#923: The Freelancer’s Lament: How to politely say “eff you, pay me”?

Hi Captain,

Earlier this year, I agreed to do some work for someone. We hashed out that I’d do about X hours/week, and they’d pay me $Y/hour. It was a hobby that I never expected to monetize, so I was really surprised that someone was willing to pay for it. Between my two official jobs and all the other stuff I’ve had going on this year (moving, cutting ties with my abusive parents, my mental health taking a nosedive), I hadn’t even noticed that they didn’t pay me… for months, now that I look back on my records. Add to this that the work, which used to be fun, now feels like an utter chore, and I really don’t want to do this anymore.

I need a script (email or text) to deal with them. Ideally, I’d like to a) maximize my odds of getting paid (I know there’s no guarantee, since we never signed a contract or anything, and luckily I can survive without the money), and b) make it clear that I will no longer be working with them, since this behavior is unacceptable. Any advice? All my attempts at writing something come out rude and profanity-laden.

-Why Does Everyone Feel Entitled to Free Millennial Labor?

PS – any advice on not feeling foolish and irresponsible for not noticing this sooner?

Dear Free Labor,

My instinct says that the “please pay me now” and the “I’m quitting” conversation are two separate conversations and you should start with getting paid.

My first question is, have you invoiced the person for the work?

If you haven’t invoiced them, stop everything and make an invoice. Put a clear “payment due” date on it – I’d say 10 days from when you send it –  and write an email like this:

Dear (Friend):

My invoice for (dates) is attached. The best way to pay me is _______ (I’d choose an app or electronic method so the funds drop immediately), and payment is due by ______. Sorry to let these pile up, happy holidays!

If you have invoiced them, dig out all the unpaid invoices, make an invoice for the current month, and attach them all to a new email:

Dear (Friend):

Here is my latest invoice, as well as the past due invoices, totaling $$$$. Please pay me via ________. Payment is due by ______. Thanks and happy holidays!

No explaining why you need the money. NO FEELINGS or apologies or justifications, especially in the second note. You are owed this money, you are not making it weird by asking for it in a quick businesslike way. You are actually doing them a favor by making it explicit, since somehow they never managed to say “Hey, how much do I owe you?” or “How do you like to be paid?” or “Send me your invoice so I can settle up with you,” this whole time. A good-but-absent-minded person is going to be relieved to have this settled.

Hopefully one of those emails will solve it – the person will say, “OMG, of course, here you go” and the money will hit your account soon thereafter. The only right thing for this person to do is to pay you, without argument or hassle, as soon as humanly possible. If they don’t, here’s the trick:

  • Don’t do or schedule or talk about any more work for this person until you’re paid. If they try to schedule you for something, say, “I can’t really commit to any scheduling right now. Let’s talk about it after payment has come in.
  • If you’re holding on to work product, don’t turn it over until you’re paid. “I’ll be happy to send the files over as soon as the payment shows up!
  • On the due date you specified, if payment hasn’t shown up yet, call your friend on the phone and ask where the money is. “Hey Friend, payment hasn’t shown up yet, when should I expect it?” It will be seriously awkward, but you’re not the one making it so.

The “I’m quitting” conversation is for after you’ve been paid, and the end of the year/beginning of the new year is the perfect time to discuss it. The reason I say that is, if the person still wants you to do more work for them, they might be more apt to pay in order to keep the relationship sweet. If they feel like a bridge is being burned anyway, paying you might go further down the priority list than it already is.

Once you’re paid, your script for quitting might go like this:

“Looking at my commitments for 2017, I’m not going to be able to continue this project. Thanks for the opportunity, it’s been a pleasure.” 

Polite, professional, friendly, over and out.

If they don’t pay, hassle you about paying, try to make it sound like it’s your fault you haven’t been paid yet, try to renegotiate what they agreed to, they are taking your relationship with them and setting it on fire. In that case, it’s okay to skip to “Eff you, pay me” or bring in an outside service or even a collection agency. The amount of money at stake here might not make those steps worth it right now, but know that you are in the right and you’ve got options.

As for feeling foolish, forgive yourself – you had A LOT going on this year! You’ll never make this same mistake again, and there are valuable lessons to be gained:

  • Spell things out in advance in writing, even when working with friends. Especially when working with friends. “I’m excited to work with you – let’s spell everything out in writing so we know exactly how this is going to work.” Good contracts protect everybody. Don’t work with people who think they are unnecessary.
  • Be explicit and clear about payment schedule and expectations. A lot of freelancers I know put a penalty for late payment into their freelancing contracts for just this reason.
  • Whenever possible, tie deliverables explicitly  to payment.”Payment due immediately upon delivery.
  • Keep up with your invoicing and record-keeping. Less chance of unpaid bills piling up and you’ll be happier come tax time if you do.
  • Lose the shyness or awkwardness about asking for pay and expecting to be paid. Lots of people feel awkward talking about money, but if you can practice and learn to not be awkward, you’re doing yourself and everyone you work with a favor by bringing it all out into the open.

Good luck getting paid! You got this!






85 thoughts on “#923: The Freelancer’s Lament: How to politely say “eff you, pay me”?

  1. That’s great advice!
    LW, this was not your fault for not realising you hadn’t been paid. You upheld your end of the deal, it was your customer’s responsibility to uphold theirs. If they didn’t, it’s no one’s fault but theirs, so please don’t feel guilty for expecting people to be decent and responsible.

    1. Well, not if she didn’t invoice them.

      Professional writer for more than 30 years and I concur with the Captain’s advice.

      1. I don’t know… Not everyone uses invoices and I still assume I have to pay – eventually I would just pay them, or ask them how they want to be paid. But it does leave open at least a chance that they also just forgot, or were waiting for an invoice or instructions, I guess.

        In any case moving forward clarity, putting things in writing, and sending invoices sounds like the way to go, though.

        1. I think I read it as the person who hired the LW is a non-business acquaintance, rather than a company.

        2. If I did forget, or forget for a while and then get embarrassed that I forgot, a cheerfully matter-of-fact invoice would be a relief, though.

