Trying to get paid on time as a creative is the pits. You complete a project for a company, submit your invoice…and wait. And wait. And wait some more. Maybe you’re fortunate and 30 days go by and your check is finally cut. Or maybe the company that hired you pays according to the increasingly-popular 45-day net terms. Or maybe you face an all-too-familiar punch in the gut: For whatever reason—from laziness to disorganization—your project manager didn’t submit your invoice to their accounting department in a timely manner. Now, after 30 to 45 days, you’re squeezed through another month-long cycle.
This isn’t just a freelancer’s dilemma: It impacts everyone in the creative food chain who works for a bigger entity, from independent artists to design firms waiting on their fees from corporate brands.
What recourse do you have? You’re worried that, if you step up to them on something, even if it is their fault, they won’t assign you any more work. So you do little except maybe ask nicely again and again that they send payment. And, as someone who has waited months for checks, I can tell you that some people simply don’t really care about the delay, no matter how nicely you ask.
That’s why we crowdsourced the topic to our readers and asked for their tried and true solutions that we’ve shared below, alongside a few of our own strategies.
1. You’re not the bad guy for speaking up (this is your livelihood after all)
The creative world is unique in that the person grading your work is usually also processing your checks, so it’s understandable why you’d want to avoid bringing this subject up at all costs. It’s like an emotional Molotov cocktail waiting to explode, because you probably like the person you work with and love the stuff you’re doing together. But, while your project manager can do things like ask you to make artistic changes, they can’t be a slow pay. It’s simply insulting.
Remember, your project manager is probably receiving their paycheck twice a month. How do you think they would react if their company decided to start paying them on a 45-day cycle? They’d freak out and push back. Don’t hesitate to push back yourself. You’re not being mean, or the “bad guy,” or aggressive — you’re defending your livelihood. If the situation arises, be prepared to firmly but politely address it (and don’t feel guilty about it.)
Here is one possible way to do it via email. It’s short, straightforward, and business-like. No pleading or begging, just pointing out they are late on payment and have violated your terms. In this example, you give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe it was an honest mistake and, if they can send the payment right away, you don’t want to torpedo your relationship – but you also stand your ground and note that if they can’t, you will charge a late fee.
When they respond, make sure they give you an exact date — don’t settle for the vague “shortly” or “asap.”
2. Keep a lawyer on retainer
If you’d prefer not to have this hard conversation on your own, it’s understandable. One alternative is to hire an attorney to voice any money concerns for you. “Your lawyer is your advocate, an outside party of that delicate relationship and is on your side to advocate for your benefit,” says Amanda Schreyer, an attorney at Prince Lobel, who works primarily with creatives. If your client violates the terms of a contract, your lawyer has your back and can help ensure that your client takes your request for immediate payment seriously.
Lawyers can also offer guidance during the project negotiation period. They can explain contracts, help you define the scope of your work, and how the company that hires you can license your work in the future, so that you don’t run into unexpected payment issues months from now.
While a lawyer sounds expensive, you should be able to hire one for as little as a handful of hours at a time. This can be an efficient investment, especially if you have them focus on key pain points — contracts and timely payments, for example. Those looking for something more budget-friendly should reach out to a volunteer lawyers for the arts program – literally Google “volunteer lawyers for the arts” and your city to see if they have a chapter in your area. Law schools also have clinics where qualified students can provide free legal services under the supervision of a professor.
3. Don’t deliver your work without getting paid first
During a Creative Mornings talk delightfully-titled “F*ck You, Pay Me,” Mule Design Studio head Mike Monteiro stressed that his firm never transfers its intellectual property — the final work — until full payment is made. “This is the most leverage you have on a project — the work that you’ve done is yours until the client pays you for it,” says Monteiro. “If they use that work before they’ve submitted a final payment, you can sue the hell out of them.” And when emailing a client to alert them of a late payment, leave emotion out of it — no pleading or begging. “The minute you write a heart-wrenching letter, the minute you appeal to their emotion, you have given up any leverage you have in that relationship,” says Monteiro. Instead, keep your missive short, and simply point out how the client is in violation of your contract.
4. Maintain your leverage until you receive payment
Behance member Mustafa Aslan takes a similar approach as Monteiro to the work / money hand off. When Aslan gives client his payment terms, he notes that he will first send a low-res preview of the finished work, for the client to approve and accept. Once the client has accepted the work, Alsan requires that they send payment before he releases the original file. It’s a clever way to conduct the transaction, especially when dealing with a new client. “This method is like the optimal way to secure a payment,” says Aslan. “It creates trust, because every time you get paid, you send them a proof about the work done.”
5. Ask to be paid in unconventional ways
Because big companies are inundated with invoices, they typically pay invoices in a strict, structured way that even your project manager can’t bypass. Find a workaround by asking your project manager to pay you with their company credit card. Payment can be made immediately through a service like PayPal, and you can receive your money in a few days. (Make sure to add in the transaction service fee as part of your fee!) It’s relatively easy for the project manager, too. All they have to do is code the expense to the appropriate budget line for that project and submit it in their next expense report.
6. Hold the client accountable (it’s okay to)
When a client doesn’t adhere to the terms of your contract, you’ve got to stick up for yourself and hold them accountable. One way Jacqueline Lara, the CEO of MPact PR, a firm that represents artists and entrepreneurs, does this is by stipulating in her invoices that payments made later than 30 days will incur a 5 percent interest fee. Lara has only had once client who incurred the late fee, and the client paid it both times it was behind on payment. After the second time, this client initiated direct deposit with Lara, so she would receive her money faster. “I suspect I wasn’t the only vendor issuing them late fees, so they moved toward getting us all set up via electronic payment to cut down on this,” she says.
Takeaway: As a career creative professional who does a lot of project-based work, you might not get paid on the typical two-week cycle that most full-time employees do. It’s vital, then, that you firm up the nuts and bolts of when you get paid to avoid any cash flow issues and show your clients that you take the business aspects of your career as seriously as creating your art.