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

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. 🙂

6. Mail out an official letter

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!

It looks like it comes from a real law firm and most clients will get the hint that you’re FOR REAL.

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 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.

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  • Comment Author image blank
    Glad you finally got paid. I have run into when a mistake has happened and by bringing over site to attention had it resolved. I have also been on the other side. When paid for freelance work with a large deposit and work wasn't completed. Pinned for others, great tips on what steps to take.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Get 'em, Carrie! Great post, and I'm glad you finally got paid what you were owed. Some people will walk all over you if you let them.
    • Comment Author image blank
      It's very true, Kevin. You gotta stay on top of things so people won't take advantage of you!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Yes to emails like that! My old boss taught me how to write those and it really does work. Sometimes you need to set boundaries and let people know you're serious.
  • Comment Author image blank
    This shows the importance of keeping records of the communications. Emails are usually easy (as long as your mail is set up to save sent messages. If not, it needs to be). But phone calls might be another matter. I don't know how I feel about putting them on blast, though. If they are large enough, I think I might be worried about a counter-suit for libel? It might be ridiculous and untrue that YOU were being untrue, but I don't have money to pay a lawyer...
    • Comment Author image blank
      Exactly, Kristen! Not everyone has money to pay a lawyer which is why I suggest just asking a friend or using their letterhead to show that you're serious. If they call your bluff then you can cross that bridge when you come to it. Small claims court doesn't require a lawyer though. As far as putting them on blast, this can be done privately, through email or a private Facebook group (like the one I established). It's just a way to help other freelancers not be taken advantage of. Even if you never get the money, at least other people won't get burned.
  • Comment Author image blank
    This just came at the perfect time. I'm dealing with a client right now that is refusing to pay, even though I provided multiple services and came through on my end for them. I'm thinking about putting them on blast, mainly because I want to warn others not to work with them!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Yikes! I'm glad this hasn't happened to me (yet). It sounds scary and I hope I never had to face this, but if I do I know I'll refer back to this post as a great example of what to do. Thanks for sharing Carrie!
  • Comment Author image blank
    It's the worst when you don't get paid! I am glad you finally got paid. Also, these are some great tips. I love how you say to take your time and find out the root of the problem because too many times people get upset and frustrated when they don't get paid right away.
    • Comment Author image blank
      As a freelancer who makes their living from client work, not getting paid is horrible! Sometimes it's just a technical mistake, or misunderstanding so it always helps to do some troubleshooting.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Carrie, I've been through the same exact thing! It was so frustrating to deal with and even more so that it happened after finishing the project I'd been contracted for. Being a writer, I used to have a somewhat sheltered view of the world- that is, until I got involved in the business side of things. I hate to say it, but after a few years, I've learned that you can never, ever, ever go wrong with putting EVERYTHING in writing. Thanks for sharing your story, Carrie! You're awesome! Best, Alice
  • Comment Author image blank
    Joyce Müller
    Hi Carrie, Nice post. I am getting trough for something like that. I got the job on the Freelancer Website, all work was registered there (Freelancer App counter hours, with Print Screen). The site generated the invoices but the client doesn't pay. I already contacted the site and they said that can't do anything.:-( I am thinking to turn the situation public and get a lawyer. I am in Brazil and the client in USA. It could be a problem. What you suggest? Thanks Joyce
    • Comment Author image blank
      Hi Joyce, I don't think it matters where you're located because someone still owes you money for work you did. I'd suggest sending them a $3 letter (as outlined above) or contacting a lawyer. You deserve to get paid!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Hi, your blog is quite helpful, though my client won't even respond to my Skype messages, let alone emails! I see him online and yet he doesn't reply. I left him a dozen of messages but now I am beginning to lose hope. I delivered all the articles, a minimum of 40 to get paid but he hasn't bothered with me at all! What do I do?
    • Comment Author image blank
      Hi Priyal, I'm sorry you're dealing with this as I know how frustrating now getting paid is as a freelancer. I wouldn't bother trying to contact your client anymore. It's time to show them you mean business my taking action on the other items on my list here. I'd contact a lawyer or reach out with that $3 warning letter. It could be well worth your time to take a bit more drastic measures. Then, I'd look into small claims court. Just follow the outline I've shared in the steps above and it should help you get paid! Good luck.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Hi Carrie, I have started working on a long term project and provided more than 40 articles of 1000 words each so far. The client stated in the contact that I'll be paid every monday but when I contacted them about the payment they said that they did not pay me because they did not recieve the work list or invoice from me. Now another week is about to end and they have stopped answering my mails or providing assignments. They did not even pay me for the previous work. It has happened to me on the freelancer before and their team says that they are unable to help. The client is in UK and I am in Pakistan. I am a student who earn to pay the fees and I cannot afford to send a warning letter or hire a lawyer. I am thinking about sending them a mail in a format you have shown. After that, If they will not respond I am going to report to a cyber crime agency online. Am I taking a right decision? P.s the employer has been really rude to me since the start. Please guide me in this regard.. Thanks!
