A few weeks ago, my friend who is an interior designer asked me a question.

“How do you say no to friends who want you to work for free without hurting the relationship?”

It’s an interesting question because it happens to so many people.

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If you’re a photographer, designer, developer, writer, personal trainer, doctor, mechanic, hair stylist, lawyer, illustrator or a billion other professions, friends are going to ask you to work for free.

I even know homeschool parents who get asked to babysit during the day because “You’re home already.” Sometimes, people describe the request as a “playdate.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if my kids played at your house for 6 hours?

It usually starts with an email like this:

“Hey, sorry to bother you, but I need your opinion on something. I need a quick logo. It should only take you a few minutes. You could probably knock it out in your sleep. Is that something you could help me with? I love your style!”

There are a few telltale signs:
1. The promise that it will be “quick.” If someone says “I just need you to tweak it,” run.
2. “Help me” is often code for “give me for free.”
3. There’s usually at least one compliment to soften you up a bit.

Sometimes, they will promise you “great exposure” or that they will split the future profits of the project with you. Or they will offer to barter something you didn’t want or need. “You take my photos and I’ll let you have one of the ferret pups we have after ferret breeding season is over.” (I just tried to think of the worst barter I could imagine and that’s what I came up with.)

The email you receive might be different, but regardless of how the request is made, how do you handle it?

My old method was to say yes out of guilt and then do the work filled with pure, white hot rage. My words said, “Sure, no problem!” but my face said, “I would kill you in my sleep if I owned a good pair of gloves.”

After years of doing that, I came with a really simple plan. It has two parts.

The first thing you say when someone asks you to do some work for free is, “What’s your budget?”

This question works because it introduces money into the equation without being offensive. Instead of saying, “Well, my hourly rate is $250” which puts your friend on the defensive, you respond with a question.

The question helps your friend remember that you’re a professional. It quietly introduces the idea that you do this for a living. It reminds them that this is your job, not just a passion. We’re not just talking a hobby. People sometimes get confused by this because for them, quilting is a hobby so why shouldn’t it be the same for you?

If you don’t think the question is going to be enough, do what my friend Cliff Nowicki does, and send them a survey. Put together 10 project-related questions, one of which is the budget, and fire them off a survey.

Two things are going to happen in this moment:
1. They will tell you their budget.
2. They will tell you they don’t have a budget.

If they tell you their budget, great. Proceed as you wish if the money makes sense.

More than likely though, they’re going to tell you they don’t have any money.

If this is something you want to do, then by all means, donate your time and expertise. I love that you can use your talents that way and think you should support your church, non-profit or family as often as you can.

But, what do you say if you don’t want to do it?

Here is exactly how you respond:

“In order to honor and fulfill the commitment I’ve made to my paying clients, I can’t take on any pro bono right now. I love doing it when I can, but I don’t have the time.”

They’re not just asking you to give them something for free. If you take time away from your paying clients to work on your free clients you’re actually stealing from the people who pay you. That’s terrible. That’s how small entrepreneurs like us go out of business.

Saying yes to the wrong thing is one of the most expensive things you can do.

Upon hearing this from you, a good friend will recognize what they asked you and will say, “Thanks for considering it.” A fake friend will not care that you are too busy and will try to shame you into helping them.

Don’t.

You do the friendship more damage when you let shame turn your no into a yes.

And the bigger issue is that friends should pay full price. Why should we expect a stranger to treat us well and pay our fee? Our friends should pay us the most. They should over tip! The people who love you should not try to discount your ability. It’s actually the reverse.

Don’t give up your talent, time and energy unless you want to.

Care about your craft enough to charge for it.

P.S. I wrote a New York Times Bestselling book about being so awesome you can get paid for your passion. You should read it.