Friday, 28 June 2019

Getting paid when you're self-employed

Getting paid when you’re self-employed

Ahhh yes, as a freelance writer I enjoy dealing with late/non-existent payments about as much as I enjoy punching myself in the genitals. A friend suggested I make a blogpost about this topic (getting paid as a freelancer, rather than hitting myself in the crotch) because it could help a lot of self-employed folk out there. So here it is: my guide to making sure you get paid what you’re due, and on time, when you’re self-employed (specifically in the UK, although this post might apply to places other than the UK).

For a bit of context, I’ve been self-employed as a writer and editor for about 5 years. I’m quite lucky because half of my income is generated by writing articles for a company which pays me extremely promptly (like, the same day most of the time!) when I submit an invoice. However, for much of my income I give (writerly) talks, readings and deliver lessons for other organisations (such as universities and councils/schools) and they are – quite frankly – shite at paying freelancers properly.

So here are 10 top tips (in some kind of chronological order) I’ve developed over the years to help make sure I’m paid accurately and on time. I’ll follow these tips with a few dodgy tricks that some employers use to try not to pay you…


1) Confirm the fee in advance
If you’re being asked to do work, confirm how much you expect to be paid, and exactly what the job entails. I was once asked to write 12 lessons at about £500. That’s not too bad, so I said yes. They then said each lesson contained 5 sub-lessons. Errr… so they actually wanted me to create 60 lessons, not 12. I backed out immediately.

You’re not being overly pernickety by asking for the details of a job and what’s expected of you. You wouldn’t hire a plumber and not tell them what you wanted fixing, right? If the employer has confirmed the fee by email / form, then they can’t turn around and change the details part way through.

2) Send an invoice straight away
As soon as the job’s done, send your invoice to the necessary person (usually someone in admin, but ask your contact if you’re unsure). They then have 30 days to pay – it’s as simple as that.

3) Include all the necessary info on your invoice
Okay an invoice should include:
- Your contact details and name
- The employer’s details (specifically the admin/finance person if you know who they are)
- The date the invoice was sent
- A brief description of the work done (you can break down the costs here if you did multiple things for the same employer)
- The total cost of your services
- A “late fee” note (I’ll come to this shortly)
- Your bank details
- IBAN Number (find out about this here)
- SWIFT number (find out about this here)

Here’s an example of my invoice, feel free to copy it and change the details:

4) Add a “late fee” note on your invoice
You’ll see that I’ve made the font on the “if you don’t pay me on time, screw you, I’ll charge you more” bit of my invoice RED. Much like a poisonous toad, it’s meant to alert the finance team that I’m not to be fucked with. It’s your legal right to be paid on time, and to charge if you’re not paid on time. I suggest adding a similar comment to your invoice.

Here is a really useful site for calculating how much you’re owed (a flat fee of £40 plus a % of the total as interest).

5) Keep a list of due payments
I keep a simple list of who owes me money, how much I’m owed, and when I should receive the payment by. I can then check the list quite simply to see which payments are outstanding. Making a note of the employer’s name and the amount due is useful, because it can sometimes be hard to spot them on your bank account details (lists of income and outgoings).

6) Keep an eye on your bank account
Before becoming irate for a non-payment, double check your bank account to make sure you definitely haven’t received it. I’ve sent irked emails to finance departments before, only to find that they had actually paid me and I didn’t spot it.

7) Send a “late payment” invoice as soon as a payment is late
When the 30 days since sending your invoice (in which the company should pay you) are up, you should send another invoice with an added “late payment fee” added on. Guess what happens when you add that payment? Yes, suddenly the finance team becomes incredibly efficient at their job and you are paid. It’s the single best thing you can do to make sure you’re paid, and you get a little extra for your trouble. EVEN IF YOU DON’T TO ANYTHING ELSE ON MY LIST, DO THIS!!!!

(Also, if you didn’t include the late payment fee note on your initial invoice, it doesn’t matter. By law, you are allowed to charge this fee – they should have paid you, it’s their fault!)

