An American Editor

October 30, 2017

“Net 15” or “Net 30”? — Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS

Part of being a good (and profitable) freelance professional is understanding the business side of business — both yours and your clients’. Even though I’ve been an editor for more than 30 years, I’m also a businessperson who understands the vagaries of accounting departments (I come from a long line of accountants and bookkeepers).

Unfortunately, what most freelancers lack is basic knowledge of bookkeeping and accounting systems in Corporate America. I’m not talking about what software your clients use for their accounting. I’m talking about what happens on the other side, that is, what happens to an invoice once you submit it and how it gets processed, which ends in you getting paid. You need to have verbiage in your contracts that spells out the payment terms and the schedule for payment(s), and the client has to agree to your terms. There’s more about contract terms later.

First let’s talk about corporate accounting departments. Most firms have an accounting cycle that is made up partly of their particular business practices and partly by when certain filings are due for local, state, and federal reporting and taxes. Large firms have separate Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivables departments, whereas in smaller firms these accounting functions are often in the same department or even the same person doing all of the bookkeeping work. Checks are “cut” (made out) on a given date every month; entries may be put into ledgers on a given date; various reports are run on certain days; various taxes are paid on certain days; and a whole host of other things go on in between.

That’s all well and good and nice information to have, but how does this affect you and your business? As an example, let’s say you have “net 15” in your contract with a client. You finish a project on June 4, and send the invoice to them on June 5. According to the net 15 terms in your contract with them, you expect to have a check in hand on June 20 because June 20 is 15 days after June 5, that is, the “net 15” in your contract. But…you don’t get the check until July 20. You are frustrated, annoyed, ticked off, etc., because in your mind it’s a month overdue. To the company, however, this is acceptable. Why? What are you missing? You are missing two vital pieces of information: knowledge about (a) the review process for your invoice — and every firm has a review process in place, even if it is nothing more than the person who ordered the services writing “OK” on the invoice, and (b) when the company actually cuts checks.

Let’s talk about the review process first. Sometimes the review process is to see whether your work is up to the client’s standards. On occasion, someone other than your immediate point of contact may insert his opinion into the review process; and sometimes the review process is to make sure everything is there and complete.

Sometimes, having your work go through a review process before you can get paid greatly slows the timing of your payment. Two examples of this are:

  1. When the customer thinks it knows what good English is when it doesn’t (or its related problem of when the customer insists an element of style is a grammatical “rule”); and
  2. When the customer (or someone higher in the approval cycle) decides something should be added or deleted in the text and refuses to OK your invoice until everything is as they think it should be — regardless what it said in your original scope of work and/or your contract with the company.

It is, however, the customer’s right to see if your work is OK. The review alone could take a week or two depending on how big the project is and what else your contact has on her plate to do.

Once your client says the work is fine and approves the invoice, your invoice is sent up the chain for further OKs through however many approval levels it has to go before it gets to Accounts Payable (AP). Now, let’s say (using the example above) it finally gets to AP on June 18, but AP only cuts checks on the 10th of each month. Because AP has already cut the checks for June, it won’t cut any more until July 10. The check is cut on July 10, and then the check may or may not go to a junior person to put into an envelope, seal, and mail. However, because of the distance between where you are and the company, and mail delivery service what it is, you don’t get it until July 20. See?

Most firms are not going to drop everything to cut a check just for you if it’s out of their regular cycle, even if payment is to be made electronically, directly to your bank.

Some of the payment problems you might face may be contractual, especially if you didn’t specify payment terms in your contract. If you just put “Net 15” on your invoice, the client might not be capable of meeting a 15-day payment schedule. This needs to be kept in mind when negotiating your fee. Actually, during contract negotiations is the time to learn your client’s payment procedures and to account for —in your fee —any payment delays that are likely to occur.

Other problems might be because of the client’s internal logistics. For example, your contact OKs your invoice right away, but the next person in line to OK it is on vacation for a week and didn’t appoint someone to approve payment during their absence. (Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen too many times to count, although, thankfully, not in my freelancing career.)

The two primary methods for dealing with a client’s failure to pay on time are:

  1. Don’t work for them — which would be a shame if you value them, and they value you; and
  2. Grin and bear it and work in the time the client takes to pay into your personal budgeting and, as noted earlier, in your fee.

If you didn’t find out ahead of time and put it in your contract, ask what the AP schedule is so you can submit your work and invoices in time for you to get paid at the earliest possible date. That said, you should always try to have a financial cushion to draw from if the need arises, such as the case here with late payers, or if you lose a customer (or your health). You should never depend on just one or two clients for the bulk of your livelihood.

Elaine R. Firestone, ELS, is an award-winning — and board certified — scientific and technical editor and compositor specializing in the physical and agricultural sciences. After a 25+-year career editing for NASA, Elaine started ERF Editorial Consulting, where her motto is “ERF” aren’t just my initials — it’s what you get: Edits. Results. Final product.©

5 Comments »

  1. I used to have 14 days’ payment terms, then I found people ‘forgot’ to pay me, so I reduced it to seven. Then I found they still ‘forgot’ to pay me and I reduced it to ‘payment due now’. I find that works better. Get the bill. Pay the bill. That said, larger organisations tend to take longer to pay than individual clients or small businesses simply because of their bureaucracy and laborious accounting systems. In my experience, universities are the worst offenders!

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    Comment by fullproofreading — October 30, 2017 @ 6:44 am | Reply

  2. How great to see Elaine as one of our contributors here!

    I put “Payable on receipt” on all my invoices, even when I know that a given client uses a 30-day cycle. I also mentally, and sometimes on paper, budget to expect payments in 45 to 60 days to avoid that panicky feeling of “Oh, no, Bill X is due and it’s Day 31 and that check hasn’t arrived yet!” That way, prompt or early payments are a treat and ones that run a bit late aren’t as traumatic.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 30, 2017 @ 8:15 am | Reply

  3. I only work with organizations. One long-term client is net 15, provided I invoice on the 25th of the month. They always pay on time. Another is net 60; they also pay on time. A third is net 15 and gets invoiced around the 25th, but they’re usually more like net 25. S’ok.

    Still another is net 15, but with them I invariably have to play the heavy and become increasingly squeaky as they string me out to net 30. And I’d be perfectly OK with net 30 (and even net 60)—if only their AP peeps would communicate with me what to expect. Their tight-lipped tendency only serves to arouse suspicion on my end.

    In summary (and as Elaine points out), good communication regarding payment schedules is essential for total peace of mind. Such terms should be fleshed out at the beginning of any relationship.

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    Comment by Chris Morton — October 30, 2017 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  4. Some companies here in Brazil have really large and bureaucratic nets. Others just ask for a receipt and pay right away. The problem is with new clients, when you don’t know what to expect at all… and they frequently are not clear about payment dates!

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    Comment by Patricia Logullo — October 30, 2017 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  5. It’s also important to recognize that some clients will set the payment rules/deadlines and some will agree to what we ask for. Just because I say “Payable on receipt” or something like “Net 15” doesn’t mean I’ll get paid when the client gets my invoice – unless that’s what we’re actually agreed on. Nor is it a bad thing if a client’s process is payment within 30 days of invoice date, at least – as Chris notes – that’s what I know to expect.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 30, 2017 @ 8:09 pm | Reply


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