today’s question: “how do you say “no” to friends asking you to work for free?”

so your friend is starting a new company and needs help with all her branding, website, blog, etc. she knows you’re a kick ass designer and comes to you first because she trusts you… and also has no budget. we’ve all been there. it’s awkward. you’d love to help your friend out but your time is worth something too.

we’ve talked before about trading or giving a friend discount. you could find something between those two, but that doesn’t always work. both sides have to really stick to their side of the deal. if you make a trade be sure to put a time limit on that trade (something i recently learned). a friend of mine wanted to claim their side of the trade before my wedding. in hindsight i should’ve said no because i was in the thick of designing for myself and i was already overwhelmed. i said “sure!” because it was my turn to deliver. i didn’t give it my all like i should’ve and it was so stressful on top of my crazy work load.

if you end up saying yes and doing it for free (you’re a really good friend) still write a contract! tell your friend that you will treat her like any other client when you’re working together. be up front about what you will be giving her, how many rounds of revisions and when everything is due. also ask her to be professional with you.  if she doesn’t take you seriously and wastes your time it could be a disaster. be honest and up front the entire time. if you feel like she is asking for too many revisions or not giving feedback in a timely manner SPEAK UP! you don’t want to let that because you will start to resent taking on the project and possibly your friend. bad combination.

i’ve helped out some friends for free but i made it very clear how much time i could spend with them on their project. so far, we’re all still friends.

this one is hard because i have had some really amazing experiences working for friends at no charge. i considered them fun, creative, easy projects and a lot of them turned out that way. but i will also tell you that some of my least favorite projects have been for friends because it is hard to put boundaries on a project. one of my worst experinces was for a mutual friend that i did a favor for (because i thought “if my friends love this person, so will i!”) WRONG. i wasn’t professional enough from the start, i didn’t have a proper contract, and things turned really sour. endless revisions, she had a really bad attitude and was very needy. but you know what, it was my fault for assuming that things would be just fine. lesson learned.

i have also had friends come out of the woodwork needing free design work (you know, the ones you haven’t talked to in years and then all of a sudden need a favor?) and that’s when i had to put my foot down. it will never be easy to say no to a real friend that needs help. i can sit here and tell you to just give them a discounted rate instead…but i am guilty of doing a lot of free work for friends because i just really like the person. or the project. but when someone you haven’t talked to all year needs you to design their business cards? that i can’t stand behind. people are entitled and i’m not cool with that.

katie’s right. trades should have a deadline. make a contract. be upfront about revisions. and do your best to talk to them like you would any other client. if you’re too busy, just say it! because you really aren’t doing them a favor if you are going to give them half-ass work. refer them to someone that you know will do a good job and let them know you would love to give your opinion about it. it’s really a case by case scenario. i’m still going to help my little sister with her resume design and my best friend with her company if she really needs it. it’s only when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you that the situation is bound to get ugly.

have you had any terrible experiences with doing free work for friends? it’s hard, right?

(illustration by katie evans. read more freelance advice posts are over here!)


Add your own

    great advice here—i think especially when you are in your twenties, you and your friends still blur the line between someone’s talents and their friendship, but its definitely important to start thinking of yourself as a real professional and treading with reasonable caution. thanks for the tips!

    I know such problems too and though up to now, I wasn’t asked for designing anything for somebody by myself I fully understand the perspective and I really don’t like people saying or thinking something like “She is a professional, it would be so easy for her. She wouldn’t have to spend but half an hour…” :/ It’s work and it’s time! – How much time do most people spend on birthday presents? 5 Minutes –> one klick on amazon? And you shall create something just by the way for free?.. is that fair? – and on the other hand, it is so dificult to say no to a friend. 🙂

    Miss Drawingdream

    such great advice. i luckily haven’t run into that yet but agree the situation can get tricky very fast.

    Becky says:

    This is this trickiest for sure. I just started my company, and I regret doing certain friend projects for free. Mostly because I’ve found it’s not fair to them or me. If they’re not paying me, their project gets pushed off and they end up getting it way later than they should because I’m prioritizing paid work. (Ultimately my fault. Learning.)

    I’ve talked to a couple of my design heros and they told me they either do the project for free or charge full price. They say the value of their time doesn’t change between people, and if they believe in a project enough (say, friends who have a folk band ministry), they want to GIVE their time for free. That avoids undervaluing their own work.

    I’d like to do that…but realistically I’ll be charging about $10/hr less for friends. It’s my way of telling them thanks for all the support they’ve given me to get to this point. (I’ve had a big year and couldn’t have done it without them.)

