Freelancing Doesn’t Mean Working for Free: How to Get Paid Upfront

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The next time you’re at a drive through, try getting the hairnet-adorned employee to give you your food without paying for it first. See what happens.

If you’re a freelancer – or working in any service based industry, really – you should be getting paid upfront for your efforts every single time without exception.

What You Will Learn in this Post:

  • Why you should get paid upfront
  • How to do it

Most People Don’t Want to Rip You Off

…But some do.

This unfortunate reality is something you’ll learn sooner or later if you’re working for free – and make no mistake about it, if you’ve been paid in promises instead of money, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Eventually, someone is going to pull a fast one on you. It’s not if, it’s when.

I want to make it perfectly clear that the intention of this post isn’t to make you paranoid or to bash on freelancing clients. I’m as cynical as they come, yet I’m perfectly happy to admit that the vast, vast majority of people are honest. You have far better odds of being paid than not being paid – but all it takes is getting screwed over once for you to never want to experience it again.

Even the most well intentioned clients, the ones that truly want to pay you, can get themselves into a bind. Maybe their project budget was lowered while you were diligently working away (for free). Maybe they got sick. Maybe their house burned down.

In 99% of these situations you’ll be the last thing on their minds.

You can’t control what’s happening in someone else’s life, but you can control how and when you get paid.

The purpose of this post is to encourage you to protect yourself – that’s it.

Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Paid Upfront

Let’s say you’re a freelance graphic designer. You do a neat logo for someone, send them all the source files (instead of watermarked previews as you should be), and eagerly await your invoice to be paid. Surely they will, right?

Well, it just may turn out that they don’t.

Enjoy spending the next few days/weeks sending invoice reminders, emailing them, calling them, and so on. These are non-billable hours you’ve just added onto your already existing workload. You’ll also have the pleasure of experiencing that gross feeling you get after you’ve been ripped off. Have fun.

So, if you’re lucky, they’ll respond with an excuse, but it’s more likely that they’ll just pull a disappearing act. Odds are it won’t be worth it to take them to small claims court (and good luck with that if they live in a different country).

Here’s another scenario that can happen: the client stays in contact with you, promising payments, but, you know, only after you do a few “tweaks” (extra work) for them. This is the most frustrating kind of scope creep you can experience — essentially, the client knows they have you by the balls and they’re holding your payment hostage in order to get more effort out of you.

If you’ve had any of this happen you know exactly how crappy it can be.

Wouldn’t you like to avoid it in the future?

How to Get Paid Upfront

I need some money, immediately.I think that perhaps the best way to ensure that you always get paid upfront is to be in a position where you’re comfortable saying no.If you get a potential client who refuses to pay you upfront — whether it’s the full amount or a deposit, which we’ll discuss in a minute — being able to say “no thanks” is incredibly empowering.

The best part about being firm? A lot of the time they’ll give in and be willing to make a payment.

So, I’d like to be clear about something: I’m not talking about 100% upfront payments all the time. If it’s a small assignment, let’s say worth less than $100 or $200, then yes — ask for a full payment upfront.

Imagine you’ve got a little quickie job and the client is antsy about paying you $50. Is that really someone you want to work with?

In other cases where the task is larger, perhaps something that needs to be spread out over weeks or months, ask for a deposit or upfront “milestone” payments.

For deposits, the percentage can vary based on the amount of compensation and your level of comfort. Don’t be afraid to ask for 50% upfront. If the scope of the project will extend into the thousands of dollars, establish a regular payment schedule (or milestones) — ideally once every few days or once per week.

To further incentivize a wary client, offer them an upfront payment discount. 5% or 10% is appropriate in most cases.

You may have had an experience like this too: you’re being paid regularly with no problems… for a while. Then the client says something along the lines of, “Hey, do you mind if I pay you for this next week? I think we’ve established trust by now, haven’t we?”

It’s not about trust. It’s about being paid for the work that you’re doing.

Stop and think for a moment as to why your client would ask you if it’s all right to delay a payment. Probably because they’re having some sort of cash flow issue, right?

Do you want to run the risk of being at the receiving end of that issue?


Then you need to invoke your power of saying “no.”

Ultimately, here’s what I’m trying to impart to you: never do work that you haven’t been paid for. Once the payments stop, so do you.

From a Client’s Perspective

Just as a final note here, I’d like to say that it’s very important to remember that freelancers aren’t the only ones who occasionally get screwed over — sometimes they’re the one doing the screwing. (I have such an elegant way of describing things, don’t I?)

When you encounter a client that really, really doesn’t want to pay up front, it could be that they’ve had a bad experience before with a freelancer taking their money and not delivering. Very possible.

Unfortunately, you can’t pay your bills with “could be’s.” The answer should still be no — I’m just pointing out the fact that if someone doesn’t want to pay you upfront, it’s not necessarily because they have nefarious intentions.

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