Freelancer? These 7 Free or Cheap Tools Will Boost Your Productivity

woman working on laptop in front of coffee shop sign
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Whether you’re just dipping your foot into freelance waters or you have a full-fledged freelance enterprise, online tools and apps can help you be more productive.

But it’s easy to drown in the latest tools to hit the market. A quick Google search might bring up hundreds of the “best” ones, but those lists can overwhelm even the most seasoned freelancers.

“There are so many tools,” says Dayne Shuda, owner of Wisconsin-based Ghost Blog Writers. “The thing to be careful of is using too many. In my experience that leads to productivity issues.”

So we kept it simple. Below are seven must-have tools that came highly recommended by freelancers from all over the country.

1. G Suite

Maybe you’ve heard of Google. The company is kind of a big deal, and it’s probably taking over the world. But hey, they make some great products, right?

Most people use the search engine and probably Gmail, but Google offers much more than that. If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, start with G Suite, a collection of Cloud-based software such as Drive, Docs, Slides, Sheets, Voice and many other apps. It’s a more comprehensive version of Microsoft Office that seamlessly integrates across all operating systems and several other tools listed below.

“Google Suite is the biggest toolset that keeps it simple for freelancers,” Shuda said.

Many other freelancers echoed Shuda’s sentiment.

“First off, it’s free. You can’t beat that,” said Natalee Gibson, a full-time public relations freelancer in Denver. “G Suite is really intuitive and easy to use.”

2. Slack

“An absolute must for any freelancer,” said Penny Seale, an Oklahoma-based freelance business owner.

Slack, an app that allows for instant messaging and file sharing in real time, started out as an internal chat tool during the development of a video game. It has grown into a hugely popular communication portal that is rivaling email.

For freelancers, Slack is especially helpful because it aggregates multiple client channels in one searchable platform. The app provides a way to cut through the formalities and sluggishness of email.

So it’s great for those quick questions — or, you know, dog memes.

“It’s also a great way to tap into communities within my line of work,” Gibson said. “The ability to upload documents and search through messages makes it a much faster communication tool than email.”

3. Asana

Asana is a web-based task management system that helps users keep track of assignments and due dates on a collaborative workflow table. Founded by Google and Facebook alumni, Asana has grown to a $900 million valuation since its 2012 launch.

Freelance performance coach Ili Rivera Walter said that Asana helps her career coaching company track both team and client progress.

“I use Asana to assign tasks to my team, keep track of client’s weekly coaching goals and seamlessly manage my business overall,” Walter said.

But what makes Asana a must-have for freelancers is its robust free features and integration with other applications, particularly ones on this list.

“I can turn messages from Slack into tasks in Asana or create a channel in Slack for certain Asana tasks,” Seale said. “Due date notifications help me keep my workflow moving and assure that I finish projects on time.”

4. QuickBooks

Freelancers already have it tough enough when it comes to taxes. And as projects start to pick up, tracking invoices and clients can quickly snowball if you go it alone.

“Freelancers sometimes try to make do with spreadsheets and invoices based on templates,” says Ben Taylor, founder of Home Working Club, an advice portal for freelancers.

“It doesn’t take long before trying to do all this manually becomes a false economy, costing more in time than a cheap subscription to a Cloud accounting package.”

Taylor uses and recommends QuickBooks, accounting software powered by Intuit. The software aims to alleviate the headaches involved with filing quarterly freelance taxes and tracking money as a freelancer.

QuickBooks is not free, unfortunately. But it does offer a discounted freelancer package for $5 a month. That package includes a feature that helps freelancers estimate quarterly taxes.

5. Toggl

At its core, Toggl is a no-frills time tracker. It’s optimized for use directly on its website, as a mobile or desktop application or as a browser extension for Chrome.

However you use it, Toggl keeps simplicity in mind to help you stay focused on being productive. It allows users to track projects and clients via an interactive time tracker or through manual data entry. Reports are easy to pull, so you can visualize where most of your time is spent, too.

“Toggl is incredibly easy to use,” said Antonella Pisani, the founder of Eyeful Media, a freelance e-commerce consulting firm. She said her whole team uses the app.

Besides working on just about any device, Toggl also integrates with several apps and tools, including ones on this list: G Suite, Asana, Slack and QuickBooks.

“They offer a free version for up to five people on a team, as well as several paid options,” Pisani says.

And we love free.

6. Dropbox

Founded by MIT alumni in 2007, Dropbox has grown to be one of the most successful applications on the web, winning several accolades from Forbes, Inc., Business Insider, MacWorld and others.

Dropbox functions very simply: Download the app and add files in the Dropbox. Any device with the application can access the files instantly. Files are also accessible directly on the Dropbox website.

Dropbox simplifies file sharing across email and chat applications, as well.

“It’s easy to share a link without attaching files,” Gibson says. ”And the added functionality of the Business feature lets you easily edit and upload right through the application.”

As Gibson mentions, there are multiple tiers of Dropbox. The basic features are completely free and include an initial two gigabytes of storage. Refer friends to Dropbox to earn up to 14 additional gigabytes. Paid features include additional storage and sharing capabilities.

7. Paypal

In 1998, Elon Musk and several other co-founders started Paypal, formerly known as Confinity, as a simple way to transfer money using the internet. The company is now nearing a $100 billion valuation.

Paypal is one of the easiest ways to send and receive money online. After signing up and syncing Paypal to your bank account, you can receive money through the email address associated with your account.

Creating an account is free, but there are varying fees associated with sending and receiving money depending on the amount of money and the amount of recipients. If you have a large client base, you may want to consider a PayPal Business account.  

“I love the integration. I love anything that works together with other tools,” says Megan Robinson, a freelance marketing specialist from Blacksburg, Virginia. “PayPal syncs with my accounting software to capture every transaction.”

Syncing Paypal with accounting software like Quickbooks is easy, and when your accounts are synced, you’ll get automatic breakdowns of invoices and fees associated with your Paypal account.

The tools above are focused on simplicity, affordability and integration.

“It’s incredible how much time I can save having the right tools that integrate well together,” Robinson says. “As a freelancer, the more work you do, the more money you make.”

Apps aren’t for everyone, though. Consider incorporating one or all of them into your freelance toolkit. And if you find yourself spending an unnecessary amount of time learning how to use a tool, ask yourself if you truly need it.

Adam Hardy is a reporter, editorial assistant at The Penny Hoarder. It took him far too long to switch to G Suite. He now regrets every second that he spent fumbling with Microsoft Office. Read his full bio, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.