      2. Invoices are important for all the reasons already stated, but if the deal between the LW and his customer was a verbal agreement, that is also valid and the LW has the right (morally if not legally) to expect the customer to fulfill their end. I’m not saying invoices aren’t the way to go, I’m saying if you make a verbal agreement with someone, it falls on your shoulders to stick to the agreed-upon conditions (i.e.: providing adequate labour or paying on time).

        1. … and my point got lost somewhere in there. It being, the LW was not foolish or irresponsible for expecting people to uphold deals. The initial method he used didn’t work with that particular costumer, but that only means he must find a new method, not that he was irresponsible or a fool. We all make a few blunders when starting at something new!

          1. Eh, I think it’s possible for something to be a verbal agreement and for the customer to still expect some kind of final accounting, even if it isn’t a formal invoice. Just as it doesn’t make the LW irresponsible or a fool, it doesn’t make the customer a cheat.

  2. “Whenever possible, tie deliverables explicitly to payment.”Payment due immediately upon delivery.”

    Even better, if possible, don’t deliver the final product until AFTER payment is received. Of course this may or may not be possible depending on what you’re delivering. But if it’s an electronic product, for example digital photography, don’t deliver the hi-resolution files until payment is received.

    – A fellow freelancer

    1. Or have payment in increments – some % for starting the work, some % after a consultation/delivery of first draft/other milestone other than complete finish, last % after/on delivery of complete thing.

  3. It probably isn’t about entitlement and millennials. A couple of my freelance clients run me through their payroll, but the others definitely won’t pay without an invoice. That is normal in business. You need to get your paperwork in and bill for the work you do.
    That said, don’t beat yourself up about it! It takes a while to get the hang of freelancing. The advice above is good – bill now and note that you’ve let the months pile up. It should be fine.
    I used to get so busy and overbooked, I’d blow off invoicing for months, and end up where you are. Now I have a calendar item every single week to make sure I’m caught up. (You can probably do this monthly; maybe set it for the fifth, or the first Tuesday, or whatever works for you, for work completed the previous month.) just make it a regular thing, and it will take no time and have no emotional content at all.

    1. Yep, that’s what I do.
      Some people find it easier to do it as each billable job is completed, or need longer/shorter pay periods.
      Do some research in your field by checking forums or mailing lists specific to your type of work AND part of the world, as norms do vary a lot, and try different approaches to find a good fit.

    2. The LW probably knows best whether people in his life are exploiting his labor on the basis of his age cohort.

      1. Eh, idk. If you don’t bill, you don’t get paid. In two decades of freelancing, never even once has a client cut me a check without an invoice. There are common tropes about people stiffing freelancers, there are tropes about exploiting the young, these things do happen,but this person sounds inexperienced enough – and young enough – to perhaps not have submitted a bill for his work. It is a common oversight when starting out.

        1. Random theory: people who exploit the young will probably exploit anyone else, given the right circumstances.

    3. Seconding this—there’s definitely a learning curve here, and it can be easy to beat yourself up over missteps. But it takes time and practice to get the hang of contracts and invoices, and much of the hard-won knowledge comes from making mistakes along the way.

      I’ve been freelancing full-time for nearly a decade now, and I find the following works well for me:

      • First-time clients have to sign a contract and pay 50% downpayment before any work can begin. Remaining payment/invoice due within 15 days of project completion, with monthly % penalties for late payments.

      • Return/repeat clients who were timely in payments the first time around still get project details in writing but don’t have to pay anything down, and don’t have to pre-sign any contracts. Final invoice due within 15 to 30 days, depending on project type or our relationship,

      • Troublesome/slow-paying repeat clients get treated like first-time clients, with the same contract/downpayment terms.

      REALLY troublesome clients get turned down for any future work, as I’ve found no amount of money is worth that much trouble. And in my experience, the worst offenders are usually the clients with fairly small bills—small amount of $$ to pay, but requiring TONS of hand-holding, extra work, or chasing down from me. Those clients have me saddling up my nopetopus faster than anything.

  4. Yeah, I pay on invoicing. I need the paperwork before money goes out of my account. I get a teensy bit irritated it it’s delayed because it hangs in the back of my head. I’m relieved when it comes in because then my accounts balance. Long winded way of saying that I hope you get to the point where this has the emotional weight of asking someone to pass the salt because that’s all it should have. Good luck!

  5. The first time someone fails to pay me, I’ll put something like this in the cover letter/e-mail: “While doing my end-of-quarter accounting, I found that I don’t appear to have invoiced you for this work,” or “Looking back at my records, I don’t appear to have ever received payment from you on the work I delivered on [date].” Then I add, “I’m including a copy of my invoice here. Since I delivered the work so many weeks ago, I’d appreciate it if you could pay me within 10 days. Thanks for your patience as I follow up on my old accounts. Please let me know if you have questions.” I’ll be flexible about the 10 days, but this approach has worked well for me in the past.

    I lose NOTHING by being a little self-deprecating with this communication. But notice that even though it looks like I’m shifting the blame onto myself, (1) I do not apologize for not having billed, and (2) I give the payor a chance to save face. I’ll assume forgetfulness before I assume malice. Things fall through the cracks in my office; they fall through the cracks in my clients’ offices, too.

    Going forward with non-paying clients, on a case-by-case basis I decide either to make them pay up front next time (“The firm has changed to a pay-up-front policy for all clients”), or to decline to work for them. If I decline, I’ll put it in terms of “I don’t have the capacity to take on this work until maybe four or five months from now, so here’s a referral.” If they ask whyyyyyyyyyyy, I’ll say, look, I have a ton of projects on my plate right now and can’t give your matter the attention you deserve. My goal is to not burn bridges, even with a client who doesn’t pay promptly. Even if I don’t work for them ever again, maybe they’ll suggest me to someone they know.

    As has been mentioned, record-keeping and calendaring are essential. There are software packages for just about every line of work, but I just use multiple tabs in an Excel spreadsheet for my office accounting.

