This post was originally for my column, “Freelance by Lauren,” on the now defunct DIY Writing: A Writer’s Bucket List.
Last month, I made a horrible mistake.
Freelance writing has been my sole source of income for several years now. Not to mention I was raised by freelancers! I really, really should have known better.
But, I panicked.
Some unexpected expenses came up that my current client roster wouldn’t be able to cover. And I’d already tapped out my “emergency” funds. So, when a former client came around with some “easy” work, I accepted…for less than a quarter of my cheapest rate.
To drive that last point home: I’m the cheapest writer I know. I was working for below content mill prices. But I figured, “Hey. It’s easy work for quick cash! It’ll be fine.”
It was so not fine. Here’s why:
1. There’s No Such Thing as an “Easy” Gig
If the client describes the work they’re offering you as “easy”, you’re already off to a bad start. It’s a signal that they either don’t understand or don’t value the work you do. It’s also a good tip-off that they think the pennies they’re offering you are actually more than fair – and that they should therefore strive to “get their money’s worth.”
Cheap freelance clients will scope-creep you to death if you give them the chance.
And while it might be easy to recognize – and put your foot down – when they pull out the “Can you do just one more thing…?” shenanigans, it can be a little harder to put a stop to general neediness.
Cheap clients tend to fall into three categories:
- They’re con-artists who know they should be paying you more, but they’ve tricked you into settling for less.
- They’re out-of-touch/ignorant to the “going rate”, as well as what it is they’ve truly hired you to do. They need a lot of hand-holding.
- A little of both. (AKA: They’re fully aware they’ve convinced you to give them a great rate, but they’re unsure of what it is they’re paying for and thus need a lot of hand-holding).
My client was in the third category.
I have a tendency to coddle my clients, so I took on a few of the “just one more thing” tasks. At first. But that’s on me. That was me knowingly going above-and-beyond because, eh, that’s just the way I am.
What caught me off guard was the hidden work. Even though the project itself was relatively “easy,” the behind-the-scenes nonsense that came with it was not. I ended up working full days’ worth of unbillable hours.
Solution: If a client comes to you with an “easy” gig, tell them to do it themselves! After all, it’s “easy”; right?
2. The Project Management Triangle Goes to Hell…and so Does Your Self-Worth
“Good, Fast, or Cheap: Pick Two.” These are words to live by if you’re a freelancer.
But, if you’re already working for cheap, that means that you’ll have to sacrifice “Good” or “Fast.” And there’s no freakin’ way you’re going to sacrifice “Good!” Good writing is the backbone of your career. You should always do your best work, even if it’s for crummy rates.
That leaves speed as the trait you sacrifice. If your client is willing to wait a little (or a lot!) longer to get the finished project from you, then great! But usually, your client is going to want their cheap, quality writing right now.
So what do you actually end up sacrificing? Your self-worth.
According to career coach and “money mindset” expert Annemarie Cross:
“Offering discounts … can establish a disempowering precedent or business standard that will only serve to block you from achieving your income goals, because of the negative impact it can have on your self-worth and subsequently your income.”
When you work so hard for so little it starts to get to you. You start to believe that you deserve to suffer; and that the measly pay you’ve been offered is all you’re worth.
In my case, it suddenly hit me that I’d taken a HUGE step backwards in my career – and it was overwhelmingly depressing. I had gone from winning awards and raking in premium prices from clients who respected me to less than what I was making as a brand spanking newbie!
Solution: Pick two. Seriously. If you really must work for cheap, then make sure the client is lax about deadlines. If they want the project finished immediately? Pass on it! Never compromise on quality, or your sanity.
3. Your Clients Are NOT Your Friends
Even though it’s a good idea to nurture relationships with your former clients, don’t get too close. Professional boundaries are essential to a good freelancer/client relationship and it’s important to know the difference between “friends” and “friendly.”
If you feel like your client is your “friend,” you’re going to want to give them your friend rates (don’t lie; we all have friend rates). But, would your friends try to rip you off? Or run you into the ground with their unceasing demands? Or emotionally manipulate you into doing more work? Of course not.
The moment you feel your client is taking advantage of you, it’ll hit home just how not your friend they really are. By then it’s far too late. Don’t get in that position in the first place – set up boundaries between you and your clients, and stick to them.
Solution: If you’re looking for friends, try talking to fellow writers instead! Join groups or forums or interact via social media. Or, rearrange your schedule and make time for your “real life” friends and family! (You’re a freelancer – being in control of your work schedule is one of the perks!)
4. You’ll Sacrifice Time You Could Be Using to Find Better Clients
This is by far the worst consequence of taking on a cheap client.
While you’re toiling away trying to meet the demands of cheap freelance clients, clients that would be willing to pay you top dollar are slipping away. Opportunity is knocking and you’re tied up in the basement, unable to answer the door!
While I was working for this client, other (better!) clients reached out to me. And I had to turn them away because I was under contract to finish the job at hand. So, while I was busy making my “quick cash” doing “easy” work, real money slipped through my fingers.
It Could Happen to Anyone
No matter how many years of experience you have under your belt – you may find yourself tempted to take a step backwards in order to make ends meet. And you might not even realize you’re doing so!
I got cocky and I made a mistake. But I’ll let you in on a secret: One of the main reasons I write articles like these is to not only help others, but to remind myself of what needs to be done to succeed. Because even though I know what to do, sometimes I forget when the going gets tough.
Stand your ground and keep marketing yourself. Even if you’re going through a period of decreased income, don’t settle. Someone better is right around the corner and you are worth it.
Have you ever been tempted to work for less? Tell us about it in the comments!
Lauren Spear (née Tharp) is the owner and creator of the multiple award-winning LittleZotz Writing. She’s written hundreds of bylined posts helping freelance writers to become BETTER freelance writers. Thousands if you count all the articles she’s ghostwritten (but she’s not allowed to talk about most of those).