Maria Brophy


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business of art / Pricing / Written Agreements

How to Never get Ripped Off AGAIN – For Freelancers

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Aaron Bickford Photo of Drew and Maria Brophy in office

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”  Woody Allen

Being “ripped off”.  I really don’t like the negative sound of those words. But I’m compelled to write about it because it’s a topic that comes up again and again.

Yesterday an artist was in my office and she said that she’s been stiffed on payment too many times to mention.  It’s worn her down and she feels unappreciated.

Getting stiffed on payment is sadly one of the most common and frustrating things that can happen to freelancers.  It happens to artists, photographers, filmmakers,  web designers and just about every small business owner at  one time or another.

But it doesn’t have to ever happen to you (again).  It’s very simple to avoid.  You just have to do two things:

1.)     Require a deposit up front

2.)    Require the full balance at completion

The INSTANT you institute these two policies for your small business, you will NEVER have to make a collection call EVER again.

If it’s this simple, why do so many people continue to get “stiffed” on payment?

Because they don’t ask for the deposit up front and they hand over the goods before being paid.  It’s too bad that art school doesn’t teach you the importance of running your art venture like a business.

Here are some of the most common excuses I hear from people who keep getting ripped off:

  • “I don’t have a business mind”
  • “I’m new at this”
  • “I need an agent to do this for me.”
  • “I needed the work really bad – I was desperate.”

Handling your business wisely is a decision you make, not a gene that you’re born with!


You just have to institute your own payment policies.

I learned this the hard way when, many moons ago, Drew was “hired” by the large clothing company American Eagle.  They asked him to create a detailed artistic map of one of the Hawaiian Islands.  The art was going to be used for t-shirts and other accessories.

They were on a tight deadline and needed it yesterday.  There was no time to get a deposit.  Drew put in many hours drawing this up, and the art director at American Eagle kept making changes.

Their final change is what led to the non-payment:  They decided not to use a map after all.  We sent them a bill for the work done, and they never paid us.  Dealing with a company that large is nearly impossible to get payment from AFTER THE FACT.  That’s why we should have gotten money up front.

We were, by some standards, ripped off, taken advantage of and screwed over.

But I’m a firm believer that no-one can take advantage of you without your consent.

It was our own fault for not getting money up front before Drew put in many hours of work.

That was the LAST TIME we ever got stiffed on a commissioned job.  We learned from our mistake, and since then have required 50% up front and the balance when finished (before we hand the art over).


Two important things happen when you say to your client:  “I’ll need 50% up front to start the work and the balance is due when the work is completed.”

1         You are viewed as professional:  Your client now sees you as a person who has payment policies in place.  They respect you, and they are clear on what you expect and how it’s going to go.

2         A commitment is formed: Your client is fully committed when they pay a deposit.

When someone pays a deposit towards something, they are making a commitment to the project.

It’s a psychological thing.  Without a deposit, there is no real commitment from your client.  It’s like buying plane tickets.  My trip to New Zealand last year was just talk until I plunked down the $1,800 for plane tickets.  Once that money was paid, it was a reality.  We were fully committed.


Many artists require 50% up front.  The average, according to the Graphic Artists Guide to Ethical Pricing, is 30%.  I prefer the 50% and so does my bank account.


In every conversation I have with a new client, I mention, up front (even with friends and acquaintances and my mother’s uncle’s niece) that we need a deposit to get started.  (Hate to say it, but sometimes it’s the people closest to you that will stiff you).

You may feel strange asking for this.  Get over it, do it, and you’ll get used to it and eventually it won’t feel strange anymore.  Learning how to walk was strange also.  But you got used to it.

When giving a price quote, include your deposit requirement in writing by e-mail or proposal.  Here’s how ours looks in a price quote (I grabbed this from an actual proposal for a wakeboard design we did earlier this year):

PRICING:  Fee is $3,800.00.  A 50% deposit is required to start the work, and full balance upon completion.  OPTIONAL:  Original artwork may be purchased within 30 days of completion at a greatly discounted price of $3,500.  (Payments shall be made to Son of the Sea, Inc. PO Box 836, San Clemente, CA 92674.)

