Five ways freelancers can make it easier to get paid

  • The best part of freelancing – getting paid – is also the No. 1 cause for complaints, according to Caitlin Pearce of the Freelancers Union.
  • Paper checks and lengthening payment terms are just two of the issues that cause delays and impact cash flow.
Paycheck
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock | Getty Images

Getting paid as a freelancer? It's the best. Nothing like that feeling when your payment arrives, and it's yours, all yours (at least till tax time).

But also: getting paid as a freelancer? The worst. Where's the money?

Paper checks bear some of the blame. "It's surprising how many clients still pay by hard-copy check, which can easily add another week to the payment process," said Tanya Roberts, vice president corporate marketing at Bill.com in Palo Alto, California.

More than three-quarters of small and medium-size businesses still use checks," Roberts said. The figure comes from the site's recent survey on payment methods. Bill.com surveyed 1,494 of its freelancer and consultant site users online in May.

Slightly more than half the survey respondents said it takes too long to get their money.

"Very interesting, because at the same time, media reports that the gig economy is gaining momentum," Roberts said. "In 2020 gig workers are expected to make up 50 percent of the workforce."

Full-time employees like the convenience of direct deposit, Roberts said, so it's no big surprise that "freelancers and contractors want electronic payment, too. You want to get paid as conveniently as possible."

'It's frustrating'

Independent workers don't have much leverage, said Liz Steblay, founder and CEO of Professional Independent Consultants of America in San Francisco.

Understandably, most freelancers focus on getting the work. "Then, when you ask about the terms, it can be frustrating," Steblay said. "We have very little power when it comes to getting direct deposit."

Freelancers who deal with corporations quickly find that payment methods aren't usually negotiable, according to Steblay.

'Cash flow is everything'

Consultants often accept work, but that doesn't mean there aren't complaints. Timing is a big issue, and consultants have complained about getting paid on time, Steblay said.

"Cash flow is everything. Self-employed people are microbusinesses, making cash flow even more important," she said.

Typically, independent contractors submit an invoice at the end of the month after beginning work. With corporations starting to move to longer payment terms, Steblay said – net 60 days is more common – freelancers might have to wait as long as 75 days, because of the way accounting periods work.

Slow payments and missing payments are by far the biggest issue for freelancers, said Caitlin Pearce, executive director of Freelancers Union in New York City. "Freelancers experiencing non-payment lose an average of $6,000 annually," Pearce said.

"Freelancers wouldn’t be paid for nearly three months, since the end of the accounting period 60 can equal 75 days." -Caitlin Pearce, Executive director of the Freelancers Union

It's not just the money — it's the frustration.

"Freelancers spend a lot of time and energy having to track down payments when they could be working or finding new clients," Pearce said. "It can be challenging to get a contract with clear, favorable payment terms."

New York City freelancers may have an easier time. In 2017, the city passed the Freelance Isn't Free law, which protects freelancers from non-payment. Pearce said the Freelancers Union was a driving force behind the law.

But it doesn't protect freelancers anywhere else, and many in the city aren't aware of how the law protects their rights, she said.

Adopt some of these best practices to streamline your invoicing and boost your chances of getting paid earlier.

1. Ask for direct deposit

Push back on paper checks in favor of electronic payment. Freelancers and consultants should have more confidence in themselves as valuable business entities, Roberts said. "Corporate America may not realize it, but they'll have to learn to be more vendor friendly," Steblay said. One way to do that is meet contingent workers' demands for certain amenities, like digital payment.

2. Seek shorter payment terms

"A lot of freelancers and contractors don't know that payment terms are negotiable," Steblay said. "It never hurts to ask." She recommended saying, "I'm a small business owner. Is there any way we can cut that to net 15 or net 30?"

3. Set up a system

The Freelancers Union recommended setting up a good invoicing system. It pays to invoice right away – don't wait a few weeks to send over your invoice, and follow up regularly. There are apps that will do this for you.

4. Find free resources online

The Freelancers Union website helps all freelancers, not just those in New York, deal with non-payment, including a contract creator, templates, and step-by-step guides to dealing with non-paying clients.

Some companies offer free invoicing software. You might find the monthly cost of some platforms worthwhile, since they automatically remind you when payment is overdue. Some programs notify you when the company receives and opens an emailed invoice, so it's harder for them to claim they didn't receive it.

5. Get a name

Don't let yourself fall down the rabbit hole. Tracking down a payment can get you bounced from one department to another, Roberts said. Better to ask, "Is there someone in accounting I could talk to directly?"

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