I’m worried a client isn’t going to pay me

A reader writes:

In October, I started a job working as a freelance journalist for a local newspaper. The managing editor would communicate with me via email, sending me leads for stories. I would go to events, interview people, and take pictures. She was very nice and always responded to my emails within minutes. According to the contract, written by the newspaper, I am to receive $50 for each full length feature article, less money for shorter articles.

The month of November, I was busy with writing, and then a bunch of red flags were raised up that I knew indicated things had taken a wrong turn. The last assignment she had sent me on was to cover an event on Thanksgiving Day (grumble, grumble). She has given me no assignments the entire month of December. I asked her if she had any work, and it took her a few hours to respond, finally she said “Things are pretty quiet right now.” Hmm, okay. I noticed she hired another reporter, who has basically taken over the coverage area that I was writing. So, she replaced me.

I sent in my invoice for all of the articles I had written for the month of November. I sent it in at the beginning of the month, as stated in the contract. It’s now the 16th and I have not received payment. I sent her a nice email asking when I could expect payment of my invoice. She did not respond. (And she normally responds to my emails within minutes….) Okay, great, so now she’s ignoring me. I re-read my contract and it says that “(Newspaper) shall pay the undisputed amount of each submitted invoice within sixty (60) calendar days of receipt of the invoice, starting in bi-weekly increments upon timely receipt of the billing submitted.” I think that is just crazy. I freelance for plenty of small businesses who are able to get me a check the very next day. So what should I do? Do I just wait 60 days (until February) to see if she actually pays? Should I continue to contact her? If so, how often? Should I send another invoice? Should I contact the Department of Labor?

When I started reading your letter, I was ready to be outraged about a client not paying you, but … she hasn’t violated the terms of your agreement yet!

You signed a contract stating that they have 60 days to pay you. It sounds like you submitted your invoice about two weeks ago. They’re only a quarter of the way through the time you agreed to let them take. If you think 60 days is crazy, the time to raise that was before signing a contract agreeing to that. By signing, you indicated your acceptance of those terms. (That said, while 30-60 days is pretty typical in my experience, I’m not sure what that biweekly increments part is about. Are they supposed to start paying you $125 every two weeks for a $500 invoice, and if so, why? I’d want clarity on that part, but for now I’m going to ignore it since it’s odd.)

I can see why you’re somewhat alarmed that she didn’t respond to your email inquiring about payment if she’s normally very responsive to email. However, (a) many people are out of town at this time of year and she could be one of them, (b) since answering may have required her to first check with her accounting department, she might have put the message aside to respond to later, or (c) responding might be low on her priority list since she figures that the answer is in your contract and they’re nowhere near the payment deadline.

I would not continue to follow up on this right now, since pressing for payment well before it’s due isn’t something that will reflect well on you (and definitely don’t send another invoice before then!). I’d just mark your calendar for 61 days from when you submitted the invoice (the day after the due date), and follow up if you haven’t received payment by then.

If you haven’t received it by then, send her an email checking on it. If you don’t receive a response to that within a few days, then call her.

If you still don’t receive payment, then send another invoice, this time with late fees added. Ultimately, if you’re not getting paid in accordance with the terms of your contact, you’d need to go to small claims court to collect (the Department of Labor only enforces pay arrangements in employer-employee situations, not independent contractors) … but you’re a long way away from needing to think about that.

To avoid this in the future, take a look at payment terms before signing a contract. You can also build in late fees, which is a pretty effective way to get most people to pay on time. (But again, 30-60 days is pretty common.)

I also would try to get out of the habit of reading anything into it if someone doesn’t respond to emails within minutes, even if that’s their normal habit. People go to meetings, work on projects that require concentration, take time off work, or simply take a break from email. Do not freak out over not getting immediate responses, even if someone has trained you to expect them!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Jaimie*

    Don’t sign anything unless you 100% understand what you are getting into. As a free lancer, I wouldn’t suggest asking for a changes to a client’s standard contract unless the issue is really meaningful to you. You will appear diffifult to work with if you take this too far. But at a minimum I would have you pay special attention to payment terms, insurance requirements and ownership of your work product every time.

    For the record, I never agree to pay anyone faster than net 30 days, but I don’t mind if people write in that I have to dispute an invoice by a certain time.

