Two friends with tattoos bumping fists.

The Great Dilemma: Friends Who Want Favors

So, you’re beginning your professional life $80,000 in debt thanks to the degree that’s now hanging on the fridge at your mom’s house. You’ve gained some top of the line skills, and you’re ready to put em to work.

Maybe you’re a designer/animator. Nifty.

The old college roommate you hear from once every six months hits you up with a “quick question” about something that’s bugging him on his website. Next thing you know, four hours have passed, and you’re elbow deep in this guy’s pest control site trying to get an animated cockroach to wiggle across the screen in a convincing manner.

You realize far too late that your old buddy has absolutely no intention of paying you.

And you didn’t think to mention it in advance. Cue face palm.

Whatever your profession is – hairstylist, web designer, mechanic, professional Hula Hooper – you have probably been asked by a pal (or a pal of a pal) to help them out and then received nothing in return.

You may be too nice or feel too awkward to say anything, or maybe you’re just undervaluing yourself and your skills.

Time is money when you work for yourself.

Often, freelancers and self-employed workers are overrun with people trying to ask for favors. The problem is that small favors can turn into bigger projects with hours of revisions.

It’s one thing to help out a good friend from time to time, but if you’re allowing people to take advantage of you, quit it!

“Thank you” doesn’t pay the rent.

It’s gratifying to hear an enthusiastic “thank you!” from someone who’s happy with your work, but it’s worth exactly zero dollars.

You can’t pay for your rent, student loans, or that underwater basket-weaving class you’ve been wanting to take with a “thank you.”


Try walking into Target, filling up a cart with trendy planters and shower curtains, then walking right out the door with a cheery “thanks, guys!” as payment. You don’t need to conduct this experiment in real life to conclude that it is a terrible idea that will lead to you being charged with a misdemeanor.

Thank yous are nice, but they’re not currency. Don’t accept them as such.

Friends who expect free stuff from you aren’t respecting your craft.

Friends and family often seem to feel at ease asking for free services, which leaves you in the awkward position of deciding whether to ask for compensation.

You put in the time (and money) to learn how to do whatever it is that you do.

Hair school wasn’t free. Why should a haircut from your masterful haircutting hands be free? Because it doesn’t cost you anything to trim your friend’s mom’s hair? Wrong answer.

Value yourself. And your time.

You presumably spent time and/or paid money to learn your craft so that you could earn a living, not so that you could charitably rid your entire friend group of split ends. That is not your job, unless you are getting paid for it.

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Learn how to turn down work politely.

You shouldn’t feel bad saying “no.” There are nice and respectful ways to do it. One good way is to let them know that you don’t have time.

Try: “I know this is important to you, so I don’t want to delay it as I am overloaded currently.” Or: “I’m not really in a place to do pro bono work.”

You need to make it clear to your family and friends (especially friends) that you don’t work for free.

It’s not always easy if you’re the type of person who hates to let people down. But you need to think of yourself as well as others.

Trade favors.

This will help them understand your value because they’ll have to do something themselves. Your masseuse friend wants a haircut? Trade them for a 30-minute massage. A friend’s dad wants to bring back his frosted tips and also happens to be a painter? See if he’ll touch up a couple spots in your casa.

A fair trade is a good way to make everyone happy.

Make work for your portfolio.

If you’re just starting out, you might be jumping at the chance to get some work experience.

But if you do something for free, it should be your way or the highway. Only accept a work challenge if it will actually turn out to be a portfolio piece.

If you’re a designer, for instance, this means that you should get complete creative control. You’re not going to design something for free unless it ends up being something you want to show off.

This can be a great opportunity to build your book.

Give a discount.

Treat your family and friends as clients and give them an estimate.

Bill for the full amount and apply a friend/family discount. This makes your friends or family understand the actual value of the services you’re providing.

You don’t have to feel pressured to do something you’re really good at for free.

Treat friends like clients upfront.

Give them a proposal with the scope, time estimate, contract terms, and cost of your services.

If they’re surprised or unwilling to pay, you can either give them a discount or tell them you’ll try to fit them in between other client work. (Because paid work is the priority.)

This will make it clear that you don’t usually work for free, but if you do, it’s a huge favor that should be appreciated.

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Say yes, but set a boundary.

You want something for free? Tell them you only do free work if it can benefit your portfolio, so you want to hold creative control. They should trust your professional ability. If they aren’t willing to hand over the creative reins, then you shouldn’t feel obligated.

Establish the terms before doing the deed.

Asking for payment from someone who wasn’t planning on paying you after you’ve already done them a “favor” is flat out awkward.

It’s easy to avoid this situation by stepping up and telling your friend/aunt/roommate the terms under which you’re willing to provide the service they desire.


Aunt Rosemary: “Maurice— you’re such a talented underwater basket-weaver. I really need a new basket for all of these mittens I’ve knitted. Can you make me one about the size of a shoe box?”

Maurice: “Oh wow, thanks for the compliment! I’d love to. For a basket that size it would cost about $50 for the time and materials. Sound good?”

Aunt Rosemary: “$50 sounds like a bargain to me, sweetie!”

Wow, that Aunt Rosemary sure is a reasonable lady. Let’s look at the alternate scenario:

Aunt Rosemary: “Maurice— you’re such a talented underwater basket-weaver. I really need a new basket for all of these mittens I’ve knitted. Can you make me one about the size of a shoe box?”

Maurice: “Umm, yeah…ok, sure. I’ll do it this weekend.”

*spends three hours on a beautiful Saturday morning weaving a magnificent basket*

Maurice: “Here you go. I hope you like it. Um, it’ll be 50 bucks for the basket…because you know I spent money on the materials, and I spent hours doing this and… umm…”

Aunt Rosemary: “What? We’re family! And $50 is a little much for your Auntie, don’t you think?”

See? That’s an unnecessarily sticky situation that could have been easily avoided!

Value your time and skills like you would value any other human.

Everyone else is getting paid, so why shouldn’t you?

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