How to Deal With a Non-Paying Client


We all would like to live in a perfect world. One without suffering, sickness and… annoying clients. Some clients will be very rational, some amazingly stupid.

That’s what makes the work interesting though, right? Yeah, I know – wrong. We all would like to avoid the extra stress from our clients, especially if they suddenly decide they don’t really want to pay.

What can we do when a situation like this takes place? Actually quite a lot. The solutions are really only limited by your imagination. Some solutions are better than others, but there is no golden rule to follow here. You are interacting with real people and have to deal with them differently each time if you want to get paid at the end of the day.

So let’s build on that and see where it leads us.

First things first though. Instead of worrying what we will do if the client doesn’t want to pay us, let’s think what we can do to prevent that from happening in the first place.

Of course the best option would be to work with a contract, but that is not always an option. We are very well aware, that a heck lot of you out there work without one, so instead of pretending the problem doesn’t exist, let’s discuss what we can do when there is no contract to help us.

Before we begin I would like to once again remind you that you’re working with real people out there. So don’t take anything for granted. Treat the things below as guidelines. It’s up to you to assess which ones will be the best suited to your particular client.
Right, so:

How to prevent it from happening

Host it yourself

If you’re working on a website, you want to make sure that your client can’t at some point tell his ten-year old son, to steal all your work and put it on a different server. Remember, you don’t have a contract to help you out, hence your trust can only go so far. No thief will actually wear a mask and sign his emails as Zorro.

The best thing you can do, is to work on your own server and connect the clients domain to it for the time being. Make sure to tell your client that’s how things will go down up front and that once you’re done you can move his website to a server of his choice. Or why just not leave it there and make him pay for it’s upkeep. It’s one of the best steady income sources for freelancers after all. You take care of a few dozen clients which decide to pay you for hosting and suddenly you have a nice yearly income bonus for all those toys you always wanted.

Watermark your images

Some of us out there are not only coders. With graphic design you will more often than not stumble upon clients that want you to make catalogs, business cards, logos etc. (of course coders can make as well some logistic systems etc., but that’s not the point) Obviously hosting those on your own server isn’t that helpful. When it comes to designs though, we have different weapons to defend ourselves, the most efficient ones being:

Watermarks – those will save you in most of the cases. A watermark is an identifying element which you put on the whole design to prevent the client from using your work and not paying for it. Below is an example.

It’s not always as simple as that. It really depends on the project, but on simple designs the watermarks can be easily removed. So be sure to look twice that the watermarks cover the most complicated part of the design, or just…

Send smaller proofs- very often just minimizing the image by 10% or so, can render it useless to steal. Especially if some elements of it have to be cut later on and used between programs. This way you avoid those annoying watermarks while protecting your projects.
Be aware though, that when working for print decreasing the image size by 10% will not really be a huge problem, as it still can be printed without much loss in quality. Though when working for print the image sizes are so huge, that a 30-40% zoom will be enough. It’ll be up to you to determine how much you’ll need to reduce an image so that your customer can approve it’s use without stealing it.

Remember not to send the source files before you get paid. That would defeat the whole purpose of trying to protect yourself.

It’s a very common and good practice. Of course not every client will want to pay you before seeing any work. It sounds perfectly reasonable and how I work, is that I tell the clients that an advance will be required after they accept the graphic designs of the website. Until that point they risk nothing and are not asked for any payments.

That gets you on good footing with your client and shows them you believe in your work. After eight years working this way, I have yet to go wrong with it.

Last but not least. After the client has paid you that initial 20% he will feel more obliged to put effort into the process of creating the site. If you haven’t had a client that takes ages to send you some essential materials for the project and then gets mad because you don’t have the project finished the next day, you will, it’s a situation that is so common it stopped being funny long time ago.

So if you look at it this way. It benefits your client to pay you an advance more than it benefits you really.

Right, so we took all the necessary counter-measures but still we hit a wall somehow and the client does not want to pay for a completed project. To the main point of the article.