And here’s what we put in e-mails sent to clients with big projects, like murals:

We must have your signed proposal and deposit for the mural painting NO LATER THAN 2 weeks prior to the start date.  This allows us to get the materials we need at the pricing we configured for your quote.

Over time, your returning customers will know what you expect and they will be prepared to write you a check for the deposit.  All of our longtime customers are used to the way we work.  They also know that the work will get done to their satisfaction, because they’ve worked with us before.


It’s not always the client feeling weird about a deposit.  Sometimes it’s the artist.  Here are some of the scenarios:

THE ARTIST DOESN’T REQUIRE IT BECAUSE THEY ARE DESPERATE FOR THE WORK:  If you are desperate for work, than you surely cannot afford to spend time on something that you’ll never get paid for.  A deposit weeds out the payers from the non-payers.  The people who most likely will never pay you are the ones who won’t give a deposit.  The people willing to give a deposit are the ones that are serious.  See how this works?!

THE CLIENT REFUSES TO PAY A DEPOSIT:  If a client won’t pay a deposit, they just aren’t ready to commit.  If that’s the case, than you shouldn’t commit your time to their project.

Don’t get mad.  Just let them know that you are happy to start the work after they pay.  Tell them to call you when they are ready.  Be friendly and professional.

THEY DON’T HAVE THE MONEY:  I’ve run into this many times:  When I tell someone that they have to pay a deposit, and then they say “Oh, I don’t have the money right now.”  This tells me that they may never have it.  So I say “When you do, let me know.  We are looking forward to working with you.”

YOU FEEL YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF BEFORE YOU CAN DEMAND A DEPOSIT:  If you’ve been at it for less than 2 years you may still have to prove yourself before you can require a 30% – 50% deposit.  Maybe the client isn’t sure of your abilities and they are nervous to trust you.  In this case, lower the amount you ask for to 20% instead.

YOUR CLIENT IS A HUGE 5 BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY AND THEY TAKE 3 WEEKS TO CUT CHECKS BUT NEED YOU TO FINISH IN 2 WEEKS:  I’ve been faced with this scenario a few times.  Here’s what I do:   I ask the client to write me a personal check and they can bill their company for it later.  Some people laugh at that, but the serious ones send me their personal check.

THEY FLAT OUT REFUSE:  If they just refuse to pay a deposit, than most likely you’ll never get paid, no matter what you do, because of a lack of commitment on their part.  So walk away.  You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time and frustration.

IF YOU’VE BEEN A PROFESSIONAL AT YOUR TRADE FOR OVER FIVE YEARS:  You can STOP proving yourself.  No one should question you at this point.  You have good references that the client can call if they doubt your abilities.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES:  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  We made an exception when we did a deal with Converse – Drew started the work before we got our deposit.  They took 6 weeks to cut us a check.  But we have a good relationship with our people there, and I knew they would take care of us.  I very rarely make the exception, because of being burned in the past.


If you’ve been “ripped off” more than a couple times, than you need to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re doing to cause this.  Analyze what’s happening – are you keeping your end of the bargain?  Do you meet your deadlines?  Are you a joy to work with?  Do you behave like a professional?  It’s important to learn from our mistakes and then change the way we do things if something isn’t working.

I read somewhere once that the definition of crazy person is:  Someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result!


If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll never have a problem getting paid:

Put your price quote in writing (e-mail is fine) – this way there are no surprises on either end.  Give your quote leeway to add to it in the event that the scope of the work changes.  (We do this by adding this sentence:  In the event of unforeseen additional work due to conditions on surface or changes to the design by the client that may require extra labor or detail, this price could change.)

Have a payment policy and include that in your price quote (i.e. 50% down and balance due at completion)

Put a 30 day limit on your price quote – your situation could change or your materials costs can go up.  On my proposals I’ll put:  Proposal Date May 27, 2010.  Proposal valid for 30 days

Don’t begin the work without a commitment from your client in the form of a deposit

Send your client frequent updates of the progress of the work, along with photos of the progression.  This will give your client satisfaction knowing that you are working on it and that it’s getting done.

