How to Always Get Paid on Time

How to Always Get Paid on Time

While the dream is to bill global giants for high-end work, the reality is that many photographers and videographers are often doing small jobs for tiny companies. Getting paid on time can be a bit of a battle, so here’s a system to try and advice to consider in order to make sure your invoices don’t disappear.

For those a bit longer in the tooth, there’s probably no new information here, but if you’re relatively fresh and you’re not accustomed to dealing with commercial (or even non-commercial) clients, it should be of use. When you consider that 48% of all invoices sent by companies in the creative industries end up being paid late, it’s worth making sure that you give yourself an advantage.

For those starting out, being assertive can be difficult, especially if you’re culturally conditioned not to be direct when it comes to discussing money. A combination of being British and coming from an arts background rather than one of entrepreneurship, this is something I can still find problematic.

The Pain of the Late Payers

Having spent years working for tiny companies — often start-ups with no dedicated accounting departments — I would often shoot, edit, and then send off the images with an invoice stating my payment terms of 30 days. For the vast majority of my clients, this was never a problem, frequently receiving payments a day or two after sending my invoice.

However, there have been plenty of occasions when payments failed to arrive, often resulting in frustrated emails from me and evasiveness awkwardness from them. Given that self-employed people spend an average of 20 days a year chasing late payments, having a system that can prevent this from happening is certainly worth implementing.

Skochypstiks duel at height

Sending invoices should not feel like a duel.

To my knowledge, a client has never deliberately avoided paying me. Most likely, the problem was that they’re terrible at accounting or found that something unexpected has come along that has made a one-off payment too painful. While money was always allocated to employing me, poor management meant that the money wasn’t actually ready to be transferred to me at the right time, and it was much easier to fob me off and ignore my emails than, say, fail to pay the rent on time.

Take Deposits, Use Milestones

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this Instagram post:

While it would be nice if I could invoice clients $20,000 for wireframes (some sort of really expensive clothing rack?), the revelation for me early on was that I needed to give clients a payment schedule in advance of the work. Being naturally a lazy person, sitting down to figure out dates and lay it all out in an email feels like extra admin, but when I consider the time and frustration spent chasing late payers, it's a wise investment of energy.

In short, the system can be broken down into four words: take deposits, use milestones. If the small businesses I deal with struggle to cope with (relatively) large one-off payments, it makes sense to allow them to make a series of much smaller payments that are spread out over weeks or months. Once a fee has been agreed, I send my list of milestones, amounts, and payment dates — showing when they will receive an invoice and the date by which it has to be paid — and make sure that everything is as clear as possible. 

I typically ask for a non-refundable, upfront payment of 50% of the final fee, but the details can be negotiated according to the job and could vary massively depending on whether you’re charging separately for post-production, licensing, etc.

The system described in the Instagram post is intended to ensure that you never do any work that hasn’t been paid for, but I’m not sure I can convince many of my clients to pay for images that they’ve yet to receive. Instead, I typically deliver web-res images alongside my final invoice and then do not make the high-res images available until I’ve received that final payment. Every job is different, and you may wish to send an invoice for a partial payment directly after the day of the shoot and before any post-production is started.

Ultimately, the goal is to spread out the pain of paying you and give a very precise schedule of how these payments should happen.

Marcello Palozzo hand balancing.

Balancing the books. Not quite as tricky as balancing one-handed handstands.

How Long?

30-day payment terms (never mind 60 or 90) are a thing of the past, and 14, 10, and 7-day terms are much more common than they were10 years ago, especially now that checks have almost been consigned to history (in Europe, at least). I’ve not been paid by check in over 10 years (I don’t accept them), and it’s worth noting that the method of payment should be listed on your invoice. Almost three-quarters of invoices in the UK are 14 days or less.

Dates might still be missed, but the shorter your payment terms, the more likely you are to get paid sooner. A 7-day invoice that’s paid a fortnight late still sees money in your account sooner than a 30-day invoice that’s 2 days late.

Stick to Your Schedule

If your schedule states that an invoice is going to be sent on a particular date, make sure you stick to it. If you’ve invested a load of time into laying out a plan, don’t undermine it, as the client will regard you as incompetent and you might need to then revise the entire schedule, creating more admin.

Don’t Be Afraid to Chase

Small businesses — especially start-ups — have a hard time keeping on top of their finances, as many are growing at a rate that makes accounting one of the toughest parts of running a company. There’s nothing wrong with sending an email reminding a client that a payment is due in the next day or two. The client may even be grateful for it.

Put It in Writing

If terms are discussed on the phone, I immediately send an email summarizing the conversation so that there’s no miscommunication. If there are any changes to your schedule, make sure it’s put in writing to avoid confusion later on. It’s much easier to refer back to an email than a conversation.

