I’ve been shouting about pricing for…awhile, and inevitably the same question comes up over and over:
“How can I possibly charge $XYZ?! My clients won’t be able to afford that!”
For a long time, my answer was basically, “Well…that’s not really your problem.” And in many cases, I will still say, “Fuck their budget, you need to earn what you need to earn.”
The latter part of that is always true. But as I’ve gotten to know more business owners who serve underestimated communities and do much-needed DEI and other justice-driven work, I’ve come to realize that there are often genuine accessibility limitations.
Other creative work merits this consideration too. Should only aspiring authors with wealth and privilege have access to high-quality editing or marketing services? Fuck no. If anything, we need more underestimated voices creating and sharing work, and they need support in that as much as, if not more than, someone with a lot of resources.
The trick for us business owners is always to balance keeping services or products financially accessible to those who need them, and maintaining a sustainable stream of income. Tip too far in either direction and you risk burnout or quitting completely.
Speaking from my own experience, it’s easy to think, “I gotta help as many people as possible, even at my own expense.” But I want you to remember that your first responsibility is to preserve your own capacity. Put on your oxygen mask first and all that. I got a serious crash course in this when I became a parent and have since applied it to my business. If I am overwhelmed and exhausted, I cannot help anyone. Neither can you.
So let’s discuss a few ways to keep your products or services affordable for the people you serve, while making sure your needs are met too.
The traditional sliding scale model sets variable prices for products and services based on a customer’s ability to pay. (Hell, the American tax system works this way too, albeit in a very fucking confusing and needlessly convoluted manner.) It’s also been expanded to include differential pricing for certain identities as a way to “level the playing field.”
But this model often requires some sort of proof of the client’s income or identity, which doesn’t sit super well with me. I thought about this after watching the Gay Discount episode of Kim’s Convenience and Appa’s customers had to “prove” they were gay to get their discount. Requiring someone to out their income or identity, even privately, seems like an invitation to judgment or other harm.
Of course it’s okay to set boundaries for offering reduced-cost services or products. You know Auntie loves a boundary. But I wonder if we can eliminate, reduce, or modify means-testing when it comes to offering sliding scale prices. Maybe we (carefully…) use something like zip code as a proxy for income, or define other criteria to vet people for a list that gets special access to a limited number of sliding scale slots. Might there be people who try to game this system? Sure, but there can be other boundaries in place to limit the impact of the cheaters. (Is Auntie-shaming one of those boundaries? Not no…)
Another option is to slide the scale upward, and give people with more resources the option to contribute more. Artist Jessica Hische offers some pieces at a higher price labeled, “This is Art! Charge me more.” I’ve seen other business owners offer “pay what you can” pricing as well as different price tiers for white allies who want to make a product more accessible to communities they want to support.
The difference between these models and traditional sliding scales is that it’s up to the customer to identify themselves and pay accordingly. Yes, it requires trusting the honor system, which can be hard to do these days, but I like to make it a choice for more-resourced folks to give than a demand for less-resourced folks to ask. The power balance feels better for me personally, but your mileage may vary.
Pro bono work
Some business owners donate services and products completely free of charge, sometimes in return for a tax deduction. (Definitely check with a tax professional before doing this.) In order to do this, you can crowdfund or apply for grants and scholarships.
Regardless of whether you get funding, it’s very important to run these pro bono and spec projects in a way that gets you benefits other than income. Use the project as a way to test your processes or learn new tools. Ask for testimonials and references to serve as social proof. Write a case study about the project to help you land similar paid projects. If you’re doing a project pro bono, you have some more leverage to create according to the vision you have, and create something really good for your portfolio. When the project gets shared, ask for tags and mentions and have a way to capture leads from that buzz. Yeah, everyone complains about getting paid in exposure, and yeah, you should get paid in money, but it’s your job to capitalize on that exposure.