  2. LizNYC*

    FWIW, getting paid 30-60 days after you’ve finished an assignment for a business you have a contract with isn’t that unusual. Getting a check cut the next day is. When I used to freelance more regularly, I’d finish the assignment(s), bill, wait 4 weeks, get a check. If I didn’t, it was usually because my invoice had caught them in between check writing cycles and most were very responsive.

    That said, another freelance writer friend has been stiffed by publications before. If you hadn’t been billing this paper monthly or biweekly (every two weeks) for your work, you might consider doing so in the future to ensure you get paid.

    1. EM*

      Agreed with this! I have freelanced for online and print publications before and most are pretty slow to pay, because they have tight budgets and lots of freelancers, and many only cut cheques once or twice a month.

      Honestly, it’s too bad you’re not getting assignments anymore, but I can understand this woman not wanting to respond to your “When is my cheque coming?” email because she is probably sensing some resentment in it, and if she’s an editor and not an accounting person, it’s not something she can control.

    2. Mena*

      I agree with LizNYC. When working independently, I would wait until month end, send my invoice, and then wait 30-45 days.

    3. Liz*

      At work we’ve recently got a new service contractor and it is amazing how I send invoices off and get paid within 2hrs of sending – my manager commented lucky them having time to pay for things as soon as they come in. We lump our payments to once a month and pay them all at once to save time, don’t stress :-)

    4. KayDay*

      I have been responsible for paying bills at a small organization. The only way anyone would get a check the next day is if they just happened to send in the invoice the day before my *regularly scheduled* bill payment day (the 10th and the 25th, usually) and all the approvals were already in order. Most people got their checks in 15-30 days, a few had to wait a little longer if the invoice need special review/approval.

      Also, I have always heard that it is not a good practice to pay bills (in very small orgs, I’m not talking about large corporations) immediately as they are received (as opposed to set days) because it makes financial oversight and cash flow planning more difficult.

  3. Jaimie*

    Agreed. I don’t know anyone who runs their business in a way where they have a resource available to pay invoices the day after they come in. That client is a lucky find for the OP, but you can’t expect that everywhere.

  4. SA*

    “I also would try to get out of the habit of reading anything into it if someone doesn’t respond to emails within minutes, even if that’s their normal habit. ”

    This is why I avoid replying to emails outside of business hours unless it’s urgent and sometimes hold off replying for a few hours even during business hours. People start to expect immediate responses and escalate if they don’t get one.

  5. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    Great advice, the only thing I would add is that I think you should send a second invoice once you hit the one month mark… from what I’ve seen (as someone that cuts the checks), a monthly invoice with all still-due amounts is pretty standard (and can put you back on their radar if you’ve fallen off). Just note the original invoice date on it somewhere, and perhaps note “Amount due by xday/xmonth:” as well.

    1. pgh_adventurer*

      I like that solution. I’d be a bit leery of waiting 61 days without reminding them of my existence in some way.

  6. Lori*

    I would also suggest checking out the (sadly, weak) bulletin boards on MediaBistro. It’s mostly freelance writers who have questions about getting paid, and advice on how to handle it. My first thought was 60 days is standard in this industry, but then, so is not paying.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      WritersWeekly.org is also great for this. I used what I would call their “nuclear option” (sending a letter threatening to report them to the state AG, BBB, and I forget what else) once with a slow-to-pay client, and I got my payment *overnighted* to me.

      That being said, it is a NUCLEAR option. Exercise it only if it’s clear a client has no intention of paying you what they owe, because it means you will never work for that client again. With OP, definitely too early to tell.

  7. CaliSusan*

    Lesson learned – as a freelancer, review the net payment terms that a client provides. Provide your own if they do not (Net 30 is pretty good). Identify your late payment terms and print them on every invoice.

  8. Natalie*

    If you’re used to smaller businesses it can sometimes be surprising how slow a larger business is to pay. But just for a bit of perspective – at my quite large company, it would probably take about 4 weeks to pay a new vendor, depending on exactly when we received the invoice. New vendor accounts are only set up on Tuesdays and Fridays and require specific documentation. There’s a multi-step approval process for the payable itself. And then there’s transit time for the check.

    For the sake of certain relationships, we get specific commissions paid within 2 weeks, but that is considered accelerated.