In Summary

Being a good photographer does not necessarily mean being good at administrative chores, never mind being good at running a business. Investing a little bit of time into being organized and developing a system can seem wasteful at first, but it could easily save you hours of anger and frustration in the long-term, as well as make you feel like you're on top of your finances.

I've barely scraped the surface here, and this is obviously geared to those starting out, but if you have any more advice to offer, be sure to leave a comment below.

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Johnny Rico's picture

"Given that self-employed people spend an average of 20 days a year chasing late payments"

Seems like a purely made up figure?

"30-day payment terms (never mind 60 or 90) are a thing of the past,"

yeah, no they are not actually

Andy Day's picture


"IPSE research has shown freelancers spend an average of 20 days a year chasing late payments"

"30-day terms are obsolete"

Johnny Rico's picture

You have linked to 2 different entities that are trying to make money by saying how much you need their services...

Mark Fa'amaoni's picture

I use Xero. I love Xero. But the blog post from Xero doesn't match the reality I live in. Everyone here still operates on payment on the 20th of the month. It isn't up for negotiation. Their accounting systems are locked up behind layers of bureaucracy and no matter what I write on my invoice and how "short I make my payment terms" it won't get paid until the 20th of the month, each and every time.

And the biggest problems I have aren't with small businesses or even individuals. Its big corporates. The longest I ever took to get paid was by an (extremely large and powerful) American Bank that held a small conference (here in NZ). After three months of non-payment I resorted to emailing my contact each and every day with an invoice: after five days of that they finally sorted it out.

Deleted Account's picture

I often see 30 day terms from contractors.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

all C.O.D.

Don Risi's picture

"License to use photos is not granted until photographer as received payment in full. Any use of photos prior to photographer receiving payment in full constitutes infringement of copyright, and will be dealt with accordingly. Partial payments are not accepted."

Deleted Account's picture

If you are chasing payment then you are not being paid on time.

The only universe where you ALWAYS get paid on time is when you take payment in full in advance.

Deleted Account's picture

All is 30 days here. The exception pay sooner. It's not expected though.
Some end of the month + 30 days, some 60 and one +90 days.

There is no such thing as cash before delivery here. If I was to do that, I'd not have one client left.
That said, I only do B2B.

If anyone is overdrew they get a friendly reminder a few days over the sure date. 99% will pay. The stubborn might need a couple of reminders. Only once did I need the threat of a debt recovery service.

Oh, and 2 went bust. Money lost.

Ok for nearly 15 years in the trade I think.

Mr. T's picture

Good advice and definitely something to consider.

I see some are saying that the shorter payment schedule (i.e. less than 30 days) is not an option but I think it depends on the size and flexibility (and thus schedule rigidity) of the customers.

I have government customers that want their invoice on time or it will not be paid until the next accounting cycle, which means a delay of one month. I have to invoice on the 1st of the month to get paid the 1st of the following month. That is non-negotiable but on the upside, they pay on time, every time, if I live up to my side of the bargain — the taxpayers' money well spent. I know this is probably not the case for all government institutions in all countries.

Smaller customers get a more rigid clause from up-front payment to 14 days. Some good, old customers can negotiate better terms but then again they know me and I know them and a level of trust has been built.

I guess what I wanted to say is: good advice but be aware that a one-size-fits-all-approach is not always possible.

C Fisher's picture

What kind of pictures do you take for the govt? Headshots, espionage, etc 😉

Mr. T's picture

Ooh, if I told you I'd have to ... ((fingers crossing throat))   ;-)

Gordon Cahill's picture

Solved my payment issues 15 years ago by putting up my prices 20%. I then offered a 20% early settlement discount for payments within 14 days. Since then 90% pay within 14 days and the rest pay me extra for the time I spend chasing them.

My contracts also have the no usage until payment clause and a casual usage rate as the first item.


Robert Montgomery's picture

Half up front. Back half in form of Credit Card hold or Cash or a known client a checque, payable at time of delivery. Just like rental shops.

John Dawson's picture

Safety net: "No rights granted until the invoice is paid in full."

C Fisher's picture

A yt channel I watched is occasionally sponsored by Honeybook, it's automated invoice software. Sounds like a good idea lol.

Timothy Turner's picture

I took a lesson from Walgreens, you drop your film or digital media off to get prints, when you go to pick up your order Walgreens has a policy that you only pay for what you want, if you don't like the photos, even if it was your fault you don't pay and Walgreens throws the photos away. So I tried it ,I did family portrait and told my client I will get the proofs made all at my expense you pay nothing up front, when I return you only pay for what you want and I keep the remaining photos, if you don't like any of them and here's the kicker " you keep your money, I keep the photos" sounds crazy? upon delivering the proofs I also gave them a price list, my 50 dollar cost turned into a 650.00 dollar order.

Darren Loveland's picture

For long term photography projects or video work with consistent updates, I really like that Milestone method. Will try it out sometime.