6 Traits of a Non-paying Client (and how to spot them ahead of time)

This is one of those really odd weeks for me lately —

I have free time in my day.

Actual free time.

Three projects are in progress. Three others are ongoing work. One is completed. The occasional projects were completed last week, as well.

Two others are on the way.

So yes, free time. After working on multiple projects, scheduling my time diligently, and trying to get it all done in a 5-day workweek, a rest feels a lot like a “Huh? Wait. What?” instead of an exhale.

Since this is the second year of work coming to me without targeted marketing, I was still fielding inquiries and phone calls. One may become a client, though I’ve not heard back, so no guarantees.

As these conversations and emailed inquiries occur, I’m always on the lookout for certain red flags. You know the ones — the things clients say, do, ask for that indicate you may be headed into a troublesome situation. Luckily, last week’s inquiries didn’t exhibit any of the typical flags, but there are some that indicate a client who will probably leave you with an unpaid invoice. Here are for traits I’ve identified:

Shock or upset at your rate.

Look, you’re not going to be affordable to every client, nor should you be. But the prospective client who leads with “Are you crazy? You charge way too much!” is not your client. That’s someone who’s trying to embarrass you or guilt you into lowering your rate to fit their budgets.

These are not your clients. If they cannot tell you — in a professional business tone — that it’s outside of their budget limit, that’s your first hint that you might have some issue getting money out of them. Not a guarantee, but one thing is pretty obvious — they’re going to be pains in the ass to work with.

Dodgy about the budget.

It’s odd to me that any potential client would keep their project budget a closely held secret. Why? You’re the person they’re hoping to work with and share proprietary company info with, in some cases. They can trust you with your trade secrets, but not with how much they’ll pay you? Really? The only reason I can think of for that is someone is trying hard to get you to come in with a really low estimate. Dodgy payment terms, from my own experience, often results in arguments or complete silence when the invoice comes due.

Sketchy payment terms.

In one case, I was in the first conversation with a potential client when the warning alarms sounded. The payment terms, which he was dictating (a big no-no), were thus: We pay for the portion of content we use and round down to the nearest dollar.

Say again? You pay for a “portion”? What does that even mean? I asked that very question, saying that it didn’t make it worthwhile for me to agree to write, say, 2,000 words if he were going to use just 200 of them. And I did say that in the years I’d been freelancing, this was the first time I’d heard of rounding down, so I asked for more concrete terms — an agreed-upon word count and a per-word rate.

He said this:

In all MY years of hiring writers, I’ve never had one writer complain about the rounding down. Then there was some sort of implication that I was unprofessional for not accepting his “generous” terms.

Always question. No job is worth doing if you cannot agree to terms and payment. Avoid surprises as much as possible.

Balking at using contracts.

The above-mentioned prospect was someone who made me so nervous that I insisted we put everything in a contract “to avoid confusion” and both sign it.


The answer was revealing: We don’t tend to work with contracts as we trust each other at our word. 

Other contract-dodging moves that could well indicate your payment will never happen:

  • Not signing the contract, but giving a thumbs-up to you to start work
  • Wanting to start work before their “legal team” is finished reviewing your contract terms (and they build in urgency “We really need to get this started right now…”)
  • Refusing or dodging any upfront payment request

Incomplete contact info.

Just a Gmail account? Only a phone number? Come on. Get an address beyond that PO box they keep insisting is their mailing address. Always insist that PO box numbers be accompanied by the client’s street address (and make sure to check to see if it’s actually their address).

When they’re talked into hiring you.

If you have to push them to get them to work with you, don’t expect it to go well. They’re not ready and you’re trying to make them ready by jumping through hoops. If they have doubts you can’t clear up with simple answers, walk away. They’re not your client, and they’re not going to pay you because — guess what — they probably don’t know what they want and won’t be happy with any result.

Too many irons, too many fires.

If in that initial conversation the prospect is telling you how many things he’s doing at once, where his vision has evolved to (and that short timespan between the first iteration and the fourteenth), this is a person who chases shiny objects. Guess who’s going to lose interest right about the time you’re well into the project or sending the invoice? What will happen next: the project will suddenly change from A to X. “Just hold off invoicing until we get through X.” Then the project will suddenly be dropped for J, or will turn into L or Q or P…. Run. Now. Don’t look back lest the maelstrom sucks you in.


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  • Mary Schneider October 31, 2017 at 7:36 am

    Non payers are the bane of my existence. Fortunately I’ve had only one actual non-payer, and the one client who was a slow payer has since moved on.

    • lwidmer October 31, 2017 at 9:33 am

      Sounds like you’re moving up the food chain, Mary. These kinds of “clients” tend to disappear when you charge more. Not always, but they don’t exist in huge numbers at the higher end of the pay range.

  • Paula Hendrickson October 31, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    The would-be client saying in all of his years of hiring freelancers reminded me of what my ex-client—aka Late Payer—said when trying to assuage my fears that he was never going to pay my invoice, “I’ve paid writers more than a million dollars over the years.”

    Consider this: He ran three or four national trade magazines at the time, and at least one was over 20 years old. Each title was about 140 pages (with maybe a 50-50 editorial-ad ratio), so there were a LOT of articles per issue. He didn’t pay well either (I used it as fill-in work), but even at his rates, he would have spent way more than that if he’d always paid his writers. Had he claimed to have paid writers tens of millions of dollars over time, I might have believed him, instead his claim sounded more like an admission of guilt because it made me focus on how much lower his figure was that the cumulative cost of all of those articles should be.

    • lwidmer November 1, 2017 at 9:25 am

      That’s like saying “You can trust me because I raise kittens.” Talk about a non-sequitur!

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