There’s a basic freelancing question that mystifies many writers: “How do I get paid, exactly?”
When you’re used to an employer handing you a paycheck every week or two, it can be intimidating to realize that as a freelancer, you’ll only get paid if you figure out a method — and make it happen.
That’s probably why many writers gravitate to content mills and mass platforms that act as intermediary. Then, you know your payment will come from the platform.
Of course, once you see how tiny that payment is after the platform takes its cut, you’ll likely be looking to cut out the middleman.
Fortunately, there are several reliable ways to get paid directly by your freelance clients.
First, I’ll go over payment methods — and then, I’ve got a few quick tips on how to structure your contract to ensure you don’t get stiffed.
Payment methods for freelancers
My simple answer to how to get paid by freelance clients is: However the client wants.
You may have a preferred method, but the reality is that we’re here to serve clients. You’ll have more success if you’re willing to work with whatever method they prefer.
Sometimes your client is flexible and you have options, though. If so, here are proven options to get paid (and yes, some links are affiliate):
1. Physical check
Yes, this is still a completely valid way to get paid! And many large companies continue to cut checks to freelancers once a month, or biweekly. If you have a client like this, good luck getting them to make an exception and pay you differently.
Of course, this means you can have that “your check is in the mail” problem, where the client insists they’ve mailed out your check, but it doesn’t arrive. Mail can legitimately get lost, too.
You also need to watch out for online check scams, where the check bounces after you’ve turned in your writing work. (If you take checks, be sure to check with your bank and make sure the check has cleared.)
On the plus side, now that there’s online banking, you may be able to use a smartphone to digitally deposit your check from the comfort of home.
Be warned that accepting foreign checks can incur a fat fee — I once was charged $34 for depositing a Canadian check, for instance. Ouch! If you’re dealing with cross-border issues, other options will probably be more desirable.
2. Online payments
For the most part, we’re talking PayPal here, the dominant online-payments provider worldwide. But people in some countries, such as Pakistan, are prohibited from using PayPal. If that’s you, another online-payment option will be needed. Research online to see which providers currently accept payments from your country.
Venmo, Google Wallet, Payoneer, and Dwolla are among the popular alternatives I’ve heard good things about — and you can also send and receive money through Facebook Messenger. (Fees and terms vary — check the provider of your choice for details.)
Online payments have the advantage of being instant, a real plus if your bank account is low. The dark side is the fees — PayPal charges 2.9 percent, for instance. If you’re running a thriving freelance business of, let’s say, $60,000 a year, you’d give up $1,740 of that in fees if you got paid entirely through PayPal. It’s a major bite!
Many online sites pay only through PayPal, so it’s worth getting an account set up, as you may limit the gigs you can get without it.
Workarounds to get paid online
I’ve been skirting the PayPal fee issue for years by using Freshbooks for accounting, and taking advantage of their PayPal Business Payments program, which allows me to pay just $.50 for transactions of any size. It’s been sweet, and saved me thousands…but is no longer available to new signups.
There are other fee workarounds, too, such as having the client use Mass Pay on PayPal if they have that feature, or having them use “Send Money to a Friend,” to make them eat the fees instead of you. (You’re not supposed to do that on business transactions, and it can get them in trouble with PayPal if they get busted, so I don’t suggest asking your clients do it.)
Sadly, most businesses aren’t up for paying the fees — I’ve seen deals fall apart over this issue, so don’t press it if a client says no.
3. Bank transfer
Also known variously as ACH (automated clearing house) or EFT (electronic funds transfer), bank transfers fire the money straight from your client’s bank account into yours.
If you have an ongoing retainer gig, bank transfer is the ideal way to go. No more checking the mailbox or paying PayPal fees — you set a day of the month for automatic payment, and it pops right in.
To set these up, you have to give your bank account and routing number to your client, usually by filling out a bank form. This may seem hinky, but without your personal information — Social Security number, security question answers, etc. — they can only put money in.
Obviously, you’ll want to vet clients you set up bank transfers with to make sure they’re legit before you go down this road.
4. Payment service provider
Accepting credit cards is the method of choice for writers working large, multi-month projects such as book ghostwriting gigs. The client may not have $30,000 up their sleeve, and may need to charge it.
Taking card payments requires a payment service provider (PSP) of some kind. This used to involve purchasing clunky credit-card reader machines or cash registers. Fortunately, today there are virtual providers available, including Square and Stripe.
I’ve got a Square account and have found their process super-easy. If you want to physically process a client’s card, they’ve also got that handy little Square reader you can attach to your smartphone.
The catch? Credit-card processors take out fees, too. Square charges 2.75 percent, for instance. PayPal also can be used as a credit-card processor, for a small additional monthly payment plus its usual fees. Make sure you’re getting the lowest fee rate you can, and remember to build those fees into your project bids.
Yes, you’d rather get paid in cold, hard cash. But sometimes, it’s just not possible. Your client desperately needs your writing help, you love what they do, but they’re broke. Or one of you is in a country where it’s hard to get or receive payments.
The solution is a tradeout, in which you get paid in goods or services the company provides. There are plenty of companies you wouldn’t do this for, but even now, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at getting paid in chocolate, hotel stays, or organic beef.
Tradeouts tend to be win-win, because the company pays less for the goods than the retail value your contract will use. So the company in essence gets a discount and doesn’t have to lay out any cash. In return, you hopefully get some goods you would enjoy, and might not otherwise be able to afford. You can even triangulate a tradeout, where you get one of your clients to pay one of your vendors — I’ve done that for people in countries with payment-processing challenges.
Tips to make sure you get paid
It’s good to have your payment method set up — but it won’t make a difference if you don’t have a clear contract that nails down when and how you’ll get paid.
Big rule: Don’t start work for a freelance client without a contract — and in the case of businesses, an up-front deposit.
If your prospect balks at the idea of giving you 30%-50% up front to get started, be wary. Up-front deposits are standard practice for nearly all types of contractors.
This contract should specify exactly what you’ll do, what the payment will be, and most importantly when the payment(s) are due.
A common blunder is to leave the terms of the final payment vague. This means the client could just keep stalling, saying they haven’t finalized the piece yet, essentially forever.
My preferred phrase: “Final payment is due 14 days after turn-in of final draft or upon final acceptance, whichever is sooner.”
This means there is a maximum 2-week wait before your check is due. Boom. Instead of months of vague promises, calls, threats, until they finally pay up. Avoid that with strong contract terms!
How do you get paid as a freelancer? Let’s discuss on Facebook.