    1. This. Even when burning bridges, it doesn’t hurt to be diplomatic. That terrible client may have colleagues who aren’t terrible.

      But that also doesn’t mean you should put up with it. A client who is difficult to work with, who takes you for granted, who doesn’t pay you on time, etc. is taking away time and mental energy that you could better expend on clients who will be generous, thoughtful, grateful, and eager to pay you.

      And record-keeping both helps with tracking where your time and money are going, and when the end of the year comes and you have to do your takes. If you’ve not got a system set up yet, I’d strongly recommend take the time you’re putting this client’s work on hold and do it. It will save you so much grief in the long run. (And if organizing isn’t your strong suit, look for tools that can help. Like, for me, I use PayPal to get paid by many of my clients, and it comes with an invoicing system that is pre-loaded with templates, deadlines, reminders, etc. Very helpful. And any email I get from a client goes into a “client 2016” folder, with emails relating to project details and payment flagged, so at the end of the year I can call them up and put them in my spreadsheet, and there we go.)

  6. I run an office where I both work with/pay freelancers and I need invoice and receive payments from clients. I’ve done this for about 5 years now, and I’ve accidentally sent a handful of invoices months after the fact. Here’s what I learned.

    No one is ever surprised to know they owe you money. They may forget about it, but they know they have to pay you. No one’s ever been annoyed or angry at me for sending them a late invoice, and most people thank me because it resolved the nagging feeling of owing a debt.

    For certain late invoices, I put a small (5-10%) “discount for tardiness” on the invoice as a thank you/apology to maintain a good relationship with them. We charge late fees to our clients, so this shows reciprocity. (I share this for other secretaries, casual freelancers probably shouldn’t do this since your clients know you don’t have formal accounts receivable processes in place.)

    Due dates and the consequences for missing the due date are imperative. “Payment is due by January 31, late notices are sent on February 7. Failure to remit payment by March 1 will result in the account being sent to a debt collection agency.” However, at some point in between the late payment and the debt collection agency, you should call and talk to them. Leave a voicemail if necessary. The call goes like this:

    “Hi Jim, how are you? I’m calling to follow up on the invoice that I sent you on December 11, did you receive that? Great, the due date was a couple days ago and I just want to follow up on it. You won’t be able to pay until April? Okay, which day in April? Okay, I’ll keep an eye out for the check!”

    or like this:

    “Hi Jim, how are you? I’m calling to follow up on the invoice that I sent you on December 11, did you receive that? You didn’t? Is your address still 123 Elm Street? Oh you moved, okay. I’ll go ahead and mail it out again. The new due date is February 28 and the amount due is $x.”

    If they needle you for how late the invoice is, just brush it off with honesty. “Haha, yup, I’ve been busy with moving and work plus, I’ve never freelanced before so I didn’t have an invoicing process set up yet. Thanks for being one of my first clients and helping me learn the ropes.”

    1. I’ve never seen a tardiness discount. In the small business I ran, I saw late fees on invoices as well as 1%-5% discount for payment within a short window – believe me, those invoices were always paid first!

      The biggest takeaway for me was learning that business is a different CULTURE, one where talking about stuff like money and payments isn’t too personal or impolite. Rules and invoices are a necessary part of the conversation.
      I hope you get paid quickly.

    2. This may appear to be due to be a __ thing, but it’s a learn to do Accounting thing, that isn’t going away. I always got paid while freelancing, and it was because I learned how to invoice. I learned accounting from working a couple temp jobs in Accounts Recievable for places like hotels and construction companies, and I’m so grateful for that free life training. Once you can see invoices and change orders for several projects piling up on your desk and it’s your job to make them match up, invoicing gets easy.
      There’s some thing about “finance charges” that, when I was freelancing, I was told I shouldn’t term it as that.
      My initial deal memo with the client, that they’d sign, said their account terms were Net 30, with a “discount” for prompt payment. I had their own Job reference they needed for their accounting to match to, on every communication I had with them. At the bottom was printed “Over 120 days will be sent to Collection.” I’d call my office contact (named on my deal memo) and say hi there, we’re getting close to the end of the discounted period, do you want to take advantage of that, or should I reinvoice at the non-discounted rate?

      PS The other tiger trap of “not getting paid” is “Do this job for free and we’ll send you paying work.” The answer to this is, “I’m delighted to get the chance to see if we’re a good fit. I have a discounted rate after _ jobs in a calendar year.” I never got paid work from a single person whom I’d worked for free for. They just found others who’d fall for the ruse.

    3. I’ve sometimes been annoyed by late billing, but only if it’s something intangible and easily fudged (and maybe the person hasn’t been well organized in other matters.) For example. the day care is watching my kid–I would have noticed if they were closed. If it turns out we haven’t paid them for months, I’d be fine cutting a check for the whole thing because I know exactly what work they did. But my old yard care company used to send us five invoices at a time for “18 man hours” or whatever for 6 months before, and I’m like, “Did someone really come and do 18 hours worth of work in April? Was that the time they cut the grass after we asked them not to and they said we didn’t have to pay? Did they really come five times or is this a duplicate?” I’ll still pay, but I start wondering about the accuracy and not just the date of the billing.

      But a once-off catch-up situation like the OP describes? No problem at all, especially if I’ve been receiving tangible items or communicating frequently about the intangibles.

  7. The Captain has good advice. Refuse any further work (including handing over completed work they don’t have yet) until your money clears. If they don’t pay or try to ignore you, be persistent and annoying. Do not engage in any communication with this person without re-directing to your payment. Follow up frequently until you get paid.

    Communication tips: Be frank and clear. This is business, you don’t need to bring emotions into it at all. Do NOT be mean or angry. Also do not excuse yourself or say anything that makes you sound lacking confidence or intimidated, even if you are. Treat it like it slipped his mind at first to save him some face: an honest mistake, but one you expect to be fixed ASAP.

    And although you did not sign a contract, you might be able to spook him by saying until he pays you he does not have the rights to use the work you completed. Some places, verbal or email agreements count as legally binding.

