Saying “No” to a Freelance Job

The value of "no" from

If you are a freelancer–writer, designer, event manager–you have had to say “no” to a client. It’s hard, particularly if you like the client, need the work, or find the work interesting. If you feel yourself overworked, exhausted, or frustrated, here are some times you have to say “no.”

1. There isn’t enough money for you to make a profit. Your time is worth money. In America, time is money. If you take a job that doesn’t pay you what you are worth, you will have trouble making the mortgage on time and paying the bills. “Some money is better than no money,” is an excuse I hear all the time. It may not be. If you are working on a job that underpays, you are missing the chance to bid on the jobs that pay well. Jobs that underpay keep you working longer hours every day. Cure: don’t lower your prices to get the job. Under-bid and the amount you quote is how your client sees you. You will be stuck at that price point.

Time moves at different speeds for client and freelancer. Image: Trade King,

2. There isn’t enough time to do the job well. Freelancers are often called in when the company with the job didn’t plan well, or has run out of time. Beware the time-crunch job. Many companies believe that freelancers work only at night and on weekends. They become offended when you don’t want to work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on their job. In 25 years of writing for other people I have learned one truth over and over: You hand in that rush job on time, squeaking under the deadline. You are a hero, you think. You nailed the deadline. Wrong. Once the deadline has been met, the priority immediately shifts to quality. And if you don’t have it, you won’t get paid.  Cure: Quality is your first responsibility. If you can’t deliver quality within the deadline, turn down the job.

3. You are asked to take less pay this time, and the company will “make it up” on the next job. Just say no. This has never happened in the history of the universe. Why would a company that knows you will work for $X an hour one time, pay you $2X the next time?  You will hear the same story the next time, and the time after. The person who says it may mean it, but they aren’t the decision makers. And in the end, they will leave, and not be around when the next job is discussed. Cure: If you have done a project for less money before, remind the client that this is the time you need more money. If this is the first time they ask, tell them as much as you would like to take less money, you simply can’t. Don’t explain or talk about your finances. You deserve good money for hard work.


4. The job suffers from “scope creep” in a strict budget. You are asked to quote the job. You hand in a proposal. The budget it set. Two weeks into the project, the project grows a new arm and leg, and you are asked to cover those, too. Without extra pay. Cure: Cover yourself quickly by discussing how you will handle scope creep in the original proposal. Present a list of tasks you will do and a second list of those not included. Add a paragraph that says if the project expands, you will stop work and submit a new budget for approval. Then stick to it. Nothing frees up money than stopping the work. If you don’t manage scope creep early, you will never make a profit as a freelancer.

5. The client doesn’t return emails or phone calls in the proposal stage. The time a client will treat you best is when they want you to work for them. If they don’t return your calls or emails, it’s a sign of the lack of communication you will experience for the entire job. When the job is then late, it will be your fault. The cure: set deadlines for replying to emails or phone calls. “Please let me know by Friday if  X is what you are looking for,” is one way to help your client set priorities that match yours.

Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer who has made all the above mistakes more than once. She’s like to help other freelancers avoid them.

14 thoughts on “Saying “No” to a Freelance Job

  1. Thanks a lot for this useful info. Unfortunately for me, at the moment there is no other work for me so “Some money is better than no money.” However, I did make the mistake of quoting a client at the price I wanted when I should have quoted them slightly higher and then negotiated it down to a lower price. But hey, we all learn the hard way I guess; although if I read this before I met them things may have been a bit different.

    • I’ve fallen into the pit of “some money is better than no money,” and while that sounds brave it is an excuse we tell ourselves for not standing up for ourselves. I’ve been through it many, many times, and when I act out of fear and lack, I lose. When I stand up for what I am worth, I get it. I did it today. The prospect told me she was shocked I wasn’t offering her a discount, she could find people to do the work for half my price. My prices are reasonable, so I said, “If you can find someone who does my quality work at the price you are suggesting, treasure him/her. If i give you a discount, I will either work less and resent you, or I will cut corners. I don’t do either of those things; I work as hard for one client as another.” She called back two hours later, and I’m getting my full price.

  2. Pingback: 7 Ways to Toughen Up Your Freelancing Game

  3. When I was running my own company I was reluctant to say “no” to potential clients. What I said was “I can’t do your project because of [this reason], but I can help you find someone who can”. That worked for the clients (who were silicon valley companies like Apple, Sun, HP, Netscape) and it worked for me, because the people I contacted to see if they could take another project did the same for me.

    Once or twice my price (which was always at the top range) was an issue and I found the client someone who was less experienced and worked for a lower rate. In one of those cases that resulted in a project for me later, at my rate. The client said “ok now we see why you charge so much”. I tried to set my rate right at the client’s pain threshold — when reveal your rate, it should take them a moment to digest before they say OK.

    • Passing on jobs to other freelancers is a wonderful gift that keeps on giving. Your old clients come back because you helped them, and other colleagues will give you jobs because you helped them. Nicely done, Pete!

  4. This is one of the most valuable blogs I read. Love this post! I linked to one of your other posts on my blog post last week and I may have to make it a weekly thing.

  5. I’d like to add, with number 2, don’t be afraid to ask for more time to do the job well. Even if it’s a tight deadline, there’s often wiggle room. (Especially if they’d just have to go back to you for re-writes, anyway, or if the project is past deadline because someone messed up.) I’ve often “saved the day” taking assignments when other freelancers or in-house staff dropped the ball, but I asked for a few more days to “ensure a job well done.” Sometimes I also asked for more money, explaining that I’d need to juggle my schedule to accommodate their request and was more than willing to do that, but would need, “$$$ amount to justify it.”

    The other thing I would add is, yes, cover yourself by explaining how you handle scope creep, but also follow your instincts and go into every project expecting the best. I find, with clients where I feel I need to lay out all these rules and conditions, they are just going to be a hassle to work with, anyway. It’s the clients that I don’t feel like I *need* to cover my butt who always treat me well, whether it’s in writing or not. (I’ve even had long-time clients trust me enough to say, “I need this done. Just bill me.”) I guess what I’m saying is, if you find yourself needing to write out this long contract with all these conditions to avoid getting taken advantage of … that could be one more instance where you should just say no to the job.

    Great tips for freelancers, I enjoy your blog!

    • Yes, Dawn, good advice. I have wonderful clients, too. They aren’t really the reason I wrote this blog post. It’s the difficult, recalcitrant, intransigent clients that I wrote the post about.

  6. Really important stuff to remember, Quinn. It is incredibly hard to turn down work and it takes experience to know that time/money balance. I’m finally learning to say “no” or “yes” with qualifiers. Thanks!

  7. Your timing, and the quality of your information, is uncanny. As always!

    -Daien Forrest is a continually-burgeoning entrepreneur learning an enormous amount from Quinn McDonald.

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