Non-Payment: A Few Tactics To Try When Pinched as a Freelancer

Options for dealing with the messy part of freelancing.

In most occupations, your job is to go to work, do your job and go home. A paycheck is delivered every two weeks, or whatever the arrangement is that you’re working in. You seldom give much thought to the financial side of the business, except when there are clues that maybe the company isn’t solvent. You’re free to focus on doing your job, period.

No so for freelancers or self-employed contractors. If you’re a self-employed, there’s quite a bit more to consider. You must constantly be lining up new business. You’ve also no doubt learned the tax aspects, how to fill out a Schedule C and get additional write-offs, how to make sure you cover your social security taxes and the other hidden headaches that normal workers seldom think about.

Eventually, sooner or later, you encounter that tricky situation in which a client doesn’t or won’t pay for work that you have delivered. It happens.

What follows are some tactics I’ve used to get what I was owed. It’s one of the trickier aspects of doing freelance work, whether as a writer, designer or some other self-employed trade.


For four years I was a self-employed painting contractor, primarily painting apartments but also painting houses occasionally. At the same time I had begun my freelance writing career, writing in the evenings and painting during the day.

In 1986 my portfolio of published work with bylines served to get me a writing job which one year later opened up to a career in advertising. Having retired at the end of 2017, I have been focusing on writing full time, freelance writing and blogging, and occasionally painting, making art.

Over the years there have been a variety of situations in which I was not paid. This past month one of my current clients asked if I would share some of the techniques I used to get paid when this occurred.

Small Potatoes

Some jobs in which I was not paid weren’t that big of a deal. Still, it stings. Here are three I had to deal with.

Man in the Middle

I had been approached my a co-worker to create a brochure for a resort in Wisconsin. The job included designing a logo, write copy, layout and get the piece printed. The logo art would also be used for printing on T-shirts.

I proceeded to sub-contract the logo art to a talented designer in town who did exceptional work. After setting things in motion with the designer, I attempted to acquire a rough draft of what the resort wanted with regards to copy along with photos for the piece. My co-worker dragged his feet and finally said the job had been cancelled.

The problem was, my designer still wanted to be paid. He’d done the initial work on the logo..

I attempted to have the three of us divide the loss three ways — co-worker, myself and designer. “No dice,” said the designer. He’d done the work. “No dice,” said the co-worker. He thought he’d been a hero getting us the assignment. I forked over the money to pay for the logo art.

Solutions: Written agreements, even if informal, will help improve any business relationship and help clarify whether everyone is on the same page.

I myself have been in three way projects as a writer, and let my clients know that I am willing to split a loss if the originator of the project scuttles the ship without paying. Once bit, twice shy though.

Pay to Play

I had a client who wanted flyers created on a fairly regular basis. These were one page information sheets that seldom required a lot of work, and for which the pay was fairly nominal.

The problem was that he never liked to pay. Until he needed the next job done.

It was a somewhat strange relationship, and because it was never a large assignment, my loss would never be much if I were left holding the bag. This went on for maybe two years, and as long as I remained realistic about things, it was actually a funky but stead revenue stream. I liked the guy, he had interesting stories

Mercy Play

This is similar except it involves a one-time client. They don’t pay. You show your face now and then to demonstrate interest in what they are doing, and at some point remind them of the unpaid bill. (Which reminds me, I have an unpaid bill I need to settle!) I believe that in most cases, it is easier to get honey from a beehive if you don’t kick over the nest.

Bigger Potatoes

The Nuisance Game

In 1985 I painted the halls and stairwells at a small apartment building about six blocks from my home in Forest Lake. It was a $2,000 job and when I had not been paid in a reasonable length of time I met with the apartment manager who gave a song and dance. I succeeded in getting $500 as a “downpayment” on what was owed.

I suspect that the absentee landlord, who hired me, had already paid the manager to pay me, so I took it upon myself to play the nuisance game. I would stop by on the way home from work every two or three days, and nearly every single time I shook him down for $50 or $100.

This only works when the “client” has a conscience. For me it was a game, like cat and mouse. I probably quit around $200 shy of the goal, which was less of a hassle than small claims court.

The Re-Do Game

This was another painting job. I had painted a home in Forest Lake. The house looked nice when done. The owner, however, was unhappy with what he feared was a problem. In the painting business, paints change color slightly when they dry. Often, there can be leaching that causes a shadow-like appearance which takes a few days to go away.

After they wrote the check, I went to the bank and found that they had cancelled it.

My father was a chemist whose career was in the development of latex paints. He explained to me what what was happening. I explained to the homeowner, but the husband did not trust me. Trust is a major feature of capitalism, and once rankled his ire was up.

I contacted the hardware store and an engineer from the paint company came out to explain what was happening. The guy didn’t trust him either. Thought we were all trying to pull a fast one.

I painted the house a second time, and again there was leaching on one side of the house. My dad said it would go away in a week. The owner was pissed, primarily because it was his wife who hired me and he thought I was trying to take advantage of her ignorance of these things. The whole time I painted he talked to me like a six-year-old.

He was the ignorant one, it turns out. I came back in a week and the house looked great. I got paid without ever losing my temper, my biggest achievement on that job.

Government Nightmare

In July of 1983 I was brought in to a painting crew to paint hallways at Cedar Square, a government managed complex in the Twin Cities. We painted hallways for four weeks, five days a week, at the end of which time we learned that we would not be paid till 1984.

The foreman of the job said that the government only had “X” number of dollars approved by Congress for this kind of work and that payment would not be available till more money could be allocated and approved.

The downside of this was that we were counting on some of the money to cover a planned August vacation. Fortunately, we were able to do a quick turnaround home interior the day before our vacation, which enabled us to cash a check the next morning and hit the road.

As it turns out, the money came through in February of 1984, as invoiced. It was like money in the bank. I actually believed it would come through so I never lost sleep about it. It falls into the category covered by the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Lesson: It’s your call, but based on this and my only other experience doing contract jobs for the government… Count me out.

Maybe when there’s more at stake, some of these situations require other strategies. In my experience, patience and kindness have been useful, along with following my intuition to avoid certain situations altogether.

The big challenge today when freelance writers are working online is this. There’s no eye contact. You can tell a lot by making eye contact with people.

Trust is a fundamental to successful commerce. Let’s not do anything to damage that.

What tactics you use when you haven’t been paid?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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