    Great post!

    Danielle says:

    This is a debate I see often in the freelancing world. During and just after college, my friends and I debated it ourselves many times. Jessica Hische even made a poster [http://buystufffrom.jessicahische.com/product/should-i-work-for-free] and then a site [http://shouldiworkforfree.com/] on this, with the answer of “no” most of the time haha Luckily I haven’t had to enforce this myself, but I think I would only work for free for my parents, or best friend if it was a special occasion. We have enough problems with people devaluing our time and work everyday and for paying jobs, there’s no need to agree with them and help that along by working for free.

    Jamie says:

    Thanks for this post, this comes up so often! I am actually designing a monogram for a friends wedding now, for free, but to me it is part of their gift. I have, however, charged all my friends for work in the past. If they are a real friend, they understand that your design work is your business, and they respect that and your time. So far, so good for me. Good luck everyone!

    I just read an interesting article by Seth Godin on this as well http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/02/should-you-work-for-free.html

    Jessica says:

    Great post – thank you for writing this! I run into this problem a lot with what I consider boring design work – mostly resumes. Once people see mine (I’m an information designer – it basically has to look clean and somewhat unique), they ask for one. Too often, I’ve done it for free for one person, who tells another mutual friend, and before I know it, I’m spending a few hours making 10 resumes for people. I could definitely use some advice on what I could reasonably charge an acquaintance or work friend for this.

    Bailey Tann says:

    Great advice. I know I’ll run into this problem in the future when I’m actually designing- I have friends who expect free services now, like photography and video editing- so I can’t ignore it in the future. But I would’ve thought of the answer too late.

    Kory says:

    I, thankfully, haven’t quite run into this problem because most of my friends are designers as well. Luckily they have their own talents that they can turn to! I will definitely keep these things in mind though for the future!

    Mai says:

    awesome post. i’m actually in the middle of a project right now (getting paid next to nothing), for a “friend” i haven’t spoken to in a few years. . .it’s becoming a lot more tiresome than i expected, but i did make the initial offer and i do love the project.

    alicia says:

    I found that this was one of the hardest things when I started freelancing, not doing free work for people and standing behind my wages.
    I’ve given friends discounts before but they were such deep discounts that in the end I did feel like I was being taken advantage of. Also, I firmly believe that if I had charged a bit more I would have been taken more seriously. Yes she valued my skills and as we were working together she saw that I really do know what I’m doing but I still felt like she didn’t value the work I was doing as much as she should have.
    Many designers I know won’t work with friends and family and while that’s hard I do get it. I am currently doing a design for my boyfriends cousin and I made her a contract just like any other client but things are definitely not as professional. She’s been keeping on track with revisions but the timeline hasn’t been followed and every now and then she will text me something about the design (pet-peeve!). I hate to admit that I am not that professional with her either. Because she is like family I am more chill, let things slide and am not too worried about handing in a design a day late, which obviously is not ok.
    Everybody just be careful working with friends or family. Give a discount but make sure it;’s fair, I hate giving discounts and then later feeling like I resent the friend/family a little. Just like they are trying to start their own business you are too!

    alicia says:

    A few months ago this guy who I went to high school with ( I graded in 2007) contact me via facebook all excited about how he;s in business and launching a product and really needs a designer.
    He had a logo done (for $200 on 99designers) and needed labels done for his product. I was pretty excited because it was a product I would have been stoked to work on. I asked him for his budget and he wouldn’t tell me (red flag!). I was prepared to give him a discount but after sending him my estimate he admitted to only have $100. It was silly and annoying and I felt like I had wasted my time doing research and making up the estimate.
    As I am starting out I am working with a lot of startups who has minimal budgets. Often they are shy about saying what the budget actually is and just like with my high school buddy I end up wasting my time.
    Do you have any suggestions on gently-yet-forcefully getting a budget out of clients?

    i’m so guilty of this. at first, i was scared of billing people. it’s still awestrucking that i am being paid to do what i love. it’s amazing and i am forever grateful. BUT i hate when people think i could just “draw up” a quick logo for them. these things take time and i’m not about to put out some half-ass work with my name on it! no sir! thanks for this post katie + bri. -gloria

    xfallenmoon says:

    i think it’s a great idea to write a contract even if you’re giving a service for free. otherwise you risk questions and comments popping up e-ve-ry time you see him/her. it can get very heavy.

    love, x
    blog | twitter

    Carly says:

    Love this post! I see you ladies talking about contracts in many of your work experience columns. It would be so great/helpful to see an example contract. I have no idea where to even start on that one! any insight in to the contract side of freelance would be OH SO GREAT!!! <3

    Sarah says:

    I’ve always been comfortable giving friends a discount, but not working for free. Though it’s gotten tricky a few times when one friend took months to send content and another put off paying. When I start feeling bad for nagging and telling them I charge late fees I remind myself that I have bills to pay and those companies will happily nag me and charge late fees.

