The Tricky Business Of Charging Friends For Professional Help

illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Photographer and artist Areli Arellano was once approached by a friend trying to start a business. The friend asked if she’d be willing to help create the company’s identity design. Arellano sent over her rates, but the friend pushed back, asking if there was any way she could do it for free. “Her reasoning was that this business had no revenue yet, therefore it would be absurd to charge for a design,” Arellano recalled. “I wished her well on her new journey and left it at that. It might have been harsh, but my time and work is important.”
The topic of charging friends for professional service is a murky one. And, for many professionals, it is an uncomfortable scenario that comes up all too often. For freelancers and small business owners — particularly those in creative fields — being asked to perform odd services for friends can be a persistent dilemma. And, for many people, setting appropriate boundaries that separate friendship from their professional lives is not always an easy thing to do.
Lauren Cocking, a freelance writer, finds that one way to navigate this dilemma is by making an exchange arrangement with other friends, especially those who are also writers. “We typically swap copy when needed and give feedback,” Cocking told Refinery29. “I never charge for this, because it's usually just a 'fresh pair of eyes' scenario and they would (and have) returned the favor for me.” However, Cocking also has a swap set up with a friend who runs hosting for her blog in exchange for odd copywriting help. She admits, though, that it can get a bit “hairy” when it comes to dealing with expectations and finding a balance between the two trades.
Like Cocking, graphic designer Heather Marie, often doesn't charge (or heavily discounts) services if a project will teach her a new skill. Additionally, she has a rule that friends must provide a business plan before she designs something for them, such as a logo. “Friends that plan on monetizing blogs [or] Etsy shops often don't know about locking down social entities, content engagement strategies,” Marie said. “I often have to hold their hand and make them look at the bigger picture. I ask them to do the work of creating a Pinterest board of inspiration. Usually, this one-two punch of homework weeds out the lazy people hoping for a homie hookup.”
But for some, even those who do their homework aren't getting a hookup. Arellano, the photographer, refers people to her rates. “Most of my friends are understanding and have followed me throughout my career and know that I am constantly busy with different projects,” Arellano told Refinery29. And, though she does occasionally provide discounts and make exceptions for close friends and family — she recently designed her brothers wedding invitations free of charge — Arellano says most are understanding and happy to pay her for her work. “I have had to have some awkward money conversations, but I try to be upfront about charging them, even before discussing their project ideas, that way they know what to expect when it comes time to discuss payment.”

Every time I’m about to hit ‘send’ I get an uncomfortable feeling and rethink my decision. I’m scared they might take it the wrong way or become annoyed with me.

No matter the approach, setting boundaries with friends is a challenge and can be extremely triggering for some. Whether it’s imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head or a nagging fear that financial frankness might destroy a friendship, for many women the ask is still difficult — no matter what.
Arellano admits that she still deals with feelings of guilt and a fear of seeming selfish. “Every time I’m about to hit ‘send’ I get an uncomfortable feeling and rethink my decision. I’m scared they might take it the wrong way or become annoyed with me,” Arellano said. “Especially as a woman of color, I often make myself smaller and try to push myself into the background.”
So, given this reality, how exactly can women professionals figure out how (and when) to charge for their work? According to Cynthia Pong, a life and career coach — and the founder of Embrace Change, a coaching business focused primarily on women and women of color — overcoming a fear of boundary-setting can be incredibly challenging for women. “It’s particularly hard because women want to be viewed as doing good work,” Pong told Refinery29. “There are these double standards that we have to to perform better. A lot of us have also been socialized from early on to over-accommodate, to comply, to be overly giving.”
Further, Pong explains that the repercussions for not enacting these traditional female attitudes in the workplace can often be severe, though often subtle. “It’s just so much easier for us to get labeled as being difficult, or being a bitch or all of these other things that have negative connotations but also very real concrete consequences that aren’t pleasant.”
According to Pong, unlearning gendered socializations and grappling with fears of being scrutinized for assertiveness is a layered and gradual process. But it all starts with practice: “Figure out which is the easiest way for you to say no and practice in low-stake situations when it’s not as hard,” Pong suggested.
Pong also recommends sitting down ahead of time and outlining your policies, such as defining which circumstances might qualify for a friends and family rate. “It’s important to be clear and not to waffle,” Pong said, adding that without protocols, it’s much easier to get caught off guard by a request. She recommends sitting down and deciding what your policies are ahead of time, so it's not as tempting to make exceptions when the ask happens.

I believe in an abundance mindset and I never want to feel like I’m stingy, but at some point I know in my gut when it crosses over into paid work territory.

Pong recognizes that the ability to provide professional services can depend heavily on each situation, including one's line of work and bandwidth. Back when she was a public defender and being paid a full salary, Pong was more willing to provide free consulting services. Now, as a small business owner and consultant, it’s a lot different. But often, Pong adds, it comes down to how a request makes you feel. “I believe in an abundance mindset and I never want to feel like I’m stingy, but at some point I know in my gut when it crosses over into paid work territory.”
While Pong recommends creative thinking and an openness to strategic exchanges, she also believes that some circumstances do beget flexibility. “There’s no hard rule for everybody, times change and circumstances change. Sometimes work will be slow and you’d rather have someone in a pro-bono capacity but that’s not always the case,” Pong said. “It’s helpful if you have a framework and protocols so that you can define your boundaries ahead of time. That way, when the time comes, you know how to stick to it.”
Ultimately, toeing the line between friendship and professionalism requires a well-defined framework, a steadfast understanding of your own personal and professional value, and an unapologetic commitment to your own boundaries. It might feel scary at first, but it is doable. After all, Arellano certainly seems to have a handle on the situation: “If you really break down all the time, money, and effort that goes into your craft, you’ll realize just how much you’re losing by doing free work,” Arellano concluded. “You have to get to a point where you are confident enough in your work to think that anyone not willing to pay is crazy.”

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