Feeling underpaid? Our ultimate guide to changing it & charging what you’re worth

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You are doing a great job. Your working hours seem countless.

You certainly deserve more money and respect. This is what most of the blog posts you read are telling you, right?

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Only, they haven’t seen your work. And they don’t have to hire you!

But, I will take your word for it.

Your work is really good, you are a talented, qualified, experienced and reliable professional.

Then, how come you don’t get what you’re really worth?

This article will help uncover reasons you’re not getting paid what you’re worth as a freelancer.

Choose wisely where you hang out

You’ve probably visited – maybe you are a regular member – of a Facebook group or a forum, where designers hang out complaining about clients from hell.

You know, those tasteless, impolite monsters, who ask for everything to be finished yesterday in the lowest price in the market and keep threatening you they’ll assign the project to the friend or cousin, who will do the work for free with just a few clicks on Photoshop.

You’re all furious with those ridiculous fellows, who don’t appreciate a creative’s work and you blame platforms like Fiverr, where freelancers from around the globe keep on discriminating themselves and the whole designers’ community.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

You may think that only graphic and web designers are selling themselves short, but I know at least one platform where architects and interior designers offer their work for free!

It’s a contest!

I was amazed to see how many of them are literally working for nothing, since the clients will pay only for the project they prefer.

It seems that some of those fellow designers have to deal daily with clients who are rude, have awful taste and tight budgets, don’t pay on time (or at all) and underestimate their work.

When a normal client with reasonable expectations appears, pays on time and is happy with the outcome, the proud freelancer announces it and the rest of the group members congratulate him for his great luck!

Actually, this is the freelancer’s daily routine, isn’t it?

It’s tough but you get used to it after a while.

Feeling you’re not alone, after your small break, you return to your unfinished proposal and lower your prices.

You need this job and there are so many competitors out there, trying to win your client. You promise yourself this is the last time you’re working on such a low budget project.

Sounds familiar?

Are you one of those underpaid creative freelancers?

Face the bitter truth

In case your answer is yes and you are not a fresh freelancer, then I’m afraid you’ll have to face the bitter truth.

Apparently, you’re not the awesome creative you thought you were.

I don’t know if you are an untalented, inexperienced and incompetent professional or just an insecure person and an awful marketer, but you’re definitely doing something wrong.

It’s not your fault, I can hear you saying, everybody knows that working in the creative business is tough.

Most people believe you’re doing a hobby and you only have to push some buttons.

In addition to that, clients are uneducated to appreciate your talent.

Or, they like your work, but they have a tight budget!

If you’re usually paid what your clients think your work is worth or what they can afford, then I’m afraid, it’s not you but they who are running your business.

Are you the gourmet restaurant or the fast food canteen?

Have you ever visited an expensive restaurant and told them what they should charge for their special dish or this old bottle of wine?

For a second, let’s suppose something like that happened. Did they immediately reduce their prices to fit your budget?

If there’s such a restaurant, I would be interested to know!

You normally choose a restaurant your earnings allow you and wait for a special occasion or when you get a raise, to taste the exquisite restaurant’s cuisine.

Entering a place you know will give you what you expect.

To the same extent, in case most of your clients are those whose budget is for a burger and a coke, you probably aren’t the expensive gourmet restaurant you wish you were.

Or, you don’t look like one!

Don’t overlook the strong message your image and branding send to prospects.

In fact, you may even sabotage yourself, attracting low budget clients, just because of your business looks.

Fortunately, this can change.

If you only accomplish tasks, you can’t compete with a real creative professional

Like it or not, creatives are exposed and judged.

While some years ago, only a few people could see our work, now a South African can check out amazing portfolios from New Zealand or Russia on Behance and Architizer.

This raises your clients’ expectations and makes competition harder.

Working and cooperating with other architects and designers gave me insight into their work.

Once in a while, I stumbled upon someone who’s worth is more than what he/she charges, but this was an exception.

Eventually, we usually get what we deserve.

Clients will pay you for the whole process and experience, not only for the final “product”. That is:

  • The way you present yourself and your business
  • The expertise you offer and your ability to educate people who hire you
  • The quality of your communication with prospects and clients during meetings, phone calls or emails
  • Your responsibility, consistency, punctuality and diligence
  • The way you ask for the money – the proposal, the contract
  • Your system and workflow and how organized you are
  • The work you do and how you present it
  • The way you follow up after you deliver (on time of course!)
  • The way you respond to those who turned down your proposal – they’re still potential clients who may come back in the future

And still, I haven’t talked about the quality of your work, itself.

If the only thing you offer, is the final outcome not perfectly “served”, then it’s fair you won’t get paid as well as someone who offers the whole package.

