They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, and it’s no different for freelancing. Freelancing brings with it many freedoms, from flexible work schedules to the ability to choose your projects. But it also brings a great deal of responsibility , namely, finances.
When rates are set right and clients pay on time, managing finances can be a breeze for the self-employed. It only takes one overdue payment, however, to put a freelancer in a precarious financial situation.
Though nonpayments are (thankfully) not the norm among businesses that hire contractors, they are still an issue every freelancer is likely to face at least once during their career. Below find a timeline you can follow to make sure you are compensated for your work along with tips for nipping future payment issues in the bud.
Day 1: Take A Deep Breath
When your client is late on a payment , take a deep breath and remain calm. There are many potential reasons for why you haven’t yet received your pay, one of which is simply that your due date slipped your client’s mind. After a polite reminder, your payment could be on its way.
To increase your chances of being paid, the trick is to remain polite and professional. You don’t want to damage the good rapport you’ve worked so hard to build with your client over rash accusations and demands. That being said, don’t go soft – you did your part, now it’s time your client did theirs.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t procrastinate. The longer you wait to collect on a debt, the less likely you are to see that debt be paid.
To start off, send your client a polite message noting that the due date has pass. Then ask if they have any questions. Your invoice might simply be waiting at the bottom of a pile, in which case a short reminder should be enough to get your check in the mail. Send this message the day you see the missing payment, and be sure to send along all relevant invoices and service descriptions.
When your client won’t pay
Sometimes a missing payment isn’t a product of mere forgetfulness. Rather it could be a sign that your client is unhappy with your work. First ask what you can do to meet your client’s expectations. Then, as long as their request falls within the initial terms of your project description, establish that the payment is due once you’ve produced your final touch and extend the due date. If the request is large, you might even ask for a portion of the payment up front.
If your client’s request falls outside of your contract, tell them as much, and explain your terms for completing additional work (along with any additional compensation you might require).
When your client can’t pay
If for whatever reason your client is unable to make your payment, suggest breaking the payment down into installments they can make over time. As Alex at Geekpreneur suggests, instead of seeking your entire payment, you could negotiate a revenue share for the money your work brings in. Such a deal could potentially bring you more profits than your original bill.
Start charging interest
You should begin charging interest on late payments from the moment your client’s account becomes overdue. A rate of 1 to 2% is fair, though you should charge the interest rate spelled out in your contract, if one is listed there.
In the UK, interest and late payment fees are defined by the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Acts, which sets interest rates for late payments at the Bank of England base rate plus 8% starting 30 days after you complete a project or 30 days after the invoice is received (which should be the same day if you are sending your invoices on time – more on that later). Additionally, freelancers in the UK are entitled to a fixed late fee of £40 for a debt less than £1,000 and £70 for a debt between £1,000 and £10,000.
Day 7: Reach Out To Billing
If you’ve sent a polite message to your contact, but after one week still haven’t received a status update, now is the time to reach out to your client’s accounts payable department. Since your client’s accountants are the ones responsible for making sure you are paid, speaking directly with them can help your payment find its way into your hands while you avoid dirtying your relationship with your client.
Statement of account
As Mike Holderness and Andrew Wiard of London Freelance point out, sending a document titled “Statement of account” is your best bet for obtaining a response. This document should contain:
- The date of the unpaid invoice(s)
- The invoice number(s)
- A brief description of the work for which you still seek payment
- The amount of the invoice(s)
- The total amount due to you, including interest
The total amount due item shouldn’t be overlooked. “Yes, you add up all one invoices if there is only one,” Holderness and Wiard write. “This makes the accountants feel you speak their language.”
After sending along your statement of account, call accounts payable. In a serious tone let them know that you are dissatisfied with your experience as a contractor for their company due to an unresolved late payment issue , and reference the document you’ve just sent. Ask about the status of your invoice and request the date when you can expect to receive your payment. If no one answers, leave a message, and follow up on a weekly basis until you receive your payment.
In one place, keep a running list of every unpaid invoice, message you’ve sent, call you’ve made, and communication from your client. In case you don’t receive your payment for several weeks, this documentation will help you take more extreme measures.
Day 30: Threaten To Take Action
If after a month you still haven’t received your payment and you’re not seeing many hopeful responses from your client it’s time to get even more serious. Send a new letter that states:
- That you plan to take legal action if you do not receive the original amount due plus interest (within two weeks is a good time frame)
- That you will report your client to authorities such as the Better Business Bureau
Here’s a template to lend your letter more credibility.