8) Keep nagging
Some employers are just dreadful. They’ll “pass on your email”, they’ll ignore you, they’ll say it’s being sorted when it isn’t. Just keep nagging, keep updating the late payment fees, and eventually they’ll realise that dragging their feet is costing them more and more money.

Some people feel a bit timid about sending reminders for payments, but it’s necessary if you’re going to survive being self-employed. You did the work, you deserve to be paid. They should be ashamed for not paying you on time, so NAG all you want.

9) Be loud, ruffle feathers
Some (usually older) friends have told me I shouldn’t push too hard or nag organisations (particularly councils) when seeking payment. To this I say: ruffle feathers.

Many employers will try to get away with not paying you, or paying you late (without a late fee added on) because they think you need them and will put up with it. Some won’t pay because they think “oh it’s just £50, it won’t matter”, without realising that you’re owed ten lots of £50 this month and they all add up.

If your polite nudges for payment aren’t working, it’s time to shout. Ask to speak to someone higher up, complain about it.

My philosophy is this: okay, by ruffling feathers they might not want to work with me again. But do I really want to work for an organisation which doesn’t pay me properly? No. For me, there’s no negative here (unless I am absolutely desperate to work with them again).

10) Know your rights, enact them
If you’re still not being paid, you might have to threaten to take them to small claims court. I don’t know much about this, but there’s support out there. I’ve found this site useful in finding out more information on my legal rights as a freelancer.


1) Losing the invoice / wrong person received it
Hah, yeah right! I get this a lot. “Oh it turns out Sally had that, and it’s meant to be with Jeff” or “Can you resend it?”- Okay, it could be true, but most of the time this is clearly a delay tactic. I recommend you send the invoice again with a nice “late fee” added on.

2) No reference number
This has only happened to me twice, but it was really annoying. Months after I was due to be paid, they told me it couldn’t be processed because I hadn’t included a reference number. I’ve provided hundreds of invoices before, and this had never been an issue. I added a random number (like: JONES001) to my invoice and sent it again. Scum. Sub-human scum.

3) Holding onto an invoice, late
This is a recent one, and particularly annoying because I don’t think there’s a lot you can do about it unless it’s very late. A university had my invoice, waited until the payment period was finished, then emailed me with a purchase order (essentially just a document telling me they’re going to pay me in a month’s time). So, you end up waiting two months for payment, and you can’t really send another invoice because it’s already being processed. Double grrrr.

4) Holidays – oops
“Sorry it’s late, Tardy Terry was on holiday!” – yeah, well I’m afraid it’s still late, so HERE’S MY LATE FEE ADDED ON, SUCKA!!!

5) Expenses
Some employers will accidentally forget about your expenses, or ask you to resubmit them on a separate invoice. A couple of times, this happened when they were meant to have already paid me for my work, which meant I had to wait another month for my fees (and possibly the actual payment for my work). You could probably add on a late fee for this, but it’s a weird discrepancy. I tend to ask “Do you know when I’ll be paid? I’m out of pocket because of this” or a similarly tiny-violin email.

6) Copy, scan, fill out the form, scan, email BLAH
This is one of my most hated tricks. Universities in particular are bad for it. They’ll send you a PDF form which you need to print, fill in, scan and send back. I mean, come on! This amount of paperwork (and the methods used) are really unnecessary and annoying. I’m fairly convinced it’s a tactic to put people off, as many folk don’t have the equipment or time to bother with such lengthy proceedings, particularly if it’s not for a lot of money.

7) Oh, you never asked to be paid
I wonder if this one's exclusive to the arts, but I doubt it. Sometimes, I'm (usually informally) offered a fee for giving a reading. I do the reading, and never receive an email about being paid. So, I have to get in touch with the organisers and ask for my fee. I know this makes a lot of artists feel awkward or cheap (and it's ridiculous you have to do this, but...) ASK TO BE PAID. It's not begging, you did the job. The organisers are either forgetful or they're trying to pull a fast one, hoping you won't ask for your fee so they don't need to pay it.

The golden rule here is: you did the work, you deserve to be paid however much was agreed, on time.

Aaaaand relax.