how can I get a client to pay me on time?

A reader writes:

My boss and I offer English tutoring services to international students who are learning English as a second language at school. Can you please advise me on how to get my new customer (well, I am not sure if she is considered new-new, as I have been working with her for the past 1.5 months already) to pay us on time?

There is a contract that states payment is due every 8 lessons given, but we have not been paid.

I texted and even called her on her mobile, but to no success. I even reminded her myself about her pending payment when she came over to our office for a meeting yesterday and she agreed that she would pay up by the end of the working day.

Honestly, I can see this business relationship working out between us, but I really need her to take us seriously and pay on time — and to understand that it’s not okay to pay one day, if not one week, later, despite reassuring my boss and I that they would have the payment in by a designated time, only to be met with an empty promise on their end.

Well, if you want her to take your payment terms seriously, you need to take them seriously yourself and convey that in how you handle this.

First, don’t text about this. Texting is an informal method of communication; it’s not appropriate to use for something important. You should email or call.

Second, send her a clear and to-the-point email with an invoice attached. Say something like this: “A second copy of your invoice for the last X sessions is attached. As you know, our contract requires payment to be submitted after each 8 lessons. This invoice is now X days overdue. When we spoke about this last week, you said you would submit payment within a day, but we’ve not yet received it.”

That’s step one. If you don’t receive prompt payment, you move to step two — which is to stop providing her with work until you’ve received payment for the work you’ve already done.

When someone shows you by their actions that they don’t take contractual payment terms seriously, you need to show them that you do — and that you expect them too also. Otherwise, you’re telling her that she doesn’t need to — and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they’ve done hours/days/weeks/months of work that they never end up getting paid for, or that they need to spend months chasing down. Set the boundaries now, and enforce them.

{ 76 comments… read them below }

    1. Jamie*

      This. And you don’t have to change it for everyone – you can have different payment terms with different customers.

    2. Josh S*

      Or have a late payment penalty–if payment not received within X days of invoice, an extra fee of $XX is assessed.

      1. Chinook*

        I like the idea of a late penalty, especially if you see this is a client you want to contiue to work with but know you will have to hassle for their payment. This way, you are being reimbursed for the xtra effort.

        1. CathVWXYNot?*

          The advice I read when I was considering a freelance career was not to frame it as a penalty for a late payment, but a discount for an early one. The amounts you would charge for an on-time versus a late payment would be the same regardless of the wording, but using “discount” instead of “penalty” apparently achieves the same goal while allowing you to maintain better working relationships with even your late-paying clients.

          I never actually put this advice into practice myself, but it makes sense to me.

          1. Jamie*

            I like this. And a lot of things like this have a discount for pre-paying for this very reason…if they get their money up front they know they won’t have to spend resources trying to collect.

            I love pre-pay discounts.

        2. Jessa*

          Not only a late fee. The contract should also have penalties for things like returned cheques, etc. And it should clearly say what will happen if payment is not made.

          IE: if payment is not received within 7 days from the 8th lesson (or at or before the 9th lesson if you prefer,) lessons will be suspended until we are paid. If payment is dishonoured for any reason there will be a $25 (or at minimum what your bank charges you for a bum cheque) fee.

          Also something to the effect of “if we have to take you to small claims court to get our money, you are liable for our fees.”

          But the biggest point and Alison already made it was: you have to absolutely stop providing services for people who do not pay you. It’s hard to do but as a professional you must. Or they’ll walk all over you.

  1. Susan*

    Email your invoice with your preferred net payment terms (7 days, 30 days, what have you). If not paid by the deadline, email a statement reminder and let the client know that you can’t provide services until they get their past due invoices paid. It’s not personal, it’s business.

  2. Catherine*

    You’d have to state it up front, so it won’t apply for this client, but I recommend having penalties for late payment. So not only will you not provide any more services without payment, you up the amount they owe you on some set schedule.

  3. fposte*

    If you have to provide any certification back to their program, also make clear that that only gets provided for students whose payments are current.

    Additionally, with international students in general, you might want to be particularly clear on what methods of payment are okay. If you accept checks, do they have to be from a local bank? At this point I’d be strongly inclined to require cash from Ms. Freeloader, but that’s up to you.

