Freelancers: It pays to charge what you’re worth

Tom N. Tumbusch 2014Several years ago I got a call from one of my favorite clients, who I’ll call “Frank” because it’s not his real name.

“Tom,” he said, “we’re going to have to start working with someone less expensive. We simply can’t afford your rate anymore.”

Was I disappointed? You bet. Frank had been a great client for several years. He’d sent me some of the most interesting and high-profile projects I was doing at that time. Losing his business was going to be a serious loss.

But at the same time, I knew something powerful that Frank didn’t. I understood my value and knew that my rates were fair. I took a deep breath and smiled into the phone.

“Frank, I totally understand. You’ve got a business to run and you need to make the choices that are best for you. It’s been a great pleasure working with you, and I’ll be happy to do so again if you need me down the road.”

Six months or so went by. I found other work to fill the gap Frank had left. Then one day the phone rang again. It was Frank.

“Tom, we’ve been working with a guy who charges half your rate, but it takes him twice as long to do everything and we’re having to spend a lot of our own time cleaning up his stuff. It was less expensive when we were paying you to do the job right. Are you available to talk about a new project?”

I smiled and said yes.

Frank and I still haggled about pricing after that. He was always a shrewd negotiator, but he never questioned the value of working with me again.

It wasn’t easy to stand by my rate. I could have caved and offered a lower price—I certainly considered it during our first phone call—but I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, I would have been the one questioning the value of the relationship. Instead, Frank and I were both winners in the long run—and we both knew it.

Asking for your full value can be scary, especially early in your career. It’s okay to negotiate and give a little, especially if it’s a good client relationship that sends you regular business, feeds your creative soul, or offers high-profile work for your portfolio. (In fact, I often quoted Frank a lower rate than many other clients for all of these reasons.)

Here’s another thing that seems counter-intuitive that you’ll discover once you establish the habit: clients will actually respect you more.

Smart clients like Frank aren’t just interested in saving a buck. Their primary goal is to get results. Sure, they’ll want to do it as economically as possible, but when the chips are down, they know that strong, well-executed work pays for itself in time saved and superior results.

What’s more, you don’t just owe it to yourself. You owe it to all your freelance peers. Every writer, designer, photographer, or other solo creative who’s willing to work for peanuts makes it more difficult for talented professionals to ask for their fair value. If the creative community as a whole makes the commitment to value themselves and their work, expectations in the business community will change over time.

And that will be good for all of us.

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for designers, creative agencies and green businesses. He publishes a free writing tips newsletter each month and periodically shares more casual wisdom on the WordStream of Consciousness Blog. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at

P.S. If you need help figuring out how to price your services or assess your value, check out The Pricing for Designers and other Creative ProfessionalsPricing Bundle from Marketing Mentor.