When it’s finished, send them a photo of the completed work and arrange to get final payment at the same time you hand over the goods.

I sincerely hope this article convinces all of you out there to institute your own policies.  Even if you are a part-time freelance artist or photographer, you are in business.  Your time is valuable.  You should be paid for your work.

Please, in the comments below, let me know what problems you’ve had on this subject and how you’ve dealt with it!

Maria xxoo


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172 Comments How to Never get Ripped Off AGAIN – For Freelancers

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  2. Diana

    Great post. As a writer, the problem for me has been collecting the final 50% after the work is completed and delivered (can’t really take a picture of a writing project). It’s become exhausting chasing final payments, so I’ve decided to only send a locked PDF of the material until I receive payment, at which point I will send the Word version. Will see how that goes for the next project…

  3. mark

    I live in usa and life is worth living comfortably for me and my family now and really have never seen goodness shown to me this much in my life as I have been going through a problem as seriously as my son found a terrible accident last two weeks, and the doctors states that he needs to undergo a delicate surgery for him to be able to walk again and I could not pay the bills, then your surgery went to the bank to borrow and reject me saying that I have no credit card, from there i run to my father and he was not able to help, then when I was browsing through yahoo answers and i came across a loan lender MR TONY HARTON, offering loans at affordable interest rate and i have been hearing about so many scams on the internet but at this my desperate situation, I had no choice but to give it an attempt and surprisingly it was all like a dream, I got a loan of $ 50,000 and I paid for my son surgery and thank God today is good and you can walk and is working and the burden is longer so much on me more and we can feed well and my family is happy today and i said to myself that I will mourn aloud in the world of the wonders of God to me through this lender GOD fearing MR TONY HARTON and I would advise anyone in genuine and serious need of loan to contact this God-fearing man on through .. and I want you all to pray for this man for me

    Thank you

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  10. Michele

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you so much for sharing, I read your article on -.. how to never get ripped off again ….. and I believe that the suggestions presented are valuable and work. I am an artist and a human being and thanks for showing us this way. Work is necessary to create the platform for art and to share it. This has given me the insight that it is up to me to create the art and the platform and that working in what I love is possible. Namaste, Love and Light Happiness M

  11. Cheryl

    Thank you, your words & information has helped me realize that I do deserve to be paid for my time. I just had a recent client cut down my best work all because they didn’t want to pay me. They made me wait & tried to intimidate me while I literally stood & waited for payment. I cut them a break, gave them a great deal, didn’t ask for a deposit, and didn’t have them sign a contract, which I should of because it was a significant amount of work & my time. Which I now have learned from my mistake. I will forever get a deposit & a contract signed. Thank you for your pointers & letting me know I’m not the only freelance visual artist that has ever run into this issue. I was feeling inadequate & the situation of the client cutting down my work & reluctant to pay, has be interfering with my sleep the last couple weeks. I did however get payment. So I’m lucky I guess, considering what I’ve read about so many other artists being ripped off & not receiving payment. Thank you so much for all your shared info, I truly appreciate it!! Have a wonderful day!

  12. Richard Murray

    my work is taking money out of my check for medical insurance every two weeks $74 it has been 2 months and I have not received any medical insurance or medical card or a packet..the first time I called the insurance company they stated to me that I was not insured through their company and I would have to bring it up with my boss…after talking to my boss she states that I am insured and if I have any medical issues problems and I need to go to the doctors to pay for the bill myself and I will be reimbursed on that to save all receipt…please help me I don’t know what to do I’m being ripped off and charge for medical insurance which I don’t have and I don’t know what to do please help

  13. Carl Borsing

    Just delivered a promotional video for a local “feller” (seen the Swedish movie Switchblade, Uhuuhh?) Last week. He gave me all the “tears and whistles” about how he would pay $2500.00 “now” and $2500.00 later after his Kick-starter promotion “paid off”. stories of how “everyone else” had asked for $10000.00 and so forth . . Well the guy still hasn’t posted his promo video and it’s not like he didn’t love it. One evening before our last edit , or finishing post touches (yes he was there with me) we “hung” out over some hot dogs and a couple of drinks on our property. As he was eager to display how pleased he was with my freelance work on my own “promo” video (yup). Called the guy’s voice mail Three times this past week without any replies, so this week I’m calling an attorney to find out my chances in an US small claims court.

