Why It Took Me Four Years To Become A Freelance Hard-Ass

My new dress code. ... Okay. Not really. I'm wearing a sundress sans bra right now.

It can be tough to be tough with clients when you’re first starting out as a freelancer.

After all, you’re new to all of this: the self-promotion… the self-discipline… the hustle… the rates-setting. You’re unsure of yourself: unsure of what you’re worth… whether or not you’ll fail or succeed… whether or not you have what it takes.

Because of all this, you end up saying yes to every damn project, out of both desperation and fear. You end up lowballing yourself when setting rates. You end up working nights and weekends, with nothing to show for it.

After three years, I still had nothing to show for it.

Don’t get me wrong. After three years, the work was coming to me. My professional network was vast. My portfolio and resume looked a thousand times better than they once did.

But I was still struggling to pay the bills, and my work/life balance was seriously out of whack.

It took me four years to finally become a freelance hard-ass. What finally clicked?

1. I realized that I was wasting my own damn time.

By taking on low-paying work — in exchange for exposure or higher visibility or a byline or whatever — I was cheating myself out of higher-paying projects. After all, how could I seek out and take on more and better-paying assignments if I was spending all my time writing for pennies?

For the longest time, I thought that I was still just small time. I assumed that the higher-paying jobs no longer existed and, if they did, the competition was too fierce. I thought that if I worked hard enough, at the exclusion of work and exercise and sleep and a social life, I could still make a living, even if the pay was crap. And when I was asked to set my own rates? I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know my own worth. I didn’t think that people would be willing to pay me more.

I’ve since learned that people were willing to pay me the rates I deserve if I have enough self-respect to ask for them.

2. I realized that I didn’t need those low-paying, high-stress jobs.

Okay. So not everyone is willing to pay the rates you ask for. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept every project you’re offered.

I know. When you don’t have a regular paycheck coming in, it may seem stupid (not to mention terrifying) to turn away work. But if you accept those low rates, you set a dangerous precedent regarding what you’re willing to work for and, as previously mentioned, you waste your own damn time… time you could spend looking for new and better work.

These days, when I’m approached with an insultingly low offer, I take Carol Tice‘s advice and tell them, “I’m sorry you’re not able to afford professional rates right now. Feel free to give me a call in the future if your budget changes.”

3. I realized that I had already paid my dues.

Okay. So I’ve already belittled payment in exposure, visibility, and bylines but, once upon a time, those things were important to me. And while seeking out those things may have held me back, there is little I regret. After all, despite the mistakes, I’ve accomplished a lot in the past four years.

Still, I don’t need to settle for those types of payments anymore. In a way, I’ve outgrown those gigs that are merely portfolio-boosting. So yeah. Sure. I’d love to break into that magazine I’ve been reading for years. But the byline alone is no longer enough. This is a business, after all. Not a gorram hobby.

4. I realized that I had something valuable to offer.

I’ve already blogged about this, but it has its place in this post as well. After watching Dave Navarro‘s and Naomi Dunford‘s How To Failproof Your Business video series, I realized that I do have something valuable to offer, and that people will spend money on the things that are important to them. Internalizing this information as truth has enabled me to negotiate hourly rates and flat fees, and walk away from clients who weren’t willing to budge. This is worth repeating: Having faith in yourself will make you a better negotiator.

5. I realized that I needed to make both my health and my loved ones higher priorities.

When I was working harder instead of smarter, my personal life suffered. My marriage suffered. My waistline… suffered.

I went full-time freelance so I could do what I loved… so I could be happier with my boss… so that I could have a more flexible career in place when I eventually have children.

But if my workaholism causes me to lose my marriage, my hot bod, and my mind… well, none of it will have been worth it.

These days, I set daily goals, schedule out my day into blocks of time, set boundaries, take breaks, and more.

Do you need to put your foot down? Are you working harder and not smarter? Or have you moved past all of that? How?

Related: Is Your Business Flailing? Your Rates Aren’t the Problem, Would I Pay That Much For Me? 5 Things To Consider, Knowing My Own Self-Worth, Clients Not Respecting Your Time? Sorry. That’s Your Fault


  1. Steph, I’ve struggled with many of these same issues, so I can definitely relate. Another issue I often face is scope creep. When the client says, “we need X, Y, and Z,” then it becomes apparent that they also need “A, B, and C.” If A doesn’t take too long, I’ll sometimes throw in a freebie (for instance, a short sidebar or some tweets) to keep them happy, but that can set a bad precedent where the client or editor always expects freebies, which cuts into my hourly rate. On the flip side, though, if you’re always telling them, “that costs extra” or “I’ll need to bill you an extra hour,” then you come off as stingy. In the case of working with editors, you often can’t say no to revisions or answering a zillion questions because it’s assumed that that’s just part of the process. If it becomes a pattern and I can’t negotiate for more money, then I’ve found that moving on is often the best solution.

  2. Great post Steph –

    I have also had to learn this lesson in my journey from 9-5-er to ‘doing my own thing’ and it’s by far the hardest, most grueling lesson you can learn.
    I love that you’ve added number 5 as well since a lot of the time as an entrepreneur, your family and your social life and health don’t even begin to factor in as important.
    Once I learned that my prices needed to be fair but firm, I started doing SO much better. Thanks for the post!

  3. Looove the profile pic, Steph! And the annotation. I’m a lot older than most of your network, I think, but consider us on the same footing in so many ways, because I only got my BA last summer. Thanks to your tips, maybe it won’t take me four years to become that free-lance hard-ass.

  4. As a relatively new freelancer, I appreciate the encouragement! Thank you for the reminders.

  5. I learned this very lesson after working myself into burnout. Never again. You’re right – we choose to freelance typically because we want more freedom and flexibility. Saying “no” is a necessary part of working for yourself. I don’t want to resent the projects I take on.

    I also like your idea about scheduling blocks of time. I’ve had to schedule in daily workouts to counteract the damage done to my waistline…

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