20 Tools For The Freelance Designer On A Shoestring Budget

In your career as a freelance designer you’ll probably use tens, if not hundreds, of different tools to perform all the tasks needed to run your business. From image editors to accounting apps to text editors. There’s no way I could list all the tools available in one post, and if I did they would range from being completely free to costing an arm and a leg. So I thought I’d focus on the least expensive ones.

All these tools and services are either free or pretty cheap, considering what can be done with them, and can be great replacements to the more expensive ones we’re used to. The ones on this list probably won’t break the bank! :)

Image Editors ↓

Of course nothing’s gonna replace Photoshop, but you can do a lot with PixelMator, Gimp or even SplashUp, a web-based app.







Feedback And Usability Testing ↓

Getting feedback on your designs is essential, no need to ask friends and family (you’d probably get the ‘looks good‘ type of answers anyway). Instead you can use services like Concept Feedback, FeedbackArmy and Five Second Test.

Concept Feedback

Concept Feedback

Five Second Test

5 Second Test

Feedback Army

Feedback Army

Color Tools ↓

My 2 favorites: Colour Lovers and Adobe Kuler. They’re both free.

Colour Lovers

Colour Lovers

Adobe Kuler

Adobe Kuler

Billing, Invoicing And Time-Tracking ↓

I’m a hardcore Freshbooks fan, but Invoice Machine and Billings are awesome too! And very inexpensive.

Freshbooks Invoicing


Invoice Machine

Invoice Machine

Billings 3

Billings 3

Cross-Browser Compatibility ↓

When you design websites you need to make sure everything looks good in different browsers (die IE6!). I personally chose to install Parallels to run Windows and test in Internet Explorer, but services like Litmus App, or even the free BrowserShots, are great for checking your sites in different browsers.

Litmus App

Litmus App





Local Testing ↓

Mamp is awesome! Use it to setup a local test environment. A must have for coding and testing without affecting a live site. There’s a free and a pro version.



Coding & Programming ↓

My favorite text editor is TextWrangler, but I’ve tried TextMate and NotePad+ before and they’re both really good! And cheap!

Text Wrangler




Text Mate


Images and Photos ↓

Whether you’re looking for inspiration or for some images to use in your designs, Flickr and DeviantART are 2 must-use websites. Make sure you check the licenses before using any images you find on those sites.





Your Turn To Talk

I’m curious to know what tools you use as a freelance designer. Are you just starting out or you’ve been freelancing for a while? And when your freelance business started to take off, did you buy more expensive tools, or you just stuck with what you had? Let us know in the comment section! :)


  1. says

    Great article. A freelance on a budget is me. I use Pixelmator, Coda, Invoice Machine and CMS platforms. When on a PC I use Filezilla and Notepad ++

  2. says

    There are at least three tools here I had never seen, but will check out right away. I guess Aviary could have been added to the list. I sometimes use it for a quick edit of screenshots, or other graphics. Very easy to use and free.

  3. says

    I’m interesting in starting some freelance work, and really appreciate that you compiled this list of inexpensive (and free!) resources. I know about deviantart and flickr and think they’re great, but I hadn’t heard of the rest of the resources. Thanks.

  4. says

    I also strongly recommend Coda – it’s a bit more expensive (will run you around $100), but I absolutely love it (probably more than I do TextMate, admittedly).

    Also, iClockr for keeping track of how many hours I put into a project (regardless of whether its flat-rate or hourly, I find that keeping track of how much time is spent on projects is invaluable).

  5. Rene says

    Thanks for the list, it was right on time. I was about to start searching for some tools you’ve listed and found all I needed here. Giving it thumbs up in Stumble also.

  6. says

    If you are a freelance designer with a tight budget, let me introduce CurdBee (http://curdbee.com) for invoicing. We are a simple, solid invoicing application specially designed for freelancers and small businesses. We inspired to build it to scratch our own itch, after being dissatisfied with the restrictions of other invoicing solutions. Later, we realized it could help many other freelancers like us – so we’ve launched it as a totally FREE application.

    We offers unlimited invoices, clients, multiple currencies and PayPal/Google Checkout integration. If you need extra customizations, security, modules such as estimates & recurring invoices, you can upgrade your plan to PRO version, which would cost you only $5 per month.

    So don’t waste your hard earned money for invoicing – be wise and consider using CurdBee.

  7. says

    Many of our time tracking and billing clients are freelance designers and freelancers. They use our free version which accommodates for one user.

  8. says

    Great list. A lot of resources I have not heard of but need to checkout. The tool I need the most is a Windows version of isMamp to setup a local test environment.

  9. Andy owen says

    Aptana Studio is an awesome, free IDE with way too many useful features
    to list here…

  10. says

    Wow there’s some programs on this list that i’ve never even heard of! I’ll probably try a few of these out, though I love kuler and i’m not sure i can be pulled away from it, even by colour lovers!

    Thanks for the list, looks like it could be really useful!

  11. Teo says

    Being a freelance web designer/developer I am using couple of services from the above list and would recommend them for anyone with similar needs,

    Adobe Kular – If you are looking for colors and combinations this is really cool.

    Litmus – It has saved more hours which I spent on doing browser compatibility before I found this. Can you reduce the price? Please…

    CurdBee (in comments) – Awesome app for sending invoices online. I am saving both my money and time thanks to this app.

