How much does a freelancer charge for their services? Do you charge by the hour? Do you charge a given rate for a specific task, no matter it's complexity or length? How much are YOU worth?

Let me know when you can answer those with quantifiable, reasoned evidence. I'm going to steal your research and pretend it makes sense to me. In the meantime, I'm going to assume we've both set our prices in a way we're comfortable with, and it's a liveable wage. If you've been at your business for awhile, I genuinely hope it's more than just liveable. It's a tough market out there for creative folks, and those who make it deserve their share of the bounty. But if you're in between, or even an old hand having a tough stretch, making your business match the prices can be tougher than just opening your email in the morning and hand picking your favorite clients, desperate for your sage advice and experience.

Give a Penny, Take a Penny

Sometimes, on a whim of fate, clients are bountiful and conduct repeat business that you can count on going forward. Often, though, unless you're in high demand as an expert of your community, there are going to be dry spells. During these times, you may encounter clients who would love to leverage your skills... for a discount. Maybe you went to them, offering a website redesign. They're on board, but because it's not such and urgent manner that they'd considered it before you came along... they don't think it's worth what you usually charge. Or they did, in fact, come to you. They heard about a project you did for a mutual friend at an earlier, cheaper price, or a discount.

Especially when the luxury of client overflow isn't present, these jobs can be very tempting. It's better making a half rate on a project than sitting on your hands, bemoaning the lack of opportunity available to you, right? That really depends on a lot of factors.

  • Not Every Client's a Keeper

    Lesson #1 of freelancing: the less a client wants to pay you, the more work they're going to expect. It takes many forms, from twenty rounds of needlessly redundant edits to whole new goals and requirements appearing out of thin air. Sometimes budget is a genuine concern, but in those cases, you usually know that going in. It's the hagglers and deal cutters that will usually land you in a world of late payments, one-way communication, and low quality work. The prevalence of this problem is why freelancers the world over are always trying to draft a better contract and insisting on up to half the project's payment up front.

  • What Goes Around, Comes Around

    This one can be doubly nasty. Kind of like giving a mouse a cookie, what seems like a pragmatic business decision or kind act for a family member can really come back to bite you. Not only can someone who received your work at a discount, or pro bono, often come back looking for more of the same; they often can't resist spreading the news about such an amazing service they got for so little. A small business owner with the best intentions can land you with a wait list of clients with little to no budget who all expect top tier treatment as word-of-mouth referrals. Your Aunt Bethany has been giving you a cold shoulder every Thanksgiving since you helped re-brand her brother's business, but haven't had the time to devote to her start-up's needs since then. When debating the merits of taking on a special project, weigh both the present and the future ramifications.

  • You Are What You Sell

    I've talked about plenty of boogeymen waiting to pray on your services, but don't forget that you shouldn't sell yourself short either! Sometimes this means sticking to your guns and letting a client opportunity pass by if they can't pay the bill. Often, a client will want to get their feet wet in an industry they know nothing about, and then upgrade to 'higher quality' services once they are more comfortable. A risk in lowering your prices is becoming that initial stepping stone, that gets passed up as soon as the client is ready to drop money on a 'real professional'. By the same token, a business may not be able to afford you now, but that doesn't mean they won't be back later. If you set the bar for their experience of professionalism and price, you may be their go-to recommendation for others, and their ideal goal to do business with when the rubber meets the road. Sometimes making a good impression, leaving your business card, and then actively moving on to find other clients is exactly the right move, even in a work drought.

Now, all of this isn't to discourage you from ever taking on a project for less than your standard rate. Some folks I've talked to refuse to do work for anyone (including family and friends) at any kind of discount. I can't say, based on their experiences, that they're universally wrong. As long as you're confident that you're not biting off more than you can chew, though, I enjoy taking on extra projects and challenges. I am as judicious as possible when I take these projects on: I vet clients for people I know I will enjoy working on, usually have a goal in taking on the project (like learning a new technology), and explicitly state that it's a special situation. Additional business or referral business is more than welcome, but it will be at full business terms.

Plenty of fun and unexpected opportunities can pop up when you take on 'special' projects, but always exercise caution when doing so. If you've been burned before, or don't trust yourself to pick the right winners, there's no shame in saying no. That's an opportunity all its own.