    It’s strange how individual professionals, owning their own factory, actually earn an income working their business have no second thought about messing with a 6.5 tall / 380 Lbs Swedish Ogre or Viking. I wasn’t born nor educated in the US (TG) so this “freakishness” really means War because I’m a REAL artist, and you know what “they” say about messing with true artists.. 😀

    Sir Carl..

  14. Darlene

    I have a question. What about if you paint a mural and get stiffed on the balance due? Or if they keep saying “soon, soon”. How do you not hand over their wall that is in their house?
    Another question. I was working on a portrait and did not take a deposit and he wanted updates in the form of photos so I sent him a photo and he said it didn’t look like the pic and canceled it. Now I don’t send updates till it’s finished because fear of pulling out. I do currently charge 50% deposit (learned my lesson) but I’m thinking if he had paid a deposit then when I gave him the update he may not have pulled out and canceled it? What are your thoughts? I think photograph updates would be nice to send but it scares me from my past experience.

  15. Emily Saunders

    I find working through online freelancer websites such as solves problems with payments. The site require deposit prior to the start of a job which is held in escrow. Worth checking them out.

  16. Ericka

    I appreciate your article as a small business entrepreneur who has successfully fought for deposits. However what I don’t see is advise for the small business who gives deposit to an artist and he/she fails to respond to texts, calls, request for proof of work started. Right now she’s using a health issu as an excuse, but it’s been weeks. Ive asked her repeatedly if she’s not up for it, no harm no foul, just forfeit the deposit. What are my options? I’ve shared original content with her for an idea, and I don’t know what my next course of action should be.

    1. Maria

      Thanks for your comment and question. Yes, sadly, this does happen sometimes. It happened to me a few years ago – gave an artist $2,500 deposit for a $5K project. He didn’t do it. Worse part – I knew him personally!

      To answer your question – Give her a deadline. She must have a draft to you no later than Oct 25th. If she does not come through, then you expect full refund on that date. If she doesn’t refund or come through with the work, then you have to file in small claims court, or just let it go.

      Sorry this is happening to you. 🙁

  17. Swaroop

    Thanks a lot maria. Great post. Very helpful for the beginners into the freelancing world.
    BTW i am a technical writer and a photographer with 6+ years of experience. Anyone needing the services may get in touch with me.

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  19. Gylliayn ART

    YOUR CLIENT IS A HUGE 5 BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY AND THEY TAKE 3 WEEKS TO CUT CHECKS BUT NEED YOU TO FINISH IN 2 WEEKS: I’ve been faced with this scenario a few times. Here’s what I do: I ask the client to write me a personal check and they can bill their company for it later. Some people laugh at that, but the serious ones send me their personal check.

    THIS is exactly what I needed to hear today! Thank you! They think bc the cheque is on it’s way, then all is good, but it isn’t not when you are working at zero and they want the job done last week and promised you the deposit- until corporate got involved and said here is the cheque number, its being processed. In my mind I stop the press and wait to receive in my hands and go focus on making money today elsewhere. Until now they ask.. where is the work you promised- and I have to reply- I still have not received the deposit. The comeback you mentioned asking to pay me personally and they can get it back on their end later is a great idea and also shows that I am serious. If it is good enough for the geese, it is good enough for the gander.. Thanks Maria again for reminding me and others of our self worth and to keep pushing forward 🙂 G

    1. Maria Brophy

      Glad you liked it! Another way they can send the money is by bank wire transfer. Many larger companies do this regularly, and they prefer it. The great thing is that most wire transfers go through immediately. (Unless it’s sent from out of the country). Paypal is instant, and that’s always my preference, but, most big companies don’t use Paypal.

      1. Gylliayn ART

        Yah, I know I offered that as well wire. My last client paid wire transfer. This particular company I offered cash wire or paypal and did not respond, so I just created a paypal link they could use until they responded. Anyways update- squashed that one. Getting deposit was too much and making me nervous. Thanks again for your reply! HUGS!!

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