When Your Client Doesn’t Pay: A Cautionary Tale + Tips So You Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did

invoice past due

My biggest client stopped paying me several months ago. There was no reason given, nor was there any communication directed towards me to let me know my invoice wouldn’t be paid on time. The client simply stopped paying me. Worse, the same client stopped responding to me altogether.

My invoices are net 30, so I issued invoice number two at the same time I sent a reminder for invoice number one. After about six weeks from the date of the first invoice,  I sent a stronger message about having two invoices that needed payment and received a (very) brief statement that hopefully money will come in soon.

When I issued the third invoice – three months worked since I was last paid – I also gave notice that I would not be working anymore, effective immediately, and that I would not come back until I was paid in full.

I would like to mention this is a full time client and my main source of income. We’re not talking about $200. We’re talking about thousands of dollars per month. As you can imagine, losing this was a blow to me and my family.,

Except for two very brief calls since early May, the client continues to be unresponsive.

I worked with this client on and off since 2010. This wasn’t some grifter off the street, this was someone who I considered a friend. I was confused by the treatment and frustrated as to what my next steps should be.

Do I find new work?

Do I wait around hoping to be paid?

What do I tell people who ask if I’m still working for that client?

What do I tell people who ask me questions about that client?

In 13 years of working as an independent contractor, I have never been in a situation where a client didn’t pay and ignored all communication.

I felt like an ass.

Don’t be like me!

This situation could have been avoided. Though I am not in the wrong, I made several mistakes which I’m going to share with you here so you don’t make them as well. I’m also going to share some of the things that I am doing to get paid. ]

I hope no one else has to go through this.

Don’t Allow Friends to Take Advantage

Because my client was a friend I worked with for many years, I allowed late payments from time to time. . There was never a time I wasn’t paid so I had no reason to believe this person would stiff me completely. Even today, more than six months since issuing the first unpaid invoice, I’m surprised and am still hoping the client will come through.

My client first told me there wasn’t enough money to pay me because payments to the business weren’t coming in as planned. However, all other contractors were being paid . The client seems to be getting paid as well. So why did the money run out when it came to me?

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I will never compromise my life or livelihood for a client again. Friend or not.

Know When to Stop Being Nice

When my client and I finally (briefly) spoke a few weeks after I stopped working, I was given a variety of excuses.

  • Children.
  • Sick friends.
  • Sick relatives.
  • Needed time off.
  • Waiting to get paid

And I, the understanding friend, kindly said I understood that these things happened.

But I didn’t understand, damn it. I hadn’t been paid for three months, and now I risk having more time without money coming in because I left this client and have to start over. Moreover, I did more work than I contracted on for, taking on tasks that other people had abandoned. I never complained and I championed for the brand, even when they were receiving lots of bad publicity. So no. I don’t understand. I need to get paid now, regardless of sick people and trips to the zoo.

And that’s what I should have told my client.

If I made it clear from the very beginning that this was absolutely not acceptable, perhaps I would have been one of the people who were paid too.

Don’t Allow Unpaid Invoices

My biggest mistake was working when the first invoice hadn’t been paid. As mentioned above, this was a client I knew very well and had no reason to think I would be stiffed. I had no reason to believe that this person would cut off all communication with me as if I’m some smarmy, undesirable, unreasonable bill collector.

Well, that is on me. Moving forward if an invoice isn’t paid within the requested time, I stop work. Period. No more sympathy and understanding. If I learned anything from this is that I was and still am not a priority. So if that client won’t see me as  a priority, I have to make sure I look after myself.

Don’t Go Net 30

I’ve been a Net 30 contractor for 13 years, but this is the only client who has ever paid past 15 days.  In fact, all my other clients pay or have paid within a few days of billing. This tells me that I don’t need to wait so long. In fact, after consulting with some freelancing friends I learned that most feel that the more time you give a client to pay, the more likely they are to forget or put it off. Some don’t even offer terms and their invoices are due immediately upon completion. I no longer bill at Net 30.Invoices are late after 15 days.

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Offer a Payment Plan

If a client can’t pay, you can try offering a payment plan. I’d rather a client tried in good faith to pay me  a little at a time than to get to the point where I have to take legal action. In most cases a client is happy to work out a payment schedule that won’t bankrupt them but also won’t cause a hardship for you. In my case the client was unresponsive, even to offers of a payment plan and I have to choice but to take drastic measures.

