How to answer cheapskate clients asking for discounts

It doesn’t matter how successful you are or how expensive your image is, you’ll always get bargain requests as a freelancer:

requests to do work for “sweat equity,” exposure, trades, etc.

Case in point: those LinkedIn messages I’m sure you get from people who’ve found your work, liked it a lot, and then wanted you to form a partnership with them for a stake in their business.

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On one end, it’s flattering.

They’re willing to give away a part of their company’s profits to you, after all.

But on another end, it’s totally irrational.

Your exposure and potential for future income isn’t going to do anything to pay your rent this month, and the success of the company depends on a lot more than just your creative contributions.

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And yes, I realize most bargain requests are a lot more nuanced than the black-and-white scenario I’ve laid out above, but that doesn’t always make them any less tricky to respond to.

I’m pretty hard-driven on working for cash in my bank account in return, but even I’ve run a few bargain deals here and there.

So in this post, I’ll outline some of the best practices I’ve learned over the years in responding to bargain requests to help you hold your own when you need to and make sure you’re getting a good deal if you do agree to bargain.

1. Say no to straight up discount requests

There’s a lot of excuses people will make for these:

  • You’ll get exposure
  • They’re a startup with not much money
  • They’re a nonprofit without a big budget
  • They want you to “prove” your worth before they really fork over the big bucks

Through the years, I’ve noticed this is a HUGE red flag that should almost always be said no to right away.

The only exception I can think of is if you’re a huge believer in the non-profit’s mission and genuinely want to help out of the goodness of your heart.

But if someone’s willing to stoop to guilting you to get you to agree to sign on with them (non-profit or not), it’s a clear sign of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and these people will be nothing but trouble to work with once you’re in contract with them.

They don’t value your work they way you do (and your work IS valuable), so they’ll be unashamed in draft revamps and scope creep until they’re 100% satisfied—which is usually never.

Sorry for such a harsh tone, but I really think it’ll save you so much headache if you just abide by this rule.

2. Suggest a value-for-value swap

A lot of times, the good clients looking for a bargain deal will offer this out of the gate.

You trade copywriting for design, for example.

Or you give them your business course for free, and they give you theirs.

Sure, some people who suggest these might be trying to get something for nothing, but as a rule of thumb, I like to approach these requests assuming the people have nothing but goodness in their hearts.

And honestly, you can really get some awesome value out of these kinds of bargains.

I traded writing three website pages for a free conference entry once, and that has actually been a life-changing trade.

(I wasn’t even the one who suggested it, but I think I got more out of it than my client did.)

I’ve traded writing a couple blog posts per month for a free advertising slot.

And, where it makes sense and only for truly influential clients, I’ve blogged for exposure.

[Tweet “Make sure that what you’re giving away is equal to what you’ll receive. #freelance”]

The key here, though, is to do a dollar-for-dollar analysis and make sure that what you give away “for free” is equal to what you’ll receive in turn “for free.”

As long as you’re happy with it, go with it. But if you feel hesitant, a polite no never hurt anyone.

3. Try a short-term agreement before diving in head-first

If someone comes to you suggesting an ongoing bargain/trade agreement—even if you feel like it’s an amazing offer—suggest trying a trial period first.

Good clients will always understand where you’re coming from and will probably respect the opportunity to review for themselves the financial benefit of the trade they’re proposing.

You can make the trial agreement for one piece of work or for a few months’ worth of small retainer work—whatever makes sense for the situation.

At the end of the trial period, evaluate the numbers related to the deal you struck and make sure it still makes good financial sense for you.

If it doesn’t quite add up for you but it does for them, switching to a paid agreement usually won’t be too much of a problem… especially if your work is as valuable as they thought it would be in the first place.

4. Always have a contract agreement with clear parameters

No matter what kind of bargain you strike—whether it’s a value-for-value trade or a monetary discount—ALWAYS put a contract in place like you would with a regular, paying client.

Because you bypass “the rules” by striking these deals, it’s a lot easier for clients to get lax in their approach to working with you.

[Tweet “Have clear parameters, scope, and deadlines defined in your contract. #freelance”]

Make sure you have clear parameters, scope, and deadlines defined in your contract, and hold your bargain clients accountable for sticking to them.

Conclusion

I don’t like to make myself too available for bargains… I usually let someone else bring it up.

Reason being, of course, I need to pay rent and have other financial goals that bargains… as good as they might be… just won’t lead me to directly.

BUT I’ve never said no to a great one.

So tell me your experience… what kind of bargain requests (good & bad) do you get?

How do they make you feel, and how do you respond?

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Millo Articles by Chelsea Baldwin

Chelsea Baldwin is a freelance writer, turned agency owner, turned business coach. She helps freelancers, solopreneurs, and small business owners grow their businesses quickly and become way more profitable. Each week, she sends out a free weekly dispatch with business advice, easy-to-complete business hacks, and behind-the-scenes looks at what it’s like for her to run two separate businesses.  
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  1. Will Hawkins says:

    That’s a useful post. Thank you. I’ve been doing some freelance work in my spare time and have not yet had any problems with ‘cheapskate’ clients yet. But, I am sure it will happen!

  2. Margie Matteson says:

    One of my first clients was a nonprofit organization. The director and I hit it off immediately, and our first meeting was so productive that we had an approved sketch for the website design concept and she was ready to sign. We had an agreement on the budget.

    The next topic was ongoing maintenance (this was before CMSs were common). The organization had one big national event every year, and small updates each month. She wondered if there was a way to even out the payments.

    I thought about it for a moment and realized that this was a great opportunity for my brand new business. With what I estimated for her maintenance needs and what would be needed for updating the site for the annual event, I could divide that into equal monthly payments that would ensure a good minimum monthly income for myself, while making the client happy, too.

    It worked out perfectly. We worked together for over ten years, and I got a lot of great referrals from her, too.

    1. Chelsea Baldwin says:

      That’s awesome!

  3. George Moussa says:

    Good article. If these startups have no money, they should not be starting out.

  4. randy heller says:

    Great advice.

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