How to Negotiate Freelance Rates

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It's possibly the toughest and most important question to answer as a new freelancer: what should you charge? Ask too much, and you could shut yourself out of a great gig; ask too little, and you could wind up shutting off the lights at your brand-new business.

In a perfect world, there'd be some kind of universal rate sheet for freelancers. Graphic designers in New York would know to charge X per project, while writers in Chicago would feel totally safe charging Y per hour.

Here in our imperfect world, though, determining freelance rates – and getting what you deserve – is a complicated process.

The good news is that by taking it one step at a time, you can figure out an appropriate rate that will support you and grow your business. Best of all, people will actually pay it, meaning that you won't have to return to the rat race anytime soon.

Here's how to get started.

How to Negotiate Freelance Rates

1. Look at your last job.

If you're like most freelancers, you probably moved from a full-time job to the freelance life, either voluntarily or via layoff or other job loss. Provided that you've stayed in the same industry, you might be able to determine how much you previous employer was really paying you, including benefits like health insurance, 401k contributions, and other insurance, and build your rate from there.

The key is to remember to figure in the time you'll need to spend on paperwork, promotion, and other aspects of your business.

While of course you won't be charging your clients for the time you spend invoicing and tracking expenses, you'll need to make a rate that covers the time you put in maintaining your business.

2. Talk to your network.

One of the nicest surprises I encountered when I entered the freelance game was how willing other writers and editors were to share what they'd learned – despite the fact that I was about to become a competitor.

If you know other freelancers in your field, it's worth it to ask them how much they charge, and for what type of work. You might be surprised by how forthright many people will be, and you'll save yourself a lot of heartache, failed bids, and missed opportunities.

Networking your way to a rate range has another advantage: peers who want to talk about that will also be willing to share the oddities of your industry. You'll learn not only what you should charge, but also how you should phrase things during your negotiation and what skills you should consider adding to your repertoire, in order to stay relevant. Best of all, you'll have a sense of community, which is often sorely lacking in the freelance world.

3. Decide whether you want to charge by project or by hour.

Should you charge by the hour or the project? It depends on the gig, the employer, and your own working style.

The most important thing, whichever way you go, is to communicate with your client to establish an accurate assessment of the work involved, and then set expectations and parameters. Don't be afraid to ask them to be extremely precise about what they want, when they expect it by, and what will happen if you disagree about the fitness of the work.

(For example: will you receive a partial fee? Will you do a set number of revisions or fixes, in a given period of time?)

Regardless of whether you charge hourly or on a project basis, you need to know how long they think the entire work will take. Once you have a detailed description of their requirements and a little experience under your belt, you'll have a good sense of whether their assessment is accurate. Don't be afraid to push back, if you think their assessment is off.

And most importantly... 

4. Get it in writing.

An attorney friend of mine likes to say that contracts exist to set expectations, not necessarily to provide a framework for a lawsuit. While they technically do the latter as well, the odds are slim that it will be in your best interests to sue. All you're trying to do is make sure that everyone's on the same page.

Contracts don't need to be complicated. A simple statement of work might be all you need. But whatever type of contract you choose, it's worth it to have one, if only to make sure that you'll be able to work together productively to achieve the client's goals ... and get you paid in a timely fashion.

5. Ask for what you deserve.

Finally, if you've done your homework, priced the job appropriately, and are a generally sensible person, it's almost never worth it to take less money than you're comfortable with. If you take a job that won't pay your bills, you'll experience resentment in the short term and financial problems in the long term. Neither is good for you, or for your client.

This isn't to say that you can never do a sample gig for a lower rate to break into a new corner of your industry, or provide pro bono work for a cause you admire, or even give someone a deal if you think it will lead to future work. But if the rate you're offered is genuinely too low, it's often worth it to graciously decline and move on.

Remember: you're in business, and you want to stay that way. Be brave, polite, and confident. If you conduct yourself well, a failed agreement today might lead to better paying work down the road.

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