Did you know that 71% of freelancers struggle to collect payment? SEVENTY-ONE PERCENT. If that fact doesn't alarm you, replace the word 'freelancer' with nearly any other profession. Imagine 71% of doctors, lawyers, teachers, stock brokers, accountants, plumbers, shop owners, athletes, executives, electricians, waiters - you get the idea - struggled to be paid for timely and satisfactory work. That would be kind of crazy, right? Nearly three quarters of the independent workforce deals with the issue of non-payment and, as a result, the average freelancer loses almost $6000 annually, not to mention the time lost while chasing down overdue invoices. Besides being unethical and downright theft, non-payment can be a crippling financial blow to independent contractors, often forcing them to dip into savings, go into debt, or borrow money to pay their bills. Most freelancers don't have the resources to pursue legal action against clients who don't pay up and many companies are all too happy to take advantage of that fact. Freelance isn't free, folks.
I've had my share of deadbeat clients in the past, but mostly when I was just starting out and didn't know how to safeguard myself. Despite my best efforts, however, I'm dealing with client non-payment once again (and learning the hard way that it’s almost inevitable in this type of work). No matter how small the sum in question is, facing the prospect of not being paid for a service rendered or product delivered is infuriating. Add in the mental anguish and frustration, and the whole ordeal becomes overwhelmingly stressful and, often, ultimately fruitless.
A quick Google search on the issue of freelancers and non-payment yields a plethora of information about 'training' your clients to pay on time, how to collect overdue payments, when to consider 'settling' for a portion of the total due, and startling facts and statistics about the regularity with which freelancers are forced to deal with these issues. The burden falls on freelancers to ensure and enforce payment, rather than on the client to uphold their end of the deal. And if they refuse, the options are mind-numbingly one-sided: accept a fraction of the originally agreed upon price (if you're lucky), or walk away empty-handed. You'd be hard-pressed to find any other situation in which it's normal to receive goods or services and not pay for them - and walk away scot-free. Yet companies and business owners all over the country do just that on a regular basis. And not just tiny, cash-strapped small businesses - some of the largest and most prosperous brands are notorious perpetrators.
Perhaps the saddest part of non-payment is the way it hardens you as a freelancer, eroding a potentially warm client/freelancer relationship and forcing you into a business-first, all the time, relationship. Yes, that tough shell you form protects you, but it also has a corrosive effect on sympathy and understanding. Sometimes a small business has unexpected and legitimate financial issues. Maybe they will, eventually, pay you in full as promised. But after years of being stiffed, used, and abused, your capacity for kindness and understanding plummets. You've been lied to before and burned badly. You've heard the sob stories and the excuses and felt sympathy for the predicaments in which your clients found themselves. But there comes a point when you don't know who to believe and, frankly, you just stop caring. You begin to take on what I call the ‘Henry Hill mindset’: "Business bad? F*ck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? F*ck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? F*ck you, pay me." And when you start running your business like a wiseguy, nobody wins.
I wish I had the answers. I don't. Best practices? Sure. Use contracts. Be specific about your terms and consequences for not following them. Get everything in writing. Enforce penalties and boundaries as best you know how. Collect as much payment as possible prior to work beginning or handing over a project. Lend your voice to the #FreelanceIsntFree movement. Have a lawyer in your phone, just in case. Because no matter how disheartening it is, it seems like non-payment is standard fare when you're a freelancer. And until legislation is passed to protect independent contractors, the price of admission may just be too steep to stomach.