7 Ways to Handle a Freelance-Writing Client Who Won’t Pay Up

7 Ways to Handle a Freelance-Writing Client Who Won’t Pay Up

It’s every freelancer’s nightmare.

You send an invoice, and wait. And wait.

After your standard term is up, you send a reminder. And wait.

Crickets.

You’ve got a non-paying client on your hands. Every attempt to communicate with them is ignored, or brushed off. Perhaps they make excuses (“cashflow problems”) or ask you to wait just a little longer.

What should you do next?

1. Persist: Keep up the pressure on your client

Chances are, that non-paying client might be secretly hoping you’re going to eventually give up on your money.

Don’t.

Keep the pressure on: set a reminder in your calendar to email/call/text/etc. on a weekly basis.

Yes, it might annoy them: good! They’ve got your money!

If they’ve told you something like “I can’t pay you this month, but I’ll pay on June 30”, then follow up straight away the next day if they don’t pay. And keep following up.

2. Contact other people who’ve worked with them

If you think the non-payment might just be a blip (e.g. your client really has had an awful month), then it’s worth contacting other freelancers who’ve worked with them.

Have they been paid? How promptly? Did they need to keep the pressure on to get money out of the client?

This can give you a sense of what type of non-paying client you’re dealing with.

Getting in touch with fellow freelancers can help you feel in a stronger position: you have a better picture of what’s going on, and you may well have the sympathy and support of other people who’re in a similar position to you.

3. Ask them to take down your content

If you’ve written something for a client’s website and you’ve not been paid, ask them to take it down. They may well not do so — but if they do, at least you can rework the piece and use it elsewhere.

If you are in a position to take down their content (e.g. you host their website), then tell them that if payment isn’t provided by a specific date, you will be taking that content down.

This may result in them suddenly finding the money for you…

4. Decide when to let it go

If you’ve lost out on a relatively small amount of money, at some point, you’ll probably decide it’s no longer worth your time and energy to keep chasing.

Write it off as an unpaid invoice (you should, at the very least, not have to pay tax on the money you haven’t earned!)…and move on.

I did exactly this with one non-paying client several years ago. It still rankles a bit, but I got half my money out of him, and it simply wasn’t worth the continued effort of chasing the rest.

5. Don’t blame yourself

When a client refuses to pay, you might start to think that it’s somehow your fault.

Maybe you weren’t using a contract: it might have helped if you did, but there’s certainly no guarantee of that.

Maybe you had a nagging sense that your client was going to be trouble, right from the start, but you ignored it. Next time, you might want to trust your instincts; that doesn’t in any way make the lack of payment your fault.

Maybe you should’ve asked for half the money up front. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but do think about making changes next time.

Maybe your invoicing system is, by your own admission, a bit scrappy. If you want a quick primer on creating invoices, check out How to Create Your First Freelance Invoice.

Maybe you’re worried that your writing simply wasn’t good enough. That’s not the case! If a client took you on in the first place, that means you were good enough. Even if they weren’t 100% happy with your finished piece, they still should’ve paid you. (I bet you’ve paid for plenty of sub-par services in the past.)

Whatever happened, it is not your fault. You deserved to be paid.

6. Call them out publicly

This can be a scary move: what if a client reacts angrily? What if other freelancers take you less seriously as a result?

Sometimes, a client who has ignored every email, voicemail, text … will miraculously spring into action when you call them out in public. That could be with a single tweet (“Hey @deadbeatclient, my invoice is now 100 days overdue!”) or with a whole blog post.

If you are going to take this tack, it’s probably worth priming a few friends to be supportive (particularly anyone else who’s been screwed over) and being very clear about the facts.

As Deb Ng puts it (in her final update to her detailed post on The Sad, Strange Story of NMX — a post which, after 18 months, finally resulted in her being paid in full):

The moral of the story? Sometimes you have to take extreme measures to get what you’re owed — even if they’re measures you wouldn’t normally take.

7. Take legal action

This is likely a last resort. But if you’re owed a significant amount of money, you’re well within your rights to pursue it. Even a letter from a lawyer may be enough to prompt action: you’re not necessarily going to have to get into court action.

Do seek legal advice before starting down this route (find out whether it’s going to be more hassle than it’s worth). You may need to be very careful about your communications with your client, if you want to avoid jeopardizing your case — check out this cautionary tale for more on that.

Have you ever had a non-paying client? What steps did you take? Did you eventually get your money? Let us know about your experience in the comments!

Filed Under: Freelancing
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11 comments

  • This article is a timely one for me!

    I would add another tip, one I am struggling to put into effect myself: Find a healthy way to acknowledge the non-financial losses.

    Even if the person never pays, you can at least write off the bad debt on your taxes as part of the cost of doing business. It is harder to “write off” the betrayal of trust, the blow to your self-confidence, the sense of powerlessness, the dashed hopes for a future professional relationship with the non-paying client, and the possibly irreparable damage to any personal relationship you may have had.

    Losses like these do not appear in your general ledger, but they are real, and in some ways more costly than the lost fee.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Michelle Brinson says:

    Thankfully, I’ve only had this happen once. But once is one time too many. It was a hard, expensive, and painful lesson. I liked one of the comments on the article you referred to about NWX… it’s not just business. On the other end of that invoice is a person. In my case, I was (and still am) a single mom, using my freelance work as a way to supplement my income from a full-time job.

    I was working for an agency doing freelance writing which included emails, blog posts, and social content. I was assigned a couple of their clients… one of which was pretty demanding. I made a point to keep track of all my time… and I mean all of it. I used Freshbooks and a time tracker app they had. I asked several times if there was a budget or a particular amount of time allotted for this client. No response. I was thorough in my communication. I kept doing what was asked of me and continued tracking all my time.

