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Lesson 101 in Freelancing: Set Your Rates & Sign Contracts Before Beginning Work

Every now and then we need a reminder to not sell ourselves short.

As pointed out in a piece in The Washington Post Magazine, a reader submitted a query indicating he or she wrote two promotional booklets for a retirement facility, the same one where the reader actually lives. When the bill was a submitted, the facility director pushed back. She said, “We can’t pay you for this.”

“The term ‘freelance’ originally referred to mercenary soldiers: ‘free’ meaning unaffiliated, and ‘lance’ referring to their pointy weapons,” explained Karla L. Miller.

The work columnist added, “Apparently your facility’s director has reinterpreted it as someone you can stick it to without paying.”

Her advice per the piece? “Do no unpaid work. Never start a project without a contract spelling out payment, deadlines and milestones, for your protection and the client’s. Without a contract, the client may well assume you’re volunteering — which is why plumbers, paperhangers and other professionals have you sign something up front.”

Furthermore, considering time is money when you don’t charge anything, what does that say in terms of how you’re valuing your own time? Is it acceptable to not earn any money? Some may argue yes if you’re getting something out of it in terms of blogging for free, let’s say, in exchange for exposure but it’s certainly difficult to sustain exerting time, energy and talent without any compensation attached.

Miller brought up another point — by devaluaing your own worth, you’re simultaneously devaluing your peers’ work, too. If you continue to work pro bono, it’s essentially a contract denied to other professionals who can’t compete with your rates. Ahem, lack thereof.

If you’re in a situation like the reader, it’s going to be a tough lesson learned since it’s likely too late to get paid for work you’ve already completed. Lesson learned: Next time you’re asked to do work, indicate you’re not able to volunteer.

She added, “Either they’ll take the hint and start paying for your services, or you’ll then be free to find a cause that truly needs your valuable skills.”

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