What Should Freelancers Do When the Client Won't Pay?

Nearly every freelancer has been there at some point. If you haven't yet, you will be. You did the work and you did it well. You provided any revisions or changes the client asked for. Then you wait. And you wait. And you wait some more.

What do you do when the client won't pay? It's a stressful situation for any freelancer, especially if your freelance income is your only income. We depend on timely payment from our clients to put gas in our cars, pay our rents/mortgages, and put food on the table. So when clients take 60 or 90 days to pay (or don't pay at all), it can be a little frightening.

#1. Don't Be Crazy. Take a Deep Breath. Be Polite.

Image credit:  Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

I used to work at a magazine that used freelance writers for most of their content, and there was a writer who didn't get paid as fast as he expected to be. He called our managing editor somewhere north of 10 times in one day, and when she stopped taking his calls, he called every other number on the masthead and yelled at whoever picked up the phone. Each call was laced with so many f-bombs that even I got upset, and I was in the Army. Swearing doesn't usually phase me. Eventually he called the CEO of the publishing company that owned the magazine. Yes, his payment was late (I think it had been 60 days). No, it wasn't on purpose. Yes, his check was sent out the next day. No, we never worked with that guy again.

See my post about not burning bridges. Never behave like that. Editors go to conferences. They talk to each other. The last thing you want is someone pointing you out at a conference and telling five other editors that you're a lunatic. At some point, you may also want a reference. You really just don't want to go down that road.

No, the first follow-up should be polite. Sometimes clients don't forget you on purpose. Maybe they don't use a lot of freelancers and nobody was on top of your payment. Maybe they rely on a finance department to pay their bills for them and have no control over it. Or hell, maybe your invoice just fell between two desks. 

When you reach out, make sure you re-send the invoice in case they've lost it. If you're lucky, one polite e-mail will get a payment generated. You get your money and you maintain a positive relationship. Here's an email I sent just last month after I felt a payment had taken too long:


Dear XXXX, 
Attached please find Invoice #0036 for April. 

Also, I haven’t received payment for March. You guys usually have a pretty quick turnaround on payment so I’ve attached Invoice #0034 again just in case you need it or missed it. Thanks!

They sent out a check for both the next day. I got the second payment faster than usual and the first payment came with it. Shit happens. You don't have to start off by being a jerk about it.

#2. Be Firm. Still Be Polite.

Image credit:  Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

After that first attempt, one of two things will happen. You'll get a response telling you payment is on the way, or you'll be ignored. Either way, give it a five to seven business days. Make sure they've had time to see your email and take action on it.
If you still haven't received payment, pick up the phone. It's harder to ignore someone in an actual conversation than it is by email. Try once in the morning, and if you don't reach them, try again in the afternoon. Leave a voicemail the second time if necessary, but ideally you can talk to a person. Reiterate that you are owed payment. Tell them you'll follow up by email. Send the invoice again with a note that it is a follow-up to your call.If they tell you they'll make sure you get paid, wait another week or so. At this point I know it's very frustrating, but you have to allow time for the mail (if you get paid through Venmo or PayPal or direct deposit, you can wait a few days instead of a week). If they tell you they will not pay you, skip straight to step three.

#3. You Can Stop Being Polite. But Stay Professional.

Image credit:  Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

It's unprofessional to launch into a tirade of expletives at any client, even one who won't pay. Be the better person, but also remember that if they're going to refuse to pay, you never want to work with this client again. Now you can burn the bridge if it helps put that check in your hand.

At this point ask them to remit payment and be clear that this will be the end of your professional relationship. Give them a deadline at which point you will take legal action. Often the threat will be enough. Giving you the money they owe is cheaper than legal fees.

#4. Don't Just Threaten. Follow Through.

Image credit:  Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Many freelancers will stop at Step #3 and just give up because they don't want to pay for a lawyer. I encourage freelancers not to do this, because you're just setting up the next guy to get screwed by that same client. The only way they might get away without paying you is if there is no contract, but even then you can use verbal agreements and emails as proof of your arrangement.

If you're based in New York, N.Y., like me, consider yourself lucky. As of May 15, 2017, the Freelance Isn't Free Act protects freelancers in exactly this situation, even if the client is located outside of the city or state. In most circumstances, clients are required to pay within 30 days of completed work unless a contract states otherwise. This law also allows you to recoup any legal fees you incur as part of your lawsuit, and clients face fines and damages if they don't meet their obligation to pay you.

If you're not in NYC but still have a contract, you're probably still okay. Of course, I'm not a legal expert. Find a lawyer who does free consultations and see where you stand. You can also seek support and advice from organizations like the Freelancers Union(it's free to join) on their client nonpayment page. Click here to read a post on their blog about hiring a lawyer.