    1. Chinook*

      I never thought about it from that angle, but since you are teaching ESL, maybe their is a cultural disconnect going on? If you think that might be the case and you control the content fo your lessons, you may want to do a mini-lesson on bill payments (including how to read an invoice), tipping and other aspects of financial transactions that may be different between here and there. It may come off as a little passive-aggressive, but it also gets the point across that what may have been acceptable back home is not acceptable here.

      1. Peaches*


        I live in another country and even though the language and the culture are extremely similar here, I have lived in other countries where I have assumed different standards.

        I have no idea what country or culture she is from, but I know some places are more lax with the paying on time concept.

        Also something to consider- while this isn’t a problem if yours and she shouldn’t be making it so, immigrating can be really expensive. Beyond just the moving cost and expense of a visa, there are hundreds of little extra fees that all range from $10 to hundreds like updating government paperwork and such, all of which is more just more pressing than ESL classes, and for which they continually send you annoying letters. As soon as you think you’re done, another $300 bill arrives in the mail.

        I say that not to validate what she is doing. She still struck a business deal with you and it still needs to be honored. She might just not have *all* the money right now.

        Maybe you could make a payment plan with her to catch up on payments and just require payment up front going forward. It’s often easier to pay for one of something than eight.

        1. Peaches*

          ugh. Please excuse all my grammar mistakes above. I think the point is still clear.

  4. PJ*

    There is no reason why a new contract could not be required for a client who didn’t honor the old one.

    1. Colette*

      That would be true for new business – they can’t retroactively rewrite the contract for the tutoring they’ve already delivered.

      1. PJ*

        I was thinking about going forward. But I’m not a business owner, so maybe I have this wrong.

      2. Adam V*

        True, but in this case, you can probably get to the end of the next 8-lesson block, require payment for that block before giving additional lessons, then fire the customer saying “we’ve had issues with getting your payments on time, so we’re going to stop providing you lessons under the old rules. If you’d like to get additional lessons, you’ll have to agree to the new rules”.

  5. EnnVeeEl*

    This post is going to get a lot of comments, because I think everyone offering a service, etc., has come across this type.

    Don’t wait until they owe you months of fees. Don’t accept excuses. Don’t take threats either. Yes, people will get very defensive and nasty to get you to back off when THEY owe YOU money. Take the advice here and stand firm.

    This is why I decided freelancing wasn’t for me. I don’t like chasing people for my money.

    1. Chinook*

      The idea of chasign people for money, as well as having to advertise for my services, is why I went with an agency when I started tutoring. Once I realized that I could make more take home by dealing with the hassle involved and by setting up a contract on my terms, I realized that the inconvenience was worth it.

  6. Hello Vino*

    For freelance, I typically do 50% at the start of the project, then the remaining 50% at the end (or in your case, after the 8th lesson).

    A late payment penalty does help sometimes, but I would only bring it up with clients that have a history of not paying on time. It might also be a good idea to email reminders when the payment deadlines are coming up.

    1. JessB*

      I think something like this would work really well to prevent problems (as much as you can). Or you could ask for payment for 8 lessons after the fourth lesson – again, to mitigate the risk of people not paying, but it also gives you another 4 lessons to chase up payment, if needs be.

      I work for a university and we won’t allow people to graduate if they have fees outstanding on their account. Boy, do some people get mad if a $3.00 library fine is stopping them from getting their diploma!

  7. Employment lawyer*

    Lawyers have a saying:

    Better NOT TO do the work and not get paid, than TO do the work and not get paid.

    It’s a learning experience. You just learned. I’d bet that this person isn’t going to pay you anything, and that you just picked up a valuable lesson about extending credit.

    We also have another rule:

    The best times to get paid are when the client is happy, or when the client needs something from you. The worst time to get paid is when the client doesn’t need anything and/or is unhappy.

    This is why criminal lawyers get paid up front: if their client gets off, then they don’t have an incentive to pay–and if their client goes to jail, they blame the lawyer and refuse to pay.

    You had the client in your office, right? They’re sitting there, they want something… they need to pay you. You need to stop allowing people to go more than one class without paying you. Ideally you get paid first–but you might be able to risk a “pay at the end of the session” if you want.