    1. AVP*

      Agreed – I work for a smaller company and can often expedite invoices much faster than the typical 30 days, but it really depends on what else is going on, what day you send it in on, how many people owe us money, if there’s any particular reason to move it forward quickly, and a thousand other things. If you ask me to pay you faster, I usually can and will, but you better ask nicely or have a sensical reason.

      (And there are for sure certain vendors that I purposely don’t pay until their terms are due.)

    2. Kelly O*

      And we only have checks cut on certain days. Plus, our purchase orders/invoice payments have to go to one office, get scanned to me, get processed and approved, then sent to the place we’ve outsourced AP, then get in the queue to process, and then make that cycle in time for the check run.

      I cannot make people understand that I realize you’re a small business, but I had to fight to prove that your invoice really was an invoice, and then I had to get the approvals to get AP to process it, and now it’s sitting in the queue to be paid. I can’t force it forward. All the calling does is stress me out and make it take longer to get something else done.

  9. Chloe*

    Echoing all of this here – part of my old job was to help create purchase orders and they were all net30 unless otherwise specified.

  10. WriterGirl*

    I’ve been a freelance writer for almost 10 years, and it usually takes me between 45-60 days from the time of completion to receive my check. My biggest and longest-running (not sure if that’s a word but you know what I mean) client has always been exceptional about paying me in full and on time. However, I’ve had some bad experiences with some other clients and ever since, I make sure to lay out the expectations/pay schedule sooner rather than later. It also saves me from people wanting free work out of me! :)

    I think the key here is expectations. Perhaps you could have a quick 15 to 30 minute meeting with the editor you’re working with and make sure you both are on the same page/have the same expectations.

  11. some1*

    Just as an FYI, don’t count on getting paid before the New Year regardless. Every place I have worked doesn’t pay contractors from December 15th – 31st to avoid possible 1099 issues.

    1. Natalie*

      Our last check run is this week regardless of whether or not it’s a contractor, simply because the year-end close process is such a PITA that we don’t want to have a check run on top of that. Payroll will get cut, obviously, but other than that it better be an emergency!

    2. Andrea*

      That’s not universally true, though. I’m a freelance writer and I just got paid early for December because my biggest (and longtime) client always likes to get things closed out early.

  12. Nodumbunny*

    My main client (I’m a freelance consultant) is a state government – net60. In my experience the bigger they are, the longer they give themselves to pay.

  13. Meg*

    “(Newspaper) shall pay the undisputed amount of each submitted invoice within sixty (60) calendar days of receipt of the invoice, starting in bi-weekly increments upon timely receipt of the billing submitted.”

    It looks like to me that part states that the undisputed amount will be paid (in full) within 60 calendars days with bi-weekly payments starting after timely receipt of the invoice. So the newspaper has 60 days to pay her off, but must start making bi-weekly payments to her after receiving the invoice in a timely fashion

    So if the invoice is for $4000, for example, the newspaper has 60 days to pay her $4000… starting with bi-weekly increments upon receiving the invoice in a timely fashion. Okay, so you wait until the next pay cycle rolls around. Assume you have 4 bi-weekly pay periods in 60 days. In order to pay the entire within 60 days, you’d have to have a minimum of $1000 paid bi-weekly… starting upon receipt of the invoice. The bi-weekly payment could be more (and pay it off before 60 days), but it can’t be less or else they fail to pay the undisputed amount within 60 days.

    This line doesn’t state that they have 60 days to pay her; it says they have 60 days to pay her in full with bi-weekly increments to start upon receipt of the invoice.

    1. PEBCAK*

      That’s not how I’d interpret that. I’d read it as they cut checks every two weeks, so if she is submitting a ton of invoices, they will aggregate them into bi-weekly checks. This is common practice.

  14. Mena*

    It sounds like you didn’t read the terms of payment in the contract, which is a serious oversight on your part. No need to worry yet. And I think the lack of response was confusion over your question – the managing editor is likely digging out the contract and puzzling out why you’re asking. Sit tight.

    1. Elle D*

      I would also assume that the managing editor is not the person physically responsible for cutting checks. In order to provide the OP with a status update or an explanation of the timeframe, she may have to check with another department for this information. This could also easily be a reason for the lag in response time, when normally she responds quickly to the OP’s questions.