How to make him/her pay

Send a summary

Some people just love documents, especially the folks running companies. While I cannot for the love of God understand it, I do acknowledge its existence.

You just might be dealing with that kind of person. If you think that may be the case, do a summary of your work, preferably in PDF form (people love PDF’s) and send it to your client.
It makes you look serious and works as a great reminder that you need to be paid. Very subtle and polite, a great way to start asking for your payment.

I recommend you do one whether the client falls behind on payment or not. In most cases it will increase your chances of landing future jobs with the same person.

Kill the site

It’s pretty much the most obvious and common practice.
In simple terms – if the client refuses to pay, you shut down his whole website until he sees things your way.

While it seems like a perfect solution at first glimpse, it does not necessarily have to be. People like to be stubborn. If you poke some people, they will poke you back whatever the cost. So if you suddenly kill their whole site, they’d probably rather find another freelancer and go through the whole hassle again than pay you.
Yes, it’s very illogical and stupid, but remember – it’s you who lost the time and has no money to show for it by the end of the day. The client already had a site and probably thought of some improvements which he can pass down to the next freelancer.
So think twice with who you’re dealing with before you take action.

As well, there’s a lot of sites which provide a script to kill the site in an easily reversible way like but I believe if you created a whole site, temporarily shutting it down won’t be a problem for you. If for some reason it will though, you just had the link a second ago.

Don’t launch the site

It’s certainly one way to keep your client in check. Be sure though to make it perfectly clear at the very beginning that their site will not go live until you get paid in full. Otherwise you can get into a world of trouble and not without reason.

Remember, that you’re the expert here and cannot expect that your client will know or follow any routines established in the virtual world. So if the client was expecting the site to be launched before paying, it’s pretty much your fault for not making the necessary explanations before that.

Modify the site

Now, let me state right off the bat, that it’s totally non-professional and may put your own reputation at terrible risk. That being said…

A modified site can frustrate the client much more than just taking it down or putting up a maintenance sign. Not long ago I found a case on the internet where the client was refusing to pay freelancers their money for the site and other things they did. What they did in return, was write a whole story on the guy’s site, stating how he ripped them and some other people off.

The money in question was quite a considerable sum and from what I’ve read, they have received it in full, two days after taking over the site and modifying it. They did this only after not receiving payment for over 60 days.

While they were in fact successful, ask yourself a question.
Would you hire that company?
They didn’t do anything wrong. They just wanted to get paid for the work they did. Nonetheless, I’d be more inclined to go with someone who I knew wouldn’t talk about our business to anyone else.

Contact the client

Yeah, I know. Another obvious course of action. But there’s more to it then meets the eye.

Emails have become the go-to thing when it comes to contacting your clients. There is a flaw in the process though. Frankly, it’s very easy to avoid answering them and the longer you avoid answering them, the harder it is to come back and so unpaid bills are born.
One way to prevent it from happening is maintaining steady communication with your client via an IM client like Skype. Get him used to talking with you and you might avoid more problems than just not getting paid. I know, that most often it will not be possible though, if your client for example is a dog breeder, chances are he does not spend his whole day in front of a computer uploading Facebook photos. In that case you still have one more thing, that could help you.

Your phone.

It’s much harder to tell you “no” on the phone, then it is to write it in an email. So if you are anticipating that your client may be thinking of talking his way out of paying, you can try to call him first and just maybe turn the situation around. It’s not exactly like you have something to lose in the process.

So if a phone call works better than email, than meeting your client in person will work even better. It’s true in most cases. You will not always have that opportunity though. May it be because it’s to far or he just will not want to meet you in person because of a lack of time or another reason.

So choose your contact method carefully and try to find the fine line between reminding the client about yourself and annoying him. I know you may be mad because you were expecting to be paid long ago, however, if your client decides to walk, you get nothing out of it.

Stall other works

If you’re good at what you do. Often the client will ask you for additional things.
Actually you should make a habit of offering your clients additional services. If I’m making a website for someone, usually I end up doing additionally some business cards, posters etc. What I’m getting at is, if you do additional work, you can stall them a bit if your client is late with his payments. Rather stall giving your work to him then doing actual work on it, or additional problems may arise.