    My first few invoices were paid (this turned out to be a good thing). Unfortunately, I did not have a contract (yes, going forward I will always have a contract). But in TN where I live, the courts recognize an implied contract… and by that I mean since I had received payment for previous work, it implied that I had an agreement with them for working. This was a HUGE plus for me.

    When a couple of invoices were not paid, I raised a red flag. I started asking questions and was put off. I brushed it off as to cash flow issues or not having a full-time staff to handle these types of things. After awhile, I decided it was time to cut my losses. At that point, trying to collect became a full-time job.

    What was really disturbing, was that initially, the owner balked at the time I had reported. He called into question how I had tracked. Thankfully, I had emails and the time tracker to support me.

    So when that argument didn’t work, he switched to “the client didn’t like your work.” Oh really? Well, I had emails from the client stating otherwise. I had glowing praise for my work.

    It was at that point I knew he was trying to figure out a way to not pay me.

    I sent reminder emails… every week. I even started charging interest (which was mentioned on the invoices I had been sending through Freshbooks).

    This went on for almost a year. I was so mad and frustrated. This was not over a couple of hundred dollars. This was in the thousands, so I wasn’t ready to give up.

    I started looking into alternatives. I researched. I studied the laws in my state. Ultimately, I decided that if I really wanted my money, I was going to need to be prepared to follow through with a threat of legal action. I found out how much it would cost… and was willing to do it if it became necessary.

    I sort of gambled though. I knew if I filed a lawsuit, the first step would be the sherrif serving him with a summons. I was hoping that would be enough to convince him I was serious and it wouldn’t even go to trial. I was right, but even better… when I emailed him to let him know what my plans were… and that the sheriff would serve him papers… the threat was enough. But I knew… if that didn’t work, then I would have to go through with it… and that gave me the confidence to fight for my money.

    I suspected all along it was a cash flow problem. But that’s not my problem. But I was willing to work with him. I gave him several options… paying a smaller lump sum, or breaking what he owed down into manageable payments. I wasn’t a jerk about it. But I needed that money… and I worked for that money… and it was owed to me.

    Today, before I do any work for someone, I lay out the details in a freelance contract. It’s very clear what is expected. Since I started doing this, I’ve not had a problem collecting. But I’ve also been a little more selective on the clients I choose to work with.

  • I like number 6. It works even better if you have your friends share it around. It’s a real kick in the nuts for non paying clients and they deserve it completely.

  • Charles says:

    Unfortunately, this is something that can happen to any writer. My advice is, assuming you haven’t got the added protection of working through an agency (and, even then, nothing is guaranteed), is to take a calculated risk.

    With new clients who I don’t know, I will write one short article for them and only continue work on any additional projects once I have been paid. After all, no reasonable client will expect you to write several thousand words and then wait in hope that you’ll be paid. If I am not paid (this has very rarely happened to me), then I will sell the article somewhere else, such as on Constant Content.

    Fortunately, most of my clients, both past and present, have been a pleasure to work with. My advice to freelance writers is to avoid the freelance bidding sites like the plague – few serious potential clients would actually stoop so low as to use these themselves.

  • Luke says:

    I am not freelancer, but I like your article. Great Post.
    Thanks.

  • Teena says:

    I like no. 5 point. This is very important for all.

  • Gary Webb says:

    If content is delivered via email, you have a record of having written it and when. If you are not paid according to the terms of the invoice, you have every right to sell the material elsewhere. If they try to post it online or publish it, they will have committed a well-documented crime. If you have no other client interested in the product, you can post it on your own website with a note that it was stolen by XXX.

  • Tom Bentley says:

    Ali, thanks for the good stuff. I actually used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to take down a full website of a client’s for whom I wrote all the copy.

    After telling me how much he liked my stuff, he never gave me the final payment. Long email story ensued, but in short, I sent a message to the website host citing the DMCA, and the host took the site down.

    A couple of years later, I saw he’d put the site up again under a different URL, and I emailed him and told him I’d have it taken it down again. He finally paid me.

  • Rebecca says:

    Such good stuff I’m still struggling to let go of frustration about a recent client who completely disappeared and is no longer reachable.

    Communication was great and I had no indication he would take the content and poof without paying. I drove myself mad vacillating between worrying that maybe something happened to him or a loved one and worrying about being sensitive to that scenario or the other likely reality that he is alive and well and will never pay.

    I would love to see an article/example outlining what a freelance writing contract might look like – a basic template would be so useful but I know going forward either way I have to be smarter.

    I thought of watermarking my documents now and even sending them as read only PDF’s until payment is received in full.

    I’m sorry for anyone who’s ever been disregarded and not paid for their work it isn’t right and it’s important not to take a victim mentality about it. For every content their there is another client out there with integrity who will pay you more – or at least i’d like to think so to avoid coming away from this jaded.

    The more similar experiences I read about this online the less alone or stupid I feel. I’m trying to reframe my unpleasant experience not as a financial loss and cheat but to find some gratitude for the future savings it will inspire by sharpening my skills and skeptiscim.

    Sometimes I guess I’m just too Polyanna about it and thrilled anyone wants to give me work to slow down and tick some boxes and watch for red flags. I like to give every new client the benefit of the doubt but the Internet makes it so easy for people to Patrick Swayze on you remember to look out for number one.

  • Cammy says:

    Thank you so much for such a great post. Funny, I’ve just read your recent post at another site, probably at problogger. Always a good read Ali.

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