Billable vs. Nonbillable Freelance Work – What Hours Can You Invoice?

When you first start a career as a freelancer, it can take a while to get your bearings. From managing your own schedule and attracting new clients to determining your pricing and doing your own bookkeeping, there are a lot of things to figure out and get used to.

One aspect of freelancing that many independent contractors struggle with is what to bill for. Do you charge for a five-minute phone call with a client? What about if they booked an hour of your time but only used half of it?

Before you start sending out invoices, make sure that you have a good understanding of what your billable and nonbillable hours are to keep your records clear, consistent, and clean.

Billable Tasks Freelancers Can Include in Invoicing

Billable work is made up of the tasks you take on and complete for clients that you expect to get paid for. In general, this work is directly tied to a specific client’s project instead of comprising general tasks like your own freelance accounting or marketing.

Here are some of the most common billable tasks freelancers charge for.

1. Scheduled Meetings, Phone, and Video Calls

If a client schedules an in-person, video, or phone meeting with you, that time is typically billable.

It doesn’t matter how much you participate in the meeting. If a client requested your presence, even to observe a brainstorming session between employees or to watch a presentation, you can absolutely charge your hourly rate for the time you blocked out to attend it.

If the client only booked you for an hour but the meeting turns into two, bill them for the entire amount of time you were required to attend.

The only time that you wouldn’t want to charge for a call or meeting would be during an initial consultation or a quick, unscheduled call to confirm information or ask a simple question.

2. Professional Tasks

Professional tasks are the skills and abilities you have centered your freelance career around — for example, writing, software development, social media marketing, or graphic design.

These skills are directly related to why a client hired you and how you will contribute to their project. And they’re arguably the most obvious work items to bill clients for.

You should charge for professional tasks any time you use your time and skills to contribute to a client’s project, including:

Designing a logo
Editing a document
Updating HTML or CSS for a website
Drafting a social media post

Think of these tasks as the bread and butter of your working hours. They’re what should make up the bulk of your invoices and directly impact your profitability as a small business.

3. Project Planning

Project planning is the first phase of almost any new contract. This can involve:

Determining any required resources
Creating a timeline with projected milestones
Building a suggested plan for meeting a specific goal

Project planning shouldn’t be confused with drafting a quote or proposal. Actual planning takes place after a contract has been signed and you and the client both have a strong understanding of a project and its goals.

It’s made up of building out a strategy for the work you discussed during your initial consultation or contract negotiations.

For example, if you were hired to build and implement a monthly social media schedule, planning could mean creating an editorial calendar of posts for each month including how to handle holidays, which hashtags to use, and which topics to cover based on the client’s overall marketing goals.

Not all projects will require planning, but for those that do, make sure you get paid for the time you spend devising a strategy to help the client meet their goals.

4. Revisions

Most projects come with at least a little back and forth. Sometimes, revisions will be simple changes like adding a link or changing a color, while other revisions will be more intense and involve major updates.

Regardless of size, when a client requests a revision, the time you spend making adjustments to a piece of work you already submitted counts as billable work.

However, make sure to review how you agreed to handle revisions in your contract. For example, if you previously agreed to include one revision in your rate, you wouldn’t charge the client unless they asked for additional adjustments after the first revision was handed in.

5. Travel and Commute Time

Most client communication can be done virtually, but when it can’t, figuring out how to bill for your travel and commute time is challenging.

Although you may not bill a client for the 15-minute drive it takes to get to their office, what should you do when it’s two hours away? Or when it’s far enough that you need to fly?

A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you have to block out time for a client in order to attend a face-to-face meeting at their request, you can bill for it. Otherwise, you could be using that time to earn money by working for another client.

However, make sure to discuss your pricing and billing guidelines with a client upfront. Charges for travel and commute time shouldn’t be a surprise on your invoices. When a client asks you to travel a significant distance, let them know that it will be an additional cost on your next bill.