If you’re making posters etc. usually it would be too much of a problem to replace you in time, so the time to open the bank account to send you the money will suddenly be found.
It’s not really unprofessional of you to do something of that sort.
Remember, that you’re not his employee, but basically a one (or more) man company that he hired for your skills. So it’s just to be expected that you demand mutual respect. Getting paid on time is a part of it.

Accept partial payments

I know it sounds stupid, but sometimes at the end of the work your client will in fact tell you, he does not have the money to pay you due to various reasons.

Again, you don’t want him to just walk away and trash the whole project. How you can still gain the upper hand here, is propose partial payments with interest. Maybe you will have to wait longer for your money, but in the end it will be worth it, as you get more cash over time. If he fails to complete even those partial payments, then you got a whole article above about what other things you might then do.

That’s a wrap

And that’s pretty much that. It’s not really possible to take into consideration all the possible scenarios, so you’re just going to have to improvise a bit. But you got the basics down now and have some things to back you up.

Just remember that getting angry is not the way to go, not if you want to get payed.

Oh, and if you want to see how far problems with clients can go I recommend you visit . After years in the business I somehow believe most of the things on there are actually true…



  1. Great points above:
    Just to add to the discussion: Unfortunately there are clients that have the knowledge that they own a “flagship” website or brand and this can also impact on your relationship with them.

    Nasty client tactic: Their bargaining chip can be to state that they can easily find a replacement freelancer who would KILL to have that particular website/print in their portfolio. A horrible tactic that works on young freelancers insecurities.

    My advice to you in this situation is this: Just let them go! A non-paying or abusive client will always be just that and it takes a lot more effort to chase the payment than it does to just give the problematic client away. I can guarantee that the client will treat the next muggins exactly the same.

    When starting out as a freelancer to get business, there will always be individuals that want your services and time at a de-valued rate. I swear that there are individuals that seem to prey on young and upcoming freelancers to save themselves money but still demand high quality work from inexperienced but gifted individuals.
    Tip:Work out a competitive hourly rate and stick to it. If this is refused or laughed at, remind the client that you would not expect to purchase their service for less than the client charges. You can also state that you are directly impacting the clients business and bringing them more from your efforts. If they laugh at this or fail to empathise with your position. Walk away.

    As a web design studio we found out that constantly chasing problematic, ultra-fussy or non paying clients ate severely in to our time from producing great work for clients that are actually grateful, or can see the benefit of your services (they do exist!).

    If ever you feel as if you are trapped in an abusive client relationship then simply dump them and walk away before you get in too deep. You may take a hit on payment but believe me, chasing that payment also eats in to your earning time. If it’s a substantial amount seek legal advice.

    Our magic formula: (as pointed out in some comments above as well)
    1) ALWAYS take a down payment of your agreed fee-If they squirm at this stage. WALK AWAY and find business elsewhere.
    2) Invoice per task or development gate/milestone:ie.completed business card or web template design stage signoff. Again if there are problems then. DO NOT PROCEED until that has been paid.
    3) Setup a billing system to auto-invoice hosting charges. If a client does not pay after repeated reminders, the system will dispassionately put them to a support page stating that they should contact the billing department. If they are unwilling to accept these terms and are repeat offenders then they will not have a website for very long as every single major host also operates in this way. (For this reason!)

    The clients that matter are the ones that you can build a trusting relationship with and that actually respect your skill at bringing them new business. They will tell you this and also pay you on time & the value you agreed.

    Good luck & I personally hope you find these clients as they are out there.