  8. KF*

    As someone who has done payables for many businesses with serious cash flow problems, I can tell you that the vendors who would get paid were the ones who consistently followed up and made their expectations clear (and it did sometimes involve service hold until payment was made). The vendors who never contacted me were always bumped to the bottom of the list – that’s the reality when deciding who to pay when there isn’t enough money.

  9. W.W.A.*

    I have a comment about texting as a form of business communication.

    Alison, I have to say, I am always surprised at how often I see formal(ish) business communication happening by text. I have seen my boss schedule a hugely important meeting with a union representative for a bargaining session via text. I have seen coworkers text people to revise deadlines for big projects. It amazes me how often in a meeting, someone will say “we have to follow up with Joe to make sure he knows about the format change,” and a coworker will say “oh, I’ll text him.”

    This has been in multiple organizations so it’s not just one bunch of oddballs, and I work in a pretty stodgy field, so it’s not like we’re mobile app developers or something. I know people at other businesses who do the same thing routinely. Insurance agents text their clients, etc.

    I am under 30 and it shocks me that people use texting so much in business contexts, including people who are much older (and quote-unquote less tech savvy) than me.

    This makes me wonder if texting is going to become a standard way to conduct business, like email did in the recent past.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I would at least raise the concern about security. Don’t text something that you don’t want to become public, because texting is not a secure process. We have been told to avoid using cell phones for business purposes when discussing anything that should remain confidential, just in case someone is scanning for messages.

      1. darsenfeld*

        E-mail has the assurance of being stored on a server (at least if a company has their own e-mail system, such as MS Exchange or something). Texts are more difficult to store, and also can only convey specific types of information.

        As an SMS is still only 400 characters or so, only brief information can be detailed in it. I would say it depends on the nature of the information sent. If it’s a formal document with an attachment (MS Word/Excel/Powerpoint for instance), then obviously an e-mail has to suffice. If it’s an informal comment or request, then an SMS will do.

    2. -X-*

      Texting doesn’t seem a problem for scheduling a meeting – it’s similar to a phone call: for information that may be important in the moment but not in the long term.

      If a record is needed of the communication, it’s not right.

      1. W.W.A.*

        I guess I would just be so surprised to get a text from a business contact asking if we can do 2pm Tuesday. It’s just not how I use texting. Texting is for me and my friends to decide what bar to go to. It’s not for me to ask if a client got my last invoice. Personal preference plays a big role here, but if texting becomes absolutely ubiquitous in a business setting, I will not be happy about it!

          1. W.W.A.*

            Honestly, even that makes me feel uncomfortable. Texting is a personal private activity to me. I recently started a new job and my boss (unlike my last one) is open to communicating by text, and it TOTALLY weirds me out.

            Frankly I think using a personal cell phone at all in a business context makes me feel weird, but I know this is the way the times are changing, and you’re expected to always be available and responsive.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      WWA, I totally agree — I don’t like texting in business contexts at all. There’s often no record later, and it’s easy to forget about (unlike email, which at least sits in your inbox until dealt with). It also interrupts just like a phone call does, and it’s too informal.

      1. Susan*

        So – only tangentially related – if a phone call is considered an interruption, what do you recommend when you need to let your boss know that you’re sick and won’t be in the office? I always lean toward a phone call with email as a back up (seems more “legitimate” somehow). Do bosses have a preference on communication method when alerting them that you won’t be around for a day or two?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It depends on what your boss prefers, but absent any preference, I’d email. Unless she doesn’t regularly check email, in which case I’d call.

          1. Jessa*

            A lot of companies even small ones, now have procedures for reporting off work for whatever reason. I’d ask what the boss wants.

        2. KellyK*

          That one is totally a matter of preference. Some bosses really prefer to be called because it’s harder to *tell* someone you aren’t going to be there than to write it down, so they feel that you might be faking if you always email.

          If they haven’t expressed a preference, I’d go with whatever method you’re sure will reach them by the point at which they would need to know.

