How to Negotiate Your Rate Like a Pro

By Courtney Kocak March 29th, 2019

This is the first in a two-part series about negotiating freelance rates. Check back next week for the conclusion and tips on how to set your fee.

Before Taffy Brodesser-Akner became a prized profiler for The New York Times, there was a brief period when you could soak up her journalistic prowess in a workshop setting. I went back for seconds and thirds; I couldn’t get enough. It was a helluva bargain, and I feel fortunate to have received all her instructions—but one in particular.

While coaching me and my almost exclusively female classmates, Brodesser-Akner declared the following: “Always ask for more money!

It was a habit she’d developed after noticing that men did it all the time, without thinking twice about it. People respect you more for knowing what you’re worth, she told us. And while I’d estimate that her stunning career trajectory has had more to do with her innate talent than anything else, it definitely adds credence to the advice—as does a recent report sponsored by FreshBooks, which found that self-employed women bring in 28 percent less than their male counterparts. According to the 2018 Women in the Workforce Report, women who work for themselves average $56,184 in annual income, compared to $77,540 for men.

And though I’ll never forget my instructor’s money mantra, at times I still find it difficult to counter whatever rate I’m offered. That’s why I’ve consulted a few experts for this handy how-to. It’s the guide I wish I would’ve had when I was first figuring out what my time and talent were worth, and one I could still use whenever I need the extra nudge to reply to an accepted pitch with “Great! Any wiggle room in the budget for this?”

Don’t lowball just because you’re new

Soon after she began working as a freelancer in 2007, Elaine Pofeldt realized the name of the game was patience. “Your first year out of college, you’re not going to get paid the top rate because you haven’t reached your full potential,” she said. “You’re still in learning mode, building up your skills and your network—all the things that contribute your career capital. You don’t have to pay your dues forever, but you do have to have mastery.”

That doesn’t mean you have to lowball your rate early on. In fact, she said, prospective clients may be suspicious of the quality of work if the rate is too low. And if you have a special skill or exceptional quality of work, don’t be shy about explaining why it comes with a higher rate.

“Be able to make a compelling case about how what you’ve done prior—and most importantly, what was the impact—to demonstrate that you’re a high performer who should be compensated fairly,” added Claire Wasserman, career coach and founder of Ladies Get Paid. “You should be upfront about your rates, tying it to your research. It’s not personal, it’s the market.”

That said, one trap freelancers fall into when looking to past projects in order to set their rate is scope creep. Not only does market demand change relatively rapidly, but your past pay is rarely indicative of the actual work you put into a project. “A great way to get out of this perpetual cycle of basing your compensation on prior rates is to look at the scope of what you were asked to do at the onset of a job, and then write a new description for what you actually did,” said Wasserman. “You may be surprised to see how the scope changed and how much you took on.”

Make freelancer friends

Cultivating a group of friends within your industry is vital for reasons beyond money, but the financial impact can’t be overstated. These confidantes, informants, and trail guides will become critical sources in your quest to increase your bottom line. When Pofeldt made her foray into ghostwriting she had to reassess her rates. “There’s only one way to do that, which is to have friends who you can ask in confidence.”

Then there are the ancillary benefits that for many women and under-represented groups also seem to carry a financial burden. “Maybe you have a self-esteem issue, or you have an issue with money or something that’s holding you back from charging what your work is worth,” Pofeldt said. “So you need a buddy to pep you up so you can swallow hard and ask for what you deserve.”

If your contacts come up empty, there are online resources like The Freelancer’s Rates Database and Rates Calculator and Who Pays Writers, which can serve as a baseline for fees based on publication and vertical. Pofeldt recommends using them as a jumping off point. “If you’re charging less than anything you’re finding online, you’re really undercharging.” In fact, if you have some impressive experience under your belt, you can probably charge up to 25 percent more.

Be realistic about your billable hours

The pop culture zeitgeist is all about glorifying the hustle, but Morgan Fletcher, an NYC-based cultural producer/digital marketer with a specialty in the arts, suggests adopting the “conscious living” approach when it comes to calculating true billable hours. Ask yourself how much time per week or month you’re going to spend working and then be honest about how much you can accomplish during the allotted time. If you’re only spending 50 hours a month working on freelance projects, don’t book yourself for 80 hours’ worth. If 25 percent of your time is spent on administrative and marketing tasks, then you need to build that into your rate, along with your overhead.

Overhead includes business expenses like your cell phone, laptop, internet, transcription fees, coworking space, transportation costs, self-employment taxes, etc., as well as any additional training or education you need in order to complete your work. On top of overhead, you need to set aside enough money to take care of yourself. To simplify her record-keeping process, Fletcher likes to set aside a credit card specifically for her freelancer expenses.

“There’s so much that people don’t think about when they start working freelance,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I’m just going to start working. I’ve got a couple of clients in mind that I’m able to bring on from a full-time job, so I’m good to go.'”

Be assertive, not aggressive

Fletcher has some invaluable guidance specifically for historically marginalized and underpaid groups—especially if you become aware of a pay discrepancy. First, don’t reveal your sources for rate information. Don’t backtrack. Don’t over-explain. Don’t apologize. “What you primarily want to hit is that you’re grateful, you’re gracious, but you’re assertive,” she said.

Wasserman reminds boss babes to be aware of the double bind, which penalizes them for acting against gender expectations…like asking for a raise.

“Essentially, when you act assertively, you may be perceived as aggressive,” she said. “All women experience this to some degree—and, by the way, women do this to other women just as much as men do. Women of color suffer from the double bind even more.” Her recommendations for combatting the double bind phenomenon: use the collective—say “we”—and smile (oof).

When negotiating your rate, consider a script like: I’m super excited about doing this project or writing this piece. Thank you so much. Based on my research and the effort that I know that I’m going to put in into writing this piece, I think that a more comparable rate would be X.

Fletcher urges freelancers to make the ask and just see what they say. “You should always be mentally prepared to have a bit of back and forth. They want to pay you less. It’s better for the company for them to pay you less.” But that doesn’t mean they won’t listen to reason. Point is, be prepared:

“I’ve heard so many wonderful stories where people are like, ‘I came to this new potential employer, and when they asked me what I wanted to make, I asked them for the top of the range, and I was ready for the fight—and they just gave it to me.'”

Next week, we’ll examine how to price projects to make sure you’re getting the optimal rate. Be sure to come back for more. And send us your negotiating tips at @TheFreelancer.

Image: Andrii Yalanskyi