      1. KarenT*

        Excellent point. When I get queries about late payments from vendors who have worked for me I always have to forward them to the admin who processed them to investigate. Granted I usually respond to say that I’m investigating and will let the person know when they can expect payment. However, if the our time period for payment hadn’t elapsed yet I wouldn’t feel a sense of urgency.

      2. Anne*

        All of these things. OP should have read the terms, and should realize that her contact is almost definitely not the person sending out cheques.

        No matter which side you’re on, always, always check the payment terms before you’re signing! All of our quotes go out with standard 14 day payment terms, and it drives me NUTS when people come back to me about overdue invoices and say “We pay on 30 day payment terms”. Not according to the quote you signed, you don’t. Changing these things is often do-able if it’s brought up before everything is signed off, but after… ugh.

  15. long time lurker!*

    I run a small service business of 2, soon to be 3, and my standard payment term is 30 days. Most clients pay in 30-40 days (many cut a cheque on day 30 and then it gets to me around day 35). I’ve had to wait 6 months to be paid before. This stuff happens. Going after an invoice before it’s due is the quickest way to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing and to annoy people. (If a freelancer bugged me for payment significantly before it was due, I’d be pretty annoyed and might even cross them off my list of freelancers unless they were flat-out amazing.)

  16. PuppyKat*

    “To avoid this in the future, take a look at payment terms before signing a contract. ”

    Personally I apply this to all terms contained in any contract that I’m being asked to sign—whether it’s an offer letter for a job or an agreement for a rental car. Car rental agents tell me that I’m the only person they’ve seen who read through the entire document before signing.

    It probably helps that I work with contracts as part of my job. So they don’t intimidate me.

  17. AB Normal*

    Sorry for going on a tangent here, but did I understand correctly, that the OP is paid $50 for a full length feature article that requires going
    to events, interviewing people, and taking pictures?!?

    If that’s the case, I think it may end up being a good thing to be let go of this freelance situation. I can think of a dozen ways to make much more money than that working from home as a freelancer, without the hassle and cost of going to events / interviews as this job seems to require. Granted, writers / reporters have a lot of competition, but with a little strategic thinking, even by just writing a blog on a topic that interests you can offer much better monetary reward.

  18. Green*

    Husband is a magazine writer and this kind of payment terms (30-60 days) is very common. They’re also notoriously bad for having buffoons in accounting, so often the person you contracted with is having to nag constantly to get approval and a check issued.

    A freelancer should always be prepared to float without inflowing cash for 60 days after turning in a story for publication. They should also be prepared to be their own advocate and periodically request payment/resend the invoice (politely, without threats and drama). I also worked at a law firm where we’d delay paying our contractors until the clients paid our bills (often after the fiscal year quarter), so when someone submitted the bills in the month or the year determined how quickly they were paid. We always paid our bills without issue; it just took some time. We were able to make special arrangements to pay some contractors early (foreign consultants without credit cards, out-of-pocket costs for independent contractors without a firm to float the expenses), but we had no time frame in our payments.

    Your invoice gets paid when it gets paid, and you are free to politely nag until you do get paid at 2 week intervals, but to think “next day” is reasonable because you have some clients who do that shows you’re probably new to the whole freelancing thing and have unreasonable expectations… Companies, especially larger ones, have all kinds of multi-layered inefficient processes and procedures and routing of invoices through multiple sign-offs and departments, and you should be prepared to handle that. (This is also why many freelancers have day jobs — the work and pay is unpredictable.)

  19. T*


    Unless the newspaper is so small that the managing editor has something to do with paying bills, contacting her again is probably a dead end. If the newspaper has an accounting department or is owned by a larger media group with its own accounting department, they may be worth contacting. When I worked accounts payable I always noted to my supervisor (who made the decisions about every payment made) who had called requesting payment. In general, he aged accounts and paid only a certain amount (we did weekly check batches and occasional one-off checks, and I think the decisions were also based on other factors related to cash flow). However, he usually authorized payments for those who had called.

    This is all a long way of saying that you may get paid faster if you can talk to someone in accounts payable. You may also get useful information about how they pay accounts. In general, the accounting department of any company may not care what terms a business puts on their invoices/statements because nothing bad happens if they pay late (and they may ignore late fees you try to add). As far as the managing editor is concerned, she may not be responding because of any of the reasons Allison said or because she feels sheepish about not assigning you any new stories or because she thinks this is accounting’s problem and not hers.

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