Freelancers, Here’s How You Get Paid — Always and Mostly on Time

Don’t get stiffed by clients again recently reported that the majority of freelancers get stiffed by their clients, quoting Rafael Espinal, president and executive director of Freelancers Union: “One of the biggest challenges freelancers face is getting paid on time, if not getting paid at all.” Then there was this bombshell:

“The Getting Paid in the Independent Economy: Insights From 400+ 1099 Workers report has highlighted some of the serious issues facing freelance workers. The research showed that exactly 59% of freelancers were owed $50,000 or more for completed work, with 72% of respondents saying they still have outstanding invoices yet to be paid by their clients.”

I was stunned. How can you have a business if you’re not getting paid? How…why…are people working for those who don’t pay them!? That is a losing enterprise.

Then I remembered, oh, that was me once. There were years when outstanding invoices for my small business at any given time were in the $40,000 to $85,000 range. The interest I paid on credit cards and my bank line of credit to cover others’ negligence…Yikes.

There was one ugly time a customer wrote me a bad check and I was in their store at noon the next day making a ruckus about how I needed the money now so I could pay my employees. A new good check was quickly issued. There were more times in that vein, but we don’t talk about them anymore. Since then, I’ve learned a few things about preventing and resolving such payment matters, while finding and tending to clients worth keeping and culling out the rest.


Set your terms As a business owner, you have the right to set your normal business terms: Payment in advance. Half down and half in 30 days. Payment upon approval of work. Net 15. Net 30. Start here: Behave like a business and have written standards terms ready. Use them in verbal discussions. Reprint them in correspondence and on paperwork.

Most effective phrasing ever Cutting to the chase early before sharing the rest of the lessons, here are the payment terms and terms phrasing I use now. I haven’t changed it in years because it has simply been so effective. I don’t recall the last time I didn’t get paid or received payment more than a week late.

I extend credit to all clients on the simple agreement that they pay on time. I bill once a month, with payment due in 15 days of billing (checks, credit card, or PayPal accepted). I allow for late payment once. After that I require payment in advance for all work.

But be flexible and negotiate Because your client also has the right to have their own normal business terms. And you both have the right to negotiate. So, accept that reality and learn how to advocate for yourself and reach fair agreements. Sometimes it may not seem fair, but it will be the best you can arrange for that particular job. It’s not written in stone, so if you want better, try again next time.

Pre-game Prevent confusion and increase the odds of getting paid as you expect by getting everything discussed in writing. A contract is ideal but not always necessary. If terms are negotiated on the phone or in person, ask for them in writing. If they don’t come in writing, you put them in writing in an email and ask the client if these are the terms as they understand them. Get their confirmation before proceeding with any work.

Ask for it In her book, We Should All Be Millionaires: A Woman’s Guide to Earning More, Building Wealth, and Gaining Economic Power, author Rachel Rodgers relays the shocking fact that most small businesses who came to her for legal help collecting on invoices had not even once asked their client for payment! Imagine. It is easier for some people to hire a lawyer than to simply email or pick up the phone and ask for what’s theirs. Perhaps they didn’t even consider the possibility of simple human error: Someone forgot. It’s in a pile on a desk somewhere. It actually got lost in the mail. Maybe, even, you forgot to send the invoice!

Even if there is a more complex reason a client didn’t pay their bill, the first step is to ask for it. Always. And preemptively. If I notice that a client’s invoice payment due date is coming up and I haven’t received payment, I let them know 2–3 days ahead of time that their due date is coming up so that they can stick the check in the mail immediately. I also remind them that I accept PayPal or can take their credit card information over the phone.

If you didn’t remind them 2–3 days ahead of time, when do you ask for it? Immediately. The day after it was due and you do not have cash in hand.

Ask for it again Ask again. Get comfortable asking. Ask as many times as you need to. If your first request for payment was by email, the second should be a phone call. Do not get off that call until someone has told you when the money will be arriving and in what format. If they don’t tell you, it’s your job to ask and secure this commitment. Be firm and wait for their answer. Let uncomfortable silence be your friend. If it doesn’t arrive when they said it will, call them back immediately.

Multiple ways to pay Accept multiple forms of payment — for the client’s convenience and yours. PayPal. Venmo. Zelle. Checks. Credit cards (all small business should have a Square account IMHO).

Credit card on file

An excellent option is to request a credit card number that can be kept on file and charged should payment not be made on time. Some clients may even prefer this convenience. There are various best practices and legal considerations around storing someone’s credit card information due to cybersecurity and general security concerns. You should be well-versed in these guidelines if you go this route. Note that many software packages and services handle this for you effectively, e.g., PayPal can accept recurring payments from your customers and Quickbooks will only show the last 4 digits of a client’s credit card if you store a number there and use their payment services.

Get a firm commitment on an arrangement If a customer is unable to pay on time, ask for two things: (1) as much of a partial payment as they can (remind them you take credit cards!), and (2) a firm commitment in writing about when they will be paying you. Treat this date like the original deadline and follow the previous steps about asking for the money a couple days ahead of time.

Wield the truth Keep a list of useful, truthful, and hard-hitting phrases you can use for crunch calls. You need the money and to stop spending time on collections and they need to pay.

  • “I am not in the financing business.”

  • “Um, I have three children to feed and house…”

  • “I don’t have the luxury of paying my bills when I feel like it. I need payment this week.”

  • “As a self-employed person, my clients deliver my paycheck. It’s due.”

Whatever you feel comfortable saying is fair game when clients are delinquent. Don’t be afraid to rely on bluntness, vulnerability, or tugging at heartstrings and human decency.

Wield the law And another thing. Don’t be afraid to get more authoritative folks involved if you have asked multiple times and months have passed and/or large sums of money are involved. A call from a collector or collection agency or a letter from a lawyer is sometimes needed to loosen someone’s purse strings. Consider that if things get to this stage, a client will very likely not want to work with you again. LOL. That’s okay. You’ve already put them on your never again list. Do yourself a favor and build affordable legal protections into your solo business before you need them.

No work list There are a multitude of reasons to swipe a customer right over to your No, Never Again list, but not paying promptly more than once or even once without a good excuse or a new arrangement should top that list. Never again. There are 31 million small businesses, plus countless large companies and their divisions, and millions and millions of human individuals who could be your potential clients. Remember this and let that non-paying little drop in the bucket go.

Choose the right clients Efforts to choose your clients carefully are worth it. Work for established companies. Work for those who come from referrals. Work for those who act in good faith and demonstrate honorable business practices. Treat your clients well and do outstanding work for them so that you can build a sustainable business on reliable relationships with people who happily pay you on time.

Be trustworthy yourself Be trustworthy yourself and it will be easier to attract, retain, and surround yourself with trustworthy clients. One of the key conflict management takeaways from The Tao of Negotiation is “…if you follow one, and only one, rule in business, you can throw out everything [else]….That rule is simply this: ‘Deal with an honest [person].’”