      2. KellyK*

        Texts are also easy to miss, at least in my experience (and this may be the crappiness of my phone or a setting I could change if I actually wanted people to text me). If I have unchecked voicemail, that’s listed on the screen when I check the phone. But texts don’t show up unless I actually either hear the phone vibrate when the text comes in or go to the inbox that’s buried in the menu.

        1. Laufey*

          For a very long time, I didn’t even have texting. Unlike e-mail, the sender doesn’t get bounce-back “undeliverable” texts. I had no clue I was missing meetings until someone actually – gasp – said something.

          1. KellyK*

            Wow. I would think someone would contact you the *first* time you missed a meeting.

          2. Jen in RO*

            I don’t know if this has to do with US vs Europe, but I have a setting in my phone to ask for “message delivered” info. That is, if my text is received by the person, I’ll get notified; if it’s not (person has phone switched off, for example), I won’t get notified and I’ll know she/he hasn’t seen it.

        2. Cat*

          I think that for some people, it’s the opposite. They miss e-mails but see texts right away because they have smart phones where it pops up on their screen. I’ve encountered some very busy supervisor types who like texts for immediate questions and scheduling issues that they need to see instantly (and which will pop up on their screen if they’re in a meeting, for instance, instead of them having to root through their e-mail to see).

          The ephemeral nature of it does bother me though; I tend to trancribe any text I receive with even dubious amounts of substance into an e-mail to put it into our normal electronic files.

          1. darsenfeld*

            Texts can be seen on any phone, whether “dumb” or “smart”. Also, smartphones by design have e-mail capability, even with work-based e-mail accounts. In that sense, if one has their work e-mail on their phone, texts aren’t even necessary.

              1. Natalie*

                At least one cell company (I think it’s Sprint) will send texts to landlines, by having a robot read the text out loud. It’s pretty hilarious and creepy.

                1. Meg*

                  I think I’ve used that service before (often, actually) to “prank” people – not really prank calling, but to see their reaction and do it often enough where it’s still funny, but not surprising anymore.

            1. Cat*

              My point was that if, for instance, you have an iphone, the default setting is to have the text instantly pop up on the screen even when the phone is in “inactive” mode. E-mail, on the other hand, you access by unlocking your phone, going into your e-mail, and clicking on that specific message. So it can be more intrusive than quickly glancing at a text. (None of this is ideal, of course; I’m just explaining why some people I work with prefer text for certain circumstances. I’m not one of them but I’ve adapted to their preferences.)

              1. fposte*

                Though there’s a circular element there, in that it requires a workplace where people have their phones out. I’m in a workplace where people have their laptops and netbooks out, so email is much more native.

                1. Cat*

                  Yeah, that’s why it depends on the person, I think. (And this is mostly with external clients rather than co-workers, for me, so you’re talking about various different workplace cultures.)

      3. Jamie*

        I don’t like texts for work stuff either – if I’m going to type on my phone I might as well send an email so I have a record.

        They are fine for personal stuff – my special favorite is texting additional items I forgot to put on the grocery list before my husband went to the store. But for work? Nope.

    4. KellyK*

      I sincerely hope not! I’m not a fan of texting–I would much rather either call someone or IM them (from an actual keyboard, where I can type reasonably quickly).

      I haven’t seen this in my company, but I don’t have a company cell phone (and don’t give my personal cell number out except for emergencies or for contact while on travel). I do see a lot of people doing email on their phones instead of their computers.

    5. AL Lo*

      I use texting for business purposes all the time — primarily for scheduling, etc. My immediate colleague (we share an office and department) and I will text often with the same sort of information that might be texted between family members — if one of us will be in late, if we need to pick up an item for the office (i.e. batteries for microphones, which it seems like someone needs to buy almost every week!), etc. We work different hours sometimes, and neither one of us regularly checks our work email away from the office, but if we need to do a quick check-in to follow up on a question or something coming into our department, it’s the easiest way to make that connection.

      On another note, last summer I had a 2-week period where I did a significant amount of business via text. I was travelling internationally, and while I didn’t have unlimited calling, I did have unlimited texting, and it was the fastest way to get in touch with me when I was away from my email. Perhaps not the most efficient way to do it, but it worked.

