How Not to Get Screwed as a Freelancer

Feb 2, 2018 | Stephen Jackson

Few things suck more than getting burned by a client on a freelance job. It’s the worst, and it often leaves you with a dilemma: Is it worth it to go after the deadbeat client, or is it better to just cut your losses and never work with them again? If you’re not protected by a contract or insurance, you may have little recourse.

Also, if the job was only a few hundred dollars, you have to do the cost-benefit analysis on whether or not the squeeze is worth the juice. Sometimes you can negotiate reduced payment (I’ve done that), but even that’s a crap shoot in the end.

But there are certain things you can do to avoid these heartbreakers, the first of which should be heading over to the Freelancer’s Union site. They have tons of resources for client nonpayment, including contracts and letter templates, and other valuable information.

It should also be noted that they are the folks who passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Law in New York a few years back, a groundbreaking piece of legislation protecting freelancers from nonpayment. Take a look.

But the best way to not get screwed is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Let’s walk through some best practices.

Use a Contract

This might be a pretty obvious piece of advice for some of you, but there have been times where we’ve all worked without a contract. And while most of the time things end up fine, when they don’t, you don’t have a leg to stand on if a client stiffs you.

“Always use a contract. After spending time working at agencies, contracts became the norm for me,” says Kiel Fletcher, who’s done freelance design work in some capacity since 2006, mostly around product graphics in the cycling industry. “I have definitely learned the hard way that not having contracts can really get you in trouble. I feel like there is always a weird dance with the details of a contract and not wanting to lose a client but ultimately, I think you need to play like you have nothing to lose and get as detailed as possible in order to protect yourself.

Make sure to include how many revisions you’re willing to do and how long the client has to pay you, as forgetting either of these things can result in a major headache down the line.

“Dates of execution, dates of compensation and a limitation of creative sign-off, these are all important,” says Fletcher. “What you don’t want to do is write a contract that leaves you beholden to unlimited revisions if you are getting compensated on a set price instead of hourly.”

Request Advance Payment or Have Collateral

Never deliver a final product until payment has been made. If it’s a website, only send mockups or test pages, or lock it with a password. If it’s a video, you might want to send low-res versions, but that can be tricky. “Always either know your rights, have a contract, or have collateral,” says Fletcher. “If you don’t have any of those things then you are basically at risk and flying blind. If you have a client that is willing to pull one over on you then they are probably willing to lie to you.

If you’re a writer like me, it’s hard to maintain control of work (they can always copy a draft). But that’s why you should also always request half up front. True, you might get stuck for the other half if things go south, but most times if people are willing to put some skin in the game from the get-go, they’ll deliver payment in full once the job is complete.

Consider Getting Insurance

So, this one protects you from a different kind of getting screwed — the kind where a client ends up suing you for any number of things, like your camera busting the day of the big wedding. The thing about liability insurance is that it even limits the amount of damages you could pay to a client if the mishap was your fault.

Fletcher, for example, currently holds a policy that covers General Liability, Professional Liability, and an Umbrella coverage that includes Errors and Omissions. If you’re interested, then head on over to the Freelancer’s Union for more information. In fact, they’re advertising member plans that start at just $22.50 a month. It’s worth looking into, since sometimes the person who screws you is yourself.