Giving them a head’s up also encourages clients to prioritize their time with you. If they really need you to travel, they’ll be willing to pay for it. And, if they don’t, they’ll schedule a video meeting instead once they understand your travel comes at a price.

6. Client-Specific Research and Learning

If you need to conduct research or learn a new skill to complete a project for a client, you can usually bill for it. For example, if a client requests that you use certain software to accomplish a task or that you learn about a new topic to inform a piece of writing, include your invested time in your invoicing.

This can also include tasks such as:

Interviewing an industry expert to learn about a product or process
Learning how to use a company’s internal project management system
Attending a client-requested conference or professional event

It should be noted that this only applies to research and skills directly related to a client or project. General learning that you do on your own to expand your skill set or freelance services shouldn’t show up on a client’s bill.

7. Client-Requested Time Blocks

Sometimes clients request to block out a chunk of your time, either for a meeting or because they want to reserve your time through a retainer. When a client books an hour of your time, but only uses 30 minutes of it, how should you bill?

If a client booked your time in advance and requested that you be available to work exclusively for them during that time, you can bill for it regardless of whether they use the full amount. It all comes back to whether you could have been using that time to work for other clients or not.

If a client tells you in advance that they want to cancel a meeting or cut it down to a shorter length, you can try to fill that hole in your schedule with other client work or administrative tasks.

But if they book you for a full eight-hour day and only end up needing you for half of it, whether you bill them for the total hours they requested in your schedule is up to you. Typically, it depends on the client and your relationship with them.

For larger, higher-paying clients, you can typically bill for the full amount. With smaller clients who are budget-conscious, you may consider only billing for the time you spent with them.

Alternatively, you can inform the client that they still have additional time with you they’re paying for and offer to use it up. It could be the perfect time for them to ask project-related questions or have you provide some professional insight. It’s a win-win for you both because you’ll be billing for what you expected and they won’t be paying for unused time.

Nonbillable Hours During a Freelance Workday

Nonbillable work is part of every freelancer’s schedule. Unpaid tasks like accounting, consultations, and learning can take up a lot of time, but they’re part of what helps you to run your business and hone your professional skill set.

Here are some of the most common nonbillable tasks in almost every freelancer’s schedule.

1. Accounting and Administrative Tasks

Unfortunately, you can’t bill clients for the time you spend taking care of your own accounting and administrative work, such as:

Preparing quotes and invoices
Tallying expenses
Ordering office supplies
Setting up your home office
Sending emails

All these tasks are on you, but they should technically be calculated in your hourly rate. So, although you can’t include them as line items on your invoices, you should still be getting paid enough for your billable time to cover for them overall.

2. Quick Emails and Phone Calls

Brief emails and phone calls with clients typically aren’t billable. While you should get paid for the time you spend working for your clients, you should also have a little give when it comes to answering simple questions or providing basic information.

If a client gives you a quick call or sends an email with a straightforward question, building a relationship is often worth more than what you’d get paid for the few minutes it takes to respond.

Although you want clients to respect your time, it’s also important to respect theirs. Only bill for phone calls and emails when they require a significant amount of time or additional work on your part.

For example, if a client calls you every day just to chat for an hour, you may need to let them know you are going to have to start billing them for your time in the future.

But if a client only reaches out once per week through email asking for a basic progress update, it’s probably not worth billing for.

3. Initial Consultations

Most freelancers offer initial consultations at no cost. Although they can be time-consuming, they provide you with a lot of information about the client, their project, and whether you want to work with them.

To save time, consider creating a questionnaire or email form for potential clients to fill out upfront. This will cut down on the unpaid time you spend reviewing possible projects and streamline your client vetting process.

4. Business Marketing Tasks

Marketing your business and building your client roster counts as nonbillable time. For example, you can’t charge clients for:

Updating your own social media pages or website
Writing blog posts for yourself
Sending cold emails to prospective clients you want to work with
Creating print or digital ads for your freelance business
Attending a general networking event or professional conference

The time you spend advertising and building your small business isn’t something that you can bill your clients for.