    In the future, always always ALWAYS have a contract or signed agreement. Spell out deadlines and payment times. I am a freelance illustrator and for private clients I usually require 50% payment up front, before I even start the work. And the rest of the money is paid after you finish the work…but BEFORE you give it to them. Non-negotiable. Too many people cut and run. And invoices are smart to keep even if your client doesn’t need them to pay (I have several reliable return clients that pay before i get the chance to invoice them!). Invoices are paperwork that keep track of your finances, so keep them for your own sake too. Both for financial tracking and tax purposes.

    And I agree it probably isn’t much to do with millennials. Freelancers in general are viewed as disposable or cheap/free labor, especially if your work is something that falls under most people’s idea of a “hobby” (therefore not “real work”). It blows.

    Asking for money is weird and difficult, especially the first time when you feel like it’s your own fault you haven’t gotten paid, but you can do it!

  8. another lesson learnt the hard way: when you write down numbers, write down the currency too. it’s very awkward to discover you’ve *both* forgotten whether you were negotiating euros or dollars, or CAD vs USD. 🙂

  9. Yes, you have to be business-like and send invoices. Also, written agreements with everyone, including friends.

  10. For a long time, I thought invoices were a hoop that clients made you jump through in the hopes that you’d forget, and they’d be able to delay paying you. Or, at the very least, they were stupid and unnecessary. Then I hired a subcontractor and didn’t think about paying until the invoice came. Oops.

    It’s weird, but people really do forget until they get the official reminder.

    On a tangential note, if you decide to take up freelancing again, contracts are more helpful than you might guess. In addition to making the transaction more binding, they spell out the parameters of the job. My contracts say what the work will entail. They also say what the work will NOT entail. For instance, when I edit a manuscript, one of my bullet points under “The work does _not_ include” is always “Review of subsequent drafts of the manuscript.” There’s also this in my boilerplate:

    “The rate quoted for this project is based on the anticipated depth and duration of the work. If Client desires any significant alterations to the parameters of the work, both parties may revisit the project terms and revise accordingly in writing. Additional work will not be billed without express written approval from Client.”

    You’ve probably never written a contract before. Don’t panic. If you go online and google “contract” along with whatever field you’re in, you can probably score some boilerplate language from helpful sites designed to help newbie freelancers. It won’t enable you to create an airtight legal document, but again, it will help you inform well-intentioned parties what to expect.

    Good luck!

    1. It’s not just about remembering – standard accounting rules require some kind of invoice or statement as a control. Otherwise there’s nothing to support what you were paying for or who got the money. Even in a very small business that’s not going to have shareholders or whatever, you can get audited by a taxing authority, and they’re not going to take your word for it that the money went to a business expense.

      1. Absolutely. I need an audit trail. Audit trails like hard copies. Whenever somebody’s all “I’ll can just email”, I’m all “Nope. Paper, please.” Not only does it please my auditors, it makes finding the records much easier subsequently (for me, at least. My paper files are waaaaaay more organized than my email threads).

    2. I find that contracts and written agreements tend to make people take you more seriously too. In productions where I’ve made everyone sign a Letter of Agreement, I’ve had way fewer issues than ones where I let it slide. It’s not about legality exactly – they probably wouldn’t hold up in court if it ever came to that – but just about telling people “hey, I have my shit together and you should too”.

    3. Contracts also help with scope creep. It really sucks to find that you’ve billed for 10 hours of work on x, and realize that you’ve put in 20 hours on x, y and z and are now behind on other paying work as a result. It can happen before you know it and even without the client pushing, especially to people that really want to do a good job.

  11. Also don’t feel bad if you’ve never had to make up an invoice before and have no idea where to start–there are a ton of free templates available online that you can download and adapt for your use. If you search for “free downloadable invoice template” you’ll get a ton of results–image search can help you quickly look through options and see what’s standard and figure out what you do and don’t need to include for your specific situation.

    1. Relatedly, if some of your clients are businesses or the like that work with a lot of freelancers, you can ask if they have a preferred invoice template and adapt that for other clients 🙂

  12. I’ve been an accountant for five years, working with a lot of smaller contractors and such as vendors.

    You have to invoice before you can expect to get paid. No well run business pays bills without an invoice. Don’t be embarrassed about it! People forget or put it off *all the time*. Just don’t expect them to remind you or to pay you faster than normal and they won’t really care that the invoice was late. (If your agreement was a flat monthly fee or similar, ignore this. Invoices shouldn’t be strictly necessary in that case.)

    If you have invoiced and they’re still late, it’s time to call or email them and specifically follow up. It is super awkward at first! Just lean into the awkward. As someone else mentioned, use wording that allows them to save face. A common phrasing I see and use is “check on payment status”, as in “I’m following up on invoice # XXX, which was due last week. Can you please tell me the payment status?” Continue from there with the information they give you.

    And if they claim to have paid it, get backup (a cancelled check or wire receipt). It should be easy to see if they’re telling the truth from there.

    It really does get easier with practice. And if you continue freelancing, try and set aside a few hours every month or every quarter just to make sure you’re not losing track of anything.

  13. My evergreen boilerplate suggestion to fellow freelancers: join a trade union. I’m afraid I don’t know how things work in the United States, but in my country I’ve found my trade union a great source of advice on how to invoice, manage clients etc in the first place and also a source of support (including legal support) when clients don’t pay. It’s always better to join BEFORE you run into any problems, though…

  14. The hardest part of doing such things is defining the relationship, from the get-go – if you can do something your friend/neighbor/community citizen can’t, they don’t want to learn how to do, then you charge them for your time, send an invoice – – If you wait for them to recognize and pay you all on their own, most of the time, you will be disappointed – 🙂 = From “Learned the Hard Way” – 🙂

  15. I am wondering whether the LW was asked to do the work by a company or by a private individual. If it was a private individual, I could understand the LW feeling like invoicing was too heavy handed. It’s not, of course, and the advice still holds, but it would explain a greater feeling of awkwardness about it.