Seek the help of professional organizations
Professional organizations for your trade might be able to send such a letter on your behalf. Seeing the letterhead of an established organization might be enough to scare your client into finally paying.
If you work in publishing, advertising, or online media in the UK or Ireland, for example, one such organization you can turn to is the National Union of Journalists.
Day 60: Do This If All Else Fails
You’ve sent various messages, made several calls, and threatened to reach out to the authorities, but you still haven’t received your payment. You can now rightfully use all resources at your disposal to try to recover your payment.
Report your client
Remember those threats you made last month? By now you should actually carry them out. Freelancer Marjorie McAtee collected on her debt from Write.com after spreading the news of being mistreated. Not only did McAtee report Write.com’s nonpayment to the attorney general of Write.com’s state and file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, RipOff Report, and the Freelancers Union, but she also published a post about her experience on her personal blog. Shortly after the post went up, McAtee received her payment.
Another great option for publicly shaming your non-paying client is Pay Me Please, a creation of Beacon and freelancer Iona Craig.
If under your project’s contract you retain the copyright to your work, you should consider selling your work to a different (i.e. paying) client. Of course, this option only works if you are able to repurpose your work for another client to use.
Utilize collection agencies and the legal system
If you are set on receiving your payment but are ready to have the burden of chasing down your payment removed from your shoulders, consider contracting a collection agency to do the work. Just be prepared to fork over up to one-third of what the agency is able to collect.
You also might want to consider taking your client to court, but use this option as a last resort. It’s time-consuming, costly, and requires a lot of mental bandwidth and it’s still not a guaranteed way for you to be paid.
Write it off
If the payment you are owed is low or you’ve found a way to make up the money, it might be time to write the nonpayment off as a loss. This way you will save yourself a lot of time and agony.
Prevent Nonpayment In The Future
Though these steps can help you collect on a late payment, there are certain things you can do to prevent a late or nonpayment from happening at all and protect yourself from encountering big losses.
Do your research
Before so much as pitching a project, look into your potential client’s background. Have other freelancers reported nonpayments? Does the potential client seem to be on shaky financial ground? These are warning signs that you should avoid working with them.
In the case that you do take on a new client, though, be sure to obtain the name of a contact in accounts payable from the beginning. This way you will always know who to reach out to should any issues arise, potentially minimizing the time you have to wait until your payment rolls in.
Write a favorable contract
There are a number of features you can work into your contract to minimize the risk of nonpayment, including:
- Requiring a downpayment at the start of a project (between 20 and 50% is average)
- Breaking the project into milestones. Each time you reach a milestone, your client will pay you a pre-determined amount before you continue on to the next phase. Be specific: Make sure to set specific milestone dates and amounts due
- Detail any late fees and/or interest rates for late payments to encourage your client to pay on time
- Include a clause stating that the copyright of the work remains with you until you receive the final payment
Make your terms obvious even outside of your contract. Including a simple line explaining the payment schedule at the end of an email can work miracles in helping your client understand how to pay on time.
Sending detailed invoices at each of your project milestones is the most standard way to make sure you and your client are on the same page when it comes to payments. “You should send invoices right away, while everyone’s in love with your work,” Sara Horowitz, freelancer advocate and author of The Freelancer’s Bible told Fortune. “No love? All the more reason to bill them and close the books.”
A good invoice includes:
- Your logo
- Your business name, address, phone number, and email address
- Project name
- Descriptions of work completed
- Invoice number
- Payment due date
To make invoicing as pain-free as possible, consider using invoicing services like Hiveage or Nutcache. You can see our post on productivity for more information on invoicing and other helpful tools for freelancers.
Accurate invoicing will provide you with all the information you need to prove your case if your client hesitates to pay you in the future.
No freelancer likes to take time away from their work to chase down payments. But if you choose your clients wisely and take the necessary precautions, you should never have to resort to the steps listed here!
Were you ever confronted by a late-paying client? How did you handle the situation? Share with us in the comments section.
Lauren Mobertz is a New York-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in startups, labor, and digital nomadism. When she’s not writing about the career moves of gutsy millennials, Lauren is usually running in strange places or trying to dance Brazilian zouk. You can find more of her work at http://medium.com/@momobertz.