What’s Worse: Free or Cheap?

Alisa BonsignoreIn recent weeks, I’ve been approached about two different projects. One came with a request to work for free. The other came with a shockingly low rate. How low? Let’s just say that the pre-tax amount wouldn’t have been enough to buy dinner for two at Chili’s. Both came as a surprise because I haven’t gotten any of these sorts of offers in quite some time.

Yes, I declined both projects, but it got me thinking about which option is worse. I’ve decided that being asked to work for free is actually less upsetting and less demeaning.

Here’s my logic: When someone wants me to work for free, they go out of their way to explain why the cause is worthy and how the world can be a better place if we pool our strengths towards this common – and did I mention worthy? – goal.

Cheap, however, is a different story. With cheap, the client believes that they are firmly in the right. After all, they did offer to pay you, and you should be grateful that they’re willing to pay you anything at all. In fact, after politely declining the lowball work – a rush job, no less – the gentleman wrote back to berate me about how there are thousands of writers out there that would jump at an opportunity like his, and how I was a fool to reject his opportunity. Thanks, but this fool will take her chances elsewhere.

Which one causes you more stress?

7 thoughts on “What’s Worse: Free or Cheap?

  1. LIsa Youngdahl

    Or how about being presented with an “opportunity” to submit a design for consideration for a book cover? If selected as the winner, I would actually be paid! And have the opportunity to design other materials! The person soliciting the work presented it as a great honor to be asked to submit a design. When I declined, his attitude was that there were plenty of other designers out there who were willing.

  2. Alan Gorney

    Pro bono work can be gratifying when done for a good cause or charity. I have done plenty of jobs for no charge for organizations that I’m affiliated with. They have all been very grateful.
    To be offered little or way below the going rate and told your foolish for not jumping at the chance, well that’s just insulting. The saying goes…. you get what you pay for!

  3. Anthony Banks

    There are so many reasons to decline free/cheap projects, but most people have to learn this lesson the hard way it seems.

    I’d say that cheap projects stress me out the most, because I inevitably start doing the calculations in my head while I’m working – every tweak or revision making me cringe as I see all hope of salvaging a little pride and profit vanish. With free work I assume that there is a very compelling reason for taking the project on, beyond monetary compensation.

    If you’re looking for a free or cheap project, you need look no further than yourself. A little self promo work never hurt anyone : )

  4. Alisa Bonsignore

    Wow. I’ve been at a conference and just logged on to discover that I’d really hit a nerve with this one! It’s good to see that I’m not the only one who sees cheap as an insult.

    For those of us who don’t mind doing the occasional pro-bono project for a good cause, I’d like to give a little plug to Taproot Foundation. They not only pair you up with other pro-bono consultants, but they set limits on your weekly time commitment as well as the total length of the project. But best of all, they encourage you to say, “I’m sorry, but that’s outside the scope of this project grant.” It was my best pro-bono/volunteer experience ever.

  5. Lynne

    I agree as well. A client who is cheap most often thinks they are paying you a more than fair amount, and that you should jump through hoops to get their pocket change. A client who pays nothing appreciates you much more, and then it’s a personal donation of my time, whether it be to a friend or a cause, not a “lowering my worth” decision. The free client also can’t complain too much about deadlines and perfection, and doesn’t demand to be at the front of the line.