How to Stop Clients From Expecting Free Work —Without Burning Bridges

How do you stop clients from expecting free work without jeopardizing your relationship?

“It will be good exposure.”
“It’s going to be an excellent addition to your portfolio.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”
“We’re a startup.”
“There’s a lot of future work.”

You may encounter prospective clients who use the above reasoning to get you to work at a reduced rate, and often, for free. If and when you encounter them, run. Run as fast as you can!

Indeed, unless they’re a non-profit you care about or a friend you owe a favor, there’s no reason why you should ever work for free. If anything, such work only drags you away from paying clients.

After all, you’re a professional, and your time is money, and you should always charge for your work. After all, performing your work for free can make it seem less legitimate.


Constant Revisions and Scope Creep

But this isn’t the only way you might be asked to work for free. Some established clients request so many revisions beyond the agreed-upon project scope that by the end of the project, you resent them and feel like they’ve demanded more time and energy than they’ve paid for:

  • “Could you make one tweak to this image?”
  • “Could you add this line of code?”
  • “We’d like to include this section in the copy; could you add it?”
  • “Could you upload the document to WordPress; it’ll only take a few minutes?”
  • “Could you source an image for us?”
  • …and so it goes on…
Determine Your Rate

You make revision, after revision, after revision. And end up doing so much extra work with no extra money to show for it. What’s more, the client sees it as a norm and normalizes the behavior, and takes the extra work for granted.

Do you really want to work for these clients? Probably not. But it might be worth trying to reform their behavior before making the dramatic step of “firing” those clients.

So how do you stop clients from expecting free work without jeopardizing your relationship with them? Let’s have a look.

1. Prime Them Not to Expect Freebies

There’s nothing wrong with giving your client the odd freebie. But if you give them too many – without telling them that you usually charge for them—it becomes problematic. Your client starts expecting free work, often without even realizing it.

Next time clients ask for a small revision that you usually charge for, be clear that this is not covered in the work estimate. Mention how much it usually costs and give them the resources to do it themselves—this way, they feel like they have a choice in the matter.

Acknowledge that you haven’t minded providing the odd extra value-add in the past, but that you can no longer sustain this and that in the future, you’ll charge for it!

Any reasonable client will understand this. If they don’t, ask yourself: Are they worth it?

2. Re-Enforce the “New” Rules in Upcoming Interactions

Initially, your client may not take you seriously. After all, you’ve done so much free work before.

So, it’s important to reinforce the action you took in later interactions and future projects. If you show weakness, you’ll end up where you started.

3. Let Project Estimates Become Your Best Friend

To help reinforce good behavior on both sides, it’s crucial that you have your ducks in a row at the start of every future project. In fact, it’ll also help with any new clients and prevent these situations from happening in the first place.

But how exactly do you do that?

Enter Project Estimates

Project estimates help you take the guesswork out of projects. They provide a breakdown of services, costs, and project length.

More importantly, they kickstart good practices and ensure everyone grasps the work involved. Let’s look at some key elements of an estimate that will help you.


Outline all services. For example, if you’re a content marketing agency, you may provide blog posts, a landing page, and a home page for a client.

Project Scope

Specify what each service entails. For example, the number of posts, revisions allowed, and what the changes entail.

Revisions are part of any project. You’re trying to deliver what the client wants within the confines of the project. If you don’t specify the number of revisions, the clients will think they can request as many as they want.

Similarly, if you don’t define what a revision is, your client may complain when you charge for one they thought was part of the project but isn’t.

Here’s an example of a revision from InfinVision: “Once a design draft is presented, the client has a specified number of days to provide their feedback. Once all their comments, ideas and questions are consolidated, and we provide a new version, that’s the end of that round of revision.”

Beyond defining a revision, make sure you distinguish between minor and major changes.

Minor changes may include an internal link to another blog post on the client’s blog. Major changes may be changing the direction of the blog post. If the client requests a significant change, it’s not a freebie, and you should charge for it.


Specify any exclusions. Make sure you don’t hide them in the fine print.


Specify the costs for all services.

Don’t Forget to Engage the Prospect

Sending the estimate isn’t enough. You need to make sure they read and understand it. Often they’ll “agree” to something without reading it, which can later cause disagreements over cost scope and what’s “free” and what isn’t.

So, you must engage them. A simple phone call or face-to-face meeting may help. You can even use online software such as FreshBooks to collaborate with the client by making comments.

A Word of Caution: Don’t Nickel and Dime a Good Relationship

While charging for work is important, it’s equally important to identify when offering a freebie may be better. For example, you may want to avoid setting a bad precedent with a client when starting a relationship. And so, you charge for all the work you do.

As the relationship develops, you may decide to give the client a freebie. Again, if you do, let them know it’s a service you charge for to avoid the pattern of free work.

On the flip side, you don’t want your clients to think you’re someone who nickels and dimes at every corner. So, be reasonable, maintain a long-term view, and be willing to let things slide. Because sometimes, you gain more in the long term from that interaction—that single freebie—than you do from the initial monetary benefit.

Should I Work for Free: Jessica Hische Flowchart

One designer we’ve long admired is Jessica Hische. She made this handy flowchart for deciding whether you should work for free or not.

work for free


There’s nothing wrong with giving your client a freebie. But it becomes problematic when the client starts expecting it. And, if you’re not careful, you may find yourself doing massive amounts of “free” work with no money to show for your efforts.

Failure to correct this situation may lead to resentment. And that’s not fun. Thankfully, fixing the situation is easy, and you don’t have to burn bridges with the client. Just take charge and train them to stop expecting it.

Gently tell them when they next request a change that isn’t free, that you usually charge and that they should expect to pay moving forward.

On the same note, start using project estimates as part of your arsenal. They’re a powerful tool to ensure that all your projects start well and that, ultimately, you’re not working for free!

Do you have clients who expect free work? How do you deal with it?

This post was updated in October 2021.

Nick Darlington
about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Nick Darlington is a FreshBooks customer and small business owner who's been running a writing business for close to 4 years now from his home in sunny South Africa. When he’s not sharing his knowledge and experience about how to successfully run, manage, and grow a small service business, he’s helping aspiring and established writers succeed at WriteWorldwide.