I finally decided that it was time to move from my primitive accounting “system” based on Word and Excel to a modern cloud-based solution for my freelance business. I wanted invoicing, time tracking, and expense tracking. After doing some research online, I narrowed my choices to two popular solutions: FreshBooks and Harvest. I signed up for the free 30-day trial for each, and started using them. Here are my findings!
Look and Feel – Winner: FreshBooks
“Look and feel” might seem like a frivolous thing to start talking about, but if you use these for time tracking, you’ll be staring at these sites for a good part of your work day every day. FreshBooks has a clean, beautiful design. The blue and green colors are calming, I might even say. Harvest has a more old-school stodgy look to it, and the orange is not that appealing (Note, they just added the ability to change the color).
Perhaps more important is the look and feel of the client-facing content, like emails and web invoices. Again, these items look cleaner and nicer with FreshBooks. So, FreshBooks wins this category easily.
Ease of Use – Tie
Both FreshBooks and Harvest are pretty easy to figure out. I really didn’t have to consult with any help pages. Originally I had FreshBooks as the winner here, but Harvest has improved so now it’s a tie.
Invoicing – Winner: Harvest
Okay, now down to the main reason you’re probably looking at these two programs: invoicing. Both can do web invoicing. This means that you send an email to your client which contains a link to the actual invoice online. There, they can pay online via Paypal. Cool, huh??
Another great thing about this is that you then know exactly when they opened the invoice. No more “I didn’t get the invoice” excuses!
Harvest includes a PDF version of the invoice in the invoice email by default. With FreshBooks, there’s currently no automatic way to include a PDF with the invoice email. You have to generate the PDF, then send it separately, or make the user click on a link, which goes to a website, where they can download a PDF. Many users have asked FreshBooks for a way to attach a PDF, but this seems counter to their philosophy. Certainly, if you include a PDF and a web link, almost everyone will just open the PDF, and you would lose the tracking ability, which is probably why FreshBooks is so adamant about this.
So, since Harvest makes it so easy to include a PDF version of the invoice in the email, it wins this important category.
Payment Processing Fees – Winner: Harvest
Harvest and FreshBooks offer credit card payment processing through Stripe and PayPal with the same fee of 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.
FreshBooks offers ACH payments with a 1% fee. Harvest offers ACH payments through Stripe with a 0.8% fee with a maximum of $5.00. That cap is a significant difference. Both are for U.S. customers only.
If you accept ACH payments like I do, then Harvest is a big winner and could save you a good amount in fees over the year.
Expense Tracking – Winner: FreshBooks
Another important feature that I was looking for is expense tracking. FreshBooks has one killer feature here: it will download bank and credit card transactions from your financial institutions. Wow! Really cool! This is a huge time-saver!!!!
Harvest doesn’t do this. It started out as time-tracking software, so it has some catching up to do with the accounting part. This is a pretty big bummer. Entering expenses in Harvest is a bit more klunky as well, as I alluded to before.
The one area that Harvest does better is mileage tracking. You enter the current IRS mileage rate in one place, then you can just enter your mileage for each item and it will convert it to dollars. Inexplicably, with FreshBooks, you have to convert the miles to dollars yourself. What a pain! It would be so simple to fix this.
But overall, the online downloading trumps this, and FreshBooks is a clear winner here.
Reports and Graphs – Winner: FreshBooks
This is where FreshBooks really beats Harvest. FreshBooks has really beautiful graphs and reports which are easily accessible. Your FreshBooks home screen even has some nice graphs which provide a snapshot of your financial status. I really like how they provide these graphs automatically. Harvest doesn’t have as many graphs and you often have to “run a report” when you want to see your information. Not nearly as cool.
Time Tracking – Harvest
Harvest started out as time tracking software, while FreshBooks started out as accounting software. Both do a fine job at time tracking though. I kind of like the Harvest time tracking panel a bit more, but just barely. FreshBooks will create a small time tracking window that you can use if you want though.
