The Black Magic of Setting an Hourly Rate

If there’s any aspect of freelancing that’s hard to figure out, it’s setting a rate that is competitive. I won’t lie, I still think of it as a kind of arcane ritual in which I only dimly understand how it all works. Coming from a background where you don’t bargain over compensation, let alone think of setting a rate for yourself, I kind of assumed that freelancing would work like an RFP: a client would present you with a budget and you’d simply accommodate that. Nope. Plenty of people will want to know what you charge, so you’d better at least have some idea what you’re worth.

This is ultimately one of those things that depends greatly on several factors: there isn’t a uniform rate I would recommend because we all do different jobs. Nevertheless, there are a few ways you can try to pierce the veil of this particular dilemma.

#1. Don’t lowball yourself. I completely understand the temptation to set a low rate. If you’re just starting out, you might be tempted to think of it as a way to offset minimal experience. If you’re like me and coming from a more academic background, you might not be used to setting a high hourly rate.

Don’t fall into this trap! It’s one of the worst things you can do to present yourself to a potential employer. If somebody wants to hire me to write something, I want my rate to reflect the fact that I have expertise in certain areas and that expertise comes with a price tag. Employers, or at least worthwhile ones, understand and indeed embrace the fact that you get what you pay for. I’m not the first person to have this insight, but what I’ve heard over and over again is that if you find somebody with a really low rate, the first impression is that they must not be very good. If you set a $15 an hour rate, good employers will assume you’re incompetent, bad employers will take advantage of you, and your peers will berate you for devaluing what the rest of us do.

#2. Informational interviews. Informational interviews are good for lots of reasons, but one of those reasons is invariably the art of setting your rate. Talk to somebody who’s done this for a while and they’ll give you a sense what they charge and note how various exceptions might work (a rate for friends or returning clients, etc.). They’ll likely clarify too that it depends on experience and that you should act accordingly. They’ll probably also repeat rule #1 to you.

#3. Be up front with the customer. Because I like to take on work strictly outside of writing social studies educational content, I wind up applying for jobs where my experience is relevant but not necessarily immediate. When it comes to the subject of pay, I like to level with people about what I normally charge and clarify that because it’s in a different field, it’s open to negotiation. Nobody has ever taken issue with me over this. The worst that they could say is that they simply can’t pay that much but they’ll counter-offer with something else. Or, they’ll just leave, and I don’t really want to work for somebody who blanches at the idea of paying a fair amount.

#4. It is worth dipping your toe in and seeing what the field is like. I’m not saying that you should ever work for less than minimum-wage under any circumstances, and if work seems exploitative, don’t do it. Somebody who’s just trying to wring value out of you won’t ever help you. That being said, taking on a few jobs can be handy just to get a sense of expectations and what people are willing to pay, as well as experience.