Another simple solution is to offer payment plans so that the client can pay part of their invoice after the service or product is delivered. This works well for clients or customers who have steady income but perhaps not a large cash reserve on hand. Put any payment plans into a legally binding contract (created by an attorney that is not Google Esquire) and crunch your numbers very carefully to make sure at least your expenses are covered by the initial payment.
You could utilize a budget-based pricing system where the fee you keep for your services is a percentage of the overall project budget. I’m generally not a huge fan of these models because the amount of work on a “small” project is almost never proportionally less than the amount of work on a larger project, but there are ways to make it work better. For smaller budgets, slide your percentage up a little. The client still spends the same amount but you’re not getting shortchanged quite as much. For example:
|Total Project Budget||Your Fee Percentage||Your Fee Dollar Amount|
And then set boundaries around how many you book at each budget tier so that the bigger projects can partially subsidize the smaller ones. This works well for things like personal styling or home decorating where the client will need to purchase products like clothes or furniture in order for you to deliver your services. The cost of your services stays more or less the same, and what changes is the amount the client can spend on products.
Scaling your services
You can also scale your services in a way that grows your income while keeping the idnividual investment for clients and customers at an affordable level. You could offer group coaching as an option for those who cannot afford 1:1. You could also coach a client through doing something on their own, like building their website using a course you put together, then sending you pages to review before making the changes themselves. This lets you spend less time on that client but still be helpful.
Another option is to manipulate timelines so that you can charge less but still have a meaningful impact. Maybe you create a highly standardized service that you can then get really efficient at, which then allows you to pass on some of that time savings to your client. Or you compress the timeline to a day rate where you can get a lot done in a set amount of time, and you don’t have to charge for as much padding/dawdling/getting-back-on-track time as you might for a longer project.
I’ve also seen business owners who charge a “lower priority” rate, which means that a lower rate project will get bumped back in the calendar if a higher-paying client comes along. Be careful with this; in my experience knocking a project back usually results in more work for me, not less, because I have to spend time and energy restarting the project. But this can still be a way to squeeze in someone you really want to work with, without completely giving up the opportunity for higher-paying work.
If asking certain clients to pay more out of the goodness of their heart seems like too much of a stretch (which…I understand), remember that you can always subsidize yourself. Charge higher rates for organizations and more established businesses, especially for custom quoted work. No one needs to know what anyone else’s quote was!
You can also create what I call bill-paying offers. These are services or products that you can deliver easily and provide a lot of value for the client, for which you charge accordingly. It may or may not be related to your impact and/or creative work at all. It may or may not be your favorite thing to do, but if it’s easy to deliver, that matters a bit less. Bottom line: It’s important to have at least one way for your art/craft/calling that feeds you, rather than you having to feed your calling all the time.
The only way that subsidizing yourself works is if you set and maintain firm boundaries around how you operate your sliding scale, pro bono, payment plan, and other affordability models. Figure out how many full-price projects you need to support each pro bono or sliding scale project and stick with those ratios. Work out payment plans that protect your business first and accommodate your clients second. Build processes for offering access to these lower-priced options and let those processes, rather than your emotions, guide you in making decisions.
You have a duty to preserve your own capacity.
All of this is important because, like I said earlier, the greatest obligation you have to the community you serve is to preserve your own capacity.
No one wins if you burn out or go out of business. You are uniquely qualified to serve and inspire the communities you belong to. Chances are, you are supporting more than just yourself with your income and your impact. If you have to stop doing that work and go be an employee to pay the bills, that’s a loss for the whole community. Especially if you have to go back under the authority of powerful white men to make ends meet.
Whatever your work is, the very existence of your business is an act of resistance. Resistance takes hard work and resources, and resistance is a long game. Ultimately, you will be able to have a greater impact if you can operate sustainably over the long term than if you give all your services away for free now. Don’t feel guilty about “taking people’s money.” Feel proud of the opportunity you are offering them to invest in themselves and their communities.