Charging what you're worth: a few tips for underpaid designers

So you’re a freelance designer, eh? You’re living the big life because you are doing what you love and getting paid for it. The only problem is, you’re not getting paid very much.

But who cares, right. I mean, you get to work on your shiny apple computer designing pretty things for clients all day long. You don’t care that you don’t make much money as long as you get to do something you love.

Stop lying to yourself.

I’m not afraid to admit it (and you shouldn’t be either), I decided to start freelancing because I believed I could make more money for myself as a freelancer than working for a design agency. After all, my design agency was charging over 10-times the amount of money I was making per hour, yet I was doing all the work.

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It seemed messed up.

But then I started freelancing and realized that making money is not as easy as it seems. It was then that I started lying to myself (probably like a lot of you are doing right now) and saying that the money didn’t matter and all I cared about was having a job that was fun and where I got to do the things I enjoy.

And sure, that’s important, but I also have a wife and child who need to eat and have a warm place to live. So I need money.

Here are a few lessons I learned early on that helped me make the money I deserved as a freelance designer:

Charge what you are worth

Perhaps the most overlooked principle of successful freelancing, designers have an especial hard time charging what they are actually worth. When your clients come to you insisting their nephew (who just bought Photoshop) “can do it for a lot cheaper”, it’s hard to refuse the work. But therein lies the key to success.

When you charge what you are worth, you bring in clients who appreciate your talents and abilities.

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They respect you.

And they pay you well.

Pay attention to your finances

Some designers actually get paid pretty well, but they blow all their income on the newest and greatest technology. Or they go out on the weekend and drink their money away. Or whatever your vice in life is. Stop wasting your hard-earned income on it!

We talked about all this recently in “How to build a rockstar design business without going broke“. Just wait a while and make sure your business is standing on it’s own two feet. Then you can start to spend a little more.

Find other ways to make money designing

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, you know. And while I’m no professional when it comes to de-furring felines, I can certainly attest to the importance of finding other ways to make money designing. There are sites where you can sell your stock images, wp themes, HTML templates, and more. You essentially work on one project and sell it multiple times.

Projects like that can make up for the deficit you may encounter every once and a while. (PS. There are a few links at the bottom of the page under “Millo recommends” that may help you get started selling your designs online”.

Stop settling

If you’re in a rut, make plans to get out today! Stop settling for not making the money you deserve as a hard-working talented designer. What other tips do you have to share with us about making the money you deserve as a designer.

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  1. I initially had a year of being under paid and under valued working for a client but because I did the work anyway I’ve now managed to secure bigger projects that will lift my value. I agree that if you allow yourself to be mugged off you then by default de-value what you do.

  2. This is so me. In fact its happening to me right now. Have started working for a new client. Could ‘potentially’ be a lot of work that continues throughout the year. First job – rebrand the company. I gave a fair price and she knocked me down on my fee. Big mistake. I’m still developing the logo (‘make it a darker red like a burgundy, no now its too dark can you make it redder?’) and I’ve probably spent more hours on it than I should’ve done but I wanted to impress and get the other work. Now today I received a reply about my costs for the other work and once again she wants me to do it for less but ‘on other projects where I make a larger profit I am happy for you to charge more…’ (and you are going to tell me when and where you make a larger profit are you?) So I am now deflated with the whole project and its at the bottom of the pile! I have another logo to do for her but she wants it for £50 less than my fee and if her company logo is anything to go by she will come back again and again with changes. I feel like I am being taken for a ride. I never seem to make big money from my own clients. Maybe I’m just to soft? I tend to make more money by freelancing at other design agencies and this has been the case for the last few years. The direct clients really are ‘just because I love what I do’ but I think its wearing a bit thin after all these years.

