Virtual Equipment/Supplies: Skimp or Splurge?
Other than major electronics such as your computer or cell phone, software will probably be among your greatest initial expenses for essential equipment. While it may be nice to have all the software that you could probably ever need, it's not cost effective, especially as you embark on your WAHM career. Consider what you'll be using your computer for and how often you'll be using those programs. Let's look at the essential software you should be considering and where you can skimp and splurge. I don’t recommend skimping for the long term—this is, after all a business/your profession, so give it the same attention that you would give (if not more) were you working a "traditional" job. Because both your time and your finances are on the line, paring down a bit at first may be the most cost effective for you as you figure out which programs, equipment and services are best for you and your line of work.
Word Processing Software
Chances are, your computer will come with some sort of basic word processing software on the operating system and will include a trial period for an upgraded version. If you're using a PC, there may even be an "office suite" that includes programs for word processing, spread sheets, database management and presentation and/or design. At the very least, you'll need the word processing and spread sheet software. If you are doing a lot of design or have a large database to manage, get them, but don't if you don't need them. You can always upgrade later. [b]Suggestion: Splurge on the things
that you need, skimp on the things that you don't.
This is such an important area, because safety, privacy and protecting yourself from indentify theft are paramount. If protective software such as Symantec's Norton Anti-Virus to protect you from spam, viruses, trojans and other malware is not in your budget right away, consider freeware programs such as CCleaner and LavaSoft's Ad-aware. They are easy to download and the free versions are still very powerful, but unlike commercial programs, you need to run them manually. If however, you need a program that will automatically run for you and have additional failsafe measures in place, make sure that your protective systems are top-notch. Many operating systems also come with a firewall that you can enable; and even if you have a commercial program, downloading and running the freeware programs in addition to your other protective software is recommended. Suggestion: Splurge wisely, and take advantage of freeware as well. You can't be too safe.
PDF and Other Multimedia Readers
Here's one area where you get to not only skimp, you can get them for free. Most people already have Acrobat reader, because needing to read PDFs has become so standard. Macromedia/Adobe also offers free readers for Flash and other multimedia content, so make sure that you have the latest versions so that you can take full advantage of the Web. Suggestion: Skimp.
Here's another area where you can skimp, unless you need to create PDFs from scratch and need a more comprehensive program like Adobe's software. First, check your word processing software to see if it has a "convert to PDF" or "save as PDF" feature. For example, Microsoft's Word 2007 has that capability. If your software doesn't have this feature and you need to (or want to) create or convert documents to PDF, consider a free program such as PDF995. For most people, who don't need to design PDFs from scratch or create forms/documents where the end user can fill in information in the PDF itself, freeware should be sufficient. Suggestion: Skimp.
Unless you're planning to hire an accountant (or already have one for home finances) you might want to consider accounting software, such as Quicken, especially towards tax time. You don't need to get one right away, just make sure that you keep accurate records with your spread sheet software. If you wait until close to the end of the calendar year, you can take advantage of the special sales on accounting and tax-related software for your business. Suggestion: Skimp wisely.
Website and Blog Design Software
If you are designing your website yourself from scratch, you will probably need a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) program. This can be useful even if you know HTML, CSS or any other code, because it allows you to see what the site will look like as you create it. It's also beneficial until you have the budget to hire a dedicated Web designer (or unless you can barter with a fellow WAHM for services). There are expensive and free programs available, as well as some word processing systems that give you the option to convert or save a file as a Web page. Avoid that final option—you want a program that utilizes standard Web language and will be easily picked up by the search engines. Your Web hosting package may also offer a WYSIWYG program such as Yahoo (not geocities, but Yahoo's Site Builder) and GoDaddy's Web Site Tonight. Another good free program is Kompozer, which allows you to view and design your site using the source code and in site preview modes. Most blogging platforms (if you go this route for your main site) also give you the option of programming in the source code and WYSIWYG modes. Many hosting companies also offer small-sized (five pages or fewer), WYSIWYG basic templates for basic sites and for the entrepreneur/small business owner starting out, Microsoft now has a free website builder in their small business Office Live suite. There are also many free and relatively inexpensive templates for setting up a blog format as well, which doing a quick web search will reveal. Then, when you're ready for more capability or to upgrade, you can get fancier or even hire a web designer or swap services with another work-at-home professional. Suggestion: Skimp wisely.
Large File Compression Software
Will you need to be sending large files or many files at once? Consider this as you think about your essential equipment software needs. Given how large files can be—from pictures, to text documents and multimedia files, the answer just may be "yes." There are few things worse than trying to e-mail a file to someone and have your system or their system bounce it back as "undeliverable." Compressing files saves makes sending large files easier and saves space on your hard drive, and thus is a wise investment. While WinZip seems to have a corner on the market, there are other file compression programs available, but WinZip is proven and offers a free trial. The program itself is also pretty cost-effective, so you can get a lot of bang for your buck. Suggestion: Skimp wisely.
An FTP (file transfer protocol) program
You may be thinking: "why would I need that?" But if you are sending many files or large files, it can be useful from uploading files to your Web host, to sending and receiving files with others. Some programs, such as [link url=http://www.yousendit.com]You Send it[/link], have a drop box feature where files can sit until you're ready for them thus freeing up space on your hard drive and e-mail memory. There are also free or low-cost programs available that should fit within any budget. Suggestion: Skimp wisely.
Tools of Your Trade
Only you (and experts in your field) will know what software is essential for your industry. For example, if you're Web site designer, Macromedia's professional suites might be good investments. Because you are doing business, you want to have the best tools possible within your budget, so that you can maintain a competitive edge. Find out what others are using, and if they aren't in your budget right away, plan ahead and make them part of your business wish list. Again, take advantage of year-end sales, refurbished equipment if applicable, classifieds on Craigslist, sales and auctions on Ebay and other auction sites. Freecycle can be another good option, depending upon the condition—you never know when someone just wants to get rid of something that is still in good condition and that could work out for you even if in the short-term. Suggestion: Splurge wisely.
Knowing when to skimp and when to splurge are important for keeping to your business budget and for calculating your business deductions at tax time. Always do your research so that you’re not only getting the best deals, but so that you are getting the best equipment for your needs. If you are also a student, a member of a club such as AAA, or a senior citizen, don't forget to take advantage of the additional savings that using those perks can yield. And when spending (as opposed to getting free downloads or equipment) keep receipts and don't forget to include the expenditures when you calculate your deductions for your business taxes.
C-Net (product reviews for electronics)
Consumer Reports (product reviews)
IRS Small Business Guide
Search Engine Guide (small business information for Web/e-commerce)
Small Business Administration (SBA)