  16. Captain’s advice is perfect! As a freelancer myself, I do have a few things to add, from personal experience:

    – The awkwardness does fade with practice. EFF YOU, PAY ME is a skill that needs to be built up, and is linked to other business skills as well as social ones. It’s perfectly normal to feel weird about it but the awkwardness will not last.
    – Late Fees! If they don’t pay your invoice (or have been invoiced and have not paid) tack on a late fee. Don’t say anything, just add it to the invoice with some fine print that says what it is.
    – For the “I quit” part, another way to dump a client is to jack up your fees by more than they can afford. Set your new price at whatever it would take for you to go through dealing with this client again, and then some (aka the PITA tax). If you are asked to do more work for them, say “in light of my schedule going forward (or something else equally vague but true), my rate has increased to (new rate). I completely understand if that’s outside your budget”. On the off chance they do decide they want to pay it, you are being compensated for the hassle of dealing with them.
    – Do not implement the rate hike without having been paid for outstanding invoices.
    – Implement a better system for tracking invoices and payments thereon, just to simplify your life in these situations.

    Good luck, and rock on with ALL THE THINGS.

  17. It’s not just milennial labor that some people feel entitled to get for free (though you may get blowback about “you millennials have unrealistic expectations” or “you’re young and have to pay your dues”) so don’t let your age be an excuse. Clients who say things like that will also try to stiff Gen X and baby boomer freelancers. Clients who genuinely forget don’t stop being careless if the freelancer is older, and the people who are doing it on purpose will try to take advantage of everyone.

    1. Yeah, it’s not just millenials. I have freelanced in the past, and my spouse has as well. We are Baby Boomers. It’s not unusual for people to try to stiff you or to renegotiate the deal just to see if they can browbeat you into accepting less money. Thankfully such assholes are rare, but I don’t think it’s a phenomenon that’s limited to young workers.

      The captain’s advice is fantastic. I agree totally.

      It’s hard to make it “all business” and get any sense of emotion or “why are you treating me this way” out of it, but it definitely does get easier with time and practice.

      Good luck to you, LW!!

      1. I imagine time works as a filter, in that you either get wise to people’s bullshit through experience, or you dislike freelancing so much because of the aforementioned bullshit that you quit doing it.

    1. I’m going through that right now. Many reminders. A discount. Etc. They are ghosting me. Super awkward because we WILL run into each other again at some point (past colleague who still interacts with our office on occasion).

  18. Great advice from the Captain as always. A small trick one of my lecturers gave us when advising about freelance work is this: pad your fee a little bit when quoting, then say that there is an x% discount for prompt payment, and the “discounted” rate is the base rate you wanted to be paid in the first place. Sometimes a positive bonus like this can motivate some people better than a negative consequence like a late fee. 🙂

    1. Exactly! I had 30, 60, 90 days out rates for billing, those were on everry invoice. The “discount” for 30 days was my real price. I’d of loved to bill and get the 90-day “undiscounted” rate!

      LW, Accounting software will help you with this, going forward. It reminds you of upcoming tasks, and also shows at taxtime, monies you weren’t paid.

    2. I have 15 years experience that backs this up. No one pays those late fees IME, and they tend to be legally problematic to collect. On the other hand, everyone loves a discount. I wouldn’t advise the LW to use this for outstanding invoices though. For old outstanding stuff, I have found that hand-delivering the invoice can work very well. It’s easy to blow off an email or phone call, while it’s much harder to blow off a person standing in front of you.

  19. A common freelance practice is collection of a retainer up front; another payment about halfway through the project (or on delivery of a draft item); and the final payment invoiced on delivery of the final product. The government department in which I worked used this method when contracting with freelancers.,

    A contract or letter of agreement, signed by client and freelancer is necessary….even when doing work for a friend. It should state the work to be done, timelines, terms of payment, etc. so that there should be no surprises .

    I like the soft approach to collection (“It seems that I missed invoicing you”). Letting folks save face, while being fair (and firm, as necessary) is important.

    Also, your thoughts of quitting on the client may be colored by disappointment/frustration with the situation. You may want to re-think (or not) future work, after payment is made and the air is cleared.

    1. I second the final point there! Of course the work isn’t fun when you have other obligations and now feel aggrieved, worry you’re being misused, and are (but don’t be!) mad at yourself for getting into such a pickle. But what if it returned to being an occasional side thing that brought in some pocket money, if you spent twenty minutes a month on accounting and the client paid on request? Maybe you just definitely want this off your plate, but if they send a check promptly, it might revert to being a nice-to-have.

  20. Dear LW,

    The Captain has given you stellar advice.

    The only change I might make is in the quitting script. I wouldn’t even give a reason:

    Dear Client,
    Unfortunately I will not be able to work on $project going forward. Thanks so much for the opportunity, it has been a pleasure


    Obviously, get paid first.

    Good luck, LW, you’ve got this.

  21. I think the Captain’s advice was well up to her generally stellar level.

    I used to freelance in various things and I had two different policies depending on what I was doing.

    For services delivered in person, such as dog training or dog training instruction, I collected my fee afterwards. I was right there, the client was right there, so it was easy. I had a policy that if either of us felt I had not helped the dog or owner, no fee. In 20 years, this happened 5 times and in every single case, my client wanted to pay, it was my own principles standing in the way (in 4 of those cases, they donated my fee to the Canine Health Foundation, which funds research into various health conditions in dogs and is a registered 501(c)3).

    For services where I worked alone and delivered a tangible item such as calligraphy, my policy with new clients was 50% up front and the other 50% just before I turned the product over (no pay, no product, although I did not present it that way). If I worked for that person on a regular basis and they were good to work for and paid me with no hassles, I offered to go to a 100% fee at the time of delivery.

