How Not to Get Screwed as a New Freelancer

Tired of dealing with awful clients who disappear as soon as “where is my money” crosses your lips? Deadbeat clients are every freelancer’s nightmare, and it seems like we all run into one or more over our careers.

However, you don’t have to just sit idly by and hope for the best! You can take steps to protect your business and your pocketbook with just a few simple tips. Lower the chance someone will try to get one over you with the following ideas.

Contract Up

Many new freelancers are wary of using contracts when they’re first starting out. They think it will scare off potential customers or perhaps complicate things too much. They may even have had a bad experience with a friend getting mad at them for offering a contract.

Here’s the thing: anyone who gets upset you’re trying to protect yourself is not worth your time as a freelancer! You have a service to offer and a contract is a way to protect it. Also, contracts legitimize your business like not much else can. And don’t think you’re not involved in a business – no matter how much – or how little – money you make, if you’re freelancing, you’re in business.

Be as detailed as possible with your contracts, especially if it’s a complicated assignment. You don’t want your client trying to wiggle out of paying you because you didn’t meet her requirements.

The Buddy System

Freelancing can be a rather lonely business, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be, especially in this digital age. There are plenty of other freelancers out there looking for someone to talk to, even seasoned vets. Many of these people have loads of advice to dish out, especially when it comes to dealing with deadbeat clients.

Wouldn’t it help to know the skinny on questionable clients before you set to work? A network of freelancers in the same industry goes a long way to do just that. Word spreads quickly with the Internet. Be the first to know when a potential client is on the naughty list.

Down Payments

While it seems like you should only get paid after you do the work, that’s just not the reality of the situation. Remember, this is a business, and you’re investing a lot of your time and care in each assignment.

This is why it’s important to get a deposit on the work. This does two things instantly: it chases away people who want something for totally free, and makes anyone thinking of taking off think twice since they’ve already shelled out some bucks.

Even better, you can set the deposit amount depending on your level of trust with the client. For someone you heard from out of the blue, you might want to ask for half up front. For clients you’ve worked with before and know are trustworthy, you might ask for 25% or even waive the deposit entirely. It’s all up to you.

Sadly, we almost all have a deadbeat client story. Share yours in the comments!

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Jennifer Dunn owns Social Street Media where she writes about small business and small business finances for sites like WePay, the easiest way to manage online invoices.

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4 thoughts on “How Not to Get Screwed as a New Freelancer”

  1. Great post, Jennifer.

    The idea of getting a down payment is, in my opinion, almost an essential part of the gig anymore. Having the majority of the money — or even half — in your hands ensures your work won’t go unpaid entirely.

    Right now I’m trying to get the remainder out of a client. It’s a small amount, but if I let it go, I can’t set precedent should someone later on stiff me for more.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Using a contract is an absolute MUST HAVE for freelancers. I mean, when you buy a house, you sign a contract. When you have a roof put on your house, you sign a contract. When you buy a cell phone, you sign a contract. When you lease a car, you sign a contract. The same goes for a freelance writer. If a potential client gets upset when you bring up signing a contract, that’s a red flag, and you should immediately run for the nearest exit. 🙂

  3. This advice doesn’t only apply to new freelancers. Even we experienced folks make our share of mistakes in this arena. I’m sort of ashamed to admit to the following lapse, since I absolutely should’ve known better, but if it can serve as a cautionary tale, I’ll serve it up…

    I’m in a situation right now where I got a client through a graphic designer with whom I’ve been working forever (~20 years). She was doing work for them, and because of that connection (sort of an implicit “vouching” for them by bringing me in), I decided to let them slide on a down payment (which, as Lori reminds, is essential) OR a contract. Yeah, I know, dumba–.

    Well. We initially spoke in early November. They really nudged me to expedite my timetable for the project. SO, instead of two weeks, I turned around copy in a week. Then, I hear nothing for a month (the seasoned folks are nodding their heads at that one…).

    I contact the client, ask if I can go ahead and bill it, and whenever they’ve got the time to review things, we’ll revisit it. They say, sure, go ahead and bill. Nearly 45 days later, I’ve heard nothing. I send a friendly reminder email with invoice attached. 10 days later, I’ve still heard nothing. So, I send another email, a little firmer. That was nearly a week ago, and still nothing.

    Lesson learned. No matter HOW I get a client, and no matter WHO vouches for them (and in this case, I made the decision to consider my colleague’s involvement as an endorsement; it didn’t come from that colleague, so it’s all on me), the same deposit/contract rules apply.

    I’m guessing I’ll eventually get my money, but what a hassle…



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