    • Comment Author image blank
      I'm sorry you're having to deal with this, Arsh. But I'm glad you're taking action to get this sorted out -- you deserve it. Yes, you're going in the right direction and taking the best steps to get this resolved. Good luck!
  • Comment Author image blank
    Hey Arsh, i think am also dealing with the same person only that mine is from USA and he or she hired me from freelancer.com. I have done 10 assignments so far with a total word count of 41275 words. He said he is to pay every Monday if i pass 21k words per week. Once i sent him or she my work list for the 10 assignments he still expected me to submit assignment 11 first before he or she pays me. I told him i wanted to be paid first before submitting the next assignment but now he or she has refused to pay me. He or she has been so rude to me too. Am thinking of posting all the articles i have written online exactly the same as the ones i submitted. What should i do?
  • Comment Author image blank
    Thank you, Carrie for your article which is such a blessing to the rest of us who freelance. Although I'm somewhat hesitant about sharing my thoughts about this, I feel I must, to let all of you know you're not alone in your frustration with deadbeat or devious clients. After many years as a freelance graphic artist, I found that retirement was difficult without adequate money for expenses. I also have writing skills and thought I'd try freelance writing, this time. I approached a magazine publisher with samples of my writing, and no resume, since there wasn't much in my work background requiring writing skills. The editor was nice enough, immediately giving me an assignment and keeping an upbeat attitude towards me through my work on the project. However, after he told me that it would take 2 months for me to be paid, I sent him what I believe was a very respectful but dissenting message about this length of time, and why in truth, I felt it was unfair. His reply was one of the most belittling, unfair and untrue assessments by him of me I've ever experienced; he also claims this was an extraordinary opportunity he initially extended me. Would he have hired me for the project if he doubted I would deliver on its objectives? Unfortunately, I've found this to be the pattern of how so many clients treat freelances - treating them well until the freelancers firmly ask for fair payment arrangements. I understand that I did not take the very important step at the outset, of presenting a contract with exact terms outlined. However, it's unfortunate that they'd try to demean those who demand their rights. I don't know if I'll continue with freelancing as a result of this sickening treatment. But I think that all of us should stand and never waver in our beliefs in ourselves and our worth.
    • Comment Author image blank
      Carrie Smith Nicholson
      It's true, Marci. Freelancing requires a thick skin and it's a tough industry to be in. I've been doing this full-time for nearly 5 years and I still find that companies and clients belittle me and don't pay me on time. In fact, I dealt with a startup this past month who paid me using a check from Canada and now I have to wait 4-6 weeks for it to process through customs. Umm...NO! I responded with my unwillingness to let this happen and that it was not acceptable. They finally cancelled the check and paid me via PayPal, but I still had to pay $264 in processing fees. Sigh. It's not easy, that's for sure. I'm sorry you're having to deal with this. But hopefully, you can still do freelancing on the side and make some extra money towards your goals.
  • Comment Author image blank
    Hi Carrie, I've got the same problem - in November, I did some translation work for Urban translation Services and haven't been paid yet :( I've sent many letters via e-mail and Skype but they ignore me all the time, I even reached the office by phone and the project manager told me she'd inform the accounting department about my payment, but nothing's changed. I'm just so angry!
    • Comment Author image blank
      Carrie Smith Nicholson
      I'm sorry to hear about your issues, Nina. I know that not getting paid is NOT a fun part of freelancing. It might be time to send them a letter from a lawyer friend (or And Co!) to see if they will finally start listening. It's horrible when companies don't treat freelancers like real workers. :(
  • Comment Author image blank
    Hi Carrie! Great resource and tips. I'm curious if you'd know what the next steps should be when working with a client online and from another country. It makes me doubt any threat of legal action will be taken seriously. Also, it's clearly outsourced work, where the client the work was done for is claiming they haven't been paid yet and therefore can't pay me (though that shouldn't be my problem), the agreed payment date is more than a month overdue. What should the next steps be?
  • Comment Author image blank
    I've had the same problem lately. The payments are seriously late and when questioned about it they act like it's so difficult to find out where your payment is. Also, I posted a freelancer article on linkedin (it was a positive one!), and they cut off all work to me. Now they won't return any of my emails. It's a sad state of affairs when freelancers are treated like an afterthought, or worse, a vendor.