      Then again, my grad school culture was one where my instructors would text us with meeting schedules and class changes; and in the performing arts in general, it’s far easier to send a text from backstage to check in with someone in a different part of the building than it is to call or find them. That attitude really carries over to the admin offices, too, I’ve found.

      Know your industry, I guess. For me, it’s perfectly acceptable and normal to make professional contact via text; for others, it’s really not.

      1. Meg*

        Yeah, I’d definitely say it’s a Know Your Industry thing. I only have cell phone numbers of my boss and another coworker, but I’ve put my cell phone number down to text or call me when I was out of the office if it was urgent (because I have a bad habit of not checking work email when not at work).

        I’ve never had a coworker call or text me though, but I know it’s an acceptable way to get in touch with someone, at least in my group (of which I am the youngest at almost 26).

        I DO communicate through text with my trainer at the gym (normally I’d forgo the trainer, but between my company offering a discount plus my insurance offering a discount on top of that that the gym honored, I was able to get 2 30-minute sessions a week for 1 year for the same price as the non-discount gym membership. SUPER deal!), and she’s my age. Also it’s easy to communicate with my HR manager at my contracting company via text (as long as I don’t have to CC anyone else).

        1. Meg*

          Oh, also, we texted constantly coworkers and bosses constantly when I worked at Verizon. But then again, it was the culture. We were allowed to be attached to our Verizon phones during work, and it was sort of encouraged… as product training and advertising. Customers were more likely to be trusting of our salespeople if they used the same kind of phone they were trying to sell. In fact, I still text a few coworkers there even though I don’t work there anymore.

    6. Cassie*

      I don’t use texts for work either – if I forget to lock my drawer or something, I would text a coworker who stays late to lock it for me, but other than that, texting just seems too casual/informal for me.

      Also, I don’t have unlimited texting so I would hate to be getting texts regularly about work. My boss just added texting to his cellphone. I have texted him twice – once was to let him know about a meeting I scheduled (I usually just add meetings to his calendar but I wanted to make sure he was aware of the meeting on Monday morning). It was also after hours, so I didn’t want to interrupt him in case he was eating dinner or something.

      I know others in my office text each other – usually about being late or calling in sick – but for some of us, we are not constantly staring at our phones. My friend who is a supervisor has missed texts from her subordinates letting her know they were sick and whatnot. So I’d say that texting is still the not the best communication method, at least for our office – and for those who do text in sick, make sure you get a reply or follow up with a phone call or email.

      The last thing I hate about texting is that people seem to frequently change phones and don’t have contact names stored in their phones. A couple of times, I’ve had people reply to my text asking “who’s this?”, so that why I do text someone I don’t normally text (like my boss), I start the text with “Hi, this is Cassie”. When you only have 160 characters, it’s kind of stupid, though…

    7. LCL*

      Texting can also be viewed as a way around public disclosure laws. So if you have the kind of job subject to public disclosure requests, you shouldn’t be doing business by text.

  10. KayDay*

    I have never been a freelancer, only a consumer, but here are my suggestions anyway.

    For the current client: Keep all your follow up firm and professional. Send the invoice and the terms (e.g. net 15 days). Send a reminder/statement on the due date. Send a past due invoice 15 days later. If their payment is late, let them know you won’t schedule another lesson until you receive the payment. I would do all this by email, and then follow up with a phone call, if you haven’t received the payment. Don’t spend a lot of time asking about the payment–for some reason, this tends to get people in the habit of putting you off. Think about it, does your phone company text you regularly to remind you to pay? No, they send you a bill and then a late notice, and then a 60 days over due notice, and at some point your phone stops working.

    For future clients: all the “community” classes I have taken (zumba, SAT lessons, swimming lessons, etc.) have all required payment either at registration or at the time of the class. It’s totally normal for this sort of service. If you think frequent small payments at each class would be a hassle, have them pre-pay for a number of classes.

    1. PJ*

      KayDay’s suggestion sounds like the most efficient to me for the type of service you provide. You could offer tiered discounts for purchasing blocks of lessons ahead of time, to be used within a specified period of time (and do not offer reimbursements for classes not taken). It will save you tons of time, and will put your relationship on a much more professional level.

