Invoicing 2.0

Invoicing is a part of every self-employed or freelancing individual’s life. Many of us are still using clunky old Word templates and those strange antiques known as printers—but why go to all the hassle, when there are so many web applications that offer reliable and efficient alternatives?

Digital invoices eliminate so much time and hassle that it’s unbelievable. Eliminating the need to go to the post box and send off an invoice gives you ten more minutes to spend reading Lifehack, or even ten minutes to do something productive!

PayPal – For the Minimalists

Every PayPal account has access to a feature called Request Money. It allows you to quickly fill in the recipient’s email address, the amount of money you need, the email subject and an optional note. This is probably the simplest and quickest way I know of to send an invoice.

PayPal does provide an invoice feature, which can also be accessed under the Request Money tab – it only takes slightly longer to fill out since you have to provide invoice details and itemize everything. I suggest sticking with the invoicing tool over PayPal’s Request Money tool unless you’re familiar with the recipient and know they’re fine with being billed that way.

Blinksale

Blinksale is a common choice for online invoicing, and it’s what I (and most of the Lifehack team) use personally. Blinksale is a full-featured choice that far surpasses PayPal’s simple minimalism—unless minimalism is what you want.

For some, the attraction of Blinksale over PayPal is the greater control over the look and feel of your invoice. You can use Blinksale’s fantastic templates or even code your own if you’ve got a good handle on CSS.

Another great benefit of Blinksale is its integration with other popular services. You can import your contacts straight from Basecamp, and it’s easy to receive your payments with PayPal—just tell Blinksale your PayPal address in your account settings, and it’s a matter of ticking a box on each invoice you send out. Blinksale has every organizational tool I’ve ever wanted for my invoices.

Unfortunately, Blinksale’s not free. There’s a free version, but it does limit you to 3 invoices per month, and there’s no secure data encryption or option to send invoices as PDFs until you start shelling out. Still, the prices are quite reasonable for the variety of features offered.

Zoho Invoice

Zoho Invoice is another option. I can only really suggest this one if you use the Zoho suite of online applications; the free version does five invoices a month, but doesn’t offer multicurrency support. Since I’m an Australian who does work in America too, this was an instant no for me. I realize that it’s perfectly reasonable to charge for a feature like that, but I’ll never pay for a web service like this without first giving it a trial run.

If you have had a good experience with Zoho Invoice, let us know in the comments—it does look like a promising option, especially for Americans working only in American dollars.

Update: Siva from Zoho says they do provide multicurrency support – they just need to update their account comparison chart. Thanks, Siva!

FreshBooks

FreshBooks seems to be quite a popular option, with the tagline painless billing. The distinguishing feature of this application is its time tracking features, which make it easier to track your hours and turn them into a dollar figure at the end of the job.

FreshBooks’ free option may be more suitable to some people than Blinksale’s: you can send unlimited invoices, send invoices with your logo on them, import and export data, and it comes with the SSL encryption that Blinksale lacks (plus firewall protection and data backups). The downside to the free account is that you can only manage three clients and it only allows one member of staff to access it; if you’re a freelancer with two or three regular clients, this may be the perfect choice for you.

Invotrak

Like PayPal, the appeal of Invotrak is that it doesn’t cost a thing. Invotrak doesn’t have the full range of options that Blinksale, Freshbooks or Zoho offer, so it’s good if you just want a simple and digital way to manage invoices. If you are an American with clients overseas, or work with overseas clients from any country, you may want to skip Invotrak as it doesn’t offer multicurrency support.

Update: Ryan from Invotrak tells us that they’ve recently implemented multicurrency support in the free version. Thanks, Ryan.

A Few Related Apps

Sending and receiving invoices gets to be a pretty confusing business if you try to balance everything in your head. These web tools aren’t for invoicing but they will help you track and control your money.

Wesabe allows you to track all your income and expenses (and more)—invoicing clients or paying invoices becomes much simpler if you can see where all your money is going and coming from.

XE is a great tool for currency conversions—it calculates based on up-to-the-minute rates, so if you’re like me and don’t have a single client in your own country, it’s a very useful tool.

Some Quick Tips on Invoicing

Without knowing how to deal with invoices effectively, these tools aren’t going to save as much time as they could. How do you make them really effective? I’ve got a couple of short and sweet tips that have proved useful for me.

File incoming invoices immediately

Every time you receive an invoice, file it—don’t just leave the email (or snail mail) sitting around to get lost; it’s so much quicker to track your expenses or do tax deductions when you keep invoices meticulously organized.

Keep a calendar of outgoing invoices or even use one of the above tools to set up an automatic invoicing schedule. Nothing’s worse than missing an invoice and realizing that you’ll have to go the week without food.

Keep a template if you don’t use these tools; if you’re creating invoices from scratch each time, then you’ve just found an extra thirty minutes in your week you can make more productive. Even if you do use these tools, keep an up-to-date template on your hard drive—you never know when they will inconveniently go down for maintenance or even go bust.

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