Turning down client work when you really need the money

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Thoughts

In the past months I’ve been turning down potential work quite a lot. I’ve said no to projects I don’t want to do, and I said no to opportunities I would have jumped on, if I only had the time.

Saying no became easy, and I no longer second-guess myself for days, wondering if maybe I should’ve taken that job, if maybe it would’ve led to an opportunity I’ve been waiting for…

It’s easy to say no now that I have a waiting list of client work lined up for several months in advance.

But it wasn’t always easy, and maybe you’re in a situation where you feel like you can’t say no to crappy low paid work for clients from Hell. Maybe you’re hearing people’s advice on turning down work you don’t want to do, but you think it doesn’t apply to you, because you can’t afford it yet.

Today I want to talk about this, since it wasn’t that long ago that I was in the exact same situation.

Turning down client work when you really need the money

As little as a year ago, saying no to potential work seemed like a luxury. I was worried about where my next project was going to come from, and when opportunity came knocking, my instinct was to cling to it and make it work, no matter what.

It was the sensible thing to do.

This meant that I sometimes accepted projects I wasn’t thrilled with. I felt like I had to, or that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. The main reason I started freelancing was to be able to choose who I work with, and here I was, not feeling like I have much choice at all.

Feeling like you’re forced to accept whatever work is available to you sucks. However, that feeling is not the objective truth. There are always other choices that we sometimes refuse to see because they seem just as bad.

The trapped feeling is an illusion – a damned good one, and I’m not denying you the right to feel horrible about it. But there are things you can do to take control of your career, and say goodbye to poor quality work for good.

Good reasons for saying no to work

Saying no to things you don’t want to do enables you to say yes to more of the things you want. If you don’t have much work going on right now, you may think that you’re not losing out on anything when you say yes to the wrong thing, but your are.

Long periods of work that pays little in terms of money, respect and fulfillment will leave you burnt out, and you might even start resenting what was once your passion (this happened to me).

A portfolio full of projects you’re not so proud of will invite more low quality work. It’s a cycle that’s difficult to break. With no opportunities to grow, you will start doubting your own skills and thinking you don’t even deserve better.

Accepting bad projects brings a short term financial gain, but the long term negative impact is much greater.

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Every creative project you take on today is an investment in your future career. Invest your time, energy and skills however you choose, but do it mindfully.

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Here are some reasons why it might be better to pass on certain projects.

  • The pay is ridiculously low
  • The client is rude, demanding and disrespectful
  • The project theme goes against your personal values
  • You wouldn’t feel comfortable signing your name on it
  • You are not allowed to sign your name on it
  • You already did similar work and said “never again”
  • You know that you don’t have the required skills, and you’d do a half-assed job
  • You don’t want to be known for that type of work
  • Doing this would disqualify you from the work you want to be doing in the future (for example, adult art might disqualify you from illustrating children’s books)

Any of these is a good enough reason on its own, but if a project raises more than one red flag, it’s not worth pursuing.

Sometimes you’ll say yes even though you know you should be saying no. We all do it sometimes. But think about why you’re saying yes, and decide what you’re going to do next time. Don’t let “this one time” become a rule.

How to afford to say no

In order to be able to say no any time you want, you need money. (No surprise there.)

When you don’t have money, saying no seems impossible.

I’ve been in a situation where I had to get out of a project because I just couldn’t bear it any longer, but I was broke. Worse than broke, I owed money. I agonized over this decision, I cried on my boyfriend’s shoulder saying I can’t do it anymore.

The day after I walked away from the project, I got another job offer.

Coincidence? Magic? It doesn’t matter. I took a risk, and it paid off. I can’t guarantee it will work every time, so it would be wise to have some money in reserve before you decide to follow my example.

But just so you know, being broke and saying no is still an option. It’s just not sensible.

So let’s talk about some other options.

Day job

Going back to a day job is the last thing I’d want to do, but if it was the only remaining thing preventing me from selling my soul on Fiverr, I’d do it.

Sean McCabe recommends getting a job outside of your creative profession, so you don’t spend all your creative energy there. (I’ve juggled a full time job and freelancing in the same field of work, so I know what he’s talking about.)

The challenge is to find a job you’re qualified for that pays a decent wage, and still leaves you enough time and energy to pursue your calling.

Sounds like a unicorn farm. Still, it’s an option.

The freedom fund

(Also called the “fuck off fund”.)

This is basically a savings account with several months worth of expenses. You may not have one yet. That’s OK, neither did I when I started freelancing. It’s not too late to start saving right now.

Set a goal to save a certain amount of money (the equivalent of 3-6 months of salary), and commit to it. Save aggressively – stop buying unnecessary things. Cut back on any monthly subscriptions you don’t use. Sell stuff you no longer need. It’s not forever, it’s only until you have the amount you need to be able to say no with confidence.

Until you get that account padded, you might still be taking low quality work once in awhile. But you’ll know there’s an end in sight, and with that in mind, it will be easier to bear.

When you save the amount you need, there’s no excuse to accept crap work anymore.

Rely on your significant other

Hah, I bet that suddenly the job and savings account ideas sound much more plausible?

Yet, I’ve heard that some people have used this strategy with some success. If your partner earns enough money to cover your family’s needs for a while, the only obstacle is getting them on board.

If your partner is very supportive of your freelance career, they might say yes. If they’re skeptical, it will be difficult. Still, you won’t know for sure until you ask.

If they’re not willing to support you indefinitely, you can agree on a deadline by which you will either get your business going, or start looking for a job.

Sucky options are options nonetheless

Making business decisions that affect your future is not easy. I don’t have a magic solution to make you feel better about refusing work when there’s little hope of better work coming along.

But I want you to know that there’s no specific moment in your career when saying no is suddenly easy. It’s a gradual process of becoming more and more comfortable and confident. (It took me two years to get there.)

You don’t wake up one day feeling ready. Instead, you find yourself at your wits end, and say “Screw it, this isn’t worth it.” You realize that out of all the sucky options, saying no to making money in the short term is actually not the worst one.

You will doubt yourself. You will fear you’ve made a huge mistake. You will also feel a sense of relief unlike any other.

And you might realize in time that what looked like a bad option at first, had been the best decision you’ve made in years.


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2 responses to “Turning down client work when you really need the money”

  1. As a new freelancer I also felt like I had to accept every job offered, even if the pay was low or it wasn’t a good fit. I love that you offer real solutions. It can be tough to rely on a significant other or return to a day job, but as freelancers we need to own our decisions if we truly want to own our businesses. Great post!

  2. Thank you, Emily!
    Yes, none of the solutions is ideal, but as you say we need to own your decisions. This means that sometimes we have to make unpopular choices in order to get what we really want.

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