Some people will probably not like your work – we cannot work for everyone – but no one should blame you for not being a true professional.

So, if you act, behave and look like an amateur, don’t expect to get paid like a real professional.

Develop a system that saves you time and money

Time is money and it’s not just words.

You may waste both of them, just because you haven’t built a system that helps you work fast and effectively.

I am a hyper-organized and control freak person – it’s in my DNA – but this habit or obsession made me develop systems that save me a lot of time in the long term!

I love calendars, to do lists, forms, templates and apps that keep me organized.

If you sneak into my office or my hard disks, you’ll find everything perfectly organized.

I also love to get rid of unnecessary items. I certainly spend more time deleting files than searching for a lost one.

As a result, I work fast, without stress and distractions.

During my career, I collaborated and even partnered with colleagues.

Some of them would spend so much precious time on redoing things (when they could use templates), on searching a lost file in a cluttered office or a disk, on additional phone calls or visits, only because they hadn’t developed a system.

I remember a colleague who was constantly late and stressed. He could drive from one side of the city to the other 2 or 3 times a day, just because he couldn’t schedule properly his appointments.

This costed him both time and money.

Working via internet is a great way to keep expenses low – no costly and time consuming phone calls and appointments, no need to print anything while you can take advantage of so many free useful tools and apps.

Before you complain again that your job isn’t profitable, take a look at where your money is being spent.

You can save a lot of time and effort and you’ll definitely reduce expenses, provided that you develop a good system to stay organized.

Identify your weak points and keep on learning and educating yourself

It’s clear that in case you wish to increase your rates, you have to work harder and become better.

It’s up to you to find out which are your weak points and try to fix them.

  • Practice more to improve your skills
  • Educate yourself to gain expertise
  • Be and stay up to date using the latest technology
  • Learn how to market your business
  • Become a better negotiator

You may have to become better in all the above.

This won’t happen overnight, but as long as you are determined to improve on every aspect, you will finally succeed.

The only reason people fail is because they give up too easily.

The best advice I could give on that, is to embrace challenges. Otherwise, there’s not much chance that you succeed and stand out.

I do this a lot, I dare to say yes to jobs I haven’t done before and then work hard to do the best I can.

This may require much more work and effort, but it payed off many times.

I studied architecture.

I worked for many years as a design teacher, now I mostly work as an interior designer, I also undertake several graphic design projects (and realized I get paid better than some graphic designers) and recently I started working as a writer.

My only secret is, I love everything I do. My strongest motivation is passion and not money.

But I won’t work for free!

Keep in mind that you can stop learning when you retire – or die.

Adopt the right mindset – believe in your value

Only a few have the chance to work on their dream job and earn money from it.

Being a creative is a blessing.

But it’s not for everyone.

You need more than just talent to become a successful one.

Above all, you need to be a fighter and to develop a winner’s attitude.

I’ll be honest.

So far, I haven’t encountered a quality professional, grumbling all the time about not being well-paid. They’re probably busy working, practicing or educating themselves.

This is a loser’s mindset and attitude and the worst marketing tactic one could use!

Even in case that only close friends – hopefully not your clients – listen to your complaints, your message is clear: my work is not appreciated.

Stop spending your time in Facebook groups with haters and complainers and join groups or follow blogs that motivate you to become better and give you inspiration.

Reading blogs like Millo is a great choice, I’ve learned a ton of things by doing this!

If you devalue your work and effort, I’m afraid there is no way to persuade your clients you deserve a decent fee.

You work to get paid with money, not with promises!

Nobody will force you to work for free.

It’s your choice and your fault that you don’t have a detailed contract and you don’t demand a down-payment.

Definitely, not the client’s.

You have the wrong mindset in case you think you’ll scare away prospects by acting like a professional.

I can assure you that a serious and decent client will never refuse to sign a contract, but only those who would waste your time and play with your nerves.

As long as you feel uncomfortable discussing your rates or asking for money they owe you, you have two choices:

  1. You quit the idea of freelancing or you partner with someone that will do this for you
  2. You change your mindset about money.

You shouldn’t feel guilty charging for your services, just because you don’t sell a tangible product or you’re lucky to enjoy your time at work.

Besides, it’s not your problem that some clients cannot afford you, but theirs.

Also, make sure you’ll get paid with money and not with promises.

It’s not so wise to make a discount, hoping that the client will recommend you to others or because this project will be good for your portfolio.

This is a common promise to young and inexperienced freelancers.

It’s always better to give something extra – and not expected – or a 10% off to those who refer you to others or become regular clients.

Target the clients that are willing to pay for your services

Something I’ve learnt during my career and is usually not mentioned:

Quality clients are not necessarily the richest ones!