    After saying all the above though -It’s always tempting to redirect a non-paying & problematic client to one of their sworn competitors and watch the fur fly, but totally unprofessional and NOT recommended! :)

  2. Luciana Santos

    Good tips. That’s why it’s good to work with a contract whenever possible. Modifying the site sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t do it myself, but I know that there are clients that deserve it. :-/

  3. Rhey Moujeh

    Wow, this is a great article, I was tricked by a client and I don’t have anymore idea to get his money, i gave him all of the things about that web, then send him many notif about the payment, but…, he don’t even answer my calls,
    till I make something unprofessional way, I call my friends to kick his ass and make him pay the bill. I like that way, simple even me and my friends have to find him at all side of his location. Once again ,

  4. Lizette

    All my clients happily pay upfront, when Mr. X came along. He wanted me to write a book for $450 and I agreed to accept 3 payments of $150. I started writing after the down payment of $150 and supplied the first draft in a week. After checking it, he welcomed me to the team and said it was great. I finished the book and gave it to him. He then said he wants another 10 books. He signed an agreement that the final payment would be due on delivery of the job. However, 22 days later I was still waiting for payment. When I requested this payment, he asked for a refund on PayPal. I did screen captures of all the communications and sent it to PayPal. They ruled in my favor. I should’ve trusted my instincts when he told me to keep the money behind in my PayPal account until he is happy with the work and simply told him to get lost. Moral of the story – never be too desperate!

  5. Paul Mckay

    This is a great incite in getting the client to pay.

    Working at a web design agency, there’s always the case of a client not being able to pay. Whether it’s done by ignoring all the attempts made to get in contact or just simply dragging out the sign off process before the site goes live, clients never seem to want to know you when they know the sites coming to an end.

    To get around this we provide them with a number of solutions, the main one being partial payments and we find that clients are won over a lot easier when they realise a large sum of money isn’t going to disappear from their bank accounts. I find that providing the client a definitive date as to when he can be expected to be invoiced for the work carried out is an easier way to break it to them that they will eventually have to pay. ( This is done often around the start of the project ).

  6. Anna M

    Well very interesting article! I own a design office in Greece (I’m British). I would love to hear from anyone doing business here that has cracked the code on ‘how to get paid…..period’ or ‘how to get paid on time’. I would be bankcrupt in a month if I applied any of the tips from your list. Although all very correct, ethical and professional the Greek business structure has yet to learn these approaches and in order to do business here you have to ‘fall in’ or you won’t survive. I have been in business for 15 years in Greece, my team and I are experts in hotel branding and have won various awards, we NEVER miss a deadline, work all hours, rarely make mistakes and I really can’t think of anything that we do wrong that would warrant the ‘hell’ we go through to get paid. I have clients sign agreements, deposits are requested, delivery dates given and still they find ways to avoid paying on time or at all. Of course not all my clients are like this as, but what to do when your competitors offer never ending credit or free work just to steal your client away. As I say ‘I cannot compete with Free’…..and who in their right mind would but here THEY WOULD. My offcie was recently voted ‘The most professional office 2010′ by the Chamber of Commerce so that goes to show I must, after 15 years, have done something right…..but I really would love to hear from anyone who does business in Greece (or similar). On a lighter note, the weather is fantastic, my house is by the sea, I swim daily and the people are truly passionate about life……just not about paying :-)

  7. Gareth Mueller

    Good article. A couple of other tips are to also ask for a substantial deposit, and if it’s a big project arrange stage payments part way through before work continues. By the end of the project you could have 60% of the money in the bank which is not quite so bad if the client defaults on the last payment.

  8. tyropel

    Really great article. It will benefit me in my future projects… Thanks alot :)

  9. I disagree with some of this article. Killing or maliciously changing a website and disrupting a business can get you in a world of hurt, even if they do owe you money. Watermarking, unless you’re a photographer, seems tacky and distrustful. How about this…

