I am a relatively open individual who is shy (for lack of a better word) around new people.

One of my coworkers has a business and is asking for my help as a financial analyst outside of work, and while I'm more than happy to help my fear is that my coworker is thinking that I will do whatever they need for free. I don't however want to lead this person on thinking I am going to do them "a solid" or will hold some sort of position at their company; I am happy where I am and don't wish for a move to a new position at an unknown company.

If they are willing to pay however, I am happy to help and would love to be able to add it to my resume. I also don't want to burn the bridge I have with this person, as they could be valuable for networking later in life.

I have a meeting with them soon to discuss the projects, and don't want to lead them on further. My goal is that anything less than 10-15 minutes I'd do for free, but anything longer I'd have to charge for.

How can I tell them politely that I am willing to discuss some sort of cheap contract fee to help them rather than a free service?

  • 10
    is their business profitable?
    – Kev Price
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 15:21
  • 1
    @KevPrice I don't actually know what the business is. It's the husband of a new coworker (I'm the new one, not them). Would that change the answer whether they are or aren't?
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 15:22
  • 10
    It would change how I approached it if they were. If they are profitable then you know that they can pay, making it much easier to bring the topic up. If they are not profitable then you know that they can't and you have to bring up the discussion earlier so as not to 'lead them on'.
    – Kev Price
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 15:25
  • 3
    Could you add a country tag to this question, and edit this question and add some information about the cultural context? The answer to this question will depend on your cultural context.
    – user288
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 13:58

9 Answers 9


I used to be a member of the Austin film community - rife with "working for credit". Part of why I found a job that isn't like this is that I really, really didn't like being in exactly the position you're in. I completely agree that it can be really uncomfortable to ask this but it's important for you to value your own time - you only have so much of it, so I'm glad that you're trying to find a solution that will work for you.

I found that one of the most effective ways to ask if they're paying is to say something along the lines of

What do you have in your budget for this part of the project?

Phrasing it this way is a bit more open than "What can you pay me for this work?" You aren't part of the equation here - it's them and their budget. You're asking about their business structure. If they're honestly trying to make a go of it, they'll have a budget and they'll be able to answer what they have budgeted for (if anything).

They probably won't answer the question directly... they'll likely say that they were hoping to find someone who could do it for free or, if they have money to offer, they'll turn the question around and ask how you'd like to be compensated.

If they don't have a budget at all or they're hoping that someone they've only known for a brief period of time will be willing to do the work for free, you might not want to be involved with them at all, particularly considering what you've said in the question. If you're at the point where you need to get out of it, thank them for telling you about their project and wish them well but let them know that you're committed elsewhere.

It's been nice to talk with you about this project and getting to know what you're working on but this sounds like it's more of an investment of time than I'm prepared to make. I'd be willing to help you out if you were able to budget me a small contract fee. Alternately, if you just need some advice that would only take fifteen minutes or so, I'm happy to help with that.

If they respond that don't have a specific amount of money budgeted for it but do have some money they can offer, you can ask questions of them to get a better idea of what they're looking for from you and give them a number that you think is reasonable.

  • 10
    I'd be cautious with saying "if you just need some advice that would only take fifteen minutes or so, I'm happy to help with that." Often if they don't understand the subject (which is why they are asking in the first place), what they think is a simple question may actually be a days long project.
    – David K
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 18:44
  • 9
    ... at which point the OP can still notify them that that's not what he meant by 15 minutes. ;) @DavidK.,
    – AnoE
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 22:20
  • 2
    @DavidK, can you offer any examples of simple questions that are actually days long projects that couldn't be deflected by simply telling them so? The worst I can think of is "I'm trying to do X but it isn't working, how do you do it?" but even that can be taken care of with a 5 minute "Oh that is pretty tricky, to explain in depth would be a days long project, check out these resources..." What are you being cautious of? Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 1:55
  • @RyanfaeScotland Happened to me recently: Friend said "Could you look at this code? It works well, except in this scenario..." I thought it would be easy to fix and said I take care of it, but it actually took several hours. (still was worth it in my eyes) Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 14:02

Remember, you have services to offer and they've asked for them. It's as simple as that, they can't always expect you to do it for free. It's your time. I do freelance work on the side sometimes (as a developer, this can become time consuming). I would simply say:

"I would love to help you out, but I charge a small fee. I have other projects going on at the minute and I'll be putting them on hold to help you out".