    No matter what, I always set down in writing defining what I was offering, the fee and the terms of payment. It doesn’t have to be full of legalese, it just has to be clear and cover any likely contingencies (for instance, “if your requirements for (fill in the blank) change, I will figure out the change in my fee within 24 hours so that you can decide whether you want to go ahead with the change”). For any unexpected decisions I might have to make, I always made sure to give myself at least 24 hours to think about it; I’m not a particularly fast thinker, so I’ve learned to accommodate my limitations.

  22. Can anyone speak about about collection agencies from the creditor side? Can I just call them up and say “I have a freelance debt, please hassle this person?” If it can be done without a written contract, I’m a bit appalled but not shocked.

    What else would a creditor want to know about doing this? I’d obviously have to be well into “this person is an asshole” to call an asshole company onto them. And I wouldn’t expect more than a dime on the dollar in the best case. But if it’s a real option that doesn’t need a big effort from the creditor, I never knew, and that could be useful.

    (I have seen what small claims court looks like as the creditor, and the debtor probably knows when it’s not rationally worth it to go to court — so to make a credible threat you have to project Avenging Fury Of Justice. It would be easier to project Bored Making Routine Call To Collections.)

    1. My experience as a manager who worked at a medical practice that used a collection agency was back in the 1980s, so it may no longer apply.

      Back then, a business owner signed a general contract with the collection agency, specifying that if needed, the business owner would send information about an overdue account to the collection agency and the collection agency would keep 50% of whatever money was collected. In any month where no delinquent accounts were referred, the customer paid a very low monthly fee (something like $5/month). The collection agency was free to approve any payment plan they wanted to. Or not. Once an overdue account was sent to collection, the business owner was contractually obligated to provide 50% of any money the delinquent customer gave them towards the delinquent account (once they realised they were in collection, many people immediately paid their past due bill directly to the business). Many businesses chose to simply refer those people to the collection agency to process the payment because it was less hassle for the business.

      I suspect that once a business sends a past due customer account to collection, that’s going to burn that bridge. Probably not bad news because why would you want to do more business with someone who has already proven they don’t pay in a timely manner?

      The other advantage back in the 1980s to signing on with a collection agency was that the business owner could get access to credit reports via the agency. This wasn’t relevant to a medical practice, of course, but it was presented as one of the benefits of signing with the agency and I’m sure it was a useful tool for certain types of businesses.

    2. It likely depends on the type of collection agency. There are firms that function as a third party agent of the original debt owner, and there are firms that purchase debt and become the debt owner themselves. In my experience using an agency firm, we simply sent them a copy of the bill and any correspondence we had with the debtor. If the debtor contested it, the issue would be kicked back to us to provide additional documentation of the validity (for example, a copy of the contract). Essentially, we were hiring the debt collector to perform a service so it wasn’t their problem if it turned out that service wasn’t needed.

      In the case of a debt buyer, a good debt buying company will make sure to get lots of documentation that the debt is valid and owed, since the only way they make money is by getting you to pay something towards the debt. But there are a TON of bad debt buyers out there that pursue invalid debt (already paid, never owed, passed the SOL, etc) on the hopes that people they call will just panic and pay.

      1. Thanks MuddieMae and Duly Concerned! I appreciate all the knowledge. Hadn’t realized there was the type that doesn’t acquire the debt themselves; are they still paid on a percent commission, or do they need to bill for time instead of results (since they have less info to know if the debt is any good)?

  23. I relate to this a lot. At my current job, I have to occasionally call people about small amounts of money they owe. I’m (oh so slowly) moving into a job where I have to call people regularly about medium-large amounts of money.

    I’m not saying it’s not weird at first, but it will be okay. If people want professional level work, they have to be okay with things like invoices.

  24. Another general tip from a more experienced freelancer: anticipate that some clients don’t pay invoices immediately. I do most of my work for a big company, and it takes 30 days for my invoice to work its way through their accounting system. It’s not a problem because I know to anticipate it and budget accordingly, but it’s another reason why it’s good to have a contract. That way you can be clear when you can expect the invoice to become actual money.

    Also: if you live in a country with VAT or similar, better be sure you don’t overlook it in your tax returns. If you’re in the UK, for instance, a regular freelance is generally registered for VAT, which means you pay 20% of your earnings – but you can add that charge to your invoice, and then the client claims it as a VAT expense in doing their own forms. Basicslly, if you’re going to do this regularly, make sure you understand your tax obligations.

    This may or may not be useful depending on your future plans, of course, but it’s probably useful for someone. 🙂

    Here’s what I put on my invoices:

    My name and address
    The name and address of the client
    The date
    The invoice number by tax year – say, 2016-17/2 (ie, the second invoice in this tax year)
    What the job was
    Client’s purchase order number if there is one
    My fee
    VAT charge
    Total fee
    My VAT registration number
    Anything else the client requests

    If you work up a template, it looks professional and impersonal, and you can use it in future.

    1. Absolutely agreeing with your first comment (can’t speak to the latter, but which sounds like a good idea!).

      Half of my clients pay me directly out of pocket, and I’d say 95% of them pay on receipt of the invoice. The other half are being funded by their respective institutions, and those bureaucracies move SLOWLY and often require a lot of paperwork from me to boot. Because of this, and because I want to encourage clients who don’t have that sort of institutional support to hire me, I do have a price differential in my quotes for each category; I also don’t count on the institutional funds showing up right away and organize my budget accordingly. So long as you are consistent in how you handle clients, this sort of structure is a reasonable way to handle your budget.

      1. This is so, so true. The slow system is especially true, I’ve found, of certain education institutions, libraries and museums. I have waited up to 2 *YEARS* for invoice payment from one of those institutions—and not because someone lost the invoice, but because the inner beaurocracy took that long. (In those cases it was only worth the wait because A) it wasn’t a huge $$ amount that my budget depended on, and B) they were “prestigious” institutions adding my artwork to their permanent collection.) It’s so frustrating, but sometimes it’s simply reality. Thankfully, those super-long waits are very rare. Usually it’s 30 to 60 days; and like Rana, many of my clients pay me immediately. If I know I’m going to be financially dependent on the invoice being paid, or if it’s a super huge amount of money, I usually break it down into milestone invoices anyway, with each part requiring payment before the next part can begin. That’s actually standard practice for many municipalities. When I’ve received grants or public-art funding, I’ve been required to submit multiple invoices, one for each milestone of the project. It’s more paperwork for me, but it means quicker payment and a steadier paycheck, which is nice.