However, even though you can’t bill clients for the time, it does pay to put effort into finding future projects because it will help to keep your schedule full and paychecks coming in.

5. Recruiting and Hiring

Any time you spend recruiting, hiring, or looking for subcontractors for yourself is considered nonbillable time.

However, once hired, you can incorporate an employee or subcontractor’s rate into your own or include it separately on your invoices, depending on how they contributed to a project.

If a client project requires freelance work outside of your area of expertise, you can bill the client for the work separately. For example, if you’re a software developer and the client asks you to cover copywriting as well, you can bill for hiring a writer and include their rate on your invoice. Just make sure you let the client know you’ll be hiring the work out.

6. Developing Proposals

Often, you’ll send a proposal or quote to a prospective client after an initial consultation. Sometimes drafting a proposal takes a lot of time and involves a variety of different tasks, such as:

Competitor research
Market research
An industry analysis
Learning about new tools or trends
Reaching out to subcontractors
Multiple client meetings

And, typically, all of these tasks are nonbillable. Your proposal is what you use to entice and “hook” a client after you know enough about their project to understand what it would take for you to complete it. Just like a clothing store won’t pay you to try on clothes, a potential client won’t pay you to draft a proposal.

Base the information you provide in a proposal on the individual client and their needs. If you know you’re competing with another freelancer for the contract, put in more time and effort. If the project is straightforward and you’re confident a proposal is a simple formality, keep it basic.

7. Fixing Errors or Mistakes

Revisions to a project at the client’s request are one thing, but flat-out mistakes on your part are another. If you make an error because you misunderstood instructions or missed an email, it’s typically your responsibility to fix it on your own dime.

The best way to avoid mistakes is to make sure you have all the information you need before you start a project. If you need clarification, schedule time to go over any questions or issues early on. Take notes, request resources, and ask follow-up questions to get as much insight as possible.

If you do happen to make a mistake, fix it, learn from it, and move on. Just don’t bill your client for the time you spend correcting your error.

8. Professional Development

Professional development is an ideal way to hone your experience, learn new skills, and increase your competitiveness as a freelancer. But, if you’re doing it for your own sake and not because a client requested it, add it to your list of nonbillable activities.

Nonbillable professional development includes:

Enrolling in courses, programs, or workshops
Attending seminars and conferences
Participating in professional organizations

Even though you’ll have to work on professional development in your free time and on your own dime, it may well be worth it. Professional development and the education and networking opportunities it provides can help you to get better clients, charge a higher rate, and build a reputation in the future.

9. Networking

Meeting other freelancers and growing your network is essential to growing a strong freelance business, but it’s not something your clients are going to pay you for directly.

Attending meetups, summits, and conferences will help you to build a useful network of professional connections and even help you to find new clients. Although you can’t include it in your client invoices, networking does pay off in the end.

Focus on attending networking events that are either free or targeted to your interests and profession to keep costs low while still adding to your skill set.

Keeping Track of Your Freelance Hours

One of the best ways to separate your billable and nonbillable hours is to track your time. From distinguishing between paid and unpaid work to detailing the number of hours you spend on a particular client project, using time tracking software is an ideal way to get a handle on your time management.

There are a number of platforms you can use to create time logs for yourself in real-time, including:

Harvest — free for up to two projects.
Bonsai — $19/mth for invoicing, contracts, time tracking, and more.
Clickup — free for the basic version or $5 per month for unlimited.
Indy Time Tracker Free for two time tracking hours, subscription: The Indy Pro Bundle is $5.99 per month

Final Word

At the end of the day, what you charge for and how you bill clients is up to you. But if you don’t try to strike a balance in how you differentiate billable and nonbillable hours, your freelance business may suffer. It won’t take clients long to sour on being billed for time you’re spending answering quick emails or traveling to conferences they didn’t request you attend.

By managing your time wisely and creating billing guidelines for yourself to follow, you can forge stronger client relationships and work smarter, all while developing your professional skills, taking care of administrative tasks, and turning a profit.