  11. andrei kolmogorov*

    This might be able to help you in the future, it’s a great talk that Mike Monteiro (of Mule Design) gave for creative and other contractors.. It details what kind of relationship you should have with a client, how you should handle payment, contracts, etc.

    Don’t be dissuaded by the title, “F*ck you, pay me”. It’s a great talk..

  12. Vicki*

    I have to say I’m amused by this :
    “First, don’t text about this. Texting is an informal method of communication; it’s not appropriate to use for something important. You should email or call.”

    Not so long ago, email was considered to be an informal method of communication. The only “proper formal” method was typed or handwritten paper posted mail.


    I wouldn’t call. When it’s not documented in writing it;s too easy to “forget” or “misunderstand” what was said.

    1. darsenfeld*

      SMSs cannot contain attachments, even if they are permanent records.

      That said, I agree with AAM. In business communication, texts/SMSs are considered informal compared to e-mails.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, but attachments also weren’t used or available when email was considered “informal” either. Seems like whether or not texting is acceptable depends on company and personal preferences. Also I work for a university, and we get alerts via text message which can be very important, like tornado warnings, so it depends.

  13. A*

    She probably isn’t taking it seriously because it sounds like you aren’t either. You are offering a service – if they don’t pay, you need to stop offering it. Tell her that you can no longer tutor her until she pays her outstanding invoices in full, and that from here on out you will require payment on time in order to continue.

  14. Anonymous*

    Collect payment when you provide value.

    Unless you’re selling a product that can be repossessed, put back on the shelf, and sold to somebody else, I don’t understand why payment wouldn’t happen at time of service–at the very latest.

    If there is a value provided in reserving your time for a specific date and time, then collect payment at the time of reservation.

    Otherwise, you can spend your effects chasing accounts receivable instead of providing the service you really want to provide.

    1. darsenfeld*

      Some bad/doubtful debts are always accounted for, however the principle stands. If one uses a product (whether a good or a service), it should be paid for.

  15. darsenfeld*

    First step – send letters and/or e-mail

    Second step – if payment is not received, pursue civil legal action.

    Is the second step too hasty? Why should it be? It should be used as a last resort, but if somebody utilises a service and does not pay, then the supplier holds every right to ensure payment is made. If you had a credit card for which you didn’t pay the fees, cannot the bank/card issuer sue you, or in some cases even seek prosecution against you? It’s the same rationale at hand in your case?

    It’s probably also best that you have a contract for all clients, outlining scope of works/delivery, payment methods, etc. that is sent to the client on the commencement of teaching. In that sense, it’s a CYA on your part, since you know the client has agreed to an agreement with knowledge of sanction on their part should they choose not to pay.

  16. Sniper*

    Immediately refuse to continue offering services until they are paid up. Then, in the future, only offer services upon payment (don’t accept checks from these people). For other clients, require up-front payment until you have an established relationship when you can then work out a credit type thing.

    Otherwise, you are going to get walked all over by people. It’s up to you to stand firm and not back down.

  17. chikorita*

    My driving instructor, who was freelance, had a very definite policy about non-payment, which she outlined to every prospective student at the start when she was going through the nitty-gritty of fees etc:

    If I don’t receive any payment after eight lessons (or something like that), you get absolutely no lessons and no instruction/advice until the money is in my hand. Not just in the post, not just going through the bank’s system, in my hand/ account.

    I think that you need to make your stand and just stop giving her any kind of professional services until you get the money. There are plenty of people out there who will push as soon as they see the door opening. Otherwise you will end up not seeing a penny of the money that you’ve earned.

    Try to see this as a useful experience, because you’ll need a firm policy to deal with this, and an attitude to match. Plan out what you’re going to do, and stick to it. Then afterwards, think through the whole thing- how did it go? What was effective? What didn’t work? What should I do next time? I can almost guarantee that this will happen again, and you need to have a game-plan in place to deal with it.

  18. AL Lo*

    This doesn’t solve the problem of getting paid in general, but you could also look into Square to accept credit card payments via your smartphone. It’s just one more way to make it easier for clients to pay you — you could collect payment at the end of each session, similar to, say, a hair appointment (or pay in advance for a certain number of sessions), using a method that most people have on them all the time, even when they don’t have cash or a cheque to pay with.

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