  25. My only question (after the Captain’s good advice) is on the PS. What’s wrong with feeling foolish and irresponsible? From the LW’s description, he was. I suggest letting oneself feel the feelings but not letting them paralyze you. Let them naturally fade while taking the suggested actions. But LW seems to linger on blaming the person who hired him and the comments indicate that it is pretty normal not to pay a freelancer until you’ve been invoiced. It’s ok to feel a little off about not doing something you didn’t know you were supposed to do, but now you do. Feel the feelings, forgive yourself, live and learn, move on…and forgive the client too, since they were not necessarily taking advantage, and were perhaps just wondering when they’d get your bill, the same way you were wondering when you’d get your pay.

    1. Your suggestion is good, to feel it if you’re feeling but then just let it go.

      There’s no reason to *continue* feeling foolish and irresponsible for not having a policy in place for something that hadn’t happened yet. As of now, it has happened, and now he will have a policy that is already in place, so that in the future, he can just step through the check-list to-do-items on the policy without excess emotion (Day x, mail invoice. day y email followup if necessary, day z call followup if necessary). Having a policy means you can do it without emotion, but, before the policy is created so it can be repeated in the future, it seems like a giant hurdle and potentially an emotional one. (Contacting people about Accounts Receivable definitely was for me! But it turns out that most people totally intended to pay but had misplaced their invoice, and in most cases people mail a check relatively soon (1-7 business days) after having the correct paperwork in front of them.)

  26. why hello.
    professional freelancer here.
    a magazine sat on my article for nearly a year, finally published it, and still waiting for payment.

    it can be frustrating.
    which is why ‘writing’ is not my day job, much as i would like it to be. 😦

  27. I haven’t had a chance to read through everything, so I apologize if someone else has already suggested this, but if you are in a position to require a retainer up front, that would also be a good approach for the future.

    1. Alternatively, you can break the payment into stages. My contracts usually involve a signature payment – perhaps 20-25% of the total – then more payments as I deliver the work in batches.

  28. I appreciate hearing these scripts a lot. I feel like you resolved a decade-old angst for me.

    One summer in college, a couple friends and I worked for another friend’s mom as painters. She had come into a large inheritance and decided to invest it in flipping houses, so she bought an obscene number of properties (I didn’t know that at that time) and hired us to help paint the houses. My first paycheck coincided with my going on vacation; I deposited the check before I left. It bounced and I was charged by my bank for depositing a bounced check. I thought my friend’s mom would realize the error by the time I got back from vacation, but she did not reach out to me at all. My other friends’ checks had gone through. We communicated almost entirely by e-mail, so I sent her an e-mail letting her know as politely as I could that the check had bounced, and that I’d like to get it straightened out before scheduling my next hours. She wrote back and TORE INTO ME as being incredibly rude and unprofessional, saying I would never get anywhere professionally if I behaved like that, and saying she was beyond offended that I would imply that she wasn’t going to correct the error immediately and that I would have withhold further work from her.

    She wrote me a new check, including adding in the fee the bank had charged me, and for some reason I had to drive the 45 minutes to her house to pick it up from her. I was polite to her. I still had not agreed to work any more hours.


    Needless to say, I was done working with her at that point. Word got back to my friend (her daughter), who ending up writing me a personal check to cover the full amount and apologizing profusely, mortified by her mother’s behavior. I honestly felt just as bad for her as it became evident that growing up with her mother had been a nightmare.

    Despite knowing that I was in the right, part of me has always felt like maybe she was right that I was rude and unprofessional and didn’t realize it. And maybe given the context that it was a friend’s mother, I should have adopted a friendlier tone. But seeing this advice, and rethinking everything from where I am now, I think I probably handled it fine, and it certainly wasn’t indicative of any professional issues I would have later in life!

    Thanks for always being a voice of reason, Captain.

  29. 100% send an invoice! Google freelance invoice for examples. It isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s just how the world works!

    I’ve done a bunch of invoicing/bill payment for a small business, and we simply could not keep track of things we hadn’t been billed for. I mean, we had some general idea because of our business software so that we didn’t end up owning a ton of money without being aware, but our focus was on serving our customers and making sure we got paid and paid our bills, not worrying about people who hadn’t sent us a bill yet. In business, invoicing is an everyday thing, and it’s the responsibility of the business or individual providing the service or goods to bill for them.

    We also regularly bothered businesses who hadn’t paid within 30 days. I usually started be sending a new copy of the invoice in case they’d simply lost track or we had forgotten to bill. If that didn’t work, I’d call and ask, politely, if there was some discrepancy or issue that was holding up payment. Sometimes there was something that didn’t match up, and often it was just that something had gotten lost in their system. Most people pay after that call.

    1. Yes, I have found this also. I made myself a literal script for each of those steps, and it went from a task that I would freak out about and not do without like a week’s worth of angst, to something I can now do in five minutes with no emotion. Scripts & email templates are great.

  30. Adding in a few treasured lessons I myself picked up along the way. These are more about “Value Yourself” than how to deal with current overdue accounts receivable.

    1. If any person is willing to pay you to do something, and you do it, and you do it to reasonable satisfaction, YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID.

    2. If the thing you do is difficult, or requires skill, or is not something just anyone can do, YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID. You are also in a good position to ASK TO BE PAID WHAT YOU’RE WORTH.

    3. If the thing you do is something anyone can do, but it tedious or exasperating or grotty, YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID and you should BE PAID WHAT YOU’RE WORTH. What you’re worth begins with “How much is it worth to the other person not to have to do this tiresome or grotty thing themselves?”

    4. If the thing you do is something that people are normally paid to do, and you do it as well as those who do it for payment, YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID AS MUCH AS THEY ARE PAID.

