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Don’t Charge What You’re Worth

Written By Jenna Britton | Jan 15, 2020

I first became a full-time freelance writer in 2014 and I had no idea what I was doing.

I mean, I knew that I wanted to be a writer and I knew that I needed to pay my rent — but other than that, I was really flying by the seat of my pants.

I quickly found the sweet spot between what I loved to do (write), what I was experienced doing (digital marketing), and what people would pay me to do (copywriting) — I just needed to get them to pay me to do it. And that all started with figuring out what I wanted them to pay me.

It also felt like online entrepreneurship was really starting to take off then. There were so many business blog listicles, DIY online courses, and outrageous monthly income reports scattering the Web — and there was a seemingly endless amount of advice on how my online business could do it all, too.

The common admonition back then — and often even still — was to “charge what you’re worth!” The phrase is well-intentioned, I know. In a world where freelancers are often overworked and underpaid, I believe it’s meant to encourage those of us in the trenches not to undervalue our own work too. “Charge what you’re worth!” is a call to arms; a reminder not to settle for a pittance.

I get that. I can stand behind that. And while I was tempted to do the same as a freelancer, I don’t actually think you should charge what you’re worth.

Here’s why.

When I first started out as a freelance copywriter, I had a solid amount of marketing experience, I was a pretty good writer, and I had managed several projects with big name clients in my previous work at agencies.

We all exist on a sliding scale of self-worth — often with the weight of it sliding across the scale various times throughout the day. And honestly? We’re probably wrong more often than we’re right.

But what I considered my “worth” as a writer (and a human) and what I considered the appropriate number of dollars in my bank account were wildly disparate. Five years ago — and likely, even still — it would’ve been pretty dangerous to advise me (and arguably, most) to “charge what you’re worth”.

Of course, I’m not saying charge less than what you’re worth either. I’m just saying don’t base your rate on something as nebulous as “worth”.

We all exist on a sliding scale of self-worth — often with the weight of it sliding across the scale various times throughout the day. And honestly? We’re probably wrong more often than we’re right.

When asked to consider what we’re worth, we hardly (if ever) imagine some obvious transactional monetary figure; instead, we think of something less tangible, something indecipherable.

We don’t think, “What is my work worth?” We think, “What am I worth?”

And it’s not always good.

It’s a dangerous notion to base our actual monetary value on the (often inaccurate) self-worth we all harbor.

“What are you worth?” is not only a much harder (if not impossible) question to answer, it’s one that has next to nothing to do with the value of your work — and the amount you should be paid to do it.

When asked to consider what we’re worth, we hardly (if ever) imagine some obvious transactional monetary figure; instead, we think of something less tangible, something indecipherable.

But there are tangible, concrete ways to put a number on your professional value. Here are five better things to consider as you calculate your pay rate:

Consider Your Target Salary

It helps to start by knowing what you want to make.

This number shouldn’t necessarily dictate your rate, because we’d all like to be making 1.7 million dollars an hour, wouldn’t we? But if you realistically consider what you’d like your salary to be (and adjust based on the additional factors mentioned below), this is a good place to start.

What do you want to make per year? What was your salary (or hourly rate) at your last job? What do you need to make to support yourself and your family?

Once you know this, calculate your billable hours in a given year. In other words, how much time can you reasonably spend working and billing that time back to clients? Consider that you probably want to take most weekends off and might even want to take a vacation or two. How many hours are left? Jot that down.

Then calculate an hourly rate by dividing that ideal annual salary by the number of estimated billable hours. That’s your ideal hourly rate. Start there.

Map Out Your Career Maturity

Your greatest professional currency is your experience.

The number of years you’ve spent designing websites, the number of times you’ve created a content strategy deck, the number of people who will vouch for your copyediting skills — this is all professional currency that can translate into real dollars.

If you haven’t already, map out the professional experience that proves your value.

How long have you been in the industry? How many projects have you completed? What was the scope? Who was the client? Do you have testimonials you can share?

Collect every little bit of information and don’t be afraid to share it — on your resume, on your LinkedIn profile, on your website.

While everybody has to start somewhere, starting from the top shows that you’re worth top dollar. Don’t be afraid to show that off.

Do Your Research

We’re pretty lucky to live in an age where we can search for salaries at the drop of a hat.

Sites like Glassdoor and PayScale make it easy to find the going rate for any given job in your city. For something more freelance-friendly, you can check out sites like Upwork or Fiverr to figure out the going rate for similar work.

And if that still feels off, ask your peers what they’re being paid.

At the very least, doing your research gives you a solid data point to point to if a client challenges your rate.

Consider Other Costs

At this point, you’ve gotten more than enough information to help you make an informed decision around your freelance rate — but don’t stop there.

As a freelancer, you’re taking on a lot of costs that might usually be covered by a company — like the time it takes to manage calls and other administrative tasks, as well as overhead expenses like health insurance, Internet, web hosting, project management tools, cell phone bills, and more.

Leaving these “hidden” costs out of what you charge will actually leave you in the lurch. Calculate anything relevant into your costs from the start.

What’s the ROI?

This last point often gets left out of the “charge what you’re worth” conversation: what’s your work worth to your clients?

At this point, you can probably pick a number that reflects your value; a monetary investment that reflects your professional experience and meets your needs — but will it meet the needs of your clients, too?

As freelancers — as writers, as designers, as developers — we’re in the business of serving other people. Our value should reflect the value we provide to them.

So what’s your value? What’s their return on investment?

While it can be hard to pinpoint a specific number upfront, it’s helpful to consider as you’re quoting a specific number to charge them.

Again, consider your experience. Consider your results. Consider whether or not you can give back (and then some) what you’re asking for first.

“Charge what you’re worth” is a bold and understandable rallying cry. I truly believe that freelancers (and anyone, really) should advocate for fair and equal pay.

And look, if it were up to me, I would remind you that you’re incredibly smart, talented, hard-working, and worth every penny your heart desires. But you really can’t put a price tag on those — admittedly, super admirable — qualities.

What you can put a price tag on (and what your potential clients will probably put a hefty price tag on) is experience, ROI, and just the general quality of your work.

So okay, yes, charge what you’re worth — or rather, charge the actual monetary figure that you want and deserve. If you’re basing it on everything above, I have no doubt you’ll be worth it.

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