Don’t Spend the Money Until It’s in the Bank

My husband holding the puppy while we decide at the store

My husband holding the puppy while we decide at the store

Earlier in my freelance career, I had an instance where income was lean, but I had just landed an unexpected new client offering to pay me a fairly large amount via a monthly retainer agreement. This was money above our tightened budget, so I felt confidently excited we could soon afford to make a major purchase that we had been putting off for the family — a new dog.

Our beloved family dog had died, and after several months of missing his presence we were emotionally ready to greet a new puppy. What we should have done was wait for the money to be in the bank before ever going and looking at the little cutie pies in the store to be tempted by their imploring little brown eyes. Once my husband and our two young girls went into the pet store to ‘look’ at the puppies our willpower was gone. It became an emotional … and very bad decision. The clerk talked us into putting the puppy on a store card and paying it off when my new client paid us a couple of weeks later. The money was never meant to be left on the card, which meant we would pay zero of the interest.

And so, the puppy came home with us. (Isn’t she adorable? Seriously. Who can say no to that little face?)

We let ourselves be talked into it because we had unexpected money coming soon to pay it off right away … or so we thought. I continued to work diligently on my new client’s needs and supplied many hours worth of work during that first month of the retainer agreement. The retainer amount promised was comparatively equal to my hourly income goal, and the type and scope of the work was well within my comfort zone – except that every request appeared to be an emergency … and this was already affecting my ability to juggle other pre-existing client agreements. I was willing to let this fact slide at first due to the promise of regular pay, and I wanted to make a great first-impression on the new client.

I began to get nervous when the first automated notice about their payment being late went out from my accounting program (I use Freshbooks as I’ve mentioned before.) I sent an additional personal e-mail to my main contact and eventually received a check a couple of weeks later. This meant their first retainer payment, for the first month of work was nearly a month late. (A retainer means pre-payment by the way, so technically I should have been paid before I started the work at all). By the time I received payment I had very low funds in my account, and was on the verge of  accruing late fees on several of my bills. This also meant we were unable to pay off the credit card we had used to get the dog.

This new client relationship continued like this, with regular late payments and repeated expectations for fast turn-times – even during my family time on the weekends – for a few months. Though I was always ‘eventually’ getting paid, this client relationship was toxic to my time with my family, my other clients, and my bank account. I eventually had to suggest they find another designer.

This client liked my work and my work ethic, and offered to pay triple my original retainer to keep me working for them! I was very tempted, but realized quickly they were not offering to change the toxic relationship – and likely the higher payment would still be regularly late. The promise of higher pay would not solve the problem.

So my fellow freelancers, learn from my mistake. Never ever make a major purchase from an unexpected raise in freelance income until that money is already in the bank – no matter how reliable you think the business is. And, to those reading this who regularly hire freelancers – how quickly you pay a freelancer is very important to the health of your ongoing working relationship. If a freelancer loves working with you, (i.e. you are respectful of them as a business with prompt payments, and your knowledge of their need to juggle other clients) you will get the best work possible from that freelancer.

My oldest daughter and the new puppy.

My oldest daughter and the new puppy.

As a side note, we still love our new dog. We just should have waited on the expected freelance payment before even going near a pet store. Here is another picture of the puppy’s first night in our home. My oldest daughter was so excited she asked to sleep beside her crate to keep the puppy company.

Yeah, we were doomed to make the wrong decision once we stepped foot into that pet store with our children in tow.

How about you? Have you ever made a purchase before your client’s payment arrived which later came back to bite you? (In my case, quite literally – the puppy also chewed up EVERYTHING she came into contact with for several months.)

Share your own story in the comments below. I’d love to know I’m not alone.



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