The freelancer’s short guide to getting paid

May 20, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

getting paidRecently, I wrote about freelance contracts, the point being to weed out bad clients at the beginning of a project and improve the odds of getting paid.

But what happens when a client doesn’t pay on time or refuses to pay altogether?

Let’s begin by looking at the right way to invoice for your freelance services.

After you’ve completed your work, make sure the client is happy and has received everything you have promised. This is important because you may think you’re finished when, actually, the client has a few extra changes to make.

Also, if you send documents by email, there’s always the chance they will get caught in a spam filter or may get lost in a client’s in-box.

Once you’ve confirmed the project is truly finished and your client is satisfied, send your invoice within a few days. There’s something irritating about sending a bill too soon, but you don’t want to drag it out either.

I create my invoices in OpenOffice from a template, save them as a PDF, and email them as an attachment. I add the words “Please confirm receipt” at the top of my email message and use the delivery status notification and return receipt features in my Thunderbird email program. Again, you want to be sure the email gets through.

In most cases, your invoice will be paid on time. But if it’s not, here are some tips:

1. Don’t get mad. Generally late payment is just that, late payment. Your client could be busy or may have misplaced or failed to submit your invoice to the accounting department.

2. Don’t call the day after the deadline. Give your client a couple weeks or up to a month past the deadline, depending on the client. You don’t want to let it go too long, but you also don’t want to jump on a client too soon. Also, make sure you know the payment cycle of your client, which could be anywhere up to three months.

3. Send a reminder email. Be nice and assume the late payment is just an oversight. What I usually do is wait for two to four weeks, then resend the invoice with a message that says, “I just wanted to make sure you received my invoice.” This is enough to nudge your client.

If after a couple weeks you still don’t receive payment, it’s time to …

4. Pick up the phone. Again, be nice and assume your client is busy or forgetful. Just say that your invoice is overdue and you want to see when you can expect payment. Don’t be pushy. The client will usually get the message.

If after another couple weeks, you still don’t receive payment, things get a little more difficult and it’s time to …

5. Start the official collection process. Here’s where you have to be more firm. By now, your invoice is a month and a half to two months past due. Contact your client and ask for a date when you can expect payment. Explain that you need to get your invoice paid soon.

If the date your client promised passes without payment, you’re probably in trouble. You’ve sent the invoice multiple times. They’ve reneged on their promise to pay. And now it’s time to …

6. Ask for immediate payment. Say you want to avoid any hassles like legal action. This is difficult to do. You won’t like it and the client won’t like it. But it has to be done. Still, be professional and don’t say anything you’ll regret. It’s at this point, you may lose your client forever. But then, a client who doesn’t pay is not a client you want. And a client who owes you money will never hire you again.

If the client does not respond or gives you an excuse …

7. Pick up the phone one more time. Have a last conversation with the client and try to work things out. Offer a payment plan. Ask your client how to resolve the issue. And if this doesn’t work, your next call should be to a collection agency or lawyer so you can …

8. Take legal action. If you opt for a collection agency, try to find one near your client. This seems to have more impact. If you opt for a lawyer, try to find one who specializes in collections and who can follow through with a suit if it comes to that.

9. Be realistic. In the end, if clients don’t want to pay, they won’t pay. Collection agencies can work, but not always. And if you file suit, remember that clients can always file a counter suit and claim you didn’t do the work you promised. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, you can sue anyone for anything. So consider the pros and cons carefully before you begin any legal action.

There are alternatives to legal action, such as contacting the National Writer’s Union or the Freelancer’s Union who may be able to mediate your case. But again, be realistic.

If you’re sweating bullets right now, relax. Most clients pay. When they’re late, there’s usually a reason. One or two reminders generally shakes things loose and you’ll get paid.

In my career, I’ve only been stiffed three times. In one case, I reached a settlement through a collection agency. In the other two, the business owners made up a bogus excuse for not paying and I ended up dropping the issue since legal action would have cost more than I would have collected.

There was also one case where a client couldn’t pay because he was having financial issues. He had been a loyal client for several years, so we worked out a payment plan. This is a good example of why you need to see things from your client’s perspective. Sometimes, being flexible and professional can make you a hero.