    Anonymous says:

    I think it’s crazy that so many independent magazines are asking writers to submit photographs and photographers to submit writing.

    Independent magazines that ask for free work have always been the most unprofessional IMHO. I feel like if they’re asking you to do it for free they shouldn’t act like it’s a privilege to be in their magazine. You’re doing THEM a favor.

    gabrielle says:

    i have been waiting for this post for a long time! i find myself constantly in this awkward position of family/friends wanting to “barter” or get some form of free work. Since then I’ve learned from my mistakes but also took a long hiatus from freelancing since it was getting so annoying… In the end I wasn’t happy with the results and wasted my time and energy. I’m ready to do it the right way, and this is a great reminder post about how important it is to have contracts & always be professional! Thanks!

    This is such a great topic. When it comes to friends who are outside the creative industries, I don’t think they have any sense of what the going rate is or how much work goes into a project. I helped friends out a ton in the beginning, but then I realized, “wait, I’m hardly paying my own bills.” These days it’s easier to say no because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. There are so many wonderful online resources I do my best to point them in the right direction, and let them know about alternative services that I offer should they be interested down the line. . . Often I think “you get what you pay for” and I think at the end of the day, both parties are better off when the work is properly valued.

    Melissa says:

    I’ve had a few really lousy experiences that threatened friendships but it was a good learning experience. Both actually surrounded getting paid after the work was done so now I insist friends pay a deposit like everyone else, and sign a contract.
    I always charge friends but I deeply discount and one thing that’s helped ensure I get taken seriously is, I’ve started showing the friend the full quote prior to starting so they know what it would cost if they were a regular client. If somebody sees that they’re only paying $300 but it would cost everyone else $1000, they tend to be much more appreciative and respectful!

    Julie says:

    Tricky!! While I love my friends and want to help them out, I think it is always in the best interest of both parties to keep things professional. I have done a few projects for friends and I’ve always charged them and had contracts. This helps let them know what I do is valuable and the contract sets expectations which helps avoid conflicts. Basically, my goal in doing business with friends is to do the best job possible and keep them as friends!

    Noor says:

    Story of my life it seems! I always want to be nice and help my friends out but it seems like the list of things they want is never ending and I always regret the choice I made later on. If someone is helping you out to be nice DO NOT milk them for all they have please.

    Now when ‘friends’ bring up a new design etc I direct them to my store.

    Brooke says:

    I just actually did a trade with my best friend—it worked out, but I could definitely see problems arising from trades! I did her new logo for her photography business, and she did a photoshoot for me. I don’t know that I would do a trade with someone I’m not so close with though! Always a tough call. Thanks for addressing!

    this post couldn’t have been more timely! the day this posted i had this exact scenario play out! this was really helpful advice for dealing with these “sticky” situations. thanks girls! you two are so great so share your advice. i LOVE this series!!

    Bukola says:

    I second Carly above, i would love a post on drawing up contracts for clients and examples of what information should be included etc. It would be most appreciated.

    yammie says:

    “have you had any terrible experiences with doing free work for friends? it’s hard, right?”

    How about doing free work for family members? That’s tougher…

    dominique says:

    ugh. this is the reason my husband stopped filming friends weddings. if the conversation starts with ‘i’ve got a great opportunity for your portfolio!’ we now know that is the code word to run.

    samantha says:

    These things depend very much on what sort of wor and how good a friend. Cutting a friend’s hair once every six weeks does not take up much time and would not save her much. But I work as a relationship expert and continually get so called friends wantingi to ring me for advice about their latest boyfriend or husband. They think Iwill sit and listen and advise for hours every day! And use the excuse it is only chat or they will advise me one day too (which makes no sense, I would never consult an amateur or a person who gets their own relationships in a mess). The first thing I learnt was NOT to tell friends what I do. I still get quite a few of them asking me for advice etc based on the fact that I am level headed and decisive – two reasons I am good at my chosen career – but I don’t shoot myself in the foot by telling them other people pay me for it and I am qualified.
    One friend wanted to ring me two or three times a day about her boyfriend so I told her that I am never at home and she has to email me and understand it is a few days before I can reply. You have to call the shots and put boundaries.

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