Not Paid By a Client? – How to Avoid the Freelance Nightmare

Dealing with clients is all well and good until you get to a small bump in the road – you find that you’re not paid by a client.

Wait – what? How can this be? We were getting along so well!

Unfortunately, this scenario is the one thing about being a freelancer that can turn into a nightmare. Most of the time your clients are a dream to work with – they’re excellent communicators, highly organized, and always pay their bills on time.

However, once in a blue moon you’ll encounter the elusive, lesser spotted invoice avoider – aka the client that won’t pay up.

Not paid for the amount of work you’ve put into a project? Not to worry. Here’s our guide to avoiding this freelance nightmare, and combating the issue for good.

Vet your clients

Before you take on work from a new client, research their history. Find out who they’ve worked with and whether there were any problems.

That’ll give you a good indication of whether they’re safe to work with. If you hear they frequently don’t pay, avoid like the plague. 

Clients have cashflow problems too

It’s been 3 hours since I submitted my project – and I’m not paid! Right, that’s it-

Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s pause for a moment!

If your money doesn’t come in immediately, don’t jump to a conclusion just yet. Clients are running businesses too and have their own cash flow problems to deal with.

If your payment is late, reach out and ask why, in a calm and professional manner.

Be confident

If you do find yourself faced with a client who won’t pay, remember – you are in the right. If the client has taken your work and not paid the agreed fee, they are in the wrong.

Be confident and don’t let them talk their way out of the situation with excuses, jargon, or business-speak. Even if you don’t have a physical contract in place, a verbal one is usually all that’s needed.

Get a contract

Before you put pen to paper, draw up a contract. It doesn’t have to be a fancy, in-depth legal document, just a piece of paper that outlines the services you will provide for your client in return for an agreed fee.

This gives you protection if they don’t pay. 

Take a deposit

Get your client’s investment from the get-go by making a deposit. Clients who are hesitant to pay a deposit upfront are often keeping their options open. They could be working with several freelancers (in a contest-type scenario).

Or, keeping themselves free to back out without paying if they don’t like the finished result. Having itchy feet is not a reason to back out of a payment. If they have doubts, reassure them that you can meet all of their needs.

Agree on a project spec

Part of the contract writing process should be agreeing on just what will be completed for the fee that you’ve agreed. Any work that needs to be done outside of this spec is extra and should be billed accordingly.

When a freelancer and client-first embark on an exciting project, it can be all too easy to get swept up at the moment and not define exactly how much work needs to be done. The last thing you want is a series of ‘amends’ requests sent your way when you thought the project was done and dusted.

Just one last thing…” No!

Milestone payments

After making a deposit, you can get extra security by setting up milestone payments if the project is particularly big. These are further deposits taken when each phase of the project is completed. 

Don’t do work on spec

If a client asks for work on spec before they decide to hire you for real, turn around and walk away. Asking for work on spec is a sign that they don’t value your talent and the investment you’ll put into a project.

If you buy potato chips you don’t ask for a free bag first in case you don’t like them – why should it be any different for freelancers? 

Don’t send over your final project

We’ve all worked with clients who pressurize you to send over the final project files as soon as you’re finished – i.e; before you’ve been paid. But, don’t give in to pressure. Make it clear from the outset that you won’t hand over any final work before payment has been received.

Ok, so your client could legitimately be worried in this situation in case you take the money and run without sending them the work. But, at Twine, we deal with this scenario by holding payment until the client has received their final files.

Then we immediately release payment to the freelancer. We keep it simple and risk-free. If they don’t pay, they don’t get the project. 

Face the consequences

Hopefully, it won’t come to this. But, if you feel it’s entirely necessary you can set deadlines and consequences for late payments.

For example, state a clear deadline for payment and add interest to your fee for each day/week/month they don’t oat. Withhold the rights to the work until payment is received. Add an ultimate deadline which, if passed, means the client will not receive any work at all.

Bear in mind these are harsh terms of employment, but if you feel the risk is worth taking then go for it. And anyway – are clients who don’t pay really clients you want?

Ready to get hired? At Twine, we have dozens of top-quality jobs being posted each and every day. From design to marketing, development to copywriting – there’s a job ready for your skills. Join the marketplace of creative talent here.


After studying English Literature at university, Vicky decided she didn’t want to be either a teacher or whoever it is that writes those interminable mash-up novels about Jane Austen and pirates, so sensibly moved into graphic design.

She worked freelance for some time on various projects before starting at Twine and giving the site its unique, colourful look.

Despite having studied in Manchester and spent some years in Cheshire, she’s originally from Cumbria and stubbornly refuses to pick up a Mancunian accent. A keen hiker, Vicky also shows her geographic preferences by preferring the Cumbrian landscape to anything more local.