Get Paid: What to Do When The Check is Late
You work hard on your assignment, turn it in, and do the required (ugh) revisions. You happily send in your invoice — and wait…and wait…and wait.
Your check is late! You have a mortgage to pay and you were relying on that check. Now what?
Late checks are a fact of life for freelancers. Most of the time, the clients aren’t being malicious — they just do things slowly. But that doesn’t help you when you have bills to pay. Here are some ways to get that check moving towards your mailbox.
Always Send an Invoice
Not all clients require an invoice — for example, some national magazine editors put payment through for you when the article is accepted, invoice or no — but most do, so you may as well send an invoice to every client just to cover your bases. That way, when the check is late you’ll have something concrete for reference.
Check Your Contract
You may discover (or have forgotten) that the contract says that the client will pay in 45 days, in 90 days, or after some other time period that’s not the typical 30 days. Of course, you should always read your contract before signing it so you’re not surprised (or so you can renegotiate the terms). Sometimes clients change the contract without telling you, so read it every time. I learned this the hard way: I had written over a dozen articles for a certain women’s fitness magazine and one time when the check was two weeks late, I e-mailed my editor — and she informed me that their new terms were payment in 45 days (which they had slipped into the latest contract without telling me). The extra two-week wait wouldn’t kill me, but it would have been nice to know.
I know of freelancers who start freaking out when a check that was payable net 30 isn’t in their mailbox by day 31. They complain on forums, ask other freelancers what to do, and send badgering notes to their clients. My advice: Allow for late checks in your financial plans and just chill for a while. I typically don’t start sending out follow-up e-mails until a check is at least two weeks late. Of course, you have to work within your comfort level — for example, one week may be all you can wait — just don’t start melting down if the check is six hours late. I’ve worked with over 150 magazine and copywriting clients and I can think of only two times when I was screwed, so I’m generally not worried that the check will never come. Clients can be slow to assign, slow to turn around revisions — and sometimes slow to pay. I’m not saying it’s right…I’m just saying that’s the way it is.
Send an E-mail
Once a check is a little too late for my comfort, I shoot a short, friendly e-mail to my client. This is what I typically write:
I hope all is well with you!
I was going through my accounts receivables today and noticed that I haven’t received a check for the article on New Year’s Goals, which I turned in on October 12. The invoice number is 1612 and the amount is $2,250. Would you mind looking into this for me? Thanks so much!
Just about every single time, the editor contacts whoever it is that cuts the checks and gets things moving for me.
Sometimes freelancers ask me, “Client X owes me $2,000 for my last three assignments, and now they have another assignment for me! What should I do?”
If your checks are that backed up and you have no confidence that they’re coming any time soon, you should hold off on further assignments. Sure, it’s flattering that a client keeps hiring you, but why dig yourself into an even deeper hole? Tell the client, “I’m so excited that you want me to write about the health benefits of coffee/design a new website/translate your brochure for you. However, I’m still waiting for payment on three invoices from Your Company and I feel uncomfortable working on new assignments until I receive the checks. Would you mind looking into this for me so I can get started on this new assignment?”
If this happens when you’re in the middle of an assignment, you have some leverage: You can hold back on turning in the completed assignment until you receive the back payments. I had to do this with a book publisher once: It was time for the second installment of my fee and I hadn’t even received the first yet. In the meantime, I had written half of the book. I told the editor that I couldn’t turn in the completed chapters until I received both payments. Like magic, the check arrived via FedEx a couple of days later. I never did get another book assignment from this publisher, but I didn’t exactly cry myself to sleep that I wasn’t getting work from a publisher that got pissed that I expected to be paid on time.
If a check is really, really late and it looks like the client has no intention of paying, there are myriad options for getting paid; for example, you could hire a collection agency, take the client to small claims court, or contact an organization that represents freelancers in your field. Each of these options has its own set of do’s and don’ts that go beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth it to research them if you’re in the process of getting screwed by a client.
And now — while you’re waiting for your checks to roll in, get busy marketing to other clients to keep the income flowing!