It’s Time to Get Paid

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

It seems to be quite the conundrum for freelancers about what to do when a client doesn’t pay. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it (because now I can help you!) – I’ve been in those shoes myself one too many times.

For whatever reason, some clients seem to think they can get away without paying freelancers for the work they have done. Maybe:

  • they didn’t like the work you did
  • they don’t have the money
  • they are waiting to get paid by their client (i.e., an ad agency)
  • they’re disorganized and misplaced your invoice or missed the due date.

But some have this impression that, because we are self-employed individuals, they can get away with non-payment. And I’m here to tell you – and them! – that’s incorrect.

This is a service profession. Freelancers get paid for their time. It doesn’t matter if the work performed wasn’t what was expected. (Clients, do your research first to ensure you know the talent and skill level of the freelancer you’re hiring.) This profession is similar to that of a hairstylist or barber. You may not like the job they did – and you might not return, but you still pay before you leave. Or how about a doctor? You might not like the diagnosis they give you and go get a second opinion, but you still pay your bill. It’s the same concept.

At the same point in time, this concept that some advertising agencies, etc., abide by in thinking they can wait to pay us until they get paid by their client is off the wall, too. “Oh, sorry. Our client hasn’t paid us yet, so therefore, you get to wait.” Um, since when did freelancers become financial lending institutions? (And for some of these invoices that are small, are they really saying they don’t have, say, $125, laying around they can’t throw our way?) Is this what they tell their utility providers or credit card companies when those bills come due?

Of the aforementioned, freelancers are surely the ones who need prompt payment the most, as they typically don’t have steady cash flow. So, WTH? It’s not cool. Nor is it industry standard. Agencies don’t get to make the rules for how we run our businesses. They don’t get to tell us when our bills are due. We do. We are business owners, just like them. We know what is standard practice and what our legal rights are (or at least we should!). And it’s time we put our foot (feet?) down and demand to be treated with respect.

There are many things we, as freelancers, can do to prevent such atrocities from occurring. We need to bond together with similar business practices to teach the client world how things really are … what’s industry standard … and what we’re willing to put up with.

  • We need to be pro-active, instead of reactive.
  • We need to know our legal rights.
  • We need to follow industry standards.
  • And we need to know what steps to take when a client doesn’t pay.

Consider This Example

A new client had asked for a referral for a graphic designer. So, I gave him the contact info of a friend of mine. The designer and I (a copywriter) worked independently on this project, so I never really knew what transpired between him and the client.

Before I engaged in any work, I asked the client to sign my contract and submit a deposit for 50% of the estimated cost (both practices being industry standard). Initially, I received the deposit but no signed contract. Red flag? Well, it could have been an oversight. And it could have been on purpose. It was too early to tell. Either way, I deposited the check and followed up, asking about the contract. (I don’t do any work until that sucker is signed and in my hands.) A signed copy soon followed.

I did the work on time and on budget, submitted it, asked if any revisions needed to be made or if there was anything else I could do to help out. Got no response. I waited a while, then followed up with an invoice and again, asked if there was anything I could do. Again, crickets. But I saw the copy was being used on his website. In the meantime, I ran into my designer friend whom I’d referred, and he told me he never got paid from this particular client (and he had invoiced well before I had). Uh oh. Big red flag.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Thirty days went by (again, an industry standard for freelance billing), and still no check. Okay, this stuff happens. So, I just followed up with a friendly late notice (another invoice), this one including a 1.5% late fee (another industry standard; check with your state to see how much you are legally entitled to charge) and the words “Past Due” in big red letters. Waited 30 days. Still no response. No email. No check. No nothing.

Now, normally, I would wait a full 90 days before threatening turning the bill over to collections or taking legal action, but knowing that this client had not paid my designer friend, I took a more aggressive approach. (I’m such a bad ass, I know.) After 60 days and still no payment, I created a third invoice (charging 1.5% in late fees every 30 days past due) that said “Final Notice” in big red letters, and sent it to the client with a copy of the signed contract, reminding him of what he agreed to in the event of nonpayment:  he would pay for attorney fees, collection costs, court costs, etc., should we need to go down that path.

And wouldn’t you know it? I got a check in the mail – complete with all the late fees – just a few days later. (Not all clients will pay late fees, just a head’s up. But you can decide whether or not you’d be willing to work with them again should that happen.) I checked in with my designer friend, and he still hadn’t been paid … all these months later. I shared with him what action steps I took to reach payment success, suggesting maybe he try the same, and his response was, “But I don’t have a contract to fall back on.” Ugh.

Image courtesy of Ambro /

Image courtesy of Ambro /

Lesson #1 to all you freelancers (and I can’t even say newbies, ‘cause this guy has been freelancing for almost 20 years!): use a contract! Every. Single. Time. For new clients and large projects at least. I cannot stress this enough. It will save you MANY headaches down the road. Take it from someone who’s learned the hard way. Be proactive! Not reactive …

For this scenario, I suggested my friend simply send a second invoice as a reminder (it’s his prerogative if he wants to charge late fees), because we truly can’t be mind readers and don’t know what’s going on with the client. While it may be our first instinct to get upset and think the client is a deadbeat, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that maybe:

  • he’s been sick or hospitalized
  • there’s been a family emergency
  • he didn’t have the money at the time (just tell us; we could negotiate a payment plan!)
  • he simply misplaced it or got too busy and missed the due date

None of the above would necessarily be the freelancer’s fault, of course, so late fees would still accrue (if you follow that practice, be sure to note it on your contract and invoices). But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to send a friendly reminder if you want to get paid, even if you don’t have a contract to fall back on.

I just checked in again, and guess what. He got paid. Late fees and all. Not sure he would’ve gotten anything if he hadn’t followed up …

We’ll discuss what goes into a contract in a future post. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in on what happened here. Do you have any tips and tricks you’ve used in order to get paid? Let us know in the comments below!

Freelancers-University-Co-Founder-Julie-CortesJulie Cortés, AKA the CopyDiva, has run a freelance copywriting business for 15 years. She is the founder and president of The Freelance Exchange of Kansas City as well as Freelancers University. She can be reached at

One Response to “It’s Time to Get Paid”

  1. Seth
    January 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    This is great advice and something I constantly have to remind my freelancer friends of. Just today I stumbled across someone asking “when to send an invoice” in another community I’m active in – right before reading this article.

    As I mentioned there as well, ALWAYS operate with a contract, and ALWAYS bill on a schedule.

    If you’re a freelancer it’s a very good idea to model your contracts and billing schedules off what large agencies in your field are doing.

    In your contract you should specify billing terms up front – and I strongly recommend requesting a deposit before any work is started. Most times if a client refuses to pay that deposit they’ll turn out to be a crappy client!

    The best ways to structure billing I’ve found are…

    * 50% up front, 50% on delivery of final project
    * 25% up front, 25% mid-way through project, 50% on completion
    * Nothing up front (don’t like this so much…), bill every 2 weeks into project

    Billing on a schedule insures that your clients stay honest and engaged throughout the entire process.

    (Shameless plug)

    This whole system of operating is exactly why I created Cashboard [] nearly 5 years ago – to help me with billing issues and clients.

    It can send automated reminders, help you accept deposits, etc. It will also tell you who owes you money and how much they’re overdue. Of course you don’t _have_ to use software to manage the process – but it’s a lot better than the alternative of invoices created in something like Adobe InDesign, and checking your email to see when you sent the last invoice!

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