Customer Service – Tie
Both Harvest and FreshBooks have great customer service. I’ve emailed Harvest directly, asked for features, and actually had them added in a reasonable time frame (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one asking). I’ve also talked to people at FreshBooks as well. Both companies are very responsive!
Subscription Cost – Winner: Harvest
This is simple. Harvest costs less if you are solo. The Harvest pricing is based on number of users (since it started out as time tracking software), whereas the FreshBooks pricing is based on number of clients (since it started out as accounting software).
As of this writing in 2014, FreshBooks is $19.95 per moth for one user and up to 25 clients and $29.95 per month for unlimited clients and up to five users.
Harvest is $12 per month for one user and unlimited clients and $49 for five users.
If you are solo, and especially if you have over 25 clients per year, Harvest is significantly cheaper: $144 per year for Harvest vs. $359.40 per year for FreshBooks. You’ll save $215.40 per year with Harvest.
The Overall Winner – Harvest
I love so many things about FreshBooks. I love the look and feel. I love the ability to sync with your bank records. I love the graphs!!
But, the inconvenience of emailing PDFs in FreshBooks is an issue. Having to create a PDF and manually attach it to an email for every invoice is a real downer, and not including a PDF could inconvenience your clients, the very folks who pay your bills!
Also, the cost structure of FreshBooks is really not friendly for solo freelancers who have lots of clients. The additional cost vs. Harvest is more than $1000 over five years. I also like Harvest’s lower ACH fees.
So, by a smidge, I have chosen Harvest as my online invoicing and time/expense tracking solution. I will always look with envy at FreshBooks, but at the end of the day, making it easy for my clients to pay me is the most important thing. Both FreshBooks and Harvest are great solutions for freelancers like me.
Which do you prefer? Please leave your comments below!!! I’d love to hear from you. – Brian
Update: Other Options
If you just need a professional-looking invoice, check out FreshBooks’ Free Invoice Creator. It’s just for creating invoices, and allows you to save and send them online.
Another invoice service is Invoice Home. Creating invoices for $1000 per month or less is free.
Addendum: There is another – Paymo
After I finished writing this article, I came across another time management/invoicing cloud service called Paymo. This was actually recommended by a colleague, so I signed up for a 30-day trial. Pricing for up to two users is $14.83 per month with 30 invoices per month – plenty for me. So far so good! As of this writing, they have a new version in beta which I tried, and it was quite beautiful and very web-appy looking. Very impressive. In no time, I was creating test invoices. At this point, I was getting my hopes up that this would be a contender. Then, I went ahead and sent an invoice email to myself and was sorely disappointed. It was a kurt text-only email with a long URL (not even a link!!!) that the client would have to copy to a browser in order to see the email. Honestly, it looked like a spam email that you would delete (which would be disastrous!) Like FreshBooks, it doesn’t seem to support automatic sending of PDF invoices (you can generate them, but you have to manually attach them to an email). I was very surprised that so much thought had gone into the software and user interface while so little thought had gone into the client invoice email… I’m still with Harvest.
Another Addendum: CurdBee
After someone forwarded me a FreshBooks estimate, it made me long for their nice design. That’s when I discovered CurdBee. CurdBee looks like the child of FreshBooks and Harvest, with an orange header like Harvest, but a nice blue and green body like FreshBooks. To my delight, I found out that it can send PDFs in the invoice emails. I thought I had another contender here! The pricing is tiered according to the features you want. PDF emails, time tracking, estimates, and expense tracking cost extra. When all was said and done, the cost for what I wanted would have been $20/month. I was tempted, but really the only advantage over Harvest was the nicer, more “FreshBooks” type of look. And it didn’t have the FreshBooks killer feature of expense importing or the convenience of Harvest’s automatic mileage calculation. So, I’m still with Harvest, though if you don’t need all of the extra features that add cost, CurdBee might be for you.