Your rates, your time, and your self worth.
Freelancers in every industry know the dance. The initial phone call with a potential client—it goes great. You’re excited, they’re excited. But nothing’s really happened yet. Nothing real, anyway. Real starts with a knot in your stomach when you send over your rates. It’s a limbo between the initial call, and knowing whether or not a potential client will decide to work with you as a freelancer. Sometimes your rates are just fine, and you’ve got a new client. Other times, you and your work are rejected, not because of skill or portfolio, because they’ve already seen those, but instead because you’re “too expensive.” I’ve spent the last two years building my freelance business and my self worth, and what I know for sure is this:
You are never too expensive. You are simply too expensive for them.
Freelancers are in charge of everything. Often, that comes with a huge learning curve once we realize how many decisions there actually are to make. For the first ten years of my career, I had a very simple understanding of work, because I worked for someone else. Someone else put all structure and process in place, and I operated within an existing system. Now, I am the system, and I have to learn things like if I don’t specify Net-15 receipt of payments and keep working for clients who owe me money, I put myself (and my rent) at risk.
As a freelancer, you’re setting the rules, the rates, and the boundaries. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling, one that keeps you very close to your work, and close to the living you’re earning. It’s an immense amount of freedom and control, which is often balanced by the fact that actually acquiring clients is work in and of itself. And while an amazing portfolio is going to generate leads, often new clients are making decisions based on whether or not they want to pay you what you charge. The instinct therefore is to charge as little as possible. I’d like to advise against that.
Your rates are a result of many different factors coming together—they’re never set by any one factor alone. You’re combining things like years of experience, skill level, industry averages, etc. to arrive at a rate that feels good to you. Good—not safe. You want more than safe, you want to feel good, because from the moment you offer someone a rate, that’s the rate you’re getting, and after you deliver on a project, you don’t want to feel anything less than good about how much you got paid for it.
Freelance paychecks should never feel disappointing—because you decided how much they were going to be.
Setting low rates in order to attract more clients is not a smart freelance strategy. That approach sets you up to constantly feel like you’re not getting paid enough, and meanwhile you’re the one deciding how much you get paid in the first place. We chose to be freelancers for a variety of reasons or circumstances. To not feel like we have full ownership of what we’re doing is to miss a lot of the point of being freelance in the first place. It is our job to decide what our work and our time are worth, and charge accordingly.
Freelance work is an even exchange.
It is imperative to understand that that freelance work is an even exchange of services for money. Clients are not on a higher pedestal than you. You are even, because they need something from you (your work) and you need something from them (their money). There is no one person who has an advantage over the other—unless you charge less than what you know you’re worth, in which case, they’re winning. One of the greatest joys of being a freelancer is not having a boss, but instead being your own boss. When you charge less than what you’re worth, you put your client at an advantage over you. You signal to the client that you’ll take anything, that you feel lucky to just be working at all. That is an indication of low self worth, and low self worth will lead to dissatisfaction in your freelance career. More on this in a minute.
If a potential client tells you that your rates are too expensive, what that means is your rates are too expensive for them, and they are simply not your client. That’s it.
The right clients for you will always be willing to pay your rates. Anyone you have to convince to pay you what you’re worth needs to move on to another freelancer. As a suggestion, I get how awkward it can feel when you’re not a fit for a client. To mitigate this, I’m a member of several freelance groups on social media, and where I’m not the right freelancer for a client, I always reach out to these groups in an attempt to connect the client with someone who is a better fit for them. I do this for free, because I remove myself from the middle as soon as possible, by providing direct access to the client for all interested freelancers. Also it doesn’t cost me anything to be kind.
Money is a weird subject for us societally, and not everyone knows how to discuss it in a way that leaves all parties with a sense of self worth. If a potential client says things to you that suggest you shouldn’t be charging what you charge, for example by listing other people or services they’ve worked with in the past that have been less expensive, please know that what they’re saying is not about you. That kind of behavior says more about them than it ever can about your rates. Also, it’s just bad manners.
