Getting paid is an important part of your work as a freelancer — perhaps the most important. When clients are responsive, easy to work with, and pay their dues on time, it makes freelancing a truly rewarding experience and gives you a sense that you’re building something great.
And then there’s the other side of freelancing. You completed a project two months ago and sent an invoice with Net 30 terms, but now your client is dodging your emails, and you’ve got no idea when payment will come through — if ever.
Being a successful freelancer requires two skill sets:
- The talent and ability to complete the work you’re hired to do.
- The skills to manage your clients and finances.
If you’ve ever dealt with late invoices, you already know how difficult that second half can be. Here are a few tips to help you handle unpaid invoices and make sure you get paid for your work.
1. Develop a Process Upfront
The best thing you can do to get rid of late payment issues is to avoid them in the first place. While you can’t eliminate the problem entirely, you can minimize the risk by setting a clear payment process from the get-go.
To do this, you’ll want to state your payment terms in your contract or initial communications. Of course, every situation is different, and you can have different terms for different clients, but they need to be made clear at the beginning of your relationship.
These terms should include information like:
- How long your client has to send payment after the invoice is delivered (Net 30, Net 60, etc.).
- What payment methods you accept (PayPal, check, ACH transfer, etc.).
- Whether you apply late fees to overdue invoices, and when those fees will kick in.
Outside of the information in your contract, you should also set up a procedure for yourself. For example, if you’re using Net 60 payment terms, that could look something like this:
- Send the original invoice.
- If payment is not received by day 46, send a friendly reminder that payment is due in two weeks.
- On day 60, send a friendly reminder that payment is due today.
- If payment is not received by day 61, send a slightly firmer overdue notice.
- If payment is not received by day 67, send a second overdue notice in the same vein.
- If payment is not received by day 74, send a third overdue notice with a firmer tone and note your late fee policies if you have any.
- If payment is not received by day 90, send a fourth overdue notice that restates your late fee policies. Offer a payment plan.
Of course, you would need to finetune your process to account for your own unique situation and needs.
To make things even easier, you can use invoicing tools to automatically remind your clients about their unpaid invoices on a preset schedule.
2. Assess the Situation
Once you’re actually confronted with an unpaid invoice, the first step is to assess the situation. That means asking yourself questions like:
- By how much is the invoice past due?
- Has the client been communicative about the reasons for the late payment? Or has there been radio silence since the work was completed?
- Is this out of the ordinary for the client?
- What type of communication style has worked best with this client in the past?
Typical reasons invoices go unpaid are:
- Simple forgetfulness
- Technical issues (payment didn’t go through or invoice was lost)
- Financial distress and inability to pay
- Purposeful and malicious withholding of payment
By asking yourself the questions above, you can get a better sense of why your payment wasn’t received, and what that means moving forward.
3. Respond Appropriately
One of the most frustrating things about late payments is that you won’t always know the underlying reason. Sometimes, clients will be very clear and communicative, but other times they may ghost you and leave you to wonder if they’re dealing with some type of personal crisis or simply have no intention of paying.
Speculating too much can be harmful, but you should tailor your reminders to the situation to some degree.
For example, if your client has always paid on time over the past few years, and they’re suddenly a few weeks past due, you don’t need to go in with guns blazing. On the other hand, if your client has been consistently late with their payments, you may need to be more firm from the outset — even if they’re only a few days late. When dealing with regular clients, you may even take steps such as pausing work on their projects until the payment is received.
If your client notes that they’re having financial difficulties, you may also want to offer them a payment plan.
The most difficult part of sending late invoice reminders is figuring out how to strike a balance between being polite and assertive while avoiding being overly aggressive and threatening. Finding the appropriate mix comes with experience, so you may want to reference some templates to help.
Unpaid Invoice Reminder Templates
If you’re faced with an unpaid invoice, here are a few templates you can use to remind your client.
Template 1: The Benefit of the Doubt
Hi (client name),
I wanted to check in with you about (invoice number), which was due on (due date). I haven’t received payment yet — does this line up with your records?
Let me know if you have any questions or if I can help you sort this out in any way.
Template 2: The Escalation
Hi (client name),
I wanted to let you know that your payment for (invoice number) is now (time period) overdue. Can you tell me when I can expect it to come through?
If you have any questions, or if you'd like to work out a payment plan, please let me know.
Template 3: The Penalty
Hi (client name),
I have tried to contact you a few times to let you know that payment for (invoice number) is now overdue. As per the terms of my contract, I will now be charging (your late fee terms).
If you’re having trouble paying, let me know, and we can work out a payment plan.
Please let me know that you’ve received this by replying to this email.
Key Takeaways: Unpaid Invoice Reminders
Unpaid invoices aren’t the most glamorous part of freelancing, but they’re a reality of running your own business. The sooner you can develop a process to handle them, the easier they will be to deal with.
Plus, modern invoicing software can make things even simpler by sending out automatic invoice reminders for you.
With these tips and templates in mind, you’ll be prepared to handle the inevitable late payments and make sure you get paid.