Compared to some species of office-dwellers, the freelancer has evolved into a scrappy breed, hustling, networking, staying current on trends. These unglamorous duties come in exchange for plenty of boss-less joys, but they also include one particularly treacherous task: trying to get paid.
“Trying to get paid” falls into its own unique category; it’s one of the most important parts of the work, but often the most difficult. What freelancer hasn’t felt the special agony of waiting for a check to come, anxiously running out to the mailbox every time we hear that metal lid open and close?
Caitlin Pearce, the director of member engagement at the New York-based Freelancers Union, says the hurry-up-and-wait trap is even more common among freelancers than one might think. “We did some research, and found that 70 percent of freelancers have experienced nonpayment or late payment,” she says, “and that they were losing $6,000 a year as a result.”
Fortunately, there are ways to reign in the hell of trying to get paid that won’t eat up all of your working hours.
Know Your Rights
The standard for getting paid is 30 days after work is delivered, although that timeline is up to you and your employer. Research suggests that asking for payment 21 days after delivery is the magic formula. After that, many freelancers charge a late fee — often around 1.5% a month — to “really drive home the fact that they have to pay on time,” Pearce says. That fee can be listed on your invoice, along with the date payment is due and how to pay (PayPal, direct deposit, or a mailing address to which your check should be sent), but Pearce recommends that all freelancers work with contracts to be safe.
“Freelance work is all governed by contract law,” she says. “Make sure that, in your contract, it has clear payment terms — whether you will get paid by the hour or by the project, and when payments are expected after work is completed.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Stand Up for Yourself
No one wants to work for free. Asking for payments, insisting on contracts and setting an appropriate rate in the first place should be emotionless endeavors. This should be the case even when clients seem to push back on things like contracts or deadlines, or when using contracts isn’t the standard in your industry. It might be scary at first, but clients will take a cue from you and treat you how you demand to be treated. You don’t have to be mean or pushy – just be assertive when the time is right. Remember, this is a job.
Freelancers and small business often have to act as their own accountants and bookkeepers. That means it’s up to you to track invoices, from when they were sent to clients to when they’re overdue. If bookkeeping isn’t your strong suit, don’t worry, there’s a website for that. Companies like Paydirt and Invoicely allow users to easily create and send invoices in any currency or language, accept online payments (including credit cards!), track payments received and payments that are overdue, and more. (Added bonus: Paydirt’s website is loaded with Arrested Development references.) Invoicely also includes features that let users track their monthly and yearly expenditures, mileage and total income, and to create unique brands so they’re not stuck with a template they can’t stand to look at.
If you’re feeling particularly motivated about the issue of timely payment, take a cue from Pearce and reach out to your local government. New York recently became the first city in the country to enact official protections for freelancers, called the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. It includes mandatory contracts and double damages for anyone forced to take a late payer to small-claims court.
“We were constantly hearing from freelancers who felt very powerless,” says Pearce. “This is an issue that has been a top pain point for a long time. We are hoping that New York will serve as a model for other cities and states.”