8 Options for When a Freelance Client Doesn’t Pay You on Time

Author image

Carrie Smith Nicholson

August 24, 2015  •  7 min read

When a freelance client who doesn’t pay you on time it can be very difficult. This is something I have experienced personally.

And if you’re a subscriber to my weekly emails, you know that I’ve been dealing with a big client who hasn’t paid me for a blogging campaign we did together.

They were 5 weeks past the date I was promised payment, and more than 3 months from the date the campaign started.

Well, I’m thrilled to say that I finally received payment for the entire project amount — all $1,500!

If you’re dealing with a freelance client who doesn’t pay, and not sure what the next step is, I’m here to help. You’ll learn what to do when you’re struggling with a client who doesn’t pay on time.

Here are steps to finally get paid what you’re owed. Plus, a few extra tips you can use to get paid what you deserve.

1.  Establish rules from the beginning

After being a full-time freelancer for two years, I understand the importance of saving up a cushion of money for when times are lean, or when a client doesn’t pay you.

I was prepared for this and it, thankfully, didn’t put in a financial bind. But what if it did?

What if every client you worked with decided to pay late, or not pay you at all?

We’d all be out of work, and clients would treat us however they wanted. This is why it’s vital you teach clients how to treat you!

You’re the boss, remember?

Don’t let them mistreat you, not pay for your work, or get away with being unethical about a business deal.

Even if it takes more time than it’s worth (financially speaking) it’s often more important to establish professional boundaries — for yourself and your clients.

While you’re in the process of establishing boundaries, don’t do anymore work for this client until you get paid.

If you don’t pay the electricity bill, it gets turned off right? Same rules apply!

2. Determine the cause of non-payment

As someone who used to work in the accounting department, I know all too well how easily it is to mix up the numbers, lose papers, or miscommunicate important information.

Not everyone is BSing you when they say “the check’s in the mail“.

Sometimes checks really do get lost, or the bank numbers were input incorrectly. Figure out if the non-payment reason a legit issue or just a misunderstanding/tech problem.

I’m fairly certain that a technical issue was to blame for my case since I came into the campaign late and my contact had to process everything manually.

Most companies use a payment processing service like WePay, or Gusto, so perhaps the issue is with the payment processor and not the client themselves.

Your job is to remain calm and determine the cause of the non-payment, then work to resolve it.

Related: How to decrease PayPal fees from client payments.

3. Exhaust all the avenues

Have you done everything you can to reach the people in charge, or the accounting department? Try calling their office.

Ask friends or co-workers who you know worked with this client and ask them about their payment experience. Do a search online and find the client’s Twitter handle and reach out to the social team.

Do whatever you can to ensure that you’ve done your research and have exhausted all the avenues of getting their attention.

(Seriously, some companies are so disorganized that they never communicate with each other and have no idea what’s really going on.)

In my case, I asked a friend if she received payment from the same client since she recommended me to them and we worked on the campaign together. She said she already received full payment with no issues.

I was relieved to know it wasn’t because they didn’t want to pay, they just had technical problems and a miscommunication within their company.

Related: How to follow up with a client without looking desperate.

4. Send them a warning email

If you truly feel like you’ve done everything you can (outside of legal force) send your non-payment client a warning email.

This will not only show them that you mean business, but it can serve as written proof that you gave them ample time to rectify the situation.

Here’s an example of the email I sent my non-paying client. Notice that I listed all of the methods I used to contact them (to no avail), the exact dates, their promise to me, information about the contract, and my written notice about further action.

non-paying client email warning

Funny thing: within 3 hours of sending this email I received a response from my contact (imagine that!) and within 4 days the money was in my bank account. Go figure!

Sometimes clients just need to be reminded that they can’t push freelancers around. 

Don’t believe me? This email format didn’t just work for me.

making clients pay - tweet

5. Hire a lawyer to help

Hopefully by now you’ve taken the first few steps and your client is in the process of paying your invoice. In that case you’re lucky! If not, here are the next steps in the process.

Have a lawyer friend send a letter (on their professional letterhead) stating that you plan to pursue this matter further, and that you’re applying X% fee to the invoice each month.

Hopefully a late-payment fee is in the freelance contract, but if not you should add it.

Mail this letter via snail mail with return receipt requested notifying them that they are X days overdue for payment and as per the contract you are owed $X. If you’re not paid within X amount of time you will pursue further legal action.

Make sure you keep the receipt for when they sign for the letter!

You don’t even have to pay a lawyer to do this, just ask your friend if you can use their stationary. Many times a legal-looking piece of paper is all it takes to get a client’s butt in gear. 🙂

Need a good legal resource?

Check out Rachel Rodger’s website, Small Business Bodyguard. She specializes in issues like this, as well as other legal obstacles that freelancers face.

6. Mail out an official letter for $3

Sometimes clients just need to know you’re serious about getting paid. Not all of us know a lawyer-friend or have the funds to pay for a lawyer’s help, so what’s the next best thing?

Send your non-paying clients an official letter from a (fake!) law firm. I’m not kidding!

And Co, a company that specializes in invoice and task management software for freelancers, recently created a service that demands freelancers get paid.

Simply put, you pay $3 for And Co to send a physical letter from “Williams&Harricks” on your behalf. It looks like it comes from a real law firm and most clients will get the hint that you’re FOR REAL.

I mean, for $3 it’s a worth a try, right?

7. Show the client you mean business

Still not getting anywhere with a client who doesn’t want to pay? Follow through with your threats.

Not only does it feel good to vent some frustration, but it’s your duty to look out for other freelancers so they don’t get burned working with this client.

For me this means alerting my entire community via Twitter, the Facebook group, and on this blog. Call the client or company out by name, and warn other freelancers not to work with them or use their services.

You’re not doing this out of spite, and you should still be respectable about your words, but make it known that clients can’t treat business owners this way.

Related: How to have a better life as your own boss.

8. Consider small claims court

I understand that there comes a time when you can either give up on getting paid, or pursue the matter via small claims court.

If the money is a small amount, it may not be worth the time you spend to pursue it — you could be spending your time and energy working with clients who actually want to pay you.

However, be sure to weigh out the principal of the matter as well as how much you’ll get paid, and any fees you’ll pay the court or a lawyer. Sometimes it’s worth teaching your client (and yourself) how to the business side of freelancing is to be conducted.

The specifics of whether you can represent yourself, how much money you’ll be able to recover, and how long you the lawsuit may take, all depend on your location.

Research the small claims court policies in your local area and check out the official government website for your state.

Are you dealing with a client who won’t pay? What action have you taken to get paid, or what has your experience been?
Dealing with a client who doesn't pay is tough, but I've come up with the exact steps to take when you're not being paid on time. Use this follow up client email to get paid what you're owed.