Get Everything in Writing

It goes without saying that no one should do any kind of job – whether as a contractor or as a permanent employee – without a contract. Proving a breach of contract helps to make a case should it ever go to court. Also screenshots help. Any time – even if there are no payment issues between you and your client – any time you receive emails or messages re: payment or money coming into the company  make copies or take screenshots and keep those on file for just in case.

If you really have to fight your case, you might even screenshot social media updates that show your client living it up – or spending money -while you’re begging for payment. You don’t want to make it personal, but it does help if you can prove the client was bringing in money while refusing to pay you.

Pay Attention to Chatter and Warning Signs

There were warning signs but I refused to pay attention because I loved my job so much. I heard rumors of vendors and other clients not getting paid. I was receiving communication from people who needed to get in touch with my client but were frustrated by the lack of communication. My client’s social media accounts weren’t being updated and rumors were spreading about whether or not my client was still in business.

I did damage control as that was part of my job, but soon I decided it was best to go with my gut, stop work, and cut all ties. The signs were there but did I listen?

Maybe if I did I would have demanded payment sooner or stopped work earlier.

Legal Action is a Last Resort, But Use It If You Need It

I should have consulted an attorney months ago but I didn’t because I didn’t want to hurt this client. It should have occurred to me sooner that my client had no craps to give about me.  Now, hurt has moved on to anger and I have to take drastic and expensive steps to get paid.

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Something else I learned while seeking advice from others: Most clients don’t think you’ll resort to legal action. In fact, some feel that because you’re a freelancer or independent contractor you’ll make idle threats because you don’t want to put out that expense. Don’t be afraid to threaten legal action, but if you do be prepared to go that far. If you’re known for threatening to sue but you never follow through, you’ll never get paid.  I don’t want to lose a percentage of this back pay to an attorney, but it’ a price I’m willing to pay if only to get what is due and to make sure this client doesn’t screw over others.

Don’t Be Embarrassed

I was very embarrassed to put out feelers and look for new clients. How would it look for me to say I was out of work? What if they asked why I wasn’t with my client anymore?  Will people think I’m stupid to let my client get away with not paying me for three months?

I felt foolish, stupid, embarrassed, and, yes, a little depressed.

I shouldn’t have felt that way. Once people learned I was looking for work they were very kind. I had a couple of offers and overwhelming support from friends and peers. I could have done a few things differently, but this wasn’t my fault.

Don’t ever feel so embarrassed that you won’t take any of the necessary action. Yes, there are people who judge, but most are very understanding and supportive.

It Took Me a While to Write This Post

I hesitated for a long time before writing this post. I’m not a person who publicly calls out businesses or people who do me wrong, and I’m very mindful of how I present myself online. I worry that if I post something negative it will reflect poorly on me and I won’t get hired by other clients.  However, I am not naming names, nor am I making an angry rant. When writing this post, I did my best not to let emotion come into play, even though I’m sure some anger showed through. I did a lot of editing – especially a lot of deleting.

I’m not calling anyone out. I’m sharing a worst case scenario and the steps I am taking to get what I am due. This post is a cautionary tale for all freelancers and independent contractors who let friends take advantage or don’t fight hard enough to get paid.  I hope you will take it in that spirit and don’t think too unkindly towards me and how I got to this place.

4 Thoughts on “When Your Client Doesn’t Pay: A Cautionary Tale + Tips So You Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did

  1. I’ve seen this happen to too many friends… all too easy to let it slide from “a little late” into “I’m just not gonna get my $$, am I?”

  2. Good points all. And as far as legal advice, I’d recommend LegalShield. For under $40 a month, they provide a lot of services for small business owners, including sending non-payment letters.

  3. I always hated when clients didn’t pay. Its always especially hard when you feel like you have a good relationship with them.

    As for attorney fees, you can often include them in your suit and if the judge (or jury) sides in your favor then your client would be responsible for paying the legal fees above and beyond your unpaid invoices.

    Hope you are able to collect eventually!

  4. Carole Sanek on September 18, 2015 at 11:40 am said:

    When I first opened the doors to my consulting business I saw almost immediately that there was a possibility that clients could get me to do a lot of work for them for “free” for days if I billed at the end of the month. I had to go into the hospital for a small procedure and they had me pay my co-pay up front before the work was done. I thought about how attorneys work on retainer, and between how the hospital billed me and knowing attorneys get retainers that was when I decided to do the same thing. All my clients pay up front on the last day of the month for the next month. If/when they don’t – no work gets done. I have it in writing when we agree to work together and I use a billing service that sends the bills and a reminder bill too. I am so sorry this happened to you.

    I know it won’t happen to you again. Great article Deb.

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