Q. How much money should I ask for on my first freelancing job?

A. The quick answer: probably more than you think.

So here’s a question that I am asked all of the time, and the funny thing about this is that it’s been years since I’ve been in this position. Since then I rarely do any freelancing myself, so I’m probably not the best person to answer this question. Of course I directed the student to another faculty member who is currently working in the profession, but in the case that he wasn’t immediately available I gave my student the following tips.

First, AIGA does offer some advice in their guide and in this article by Shel Perkins. But most of the time students do not consider themselves to be “firms” and are not planning to be freelancers for the long-term so these materials can be overwhelming.

What follows is the question and answer from a recent email exchange:

Student: I was interning for this company, doing some photo-retouching, and now that the internship (which was unpaid) is over, they want to hire me back as a freelancer to continue doing the same job. They told me to name my price for freelance work. How much should I ask of them per hour of work?

Me: Since you are still in school, what you need most is experience. You shouldn’t pass up this opportunity, even though it may seem like “grunt” work. I don’t know the going rate, specifically, for this kind of work so my advice is to try to understand the value of your labor. Since this is a personal decision, here are a few tips that I would use to guide this decision:

1. You are offering a skilled service, which means you should definitely be paid more than your local coffee barista. In fact, I would double or triple the going rate at Starbucks. If you have a job right now that is more along the lines of “general” work (as opposed to “skilled” – I know this is sort of troublesome as even baristas can be skilled once they’ve had some training, but go along with my terminology here), you should make that a point of reference for how much you will ask for when performing skilled tasks. In the case of my student who was making about $13 an hour at a snack bar, I suggested between $20 and $30 per hour for her skilled labor. This will also scale to economies that vary in all parts of the country. The range also allows her to scale her price to the client.

2. Remember that you are not getting health benefits, so you need to ask for more money on a per hour basis, assuming that at some point you would be responsible for that additional cost.

3. You may end up negotiating (though most of the time the company will simply agree to the rate you supply). So ask for a little more than you want, in case you have to compromise. When I did work in the industry, the directors who ran the studio I worked for would price large jobs at 3 times the price they actually thought it would cost in order to accommodate negotiation and the countless unforeseen tasks that always come along with one-off jobs. Note, this is a different situation than freelancing with one company where you deliver similar materials, repeatedly.

4. If you will have to do a lot of driving, you might consider the cost of transportation as part of the hourly rate – especially if you are going to be in the car for nearly as long as you will be meeting with the client each time.

5. Take into consideration the scale of the company. A large organization can afford a higher fee than a ma and pa shop. Assuming you are willing to work for a lower rate at a smaller organization (or, maybe at this point the better wording is “beggars can’t be choosers”), you can adjust your rate accordingly.

6. However, having written that little bit in the fifth tip, do not forget that you should not, under any circumstance, under-value your work. This harms the professional community and in the long-term will only be detrimental to the value of your services. This is actually a much larger ethical issue than I will express in this post, but consult AIGA’s web page on Design Business and Ethics for further reference.

7. If you end up agreeing to a rate that weeks later you realize is less than desirable (the oh-crap situation), you can ask for additional perks. (I might wait at least a month or two before doing this, but it’s your game to play). For instance, perhaps the company will purchase a membership to AIGA for you. As a professional, this is no small expense. You can highlight the fact that the expense is tax deductible. Or consider asking for other tax deductible items that will help you perform your job, such as software applications or upgrades, equipment such as an external hard drive specifically to be used for your freelancing tasks, an ink jet printer or a new set of inks, or even gas mileage compensation. The worst that can happen is you hear the word “No.” While this may seem intimidating, consider each denial jut another moment where you are building your own character through (possibly an uncomfortable) life experience.

8. One last tip – you will inevitably need to create an invoice! I put a link to the Design Business and Ethics page in tip number six, but I am repeating it here because you will want the PDF available towards the bottom of the page, titled AIGA Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services. You can use this as a template for your own agreements and invoices to get started in your new career.

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