  3. Freelance Web design is tough to biz. Nowadays, I’m lucky to get 700 for a website. I work my fingers and wrist to the bone, and dealing with clients is always a hassle. People don’t have clue what it takes and are mostly cheap sons of #@%#%. They want top of the line work for cheap prices,. I have considered taking a job with a company for a salary then work freelance. Take a look at any Craigslist ads for web design jobs or from freelance designer and you will see my point. People are offering 249 web design. Unbelievable.

  4. The reason web designers are paid so little is because people don’t know how much work goes in to it. Most people just see the visuals of websites and think that’s it (they even underestimate the work that goes in to good graphic design on a website).

    They don’t see the database underneath, they don’t see the HTML or PHP. They don’t see the testing you’ve done.

    I’ve just taken on a ‘small’ job adding a search tool to a lettings agent’s website. He thinks £100 is a lot of money for this! I worked out it will take me five days to do it properly. That equates to him thinking that £2.50 an hour is really expensive!

    Minimum wage in the UK is £6.08. So stacking shelves in a supermarket will at least be that and is often more. So in short someone with zero qualifications and zero responsibilities can get paid three times as much as me!

    It’s best to have a career where people KNOW how laborious your job is. e.g. he wouldn’t think about charging a gardener £2.50 an hour!

    The second factor is the market is flooded with web designers.

    The third factor is that a lot of clients don’t know good design when they see it, so they’ll take a complete amateur who is absolute rubbish, and they can’t tell the difference. So we can get undercut by talentless idiots who have done a 1 day course online.

    In short a lot of customers are idiots who need educating. Harsh you think? Not really… they are ignorant and have the cheek to say you’ve overcharged for slave wages!

  5. I really appreciate the article and everyone’s comments. I still struggle with charging my clients, I some how always get suckered into working massive amounts of hours for very little. I just naturally feel sorry for people and then end up not charging them what I should for my work. This makes me question whether I should be in business for myself but seeing that other people struggle with the same thing and learn how to become successful, gives me some hope.


  6. I think too, part of not charging “what I am worth” is bartering. I have bartered several times without success. It’s too abstract/esoteric. I now believe I can create more value by offering extra. I cannot be a bleeding heart for every business owner who “needs” a logo but has not budgeted marketing, design or anything that remotely looks like it FOR their business. I am cooked on that one. 🙂

  7. In my experience, the clients who want to pay you the least are the ones who treat you the worst. They’ve shown from the start that they do not value your time or expertise. If they’re willing to pay you big bucks, they’re more likely to listen to you and keep useless changes to a minimum.

    If a client has a limited budget, it’s almost always better to reduce the scope instead of your rates, and be really clear on what they’re getting. Then be really easy to work with so they’ll come back.

    1. @Bluejay, Definitely agree with you there. A lot of people try to negotiate the same amount of work for less pay, which just isn’t fair to the time the designer could be spending working with other clients who are willing to pay what they are worth. As you said, best thing to do is to adjust their project (remove features, etc) to meet their budget. If they really want to work with you, they will pay what you are worth, and as you said, provide the best customer service you can so that they will continue to work with you in the future.

  8. I get a lot of potential clients that can’t appreciate the work of a professional designer. I get tempted at times to lower my rates to their budget, but I know deep down that I will regret it as I will be close to insanity very soon.

  9. I know for me I am tempted to charge less when I’m in the down cycle of the roller coaster that is self-employment. Being self-employed is either feast or famine at times so it’s in those famine times when I tend to charge less than what I should for a website, for example.

    I think that is part of the struggle for a freelancer: sticking to your baseline for what you charge for fear of losing work. Long term, though, I think that it ends up hurting you more and stunts your business growth.

    1. @Alan Jones, I recognize this situation totally. When the business is down a little bit it’s really tending to charge less when a new client turns up.
      Sometimes, when I know there are more projects coming from this new client I’m willing to “invest”, so I charge a little bit less than usual. In the future projects I then slowly raise my price to the normal fee.

  10. We are just starting out and this article really speaks to us! We’re just starting out but we really care about our community and help out when we can. Charging what you’re worth is an important concept for business.

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