    5. If you are doing this thing for a family member or a good friend, YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID AS MUCH AS THEY WOULD PAY AN EQUALLY SKILLED STRANGER.

    With me so far? Here’s where it gets really good:

    6. If you undercharge your friends/family members, then you are NOT giving them a valuable gift. Instead, you are telling them that your gift — your underpaid time and skills — is crap and isn’t worth full value. Don’t do that to yourself, and don’t do that to them! If you value them, make sure they’re able to value what you do for them. (I learned this one from a professional artist. She stopped giving her friends a break on prices when she realized that by doing so, she was telling them the fine art she created was cheap crap.)
    6a. If you want to charge friends and family a lower rate, do so — but only if you’re absolutely certain that they understand its full value. For my part, I either charge full freight, or exchange work, or make it a gift. And I say “No” a lot.

    7. For those times when it’s really hard to value your time and work: Imagine that your friend was going to hire, instead, a highly skilled person who is a close friend of yours and desperately needs the money. Now charge them what they should pay that person. If you undercharge, you just undermined the work market for your friend who really, really needs the work and needs to be paid full value for it. Don’t do that. You may not need the money right now, but someone else does, or will. Do that person a favour.

    On saying no: when I’m asked about doing my particular Things (which I do very well, and which most people can’t do at all), my usual reply is “Yes, I do That Thing, but [big friendly smile] I’m expensive.” The person who is looking for cheap work will change the subject; the person who is looking for good work will ask how much, and there will be a discussion.

    My bottom line (which I only reached after a lot of hard lessons, disappearing checks in the allegded mail, ungrateful jerks, and unpaid and underpaid work): if the person wants it done, they can either pay me what I’m worth or find someone who will do it for less — but the person who will do it for less will probably not do it as well.

    Forgive the wall-o-words, and good luck!

    1. Useful information!

      As to #6, undercharging friends or family, a friend of mine who owns a plumbing company quotes her estimate based on her usual price. Then, if she feels moved to, she mentions to the people she’s planning to give a discount to, that they are qualified for her “good folks” 30% discount.

      Lets them know the actual value of her services and lets them know that because she likes them, she is working at a significant discount.

      1. Yes, and for regular clients too: Make sure everybody knows the regular rate when you are giving somebody a special discount.

  31. Amazing advice as usual from The Captain.

    Now, The Captain did not give off this vibe in the slightest, but I wanted to throw it out there for others who might. I’ve been doing freelance voice over for six years now, and I handle most rate negotiation and invoicing myself. Unless you have strong reason to do so and don’t care about burning bridges, I think it’s best to assume the client isn’t some jerk trying to cheat you out of money. The handful of times I had to figure out untimely payment, it was genuinely a mistake or oversight (“Oh no! I forgot”…”We hired So and So recently, and it looks like this invoice wasn’t forwarded to them”…”Accounting needs this certain document from you and didn’t realize it until now”…”It wasn’t sent already!? Crap! We will send it now!”), and using the “Polite, professional, friendly, over and out” approach brought the snafu to light, got me paid, and let me have more professional power to decide with whom I work.

    It would stink to fly off the handle, tell-off an otherwise awesome client, find out it was an honest mistake, and then they don’t want to work with you anymore because of a wombo combo of misunderstanding and overreacting.

    On the other hand, like CA said, there are certainly times when “it’s okay to skip to “Eff you, pay me.” Most people want to honor their agreements and pay you for your skills, but you will occasionally meet somebody who does not value your work and will try to stiff you. Good luck, LW. I hope this scenario works out for you, and here’s to many more opportunities with some new insight. All freelancers learn a lesson or two or a thousand like this. You are no fool, and it’s going to be okay. 🙂

  32. Contracts don’t have to be in writing to be legal. It makes it easier to prove in court, but except for specific categories (like the sale of land for instance), it’s not actually necessary.

  33. The most reliable way to get paid is to ask for a credit card upfront and to charge the client yourself when you send the invoice. The card can still bounce, but overall this method of payment has worked well for me.

  34. It’s nice to see the difference in the comment section here vs clients from hell. They would have roasted this person alive for making an honest mistake and just trusting someone they knew. It’s why I had to stop going there.

    I’m willing to bet this hobby is either art or tech work based and yeah it sucks to have the hobby turned into a chore, it’s why I don’t sell my artwork or become a MTG judge. aside from the advice about getting paid I’d recommend not doing this hobby for at least a week at all after. Then sit down and do something completely silly with it, write a program that says fart when you click a button, draw a butt whatever the hobby is just make a couple silly things to ease back into enjoying it again.

  35. I’m not a freelancer – but I do work that requires invoicing, negotiating with individual clients, and is wildly expensive (lawyering). I used to feel so bad about sending bills and quoting rates! After some practice I don’t blink an eye. I also demand big retainers up front. My work is valuable. If you don’t want to pay for it, that’s totally fine – but I won’t do any work. I take on pro-bono cases, that I assess up front. I do not do pro-bono work by accident because it turns out that me managing your contract dispute is more expensive than you want to pay.

    And it turns out, the more clear, up front, and non-nonsense you are about this, the more people pay! If you act weird about the bill, people feel weird about the bill.

  36. Also please don’t let them guilt you into not having to pay because “they are giving you real world experience” or “we are such friends/family I would do for you without pay” or “this is a hobby for you so why should i pay for something you were going to do anyhow” when people try the first 2 on me I always follow up with, “well I am giving you a substantial discount” the last one is more infuriating so i have to take a breath and say many people make a living doing what they love and we agree on x amount per hour for this work, I expect to be paid the agreed upon amount.
    Of course I am with everyone else to get every thing in writing even more so for family/friends.

    1. Seconding “even more so for family/friends.” These are important relationships, and a messy business dispute can really damage a relationship! A clean contract is your relationship’s best friend.

      Important people to you deserve a contract, and if they don’t think so, they probably don’t actually think they’re *doing business* with you. Don’t do one-sided business.

Comments are closed.