As a freelancer, you’re running a business. Late payment or no payment is a fact of life. Get a signed contract. Be prompt and firm about collecting your pay. In the long run, you’ll be fine with most of your clients despite the rare bad apple.

Related posts:

  1. Are you losing thousands in freelance fees to PayPal?
  2. Can freelancers REALLY make 6 figures a year?
  3. The freelance guide to working with clients that SUCK

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Smart Comments

12 Comments on The freelancer’s short guide to getting paid

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  1. Moo Kahn on May 26th, 2010 1:12 am
  2. Good post. This is exactly how professionals handle AP. Panic and you’ll lose good clients. Who hasn’t been late once or twice – if you’re in business it’s always a scramble for cash.

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  3. JD Ebberly on Sep 11th, 2010 4:27 pm
  4. Skelliewag ( @Skellie ) has written an EXCELLENT piece about freelancers at It is an amazing work by @Skellie and all freelancers should read it and use it as a reference.

  5. Freelancer on Nov 22nd, 2010 6:45 am
  6. Nice blog!! i also know a very good site for Freelancer at gighour(.)com !!!!

  7. Michelle Dunn on Mar 16th, 2011 1:39 pm
  8. This is a good and timely topic but I have to say I do not agree with item #2: Don’t call the day after the deadline.

    IN my opinion and in my experience you should call BEFORE the deadline, never wait until after and especially do not wait weeks or months after a due date to contact a client.

    Especially in this economy, I advise folks to call before. when you make the call before, you ask if they received the bill or invoice, if there were any issues or problems and ask if the bill is on schedule to be paid.

    If your bill is lost in a pile, when you call, it will get pulled out and looked at and when you hang up it gets put down on top of the pile.

    Your #3 items says to wait 3 or 4 weeks before sending a friendly reminder! Eeeek! This is NOT a good idea.

    You do not want to work for free. You want to get paid and get paid on time.

  9. Dean Rieck on Mar 16th, 2011 2:02 pm
  10. Michelle,
    Most clients in my industry pay and pay on time. So if I have a good client who’s a week late, there’s no reason to jump on them immediately. And I’m certainly not going to call ahead of time, which seems to assume I think they won’t pay. It could be you’re not familiar with this industry, but calling BEFORE an invoice is due is unprofessional and unnecessary.

  11. Michelle Dunn on Mar 16th, 2011 2:24 pm
  12. Dean,
    That is great but not always the case. Since I am a freelancer myself, I am familiar with this and have helped other freelancers who have had problems getting paid – though they did not get a signed contract which I am sure contributed to the problem.

    I respectfully disagree that calling before an invoice is due (especially in this economy) to inquire if they had received it or if there were problems is unprofessional and unnecessary.

    One of the most common stall tactics or honest mistakes or excuses made is that the invoice or bill was never received, delaying payment.

  13. Dean Rieck on Mar 16th, 2011 2:41 pm
  14. Michelle,
    Maybe there’s a misunderstanding here. I send invoices by email and always confirm receipt immediately. I just ask the client to reply and say, “Yeah, I got it.” And there’s a contact and invoice stipulation on the time allowed for payment. However, I don’t call a client the day after the deadline to immediately demand payment.

    When you have been in business as long as I have, you get to know your clients. I know one guy will pay me a couple weeks late, but he’ll always pay. Another guy will pay within 2 or 3 days. Etc. In the nearly two decades I’ve been doing this, I’ve only had maybe 4 times when someone didn’t pay. Most problems are avoided before they ever happen by weeding out bad prospects at the beginning and with contracts and clear, professional communication at the start of every project.

  15. Outsource on Apr 2nd, 2011 12:20 pm
  16. Just wanted to let you know that for some reason Open Office hasnt worked well for me. I am using Windows Vista.
    Really appreciate your information on how to get paid as a freelancer.

  17. Dean Rieck on Apr 4th, 2011 9:46 am
  18. Outsource: I’ve had only minor issues on Vista, such as certain formatting on documents saved as .doc. It’s worked well outside of that.

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