There’s a basic freelancing question that mystifies many writers: “How do I get paid, exactly?”
When you’re used to an employer handing you a paycheck every week or two, it can be intimidating to realize that as an independent contractor, you’ll only get paid if you figure out your freelancer payment options — and make it happen.
That’s probably why many writers gravitate to content mills and mass platforms that act as intermediaries. Then, you know your payment will come from the platform so you don’t have to stress about how to get paid as a freelancer.
Of course, once you see how tiny that payment is after the platform takes its cut, you’ll likely be looking to cut out the middleman so you can make more money writing.
Fortunately, there are several reliable ways to get paid as a freelancer directly from your clients.
First, I’ll go over the various freelancer payment methods — and then, I’ve got a few quick tips on how to structure your contract to ensure you don’t get stiffed.
The Best Freelancer Payment Methods
My simple answer to how to get paid as a freelancer is: However the client wants.
You may have a preferred method, sure. But the reality is that we’re here to serve clients. You’ll have more success if you’re willing to be flexible and work with their preferred method.
Sometimes your client is flexible and you have options, though. If so, here are proven options to get paid:
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1. Physical check
Yes, this is still a completely valid way to get paid! And many large companies continue to cut checks to freelancers once a month, or biweekly. If you have a client like this, good luck getting them to make an exception and pay you differently.
Of course, this means you can have that “your check is in the mail” problem, where the client insists they’ve mailed out your check, but it doesn’t arrive. You may be aware that the U.S. Mail has slowed, since 2020. Mail can legitimately get lost, too.
You also need to watch out for online check scams, where the check bounces after you’ve turned in your writing work. (If you take checks, be sure to check with your bank and make sure the check has cleared.)
On the plus side, now that there’s online banking, you may be able to use a smartphone to digitally deposit your check from the comfort of home (and to check that it’s cleared).
Be warned that accepting foreign checks can incur a fat fee — I once was charged $34 for depositing a Canadian check, for instance. Ouch! If you’re dealing with cross-border issues, other options will probably be more desirable.
2. Free and fee-based online payments
In the past few years, no-fee online payments have become more prevalent — yay! But there are still reasons to using fee-charging platforms. Let’s compare and contrast:
Free payment services
Venmo, Zelle, Google Wallet, and ApplePay are among the popular free alternatives I’ve either used myself or heard good things about. Increasingly, big banks are aligning with these solutions, so you can hook your debit card up to one of these. You can also send and receive money free through Facebook Messenger.
These aren’t generally used for business and don’t have the record-keeping options of more robust, fee-charging solutions, but are useful in a pinch. If you use them, be sure to print yourself out a receipt to save for your taxes.
When it comes to fee-based options, PayPal is the dominant online-payments provider worldwide. It’s widespread, but also widely hated by many for its fees (generally, 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction).
Also, people in some countries are prohibited from using PayPal (check if PayPal services are available in your country here). If that’s you, another online-payment option will be needed.
Online payments have the advantage of being instant, which is a real plus if your bank account is low. The dark side is the fees, for any of the robustPayPal charges 2.9 percent, for instance. If you’re running a thriving freelance business of, let’s say, $60,000 a year, you’d give up $1,740 of that in fees if you got paid entirely through PayPal. It’s a major bite!
Many clients prefer to pay through PayPal, so it’s worth getting an account set up. You may limit the gigs you can get without it.
International payment processors
Research online to see which providers currently accept payments from your country, and shop rates for the best deal. Transferwise (now known as Wise), Payoneer, 2CheckOut, and Dwolla are among the popular portals for enabling international payments. They tend to offer lower fees than PayPal.
Fees and terms vary and change often — check the provider of your choice for details.
There are other fee workarounds, such as having your client use Mass Pay on PayPal if they have that feature, or having them select “Send Money to a Friend,” to make it free. (You’re not supposed to do that on business transactions, and it can get them in trouble with PayPal if they get busted. So I don’t recommend asking your clients do it. But… people do.)
Sadly, most businesses aren’t up for paying processing fees — I’ve seen deals fall apart over this issue, so don’t press it if a client says no. Instead, build the fees into your bid.
3. Bank transfer
Also known variously as ACH (automated clearing house) or EFT (electronic funds transfer), bank transfers fire the money straight from your client’s bank account into yours. If the transaction is international, your bank may slap with you a fee of $30 or more, so watch out on that — this is why writers turn to solutions such as Wise for that.
If you have an ongoing retainer gig (particularly a domestic one), bank transfer is the ideal way to go. No more checking the mailbox or paying PayPal fees — you set a day of the month for automatic payment, and it pops right in.
To set these up, you have to give your bank account and routing number to your client, usually by filling out a bank form. This may seem hinkey, but without your personal information — online banking login, your picture ID, answers to your security questions — they can only put money in.
Obviously, you’ll want to vet clients you set up bank transfers with to make sure they’re legit before you go down this road.
4. Accepting credit cards
Clients will often want to pay with a credit card, especially if you’re working on costly, multi-month projects such as book ghostwriting gigs. The client may not have $30,000 up their sleeve, and may need to charge it.
Taking card payments requires a payment service provider (PSP) of some kind. Some of the options mentioned above, including Paypal, Dwolla, and virtual wallets, can play this role. Which is great, because accepting cards used to involve purchasing clunky credit-card reader machines or cash registers. Fortunately, today there are virtual providers available, including Square and Stripe.
I’ve used both of these, and have found their process super-easy. If you want to physically process a client’s card, there’s also that handy physical Square reader you can attach to your smartphone.
The catch? Credit-card processors take out fees, too. Square charges 2.75 percent, for instance. PayPal also can be used as a credit-card processor, for a small additional monthly payment plus its usual fees. Make sure you’re getting the lowest fee rate you can, and remember to build those fees into your project bids.
Yes, you’d rather get paid in cold, hard cash. But sometimes, it’s just not possible. Your client desperately needs your writing help, you love what they do, but they’re broke. Or one of you is in a country where it’s hard to get or receive payments.
One solution is a tradeout, in which you get paid in goods or services the company provides. There are plenty of companies you wouldn’t do this for, but even now, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at getting paid in chocolate, hotel stays, or organic beef.
Tradeouts tend to be win-win, because the company pays wholesale prices for the goods but you’ll invoice at retail value. So the company in essence gets a discount and doesn’t have to lay out any cash. In return, you hopefully get some goods you enjoy, and might not otherwise be able to afford. You can even triangulate a tradeout, where you get one of your clients to pay one of your vendors — I’ve done that for people in countries with payment-processing challenges.
Tips to make sure you get paid as a freelancer
It’s good to have your payment method set up — but it won’t make a difference if you don’t have a clear contract that nails down when and how you’ll get paid.
Big rule: Don’t start work for a client without a freelance contract in place — and in the case of businesses, an up-front deposit.
If your prospect balks at the idea of giving you 30%-50% up front to get started, be wary. Up-front deposits are standard practice for nearly all types of contractors.
This contract should specify exactly what you’ll do, what the payment will be, and most importantly when the payment(s) are due.
A common blunder is to leave the terms of the final payment vague. This means the client could just keep stalling, saying they haven’t finalized the piece yet, essentially forever.
My preferred phrase: “Final payment is due 14 days after turn-in of final draft or upon final acceptance, whichever is sooner.”
This means there is a maximum 2-week wait before your check is due. Boom. Instead of months of vague promises, calls, threats, until they finally pay your freelancer invoice. Avoid that with strong contract terms!
How do you get paid as a freelancer? Let’s discuss in the comments.