How to Say No to Doing Free Work

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

...or to giving clients discounts, or to do anything you don't have the inclination or capacity to handle at the moment you get asked.

Say no. There you have it. Easy, right?

Haha...if only it was that easy.

Most of us are doing a perpetual dance between staying sane and pleasing people. Setting the right boundaries is a skill that will serve you well in every area of your life. Unfortunately, this can be a very difficult thing to do, especially if you're used to always saying yes (and often feeling terribly hard done by in the process).

There are many good reasons to say yes, but these are terrible reasons:

  • To get people to like us.

  • To avoid disappointing people.

  • Because we don't want to seem selfish.

  • Because we fear losing a client.

  • Because we genuinely love a friend and don't want to disappoint them.

  • Because it feels mean to institute boundaries.

  • Because you've always said yes, and saying no all of a sudden may not go down well.

For the purposes of this article, let's assume that you're a professional who offers services as a freelancer or a small business and that you have set rates. Let's also assume you know your worth and you have decided that doing free work or giving discounts is not something you're willing or able to do at the moment. I'm not going to discuss why you shouldn't do free work or give discounts. That's a debate for a different day.

These are just some of the requests I've had in the last few months:

  • A small business owner asked me to give him a 50% discount on photography because he doesn't have the budget to pay for my services, but would still like to book me.

  • Someone who works for one of my corporate clients asked me to give her a discount on family photos because I'm on their vendor list. When I told her that I don't do family photos anymore, she didn't even respond to my message.

  • A potential client asked me to photograph a magazine spread for free in exchange for my vendor application being moved to the top of the pile.

  • One of my global clients asks for a discount every time we do work for them. They also regularly book work that gets canceled last minute.

I could go on, but quite frankly it's a little depressing. I'm always surprised at how offended I get when this happens. Our time is worth money, that is why we offer professional services that other clients gladly pay for.

Let's have a look at how to say no while still being respectful and preserving the relationship:

Saying no to a potential client who wants a discount or free work:

"Thank you for reaching out. I'm flattered that you like my work. As I'm sure you will agree, it's is of a very high standard. As such I'm quite busy and I have to focus on paid projects. Therefore I don't have the capacity to take on discounted (or free) work. Good luck with your upcoming launch/event/production. Thank you so much."

Saying no to a friend who wants a discount or free work:

"I am so flattered that you asked me to do this. I would love nothing more than to help you with it, but right now I'm stretched to capacity with paying clients (or ongoing projects). If I had to take this on, I'd want to be able to give you my best, and I just can't do that at the moment. I'm sorry that I can't help you."

The reality is that most of us will want to help out where we can. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it gets to the point that you're sacrificing time with your loved ones or your own self care, it may be a better idea to say no respectfully and focus on the things that are most important to you.

I hope this has been helpful. I've seen so many people get stuck in the habit of helping without having the mental or emotional capacity to do so, and in the process driving themselves to burnout.

Remember this: you're worth it.

Until next time,