Art & Development

new year, new software

One of my take-aways from the Creative Capital Professional Development workshop was improved bookkeeping. Artists, stereotypically, are “bad” with money. But the idea is this: manage your time better. Spend less time on money so you can focus better energy on art. Stop wasting time doing things the hard way. Utilize productivity tools.

The only way to find what works for you is to jump in. Here’s a re-cap of the software I’ve tried:

I was burdened with a series of Excel spreadsheets for tracking everything — bookkeeping, tax prep, and time. They were reliable but time-consuming.

The Mac version of Quicken looked dinky, so I tried Quicken Home Business for PCs ($80) in 2007. It was nice to automatically download my credit card transactions, instead of manually entering a pile of receipts. Still, the program was an over-complicated clunker. I was worried about security, but all the embedded passwords to download transactions through Quicken (rather than a browser) were a pain. Not only did log-in take ages, it locked up the program! I’m a multi-tasker, and I want my software to be, too. I was also turned off by all the annual fee-based upgrades. My tax prep was simpler from the year before, but still ended up a bunch of messy Excel sheets. I gave it a shot, but Quicken PC wasn’t worth the cross-platform bother.

Last year, I switched to Quickbooks for Macs ($199). Refreshingly, Quickbooks actually lives up to its name. It’s zippy, and seamlessly blends simplicity and high functionality. Daily tasks, like entering invoices, expenses and receiving payments, are a breeze. The app is smart but not pesky — it remembers and suggests names and categories, but accepts overrides effortlessly. It’s easy to get the bigger picture too: what I’ve spent, what I’m owed, if I’ve been paid. I can also track how much I’ve spent on a specific exhibition — this is really helpful. For artists, money can be too emotional anyway; better to know how much you’ve actually spent vs pondering Is my artwork worth so-and-so expense?)

To download bank and credit card statements, Quickbooks simply opens your institutions’ websites in your browser: simple, secure and familiar. (There’s a wrinkle, but it’s with my bank: downloading statements for Quickbooks is a feature available to all business account holders except sole proprietors. WTF?)

For tax prep, users are only two clicks away from a full profit and loss statement that includes all income and expenses for the year, which flawlessly exports into Excel. For the first time since the 1990s, I’ve whittled down all my tax info down to one Excel document. (I know! Nerdy! But, when you’re leaving the country from Feb-May, like I am, it’s a huge relief.)

I’d recommend Quickbooks for all artists and freelancers, especially because it includes short videos that painlessly acquaint users with set-up and work flows. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for in speed, functionality and convenience. I spend 20-40 minutes per week on bookkeeping, and have finished the bulk of my tax prep in three or four hours. It’s sooo much better than going through a pile of old receipts and bills.

While Quickbooks includes a time-tracking feature, it’s not detailed enough for tracking my freelance hours. Previously, I used to use a long Excel sheet with a simple formula and shortcut keys that enter the current date and time. It involved a lot of copying, pasting, and scrolling.

For 2009, it seemed like a good idea to graduate to proper time-tracking software, and after doing a few trial downloads, I’m giving Fanurio ($39) a shot. It’s still in its early versions, so it’s simple and clunky, but has the primary functions I was looking for:
1. Starting, stopping and pausing a live timer,
2. A high degree of control, including adding past hours to a log (a helpful feature for anyone who does any work away from a computer),
3. Quickly seeing the mode you’re in,
4. Reliability / back-ups.

I also like the ability to minimize the window into an iTunes-like controller, with a live timer display. If you’re going to have an app open all the time, it has to disappear and re-appear nicely. Fanurio is really designed for freelancers, and tracks time and rates, and keeps a running total of hours and profits for each job. Hopefully, later versions will bring improvements to the interface and speed, such as allowing users to customize window views and single-click to change jobs.

While anytime is a good time for artists to get more organized, January is a great time to make the switch to new software.

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