Why it’s not always easy to say “I don’t work for free”

Have you ever completed a project and realized you didn’t charge enough for it?  Don’t feel bad!! It happens to all of us.

This is a big topic for all entrepreneurs. But I think it’s an even dicier one if you identify as an under-estimated entrepreneur. Often we have been socialized differently around topics like wealth, money and business.

You might the only one in your family working and don’t have a safety net of family or friends who can help with an extra utility bill

Or you might be the first in your family to start a business and no one really knows how to guide you though the pricing process

Or let’s not forget those experiences in your professional work environments that left you scarred and reluctant to negotiate

for many, the reasons are…well it’s complicated.  So let’s break down a three ideas to get you started.  It’s not always as easy as “raise your prices”.  Sometimes you gotta dig into the weeds of of this loaded topic and find a solution that helps you get to the long term goal of better cash flow.   

How does this free work impact your sales goals?

When I first started in business, I often found myself being asked to do things for free or less than my rate. People kept tossing out the idea that I might need exposure or they didn’t have a large budget. 

When you are first starting out, it IS helpful having a number of companies or testimonials on your website.  But a sister needs to eat too, right???  So how do you navigate this question during the early stages AND during periods when the cash flow ain’t flowing as easy.

One of the first questions I often contemplate is:

How does this project impact overall sales goal?


Now this presumes you have a sales goal.  So if you don’t, step back and read some of my earlier work on the importance of setting a sales plan in motion.

But once you have the plan, you have to navigate the day to day client conversations.  You NEED examples to help you build credibility or builds your confidence in general on working with freelance clients. Maybe you are still gaining experience with new technology or the industry overall. 

So give yourself space and step back.  

  • Is it a project that would give you “bragging rights”?
  • Would you have a new set of skills that will allow you to charge more in future work?

If so, it might be worthwhile to take a small project like this.  Be clear that taking on free or discounted work will take you away from finding paying clients. You’ll be so busy doing someone else’s work that you won’t have time to focus on your own business.

But if it allows you to have a higher ROI, it might be worth the time. 

Do YOU honor your hourly rate? Or is it “nice to have”?

Do you know your hourly rate? Even if you don’t charge by the hour, you need to have a figure in mind to determine – Is this project worth sacrificing my hourly rate?

When you don’t have the hourly rate, it’s easier to say yes to someone asking you nicely to do work at a lower rate. 

But when you know your numbers, it will take half of the decision-making process off the table. You’ll know in hard core terms exactly how much you might be “losing”.

For example, let’s say you charge $100 an hour.   Your potential client asks you to lower your rate because it will “only take a few minutes of your time”.

To them it might SEEM like it’s a short project.  But you know that you are losing $50 for every 30 minutes you are spending on the project.  

  • Maybe you can make that sacrifice this month.
  • Or maybe you are still short on your sale goals and need to politely decline.

But this goes deeper than knowing the number. You have to VALUE why you choose that number.

Those who identify as underrepresented or underestimated are often given the message that their work or labor is not valued. if you’ve ever worked as caregivers or essential workers, you will understand this idea all too well. People are denied promotions because of some indescribable term like “not being professional enough”.  Or looked over for growth or learning experiences.

Take some time to examine how these messages might show up for you.

You are being paid for YOUR knowledge  – not your hourly rate 

They are paying for ALL of the years that you spent mastering your subject.  The experience you’ve gained.  Your ability to solve a problem in 5 min that would take everyone a few days of research.

Do your homework and make sure you cover your expenses in your business.  And then remember what they are really paying for is your expertise.

And that has a price tag.

Are you taking care of yourself as an entrepreneur?

I notice that it is harder for me to say no is when I’m worn down working on my business. You know those times when you haven’t spent quality time with friends and family…and someone asks you to do them a favor?

It’s super easy in those moments to succumb to pressure. You might have the scripts already memorized about how to say no. But if someone catches you in the right moment, it can be hard to say and not feel guilty. Many cultures have strong social rules around being nice and prioritizing the community needs over your own individual needs.

So I want to challenge you. When you are working hard, find ways to take care of yourself. Get your rest. Set aside non-negotiable quality time for your own self-care as well as that for your family and friends.

This way, you won’t get caught off guard. People are going to ask. But it’s easier to say no nicely after you’ve had a full 8 hours of sleep.

Do you regularly affirm your wins?

I remember one of the first coaching groups I attended. We had to share our wins on every call. I thought it was the corniest thing I had ever heard.

Years later, I realized why I turned my nose up to this activity. Growing up, I was often told to not get my hopes up too high. Don’t focus on the wins. Work hard. Show up and do your best. Actually do better than your best. But don’t get your hopes up too high.

Why? If you look at the legacy of institutionalized racism and how it shows up for Black poeple in this country, it’s easy to understand why I heard this message. My elders wanted to shield me from the realities that they knew that I would face.

I still honor their wisdom to this day.  I’ve seen it play it out personally many times.

But I’ve also worked hard to expand this idea. I’ve learned to celebrate my wins. Even the little ones. Because the more I celebrate my wins, the more joy I will have in my business. And the more joy, the less I’m willing to take on work that doesn’t help me grow it.

Did you catch that?

It’s a wild byproduct. Self celebrations can lead to major business victories. They are so critical for groups who often don’t get praise or acknowledgment. Acknowledge your OWN wins. Have your own parties. If you are celebrating every sale, you’ll find yourself more willing to do the work to find new clients. It just gets easier than if you stay subdued and casual about the whole affair.

Now, don’t throw a Main Street parade for each new customer. But find ways on a regular basis to congratulate yourself so you’ll have the energy to keep growing your sales.

A mindset hack when you see yourself taking on too much work for free

What do you do when you find yourself STILL doing volunteer work? How do you stop saying yes so freely?

One option is to start by listening to the mental chatter in your mind. When you listen to your own decision-making process, it can help you shift your patterns and behaviors.

Here is an example of what you could tell yourself to shift this pattern:

I could choose to take on this client for less than my rate.  But if I do so, I will make sure to honor my rate with future clients. 
I am walking in the space of knowing my worth. 

It might sound silly.  But you can turn this conversation around in your mind so that you are prepared with a calm confidence the next time someone ask you:

Hey, do you mind if I pick your brain for free?



This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.
Skip to content