    SXC.hu – Don’t pay for Stockphotos before trying this one. You’ll feel sorry for yourself if you do so :)

  12. says

    Thanks for thinking of FreshBooks when you made this list, Jon. Thanks even more for being a hardcore fan : )

    Rayanne Langdon — Queen of Hearts, FreshBooks.com

  13. says

    I have never heard of most of these amazing tools – I am glad the weekend is right around the corner – I will be checking them out for sure.

  14. Karen says

    There is a neat little desktop tool called Fanurio http://www.fanuriotimetracking.com . I love it! You can try it for free too. You can just click to start, pause it, etc and you can do nifty reports. I use it to track the time I spend on client projects.

    Even though I only bill hourly for consulting projects, it helps me to see how much time I’m spending to make sure my rates are in line. With Fanurio you can customize invoice templates using your own layouts and export them to HTML or PDF.

  15. says

    I think it is great that you mentioned Gimp. It is a great program, especially for those of us venturing out into the linux world and using distros like ubuntu.

    I would also suggest freelancers take a look at Intervals, a web-based time/task/project tracking app that handles freelancing workflow end-to-end.

  16. says

    Man, I’ve been looking for something like Concept Feedback forever, so I’m glad you mentioned it. I would like to second adding Coda, it’s much better priced than Dreamweaver, lighter weight, and is optimized for mac. Also in terms of social networking for freelancers, behance.net is the bomb.

  17. says

    I recommend Expono.com as a good service to host images and illustrations. They are in several languages and they have a lot of storage capacity.

  18. says

    I’m a huge fan of GIMP. I’ve found that it can do everything I need for designing anything on the Web. And you can’t beat the pricetag of FREE, since it’s open-source.

  19. says

    Real’ nice post with a lot of resourceful websites and apps! Bookmarked! Commenters added great tools too.. maybe you should add them to your [soon to be, updated] list..!

  20. says

    Great list of tools. I also use free onscreen ruler by Delphi. It measures screen in pixels. I don’t create websites, but elearning. Surely website people might find this handy too, though. There are a bunch of free ones out there, besides just Delphi though.


  21. says

    A handy list. I use Open Office, an excellent alternative to Word and Topstyle, a CSS/HTML code editor which may be better or comparable to Dreamweaver.

  22. says

    I recently switched from Freshbooks to Ballparkapp.com for my estimating and invoicing. I found it to be alot cleaner and it doesn’t force me to have only a certain amount of clients on my account. The price is great and they have a free version as well. I would also add two free sites to this list for high quality free stock.
    1. http://www.photoxpress.com/ for excellent high quality stock photography and
    2. http://freestocktextures.com/ for awesome free stock textures.

  23. says

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Vim and Emacs editors. I personally use vim for all my coding tasks and find it very helpful because of its speed of use, scriptability and support for tremendous amount of programming languages.

    The ‘rails’ plugin for vim is also priceless if you do some RoR coding.

  24. says

    Thanks for the list.

    I just want to add Inkscape as an open source version of Illustrator. Granted it is to Ai what GIMP is to Ps but it has a much better UI then GIMP and fits the bill for most jobs.

    Also, Quickbooks offers a “lite” version if you have under 20 clients/vendors and best of all its FREE! :D

  25. says

    Of course there is Firebug and the brilliant web developer tools for Firefox.
    I use ‘view document size’, ‘resize window’ and ‘ruler’ quite often!

    Dont know if you can still get it but Multiple Ie physically installs multiple versions for real world testing.

  26. MT says

    For mass resizing and altering of images, I find FastStone Photo Resizer invaluable. I use it myself to fix up image libraries for clients before uploading, and I also give it to clients so that they can manage their own photos. It is very robust for a free program!

  27. shannon says

    I recommend trying http://contentcube.com . It is like visual FTP. You can have all your originals organized online and then share proofs or deliverables with your clients. The service automatically generates previews of PSD and AI files too. Great presentation tool as well.

  28. says

    I use litmus & deviantart a lot! Looking forward to checking out the usability testing tool, thanks.

    Find firebug essential (surely everyone knows about it) but also use Rally (rallydev.com for project management) and LiveTimer (livetimer.com for time management).


  29. says

    Nice list! Great to have a good selection from each category too! Another option instead of FreshBooks is FreeAgent, which is a bit cheaper and I’ve heard great things about it.

  30. says

    Here’s a great tool for online photo storage and online video storage.
    Zovue.com (http://www.zovue.com) is actually a social networking website that offers lots of unique features. I highly recommend that anyone storing photos or HD video online that they go and check it out.

  31. says

    Hi Jon,

    That’s a great sharing. I’m not much of a designer myself and I find your links useful. I will definitely look forward to reading more of your helpful information in the future. Cheers!

  32. says

    Another great time tracking and invoicing software is TSheets. Been using it for over a year now, no complaints, great customer service, and a rock solid product. What’s not to love?

  33. Vincent says

    I would like to recommend OroTimesheet for time tracking and invoicing.
    It is really easy to use and very affordable.
    It helps me keep track of the time I spend on each project. I can easily create an invoice from my timesheets.

    It is free to try so make sure to visit the company’s website at http://www.orologic.com/


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