One of the toughest parts about being a freelancer is the possibility that you'll have to chase down every single paycheck you ever earn. However, there are some steps you can take ahead of time to prevent you from having to chase too hard.
Keep in mind, I'm a freelance web developer (and not a lawyer) so some of this advice may not apply to other freelance fields. These are all avenues to help you get paid promptly, but you'll need to make some personal tweaks according to your specific situation (and you should consult a lawyer).
None of this other stuff matters if you don't have a written document signed and dated by both parties, agreeing to any of this. Verbal agreements and a handshake don't mean anything anymore.
Not only does having a contract give you a leg to stand on in court (if you ever have to sue for non-payment), it outlines to your client expectations for BOTH parties. You have to do things a certain way, and your client has to do things in a certain way. Being detailed about the business relationship up front helps prevent issues down the line.
Any time I have to tell a client "Per the contract..." I'm reminded to be grateful for having one in the first place.
Getting a non-refundable deposit before you even begin working, ensures you get paid just for blocking out the time. Depending on the size of the project, you can do a different percentage. I usually do 50%. This one's a non-negotiable for me. No Deposit? No Work. (Or I'm just going to charge by the hour and bill you weekly to minimize my risk of getting ghosted)
Now if you get to the end of the project, and they won't pay up for whatever reason, at least you got some cash for your time.
If the scope of the project is large, another option is using Milestone Payments. Milestone payments are partial payments of the project total that are paid out throughout the duration of the project. The milestones you choose will depend on the size and type of work you're doing.
For full website builds, I usually do a 3 part payment:
- 33% Non-Refundable Deposit.
- 33% Milestone Payment once the site's design is approved.
- 33% due after the site gets final approval, but before it's deployed live on their servers (I'll go over this in a bit).
If the project is massive, you can break things up even further or adjust the ratios to get a larger deposit up front (50%, 25%, 25%). Quick and easy projects typically get broken up into 50% deposit, 50% at the end.
There are a couple advantages to using milestone payments.
- If the client ghosts you halfway through the project, you at least got a chunk of the payment.
- Keeps the client engaged throughout the middle of the project with clearly defined phases.
- Makes the invoice a little easier to swallow for clients, giving them smaller payments over a period of time instead of one lump sum on either end of the project.