When is it ok to work for free?


NEVER! However, sometimes you may feel compelled to do work for free or for a discount. In those instances, it’s important to have a set of guidelines to ensure you’re not being taken advantage of. Here’s how I determine if I’ll do work for free or at a discount:


When to work for a discount/free

If a client ever tells you the following, kindly turn down their request for work and run, not walk, away. These are red flags and any client who utters these phrases will never value you or your work. Also, don’t try to educate them on your value. It’ll often fall on deaf ears and you don’t have time to waste educating clients (because it’s time you could be spending talking to better clients).

  • “I can’t pay you but think of all the exposure you’ll get!”
    This Oatmeal comic perfectly explains how valuable exposure is. Nothing else needs to be said.
  • “I can’t pay you for your work this time, but I’ll have paying work for you in the future.”
    If I client can’t pay you now it’s unlikely they’ll pay you in the future. Also, the prospect of “future” work rarely materializes.
  • “I can’t pay you now but I’ll make it worth your time down the road.”
    Vague promises of riches in the future never work out. Either the client forgets or they were lying to you from the start.
  • “I can’t afford your prices because my business is struggling, but without designs I’ll go out of business.”
    A potential client’s inability to run their own business is not your burden to bear. If they can’t afford your prices kindly point them towards cheaper alternatives and wish them the best.


When I work for a discount/free

In certain instances I’ll provide discounted/free work, but only if all the criteria below is met. If one of these is not met, I’ll refuse to do the work for a discount/free.

  • I feel compelled to provide the work for free.
  • The client has never asked for a discount or free work.
  • I don’t mind offering to do more discounted or free work for the client in the future.
  • There’s no deadline.
  • I don’t have any other discounted or free projects I’m currently working on.


How to provide discount/free work without undercutting my value

If you plan on offering discounted/free, it’s imperative to do it in a way that won’t undercut your value. Here are the steps I take to preserve my value:

  • Always have a contract.
    It’s the professional thing to do, and it sets the expectations for you and your client.
  • Always send an invoice showing the full cost of your work next to the discounted/free price.
    This helps the client know the true value of your work.
  • Only offer discounted/free work to people you don’t mind offering discounted/free work to in the future.
    Once you’ve provided discounted/free work to someone, they’re likely to expect it again in the future.
  • Never provide discounted/free work after someone has requested it.
    Doing so undermines your status as a professional and tells the client you’re prices were inflated or you’re not confident in your abilities. Instead, you need to be the one offering the discounted/free work.


3 Takeaways

Here are the 3 main things to remember from all of this:

  • You’re running a business and a business can’t survive without money. Exposure and “future” work don’t pay the bills today.
  • Those who ask for discounted/free work are not worth your time, and will never pay you what you’re worth.
  • Make sure you are 100% comfortable with your decision to provide discounted/free work. If not, you’ll regret it every time you work on that particular project.



If you need help pricing your next project, this article provides you a list of things to consider.