The painful reality of getting paid as a freelancer (and what you can do about it)

by | Nov 25, 2021 | Articles

By Rose Stokes

A sad but all-too-common experience for any freelancer is that of chasing overdue payments. As a worker on payroll, you often take for granted that your pay cheque arrives at roughly the same time of each month. But as any freelancer knows, whether or not you will receive payment within the agreed timeline stated on your invoice is much more a game of chance, and can lead to some pretty stressful personal negotiations and decisions.

First and foremost, if you, like most working adults, have your own financial commitments, not being able to predict if and when you are likely to be paid can cause a lot of anxiety. Because as we all know, landlords and banks don’t care for your excuses! I recently found myself in the (not) fun position of having £6.5k in overdue invoices around the time that my rent and bills were all due. A couple of years ago this would have been impossible to manage when I was single and living alone, but I count myself lucky to now share my living expenses with someone on payroll who can cover my bills. I have lost count of the number of freelancers I know who get charged for being in their overdraft or for missing bill payment deadlines simply because they are unable to get paid on time by companies they have completed work for sometimes months beforehand. 

Freelance journalism is a particularly bad industry for this, where payment terms are usually 30 days from publication date (which is subject to the vagaries of an editor’s schedule and the news cycle). To put that in perspective, if you are a freelance journalist, you have to pay other freelancers in your life immediately (service people, accountants, therapists, hairdressers), but you cannot get paid yourself for at least a month. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that payments are then quite frequently missed (even though these companies have a long time to plan and make sure this doesn’t happen). It’s a system that is simply not working, and leaves freelance writers in the unenviable position of having to balance aggressively chasing payments with the desire to not appear “difficult”, thereby putting people off from commissioning you in the future.

Aside from the fact that it can be hugely stressful to have to keep asking people to be paid, as we’ve seen, late payments can trigger a whole load of other issues. It’s something that really needs to be addressed, but can feel unending and tortuous if you’re stuck in a loop of missed payment deadlines and begging emails. If this is you then aside from lobbing your laptop at a wall or scream-crying at your friends and plants, there’s a few things you can do that might help.

Put some money away when you can for a sink fund

It’s taken me over two years to actually do this, but saving a bit of money every month, even a small amount, really helps to ease the stress when you’re in a position of overdue payments. Apps like Chip that autosave for you can even take the thinking out of it and work out what’s affordable — result!

Make hay…

If you happen to have a really good month payments wise, this is a good time to put some aside for a rainy day. Freelancing is such an unreliable beast, it helps to try to plan for quieter months too.

Remember you can stop working with companies that are repeat offenders

It’s not always possible, but it’s totally legit to stop accepting work from sources that just don’t pay up or when you need to spend weeks chasing to see the fruits of your labour.

Diversify your revenue stream

I always try to work with as many companies as possible so that if one (or even multiple) are failing to pay, at least someone might manage it. If you have only a few big clients, it can expose you to more risk if they end up being problematic. 

Keep your good clients close

Got a client that pays you on time every time? Keep them close! I really don’t think we should have to be grateful for being paid on time, but to be honest, in this landscape, it really pays to stay in the good books of old reliables.

Get some good accounting software

I use Wave, which tells me exactly when invoices are due. If I have a client that has been late a few times, I sometimes send an email a week before a deadline to check they have lined it all up, before it’s too late. Some platforms will also automate payment chasing, which is a bit easier than having to keep writing yourself. This should also help you to stay on top of what is due and what is overdue.

Get some good templates

It’s painful to keep writing the same thing, so write a few templates you can use to send to editors or vendors who need a nudge. Save yourself the time and agony!

Get some other freelancer friends

Ain’t nobody going to relate to this more than friends in the same boat! Find a few people to complain to who will understand exactly the unique frustration you’re feeling. Strength in numbers and all that.