The Freelance Creative

5 Free Alternatives to Must-Have Freelance Tools

These days, it seems like you pay for everything with a monthly subscription. You don’t buy music anymore—you have a Spotify subscription for $10 a month (or Apple Music, or, if you’re a really big Kanye West fan, Tidal). You don’t pay for cable—you have a $9 a month Netflix subscription (or Hulu, or Amazon, or all of the above).

Those monthly costs can add up. Freelancers in particular can spend a small fortune shilling out for monthly software subscriptions since they need so many tools for their careers, subscriptions that full-time employers regularly cover.

But the great thing about the Internet is that there’s almost always a free version of software out there, whether it’s for expensive subscription services, project management programs, or email service providers. Replacing those paid tools with free ones can be a great way to save money without sacrificing productivity.

With that in mind, here are five free alternatives to the tools you might be paying for each month.

Project Management

Trello instead of Basecamp

It’s hard for me to steer people away from Basecamp. The slick and simple interface has saved me hours I would’ve otherwise spent reordering to-do lists. But the free version of Trello will saved me time and money; some people even prefer it for its visually appealing organization system. It also includes the same basic suite of features.

Trello allows users to create boards for different projects, drag and drop cards into different columns, and easily track the status of different projects from pitching to invoicing. Anyone using Basecamp purely for organization won’t miss much by switching to Trello.

Costs: Basecamp costs $29 a month for internal teams, $79 a month for use with clients, or $3,000 a year for enterprise clients. There is also a free Basecamp Classic option, but the outdated UX and barebones features make it impossible to recommend.

Trello is free for individuals, but offers an $8.33/month business class version for companies, and a pricier enterprise version. For extra backgrounds, stickers, and memory, you can pay $5 a month or $45 a year for Trello Gold.

Base savings: $29 per month.

Email marketing

MailChimp instead of AWeber

If you’re trying to build an email list, you’ll need an email marketing tool. AWeber and MailChimp offer comparable services. Both allow you to make email signup lists, set autoresponders, and measure clicks and open rates.

The biggest downside of MailChimp is that it only offers support through a contact form while Aweber has phone, email, and web chat support—even on weekends. It also doesn’t have more advanced features like delivery by time zone (which can hurt if you have an international audience) and automation (a big one if you plan on sending a lot of emails). Overall, MailChimp is somewhat basic, but it has enough for most freelancers to get by. The difference in price, however is not basic.

Costs: AWeber costs $19 a month for up to 500 subscribers, $29 a month for 501 to 2,500 subscribers, $49 a month for 2,501 to 5,000 subscribers. The more subscribers, the more it’ll cost.

MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 subscribers and up to 12,000 emails a month. There’s also a paid version with more bells and whistles that has an extremely scalable pricing structure—as low as $10 a month if you have fewer than 500 subscribers. Check out the website if you want to see the different tiers.

Base savings: $19 per month.


Wave instead of FreshBooks

FreshBooks is free if you only have one client, but otherwise the invoicing software costs at least $19.95 a month. In all likelihood, you will have more than one client as a freelancer.

Wave, on the other hand, is completely free (unless you want to accept credit cards or need premium support). It doesn’t have the time-tracking or project-tracking features of FreshBooks, but that’s probably something you could handle with a timer and a calculator. It also doesn’t include free support, like FreshBooks does, and doesn’t support recurring billing and some project tracking features. But if you don’t often find yourself using these features anyway, you may be better off switching to Wave.

Costs: FreshBooks is free for one client, costs $19.95 a month for up to 25 clients, $29.95 for unlimited clients and to allow an additional staff member to access your account, and $39.95 a month for unlimited clients with up to five additional staff members that can access your account.

Wave is free, but you can pay $9 a month for live chat support during business hours, and $19 a month (with a $49 flat free three month intro option) for live chat and phone support during business hours and toll free access to the Wave headquarters rather than a call center.

Base savings: $19.95 a month.

Word processing

Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office

I will reluctantly admit that I pay $6.99 a month for Microsoft Office. Some of my clients still use a CMS from the Crustacean era that forces writers to submit Word documents.

Fortunately, it is possible to convert Word files to Google Docs, and vice versa. Or you can just make the switch to Google Docs altogether, which are used at almost every publication that doesn’t have its own CMS. You can also use Google Docs offline.

Some people prefer Word’s track changes feature, and of course there are far more features (like image placement, mail merge, macros). But if you only need a place to write, why pay extra?

Costs: Microsoft Office costs $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year for personal use, $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year for up to five computers or tablets and up to five phones, or a flat $149.99. Students can get a four-year subscription for $79.99.

Google Docs is free.

Base savings: $6.99 a month.

Photo editing

Pixlr Editor instead of Photoshop

Photoshop isn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be, but it still isn’t cheap. You can get Photoshop Elements for over $100 or you can use a simple image editor like Pixlr Editor for free. It’s cross-platform, so you can use it on all of your machines (the Pixlr app is also free). Plus, it runs directly in your browser so you can use it on your friends’s computer or your laptop that is perpetually out of memory.

The downsides are that it’s less complex than Photoshop and doesn’t include vector graphics, RAW processing, or digital painting and drawing. It also has fewer image editing features and adjustment effects. But Photoshop doesn’t work on your tablet or smartphone, so use your judgement (and the preferences of your clients) when deciding which to use. Take a look at this side-by-side feature comparison for a more detailed breakdown.

Costs: $119.99 a year or $9.99 a month for Photoshop Elements, or $49.99 a month for all of Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps (which include inDesign, Illustrator, and others).

Pixlr Editor is free online. A desktop version available for $1.99 a month or $14.99 a year.

Base savings: $9.99 a month

Tap into all of these options and you can save close to $1,000 a year. That’s enough for a fancy new laptop, a week on the beach, or just some extra padding in your savings account to keep you calm when a slow day rolls around.

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