Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting Paid

At what point do you panic over a missing paycheck? How long do you check the mail, waiting for the payment you’re due, before you begin hounding a client? As a freelancer, have you made any hard and fast rules on compensation?

It’s something I’m contemplating this week, as I’m assessing my finances. Then again, it’s something I contemplate nearly every week—and if you rely on those freelance checks to pay the bills, I’m guessing you think about it often too.

I’m blessed to have a number of clients who pay relatively soon after they have accepted my work. With one of my bigger clients, I expect I’ll receive my check just about a month after I invoice. It happens without fail, and I take comfort in that consistency. With another smaller shop, the check usually arrives a week or two after a project is done. And with a few individuals I’ve taken on small writing and editing projects for recently, they’ve paid immediately—we’re talking, as soon as they can write a check and get it in the mail.

But I do have a couple of clients who won’t pay until months—many months—after my story has been published. I’ve tried to assess whether there’s a rhyme or reason as to how soon they pay, and there isn’t. Sometimes, I’ll have a few checks trickle in a few months in a row. Other times, I’ll go months without any pay, even though I’m submitting stories regularly.

I’m sure you’re asking: So why don’t you dump the client if they’re so bad at paying you, Julie?

It’s something my hubby says regularly. In his world, a three-month delay in payment is unacceptable (then again, so is a three-day delay). In his world, I should stop working for them immediately.

But here’s the thing. Despite those slow checks, this client is pretty darn good to work for. I get plum assignments. They come regularly. I typically get a few names of sources to contact when I get the assignment, which makes my job even easier. It’s steady work that requires little stress or upfront wrangling on my part—no queries, no sending clips, the assignments just come.

So for that reason, I’m willing to deal with the inconsistent payments. Occasionally, I’ll send a reminder email to let the editors know I haven’t been paid in a while. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. And eventually I do get paid.

In the meantime, I just make sure to scrounge up other work that pays more quickly to supplement those slow checks. And I use these strategies to ensure those other checks keep rolling in at a reasonable rate.

Invoice properly. If the company you’re working with has specific way they like their invoices submitted, make sure you follow their guidelines—exactly. If they have a special form, use it. If they want that invoice submitted by snail mail, get out the stamps. Otherwise, your invoice may come back to you and the whole process begins again.

If there aren’t specific guidelines, be sure to include the most relevant information in a clear, easy-to-read format. Your name, address, phone number, and often social security number or federal ID should be easy to spot. Spell out what the project is, what the rate you agreed on was, and what the total is that they owe you. Make sure you include the date, too.

Say thanks. Whether you include a sticky note with a personal thank you, a standard “thanks for the work” on your invoice, or a few kind words in the email you attach your invoice to, that note of gratitude can go a long way.

Follow up.
If I know a company’s policy is to pay in, say, two weeks, I’ll follow up if I haven’t seen that check in two weeks. Usually this means shooting an email to the editor I worked with, who will check on things. Other times, I may contact the department that sends out checks directly.

Either way, be polite. Don’t write an angry email demanding payment or you’re suing. Don’t rant and rave on the phone. An informal, “hey, I just wanted to check in on that payment” works much better.

Follow up again. Still haven’t received that check? Send another note or make another call. Be a bit firmer this time. Odds are, your payment will come soon.

And if it doesn’t? Consider what kind of battle you’re willing to do. Is it a good client you want to keep, like the one I mentioned above? Then play nice.

Is it one you’ve never worked with before and don’t care to work with again? Then get a bit more aggressive—just remember, the world is a lot smaller than you think and you don’t want word to get around that you’re unpleasant to deal with.

Is it a big check? Then you may want to consult with someone (an attorney, a collection agency) who can help you get your money.

If it’s not that large of a payment, perhaps you're better of calling it a loss, scratching that company off your list, and moving on. (Remember, spending hours trying to get $30 probably isn't the best use of your time.)

What’s your strategy? Any slow- or no-payment horror stories? How long do you wait for a check before following up?

Learn more.
Freelancer’s Guide to Getting Paid–On Time (
How to get paid as a freelance writer in a timely manner (eHow)
Getting paid on time (Freelance Switch)

Photo by Betsssssy via Flickr

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