The Untold Cost of an Unpaid Invoice

cape cod social media marketingby Brittany McSorley


This is a story about consequences.


I’ve been working as a freelancer, in some capacity, for seven years. There are plenty of benefits to freelance work. The one I cite most often is the ability to work surrounded by snacks while wearing pants with no buttons. It’s amazing, obviously.


There are also some drawbacks to working as a freelancer (or independent contractor). The biggest one, by far, is when people don’t pay me.


Those of you who have always worked as employees, protected by a web of legalese from employer misconduct, may wonder how common it is for a freelancer to be ghosted by a client who owes them money. It is very common. Heartbreakingly common. It’s so common that a simple Google search will provide you with dozens of how-to articles about getting clients to pay up. It’s so common that in 2012, the Freelancers Union launched “The World’s Longest Invoice,” inviting freelancers all over the world to add up their unpaid invoices in one place. In six years, the total surpassed $4 million. This fact fills me with rage. Like, set-fire-to-a-Victoria’s-Secret rage.


Unpaid invoices are not just common. They’re also very stressful, likely to make the freelancer in question experience a range of unpleasant emotions. But the worst thing about an unpaid invoice is not the angry crying. It’s not the stress. It’s not even the excruciating “grace period” you may feel inclined to give a client who’s reluctant to pay. The worst thing about an unpaid invoice is that it creates a boatload of extra work. If a client decides to be shady, you’ve not only worked for a terrible person, but now you have to either let it go (I’d sooner die), or work some more, for free, to track down the money you’re owed. In some cases, this process can take you all the way to small claims court, eating up untold hours of your precious time on this planet. And all because someone thinks they’re above the well-established rules of capitalism.


As I’m sure you can tell, this has happened to me more than once. I’ve never met another freelancer to whom this hasn’t happened. The first time I experienced it, I was baffled. The second time, I was angry. By the most recent time, I was familiar enough with the sinking feeling in my stomach—the one that comes with realizing a payment is late and the client has stopped communicating—that I launched right into my unpaid invoice protocol without batting an eye.


Here’s my problem: I should never have to wonder if I’m going to be paid for my labor. This should be something that never crosses my mind, let alone be so frequent that there’s a global calculator dedicated to running up a tab for it. And this is the kicker: I’ve never had to chase down money from someone who had less money than I do. The worst clients I’ve ever worked with have all been wealthy. They’ve all been men. And they’ve probably all been short.


All of this is to say that time does not move in the same way for clients and freelancers. An invoice paid a few weeks late may not even register to the person who “forgot” or “took a long weekend” or “doesn’t value anyone else’s time because they were raised by sociopaths and probably don’t recycle.” But on the other side of the equation, those few weeks are spent noticing the lateness, hoping it’s a fluke, waiting it out, realizing it may not be a fluke, beginning to panic about the lost money, reaching out politely, waiting with bated breath for a response, fully giving into the panic, calculating how to recover from the increasingly certain loss, reaching out again in a less polite way, getting so angry about the lack of accountability they can barely see straight, and finally, embarking on the potentially fruitless journey to force a fellow adult to simply do what they’re supposed to do, what they agreed to do at the beginning of the process.


It’s a lot. It makes us crazy. And it’s a direct attack on our dignity. So please, as a personal favor to me, follow this guide. If you are a small business owner: pay your invoices. If you are a large business owner: pay your invoices. If you have ever hired anyone to do anything for you in any capacity: PAY. YOUR. INVOICES. It’s not a struggling freelancer’s job to chase down what they’re owed. It’s not even a thriving freelancer’s job. It is your job to compensate professionals for rendering you a service. And while we’re here, the due date on an invoice is the last day that it’s acceptable for you to pay it. The very last day. Each day that comes before it is an opportunity to put the contractor’s mind at ease, and if you have the funds, you should cross paying off of your to-do list as early as possible. You know, like a good person.


Okay. End of rant.


I got my money from that last guy, though. Because I worship at the altar of consequences.