An example: I recently wanted a new design for my podcast’s cover art. I knew exactly what I wanted down to an annoying level of detail. In fact I probably could have just spent my money purchasing Photoshop to achieve the desired outcome. But I wanted the help of a professional who could make my art look polished. I needed a skill set I did not have, and was willing to pay for it, within my budget. The first artist I wanted to work with, who I’m still a huge fan of, gave me a rate of $1200. For what I needed, to me that seemed excessive. But that was her rate! Her experience and skill netted out at that rate, which she charges. And that’s fair—it just didn’t work for me. So after a little more digging, I found an artist whose rate was $500. And now I have a new logo. We don’t have to pay more than we want to, and we don’t have to charge less than we want to, either. And there don’t have to be hard feelings about this, ever.
Saying no to lowering your rates does not mean your career is over. It just means that one discussion is over with one potential client.
Your clients will find you, and you will find them. You will connect with the right people to work with, people who make you feel good about an even exchange of services for compensation. Anything less than that will make you feel like the exchange is uneven, and you are getting the worse end of the deal. This can lead to resenting your clients, your work, even your choice to be freelance. Don’t be the source of your own resentment. Establish a rate you feel good about, and charge it. Over time, you will gain more and more confidence when you experience how it feels to say no to opportunities that make you feel small, and yes to opportunities that match or increase your self worth. Like anything else, it takes practice.
But you will never get that practice if you always take what you can get, because you think nothing else will ever come along.
It will always be better to work with the right clients for you, rather than the wrong ones. Any thinking that suggests you can only acquire clients if you lower your rates comes from a lack mentality. It comes from low self worth. And I don’t blame any of us for having it. We’ve operated in a society, especially if we’re female, that tells us we’re “lucky” to have any job at all. Any system that raises professionals to think that the boss or client is better or more important than any member of the team is a system that keeps people small in their self esteem, and small in their worth. It tells us we “serve” someone above us, someone who holds all the power, and that can lead to us staying in situations that makes us feel low in our worth because we’re terrified that there’s nothing else out there for us. Systems like that want us to feel small, so we’ll stay put, and accept anything. We don’t have to stay in those systems, we can become freelance. (I say this with full understanding that I am privileged to have the option to pursue a freelance career at all.)
There is enough. There is enough work, there are enough clients. I understand that reading this might sound a bit “easy for her to say.” So if you want something you can see for yourself, look at your expenses and invoices for last month, but take away one client. Pretend one client just didn’t happen. Re-tally your monthly income against your monthly expenses and see where you end up. Would you still have “made it?” If not, do you have savings you could have pulled from? Losing or not acquiring one new client because you set and stood firm in your rates is not going to be the end of you. It instead will be the beginning of your increased self worth.
Side note: If you’re a freelancer and you don’t have a savings account you can pull from when you need to, correct that situation right now. Set aside anything from 1/3–1/2 of every paycheck you receive for savings and taxes. Start doing this immediately. I think you’ll find it a lot easier to stand in your worth and not blink when a potential client says you’re “too expensive” if you’ve given yourself the security of a savings account. If you find it impossible to set aside any portion of your paychecks for savings and taxes, you need to evaluate your monthly expenses, and you need to make sure you’re charging clients enough. My instinct is that you’re not.
If your rates are too high for a potential client, that person is simply not your client. When you set freelance rates based on your experience, your skill, your industry, and your own valuation of your time, that is what you deserve to be paid for your work. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay it, doesn’t have to. They’re welcome to move onto another freelancer, and you’re welcome to move on to other potential clients. We don’t have to have hard feelings or disappointments in the event of a bad fit. Bad fits happen. They will never mean that you need to lower yourself or your rates to make someone else happy. You are not lucky to have work. Both you and your clients are equally fortunate to have each other. Any relationship without that balance is not a good relationship for a freelancer to be in.
You are not a fit for every potential client. That’s the truth of it. Either your area of expertise or your rates will not work for every client that found you via search or recommendation. That’s okay. What matters is that you hold onto your self worth from that initial phone call all the way through to depositing your paycheck. And the only way that will happen is if you establish freelance rates you feel good about, and stick to them.
You are never too expensive, you’re just too expensive for them. Your work, your worth, and your agency over your own career are worth every penny.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.