    1. Start with honest and trusting relationships. Don’t get involved with unprofessional and shady clients. Not always obvious on hire, but it needs to be said.
    2. Require a signed contract in order to begin. You are batsh*t f’n crazy if you operate without one. You might also mention on your proposal that “down payment indicates your agreement to this contract” for a little extra backup.
    3. Require one-third of the estimate as a down payment in order to begin. Bill the second third after the design direction is approved. Bill the remainder at launch. Legitimate clients have no gripe with these terms and it will keep the payment vs. work balance in your favor throughout the job.
    4. Charge 1.5% interest on late bills and bill for work completed if the project is delayed 60 days.
    5. Accept partial payments, certainly. It once took a company 6 payments over six months to get me my second half of an invoice, but I got paid.
    6. If all seems lost, let them know in a professional manner that the bill will be going to collections in 7 days.
    7. Give it to collections. You won’t get all your money, but you’ll put ‘em through hell for it while keeping your personal ethics intact. I had a client ignore me entirely for 6 months. I finally offered to send his bill to collections and got a response and personal check in 2 days.

    Call me crazy, but I’ve had 50+ clients over 6 years and 100% of payments received. There have been issues, yes, but piece by piece I put the above in place and it’s a pretty tight ship at this point.

  10. Great article. I’ve been a creative director/graphic designer/web developer for 20 years and this is a problem that used to plague me. However in the last 5 years I have gotten paid for every single job and gotten paid on my terms.

    It is perfectly reasonable to be paid for our time. No one goes to the grocery and expects to shop for free. Remember, you are not working FOR your clients, you are working WITH them. What you are doing is trading your expertise/service for money, it’s fair and equitable. The key is standing in your value, providing clear boundaries for the relationship and standing by them.

    I now use two services, Freshbooks and Basecamp. For every single job I use Freshbooks to create an estimate stating that it is a good faith estimate and may vary once the final job is in house. I also lay out my payment terms. 50% up front, 25% upon design approval, 25% upon delivery. Most of the labor is put in at the beginning of a design job, that’s why I get 50% up front. By this time the client has already seen my portfolio and we have already established trust and the terms of our relationship. If there is no mutual trust we simply don’t work together. Freshbooks allows the client to accept the estimate formalizing the engagement and acting as a contract. I do have a full contract too, but I rarely use that any more. I then invoice them for the 50% and set up the initial strategy meeting sometime in the days following receipt of that. At the initial meeting and in every interaction my goal is to provide massive amounts of value, and I always ask if there is anything more they need and anything more they would like.
    Basecamp allows me to deliver proofs to the client electronically and also track their progress so I have a constant track of our interactions as proof of work should anything go awry. I NEVER waiver from this, even with friends. I run a BUSINESS and provide a great service. I will bend over backwards to provide value to my clients and in return I expect them to fulfill their part of the relationship on time and with the same integrity. Remember, clients are clients and friends are friends.

  11. This is a great blog!

    Although I wouldn’t ever do it, modifying a site is such an excellent idea. Oh the laughs that could be had.

    Oh the laughs!

  12. Great article and good to bring it to the forefront. Just wanted to add most important is to take a reasonable commencement deposit up front – 30, 40, 50% – (including for additional suppliers) which cover key costs, plus provide a quick indication of whether a client will pay. If they pay this – must do, or you don’t do the work – then invoice monthly – you’ll get a quick(er) indication if you’ve a good client or not – and lost fees become less of an issue.

  13. JoeyDavis

    So if you suddenly kill their whole site, they’d probably rather find another freelancer and go through the whole hassle again, then pay you.

    “then pay you” should be “than pay you”.

    “Unlike then, than is not related to time. Than is used in comparative statements.”

    Jsut trying to help you out, I know editing can be quite annoying and easy to accidentally skip over things.

    Have a nice day!

    Great Article by the way, I haven’t run into this, but it has always been a fear of mine and I’m glad for some advice before it occurs!

    • Robyn

      You forget the spelling error in the first paragraph under the heading DON’T LAUNCH THE SITE: “that there site will not go live.. “. There should be spelled their.

  14. It’s called covering your rear. Best advice you mentioned, whenever possible get that contract. It’s so disappointing to have to shut down a website you worked so hard on for these reasons too. Great article RyJek.

  15. Skim read for now, and book marked for later!!
    Awesome quick read.. wish I had spotted it earlier to be honest!

    Thanks :)