To Charge or Not To Charge?: How To Work For Free Without Going Broke

Students, freelancers and transitioning career folks – lend me your ears! I want to share with you how to discern between situations when you should work for free and situations when you should be paid for your work. Learn these modes of thinking so that you can avoid the hair pulling frustration of knowing you’re not being paid what you’re worth.

Think, “Am I good at this already?”

Check in with yourself and an impartial friend or mentor about the skills you’re offering. If you’re a design graduate with completed portfolio pieces that you feel confident about, it’s time to ask future clients to pay up. Be sure to do some research about entry level salaries before you leap into the field, and once you have those numbers stick to your guns! Additionally, you should write up a plan for strategically raising your rates. It’s not the topic of this post, so I won’t go into much more detail here, but click this link for a good post on how and when to raise your rates.

One thing you’re going to have to get really good at is saying no. When a project comes to you that you know you should be paid for, if the company isn’t willing to respect your prices they’re not worth your time. Be ready to stand by your guns and say, “I really appreciate the offer, but unfortunately I’m unable to take uncompensated projects at this time.”

If you’re transitioning careers – either to offer new services as a freelancer or find work in a different field -you’re presumably switching from a skill set you’ve mastered to one you’re not as experienced or strong with. Now is the time to humbly offer your services for free. Approach the company of your choice and say, “Hey, I see your corporate website needs a little work: it hasn’t been updated since 2002, and the outdated information may be driving potential clients away from your site. I’d like to work for you for the next 2 weeks updating your website free of charge. What do you say?” Chances are they’ll be thrilled. You’re offering to help them out at no cost to the company, and you have a profile piece, a testimonial, and maybe even a referral when you’re finished. Just stick to your deadlines (keep them short) and be upfront about what you’re willing to do (or not). Like individuals who are already charging for their freelance work, be sure to write up a plan for when you’ll start charging for your work, or when you’ll pitch your services to a company for a position.

Don’t equate free work with casual work.

This model of working for free to pave the way to a lucrative career doesn’t work if you don’t take the initial projects seriously. Don’t waste your soon-to-be valuable time procrastinating on free projects. Dragging out proposed work for months may cause your client to think you’re not very professional, or serious about your doing. Approach unpaid work as you would a regular job. Clients will respect that, and be considerably more likely to pass your name on to their contemporaries.

A golden rule that I’ll leave you with is when you’re doing work you love your time is invaluable. If you follow the basic concepts outlined above, the maxim “do what you love and money will follow” will quickly become a reality. But don’t take my word for it, here are some additional resources from people who have made it big by knowing when to give of their time free of charge, and when to be steadfast in demanding payment.

Here are some additional resources to help you walk the fine line between putting yourself out there and valuing your time:

Why You Might Consider Avoiding a Resume and Working For Free - Lifehacker

Should You Work For Free? - The Independent Journalist

When To Work For Free - Michelle Goodman, The New York Times

When To Work For Free: The Flowchart

Is there a tip we missed that you’re dying to share? Leave a comment!