Thoughts on Dealing with Low-Paying Clients

Hawaii Clouds. Photo by Alina Oswald.

How to Deal with Low- (and often late-) Paying Clients

Dollar-sign, dragon-like wet leaves stuck on trees in the aftermath of Sandy, Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alina Oswald.

We’ve been there, starting out by working for no-paying clients, and then picking up a few low-paying jobs from low-paying clients and feeling good about ourselves because we actually make some money. That’s all good, but it’s also good to be aware!

In general, low-paying clients will lead to more of the same. Soon, you’ll find yourself overworked and underpaid, unable to actually stop and reassess the situation and make changes for the better.

I am not saying that you should never, ever choose to work or continue to work for low-paying clients. All I’m saying is that you need to choose wisely.

That’s because, usually, low-paying clients only offer low-paying jobs. They simply don’t have the budget to pay a lot of money. While that kind of payment is expected, what should not be expected is everything else that comes with this kind of job. To start with, more often than not, clients that do not pay much also pay late and only after being reminded to do so. In addition, the less they can afford to pay (and sometimes they pay only a symbolic amount) the more they demand of you.

That said, not all low-paying clients are also late-paying clients or have unrealistic demands.

When and why should a creative–a freelance writer or photographer for example–take on a low-paying client?

  • to get the proverbial foot in the door; some creatives/freelancers take on low-paying jobs when they’re starting out, some hold on to their low-paying clients because more often than not they become repeat clients, and the regular work these clients provide makes a big difference (especially when they pay on time)
  • to bridge a financial gap between higher-paying gigs
  • to practice and not lose their artistic, creative touch (so to speak)
  • to work on something they’re personally interested in or support a cause they care about (sometimes low-paying projects are quite interesting and intriguing, and a wonderful source of inspiration)
  • to work on new ideas and meet new people

The problem is that it is easy to get sucked into working only for clients that are always, always on a very tight budget. And there’s no easy way out. Some low/late-paying clients:

  • They will try to make you feel guilty if you ever say no to a job
  • They will promise the perfect story or subject for you to cover, sometimes with very little to show for when it comes to the actual job
  • They will try to minimize the importance of your concerns and brush you off when you insist on an explanation (for, say not receiving payment on time yet again)

If you somehow become trapped, and stuck, while working only for this kind of client, you will not evolve, nor will you improve or grow as a creative professional. Because of the low payment, sometimes you might find yourself trying to cut corners, to take the easy way out. After all, the low and late payment and the related stress are not worth the effort.

Just like some projects, certain beads are more low-hanging or less desirable than others. Choose wisely! Photo by Alina Oswald.

Meanwhile, you will be drowning in too much work that you can’t afford to refuse because you will eventually be paid, but you’ll constantly feel unfairly treated. After a while, you’ll start thinking twice before plunging yet again into another project from said client. You already know the outcome and you don’t quite like it.

And while spending time reminding low-paying clients to pay you, your life and creative life will slowly but surely become consumed by this kind of exchange. You won’t have time to assess the situation and adjust your own priorities. You’ll always find yourself struggling to just keep your head above the water. That, while you’ll be served only empty promises and sometimes payment that, in the end, becomes even less significant.

On the other hand, the more serious clients, those who pay better and on time and who understand that they do need to pay on a monthly basis since everybody has monthly bills, these clients who do pay more will not take you or your work seriously, or even consider you a professional. They’ll conclude that you are not good enough or professional enough to play in their league.

Your family and friends might not consider your work “a real job” and hence, do not think is quite necessary to respect your workspace or hours. And you can’t even defend yourself much, no matter how hard you work or how seriously you take your work, or how good you are at it. Money, and only money, talks.

Many individuals take on low-paying jobs because they don’t think they are good enough for anything better. If you already have low self-esteem and agree to take on a no/low-paying job because you think you’re not better than that, I’d encourage you to take a step back and try to reconsider.

Working only for low-paying clients because of low self-esteem does not improve your self-esteem, quite the contrary.

Walk through the shadows to reach the light. Photo by Alina Oswald.

In order to stand up to this kind of client, you, the creative, need to first realize that they (the clients) will never change their way of doing business. What you can do is either cut your ties with said clients or, if you need or want to still work for them, you need to know how to keep them at bay, and not be afraid to say no and refuse to take on an assignment (and also let them know why you said no). Do not worry, you won’t lose them as clients. They’ll always have low-paying jobs for you.

Rise above the clouds and you’ll reach the clearest sky offering limitless possibilities!

Hawaii Clouds. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The view from here, from above the clouds. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Set boundaries, for yourself and for the clients. Let them know what you can and cannot do for them, based on their budget. Most of the time they’ll understand. Those who don’t are not worth your time. After all, we all have to make a living.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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