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It’s always a good idea to know what your business can do without if you end up needing to cut costs. Software is a good place to focus your attention, with so many free and cheap alternatives that make it easy to downgrade your product suite in a pinch. In this post, we’ll look at which ones you can’t afford to go cheap on and which ones you can.

When was the last time you evaluated the apps and services you use in your business? This type of professional housekeeping is something that small business owners, freelancers and other self-employed individuals should do regularly.

For starters, getting rid of apps you don’t need and finding better alternatives to the ones you do can make you more productive. Secondly, you can reduce your costs by regularly auditing the tools and services you use. In good economic times and bad, this is a useful way to ensure your profit margins remain intact.

What I’d like to do today is take a look at which apps creative small businesses and freelance designers and developers should be paying for and which ones you shouldn’t. Whether you’re looking to cut costs during a recession or simply increase your profits, this list should be able to help you find some areas of your business where you can trim the fat without impacting your productivity or efficiency.

Which Apps Should Creatives Spend Money On?

There are certain areas of your business where you can’t afford to skimp, like when it comes to making legally binding agreements with clients or processing their payments.

That doesn’t mean that the following tools are the only ones you should pay for. Over time as your business grows, you’ll eventually have to add more paid solutions to your list. They’ll allow you to unlock more features, gain greater efficiency through automation, and also bring team members into the fold.

So think of this list as your baseline. If you have to spend money on anything, these are the apps that are worth it. And if you ever find that business is slowing down and you need to give yourself breathing room, this list of premium solutions is where you’ll scale back to. When you’re ready to ramp up again, you can start spending money on other ones.

Contract and Proposal Software

Freelancers and small businesses generally don’t need to hire lawyers in order to prepare contracts for them. That is, unless you’re selling a very expensive and exclusive design and development service to companies in need of the utmost discretion.

While the majority of you can skip the exorbitant legal fees, you should be willing to shell out some money for high-quality contract and proposal software. There are some apps out there that are free to use, but they restrict what you’re able to do.

Considering this is the start of your relationship with a client, you want to make sure it perfectly reflects who you are and how you work. If your proposal and contract suggest that you’re flimsy on the details and are willing to tolerate nonsense, that’s probably what you’ll end up getting from your clients.

For this, I’d recommend PandaDoc or Fiverr Workspace.

Client Onboarding

This is one of the most critical stages of a design or development project. For starters, it sets the tone for how every interaction with your client goes moving forward. So if you allow them to drag their feet and hold up the project, you can expect more of that to come.

That’s why it’s important to have a buttoned-up client onboarding process. While you can create your own intake questionnaire using a free app like Typeform or Zoho Forms, everything else will need to be manually managed.

Instead, set up your onboarding process in a platform built for it. Create your intake questionnaire. Provide clients with areas to upload specific files—and also give them exact specifications to ensure that they give you the right file type, size, etc. And then set up automations so that the tool does the work in following up with them if they miss critical delivery deadlines.

The best solution I’ve found for this is Content Snare.

Accounting and Tax App

When it comes to hiring an accountant or someone to do your tax prep, I don’t have strong feelings either way. I realize how stressful this side of going into business for yourself can be. So if you’d rather outsource it to a professional, then by all means, do so.

That said, you’re still going to have to pay for accounting and tax prep software. Without it, you’ll have to submit all of your receipts, invoices and financial records to your accountant.

One of the major benefits of using this software is that it hooks up to your financial accounts. It pulls in and categorizes everything you spend and earn. Some of these tools will also send this data over to your tax prep software, so there’s less data to input at tax time.

Even if you don’t want to do your tax prep, it’s important that you have visibility into what’s going on with your profits and losses and this software makes it easy to do.

I’ve used the QuickBooks Self-Employed and TurboTax bundle for as long as I’ve been freelancing. Also worth checking out are FreshBooks and Wave.

Invoicing and Payment Processing Platform

There are tons of ways to generate invoices for free. It could be as simple as creating a template in Google Docs and then exporting a PDF version to send to your clients when it’s time to collect.

However, that only takes care of the payment request portion.

In order to collect payments from clients, you need a payment processing tool. While these platforms are almost always “free” to get accounts with, they assess a fee every time you process a payment through them.

So if you’re going to end up spending money on payment processing, you might as well find a platform that has a built-in invoicing solution. This solves two problems. The first being that a PDF/paper invoice can create complications for clients if they’re not sure how to submit their payment. The second being that you won’t have to pay for two separate tools to manage different parts of the same process.

All three of the accounting apps above offer invoicing, so consider using one platform to cover all of these finance-related tasks.

Design & Development Tools

The other thing you’re going to need to spend money on—and it’ll likely be your largest expense among apps—is the toolset you use to build digital products. From wireframing to prototyping, not to mention all of the testing you do mid-development and post-launch, there are many tools you have to work with on a regular basis.

You might be tempted to go the free or cheap option with some of these just to keep costs down. However, cutting corners in terms of your workflow or output could negatively impact your outcomes.

A better way to rein in how much you spend on these tools is to find software bundles that include all the apps you need—like Telerik DevCraft. Not only will you get a better deal on pricing this way, but using a product suite made by the same provider will improve your consistency, collaboration and efficiency.

Which Apps Do Creatives Not Have To Spend Money On?

So long as you’re working on your own or with a limited staff and you have a basic enough setup (for instance, you’re not trying to run multiple businesses at once), you can find free apps for most everything else. For example:

Password Management App

I’ve slowly been migrating my business over to Zoho’s suite of apps. It all started after I discovered Zoho Vault. Unlike free and premium online password managers I’ve used, Zoho’s has always been reliable and easy to use.

Project Management Software

The second you introduce any complexity (like a new team member or services) to your business, you’ll want the features that come from premium project management software. Until that happens, free apps like Asana and Trello will give you everything you need to keep projects on track.

Time Management Software

There are different ways to manage your time as a freelancer. You might need to track time for the sake of billing, in which case Toggl is always a good solution. On the other hand, you might want something that helps you focus better. For that, I use Pomofocus. Once you get a few employees, this might be part of your business worth spending money on.

Cloud Storage

As a designer or developer, you’re going to accumulate a lot of files. Even if you work alone and you have a separate platform to hand off files to clients, storing your files in the cloud as opposed to your local drive is the smart route to go. Google Drive, Zoho WorkDrive and OneDrive are all good options.

Video Conferencing

Client meetings are common in web design and so you need a reliable video conferencing platform that gives you options. Like Zoom. It should allow you to meet over video as well as do voice calls. It should also come with a texting feature. In addition, it should allow for screen-sharing, whiteboarding and session recording.

Appointment Scheduler

There’s no excuse for back-and-forth email exchanges to try and plan out when your next call is. Whether it’s scheduling prospects for a consultation or clients for mid-project meetings, an online scheduling tool is a must for freelance designers and creative business owners. Calendly and Doodle have decent free options.


There’s one last thing I want to say about free apps:

There are a couple of ways to find apps and services that don’t cost you any money. The first is to choose a free option. The second is to find premium apps that come with free solutions for other things you need.

For instance, I used to manage my agency’s design projects with Basecamp. Rather than use a platform like Google Drive to store our team’s files—which we would’ve maxed out and had to pay for—we saved everything in the project management tool. That way, everything was centralized in one tool and I didn’t have to worry about incurring costs from two tools with overlapping functionality.

So keep that in mind as you evaluate your own toolset. There are creative ways to go about getting free solutions for the various tools you use in your job.

About the Author

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.

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