My best clients were not always the wealthiest.

Those who’ll happily pay for your services, are the people who desire the most what you offer them.

Those who see in your work their dreams come true. Some of them may even save money for a long time in order to hire you.

Rich people are not those who will pay you more!

In fact, among them you’ll find the stingiest people who love to bargain.

This is how they became rich; they are not thrilled to spend money! (Which is why I’ll never be a millionaire!)

So, don’t focus only on those who seem to have a lot, because you might lose some great opportunities.

If your business image, be it your website or your office, reflects the class and quality good clients are expecting to find, you’re on the right track.

This automatically discourages low paying clients to approach you.

Have realistic expectations, but don’t sell yourself short

It’s not wise to compare yourself (and your rates) to the famous, best-selling author from New York, when you are just starting out, writing for a local newspaper in your small town.

Don’t have unrealistic expectations. It’s allowed however, to have ambitious plans.

It’s also OK to prefer quantity over quality.

But you can’t have both.

Not only because your time is limited, but because the quality clients are less than the low budget ones.

And they normally prefer to work with a quality creative.

Instead of lowering your rates, offer options that clients can afford.

I will never bargain my rates, but when a client who really wants me to do the work asks for a discount, we will find a way.

I may reduce the appointments from 5 to 3, omit a stage of the process or suggest a lower priced service.

It has to be a mutually beneficial agreement.

I will never apologize for charging more than what the client has the ability to pay.

Watch out for those who devalue your work and efforts in an attempt to lower your rate.

Don’t buy the story that there’s somebody out there – who offers the same quality work as you in the cheapest price possible.

It’s a cheap and a naive negotiating tactic. You’re certainly smarter than that!

Supposing it’s true, then they would be stupid to hire you!

It’s completely up to you to increase your revenue

So, if you think you are paid less than what you deserve or you’d desire, take action and do what’s necessary to change it.

It’s entirely up to you!

This requires constant hard work, good strategy and the right choices.

It won’t happen overnight, nobody was born qualified and successful!

Maybe you’re too close to get what you deserve and all you need is changing your attitude towards money.

It’s time to start targeting quality clients and refusing to do work for those who cannot afford you.

You’ll feel that things start to change when:

  • people reach out to you saying they are thrilled to work with you.
  • prospects are having a hard time to say no to your proposal and it’s them – not you – who will try to find a way to get the money.
  • your communication with clients is smooth and effective and it’s a pleasure to work for them.
  • you can easily handle or even refuse to work for disrespectful and unreasonable individuals.

This won’t occur by luck, but because you made it happen.

I strongly believe – in fact, I am convinced – that we all eventually get what we deserve.

I would highly recommend, especially to young or new freelancers, one of Preston D Lee’s articles:

Why “charge what you’re worth” is terrible advice

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About Mania Mavridou

Mania Mavridou is an architect and an interior designer, owner of DesignMania the interior+graphic design studio, where design meets psychology to create spaces for people to live and work in happily. Having a rich experience in teaching architectural drawing and CAD, she now gives lectures and seminars on interior design psychology and image marketing. In 2014 she founded Designing for Happiness, the 1st Greek blog about design psychology. The Successful Blog is her upcoming project that will teach you to be happy.

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Comments

  1. Wow, great article! I appreciate the tough love honesty!

    • Thanks a lot Darren!

      It’s good to hear, because I know only a few appreciate this kind of honesty.
      When I’d been writing this article I knew that some readers would hate it!
      I’d probably do the same some years ago.
      Although we all need encouragement and positive feedback, at the same time it’s really necessary to recognize our faults and weak points – otherwise we can’t improve.
      Most of the times somebody has to tell us!

      Psychologists suggest that being raised in an overly judgemental environment is equally harmful to being over – protected.
      It’s easier, more comfortable and even fair to blame others – our parents, teachers, society, politicians or capitalism – but it’s not really helpful and productive.
      Taking full responsibility for our lives gives us an enormous power and the ability to change it for the better.

  2. Congratulations on your new article!

  3. Another great read Mania. I too appreciate your honesty. You come at things in a way that resonates with my mind-set.

    Your “common mistake that can sabotage your business in 3 seconds” is still one of the best reads I’ve come across to date!

    Thank-you!!

    • Thanks a lot Barbara for your kind words!
      It’s nice to hear that my efforts are appreciated!
      I visited your nice website and blog and found some interesting articles, I hope I’ll find some time to read!
      I liked the one titled:
      ‘How to request services from a designer”.
      Very clever for educating potential clients!
      It really seems we are like-minded!

  4. Thank you Mania. Very interesting and useful information.