• Advice

Should you ask for a deposit?

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In 5+ years of freelancing I have never personally asked for a deposit.

I have had advances negotiated for me by agents, and I have had clients independently offer deposits, but I’ve never asked for them myself. It’s been my experience that unless deposits are de rigueur in your freelance field (such as design), clients balk at them… and perhaps for good reason.

But after a freelance editor friend recently asked me about deposits, I started mulling it over and came up with three circumstances under which I might ask for a deposit.

You may want to ask for a deposit if:

1. You’re not working under a contract

First of all, you should be working under some kind of contract.

Written contracts protect both you and the client. They define expectations and clarify pay schedules, and reduce misunderstanding. They also fulfill the role of a deposit – by keeping you from getting stiffed.

If a client really balks at working under contract, explain calmly that it benefits both of you, and that it’s standard for all of your clients. If they still won’t consider it, tread carefully.

2. It’s a long-term project (and a pay schedule isn’t built-in)

Many clients will spontaneously offer deposits upfront if the project is long-term. They know that you can’t work for months for nothing. If they make that overture, by all means take them up on it.

If your prospective client doesn’t rise to the occasion, this is a good time to think about asking for an advance. It’s reasonable to calmly point out that large projects require you to take on some risk and forego other work, and that you need a fee structure that will let you survive.

I’ve been able to avoid asking for deposits because I almost always charge in increments for a complete project – charging by chapter if I’m editing, for example, or billing in monthly installments.

Ask for at least 25% upfront, and specify the deliverables you’ll provide on the first deadline.

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3. It’s a new client that you have an “eh” feeling about

Oy. It’s been my experience that if the client feels off before you even start working, you should run screaming in the opposite direction. Trust the smell test; I’ve never regretted backing away from a stinky-seeming deal. But I understand that sometimes life doesn’t allow one to be choosy.

If a client seems sketchy, do your research. Scour the web and contact freelancer friends – see if this company has a bad reputation. If you can’t find anything overtly troubling, proceed apace… but yes, ask for a deposit.

If the client won’t agree to a contract or a deposit, I’d say that you shouldn’t work for them. It’s not worth the risk.

Given my friend’s situation (a short-term project for a client whom she knew) I advised her to go with a simple contract instead of a deposit. An advance is nice, but it ultimately offers less security than written terms of employment. You don’t necessarily need a deposit to avoid getting stiffed!

Freelancers, do you ask for deposits?

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.