the chance that you will not get what you want. Educate yourself by asking questions, understand the different options available and read up on anything you are not clear about.

b. Build great relationships – building a solid relationship with a provider requires a time investment but when you find a good provider, it is worth every minute of your time. Keeping your end of the deal (like paying on time) is an excellent start to creating a fruitful working relationship. Stick with providers you know can deliver; people are often willing to go the extra mile once you have formed a good working relationship with them.

c. Stay on top of things – do not shy away from proactively managing your projects. Ask for frequent updates and if you are not getting the answers you expect, it is time to start worrying. Never assume that things are going well because you haven’t heard anything to the contrary.

d. Walk first, run later – it’s always best to give smaller pieces of work to providers you have not worked with first, before moving on to big, mission-critical projects. If the first few weeks go well, give more responsibility and more work. Start with work that can be delivered in a few weeks at most, and if that is going well move to bigger projects from there.