‘The dog ate my invoice’ and other unbelievable tales of non-payment

By Gemma Church
Freelance Writer

Freelance writer who specialises in business, technology and science.

Cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Payment-shy clients are no laughing matter and are a harsh reality for many freelancers.

I’ve faced the reality of non-payment twice in the past 12 months. The excuse I received was quite run-of-the-mill. Both clients claimed they’d never received my invoices.

Which is interesting, because my email tracking tool clearly demonstrated that both invoices were received, read and the attachments opened. Multiple times.

It seems I’m not alone when it comes to late payments. Research by IPSE revealed we spend an average of 20 days a year chasing overdue invoices. Almost half (43%) of freelancers have also done work they were never paid for. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, this rises to 58 per cent.

After seeking advice from my fellow freelancers for my own payment predicament, I was inundated with a barrage of excuses regularly given by disreputable clients. Which ones do you recognise?

The blatant lies

Freelancers are used to hearing some real whoppers when it comes to chasing payments.

First, there are the admin errors, such as: “The invoice had the wrong purchase order number assigned to it.” While this is a fair point, it doesn’t really carry much weight when the client assigns the purchase order numbers in the first place.

Then, there are the excuses with more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. “I need to be at home to pay your [already very overdue] invoice,” is another interesting reason. Especially when the client works from home.

Finally, comes the last bastion of hope for the flustered client: blame it on a technical error. “Your invoice went into my spam folder;” “Our card reader has died and we’re waiting for new ones from the bank;” “I can’t get online to pay your invoice today.” This last one is always a corker when the excuse is sent over email.

It’s not me, it’s you

“I don’t pay invoices using …” is a classic excuse. From a simple bank transfer to PayPal, your client refuses to accept payments in an array of common formats. Oddly enough, they aren’t forthcoming when you ask exactly what payment methods they do accept either.

Alternatively, a client may come up with a myriad of other reasons for a stalled payment. These could include: “Our accountant is on holiday;” “I’m out of the country at the moment; ” or “So-and-so has left the company.”

If your payment terms are clearly set out in your contract with a client, there’s no excuse for late payments. It’s a client’s responsibility to pay you, no matter what their circumstances are at the time.

"A client once told me they had lost their memory after falling off a bouncy castle, so had completely forgotten I had done any work for them"

OK, it is me

“I don’t have the money right now,” is another popular excuse. If a client goes bust, then this is a completely different kettle of fish. However, this excuse is usually trotted out when a client isn’t in any such financial dire straits.

There are plenty of ways for clients to elaborate on this excuse. Jen Eastwood, founder at social media agency Rock Rose Digital, was once told: “My staff spent all my money while I was on holiday,” by one client. Charming.

Lisa Johnstone-Puplett, a freelance graphic designer, was faced with this bizarre excuse: “Someone stole my laptop and my wallet from my car … by the way, can you also lend me £2000? I’ll pay you back with interest.” Unsurprisingly, Lisa said no to this rather odd request.

Bordering on the bizarre

“A client once told me they had lost their memory after falling off a bouncy castle, so had completely forgotten I had done any work for them.”

I think copywriter Martin Sayers wins the prize for the most outlandish reason to avoid payment from a client there. Bouncy-castle-induced-amnesia certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill excuse.

Designer Jo Andrade was also faced with this sheepish excuse from a client: “I forgot to pass on your invoice to the accounts department and they’re all a bit scary, so I’ll get shouted at. Is it OK to pay you next month?”

No. It’s really not OK. Neither is asking a freelancer to accept half the agreed fee because “you clearly knew the subject well and it was easy for you to write,” which is another odd excuse freelance writer Mark Boyd once received.

What to do

A good contract is a powerful weapon in your freelance arsenal when it comes to non-payers. Sample contracts and plenty of advice on dealing with late payments are available on the IPSE website. IPSE members also get access to tax and legal helplines and could receive compensation if a client goes bankrupt or an agency breaks its contract with you.

Remember, there are no reasons for non-payment. There are only excuses. Clients who pay late must by law pay compensation and penalty interest.

You are entitled to be paid on time, every time.