In this context the "other projects" could be anything from pass time, to hobbies to your other work. It's your time still.

You should start off the negotiations with that and gage their reaction. That should simply be expected for them, the polite way of going about it is the approach in which you charge them, be fair in your negotiations based on their budgetary requirements, which should come up in the negotiations regardless, but from you asking this question, you seem genuinely concerned and would like a fair result.

If they persist on trying to get it done for free

"I'm sorry but I have to put things on hold to help you out, I'm more than happy to do 10-15 minutes of work for free".

This not only gets the point across that you're willing to help them, it also puts across the point that it's your time and your expertise being used to help them, as a business they should understand.


The responses offered have too much beating around the bush.

Be polite of course, but be direct in both information collection and in setting expectations.

  1. "Is this a one time need or do you expect it to be ongoing?" (If it's ongoing, immediately indicate you'd expect compensation e.g., "How much are you expecting to pay for this?")
  2. If one time, "How much effort and time do you expect it to take?" If 15 minutes, offer to meet for the 15 minutes, help out, and watch for scope creep. If several hours, say your rate for this type of work $X per hour, first hour free.

If they said one time and brief, and when you meet this is accurate, you may have found some honest folks and if you do a good job there may be more - compensated - work down the road.

If the scope creeps be polite, finish the 15 minutes, note that if they ever decide to hire someone to do the work they could approach you again, and leave.

Give the co-worker a big hello and thanks the next morning and, unless she's your boss and/or a nutcase, episode closed.


In these situations I establish distance in the meeting as soon as I can. Something along the lines of

Thanks for inviting me. I'm really interested to hear about the project, I might know some people who can help

Saying 'thanks for inviting me' establishes them as 'host' immediately and sets up many cultural rules (at least in the UK) around how you should be treated. Then you establish is your intention to look over strategy and consult rather than get your hands dirty. It is far easier to move forward from that position into one in which you are doing the work and getting paid rather than start with their assumption that you will and move away.

Or at least it is more difficult to do it delicately.

You then maintain that position throughout the meeting. It would be impolite of them to assume you to be more committed to the project then you yourself show. You can then ask strategic questions about the finances and budgets and know if they are able to pay for this work or not. This may lead to you warming to the project talking about specific bits you might be able to help with such as 10-15 minutes once per week going over 'X' for free or reading resumes of people who have applied for the position to help them find a candidate. Or consult on any work that they have done themselves. That kind of thing.

But additionally if they have a budget you'd be willing to do these extra things - and let them know what you think you'd be able to do for their budget

If asked directly if you'd consider working for free just say

Sorry, I can't

You don't really need to offer any further explanation and explanations give them something to negotiate against and play with. Just be polite and firm

  • You can also use, "I'm sorry, I've got my priorities scheduled this year, and this just doesn't fit in." Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 21:48

When you meet with them to discuss the project, make sure you understand its scope, requirements, timeframe, and other aspects. At that point you should know whether it fits your criteria for free:

My goal is that anything less than 10-15 minutes I'd do for free, but anything longer I'd have to charge for.

If it fits your criteria for free, let them know:

It looks like this project is a quick job, and I'm happy to do it for free. If something changes and it requires more time we may have to sit down and discuss consulting fees.

If it doesn't fit your criteria, also let them know, but I'd suggest stepping away from the conversation and getting back to them at a later date. It's not only hard to make estimates off the cuff, but clients tend to pick apart estimates and if you don't have a good foundation for the estimate it can be hard to defend, resulting in an underestimate which will make you both unhappy.

This is a great project, and I'm interested in doing it. I'll create an estimate of how much time I'll be involved in it, and what I expect to accomplish during that time, as well as the cost for me to do the work.

Be upfront, but make sure you have time away from the client and meeting to actually create a reasonable estimate while still conveying that it's not going to be free.


There are some excellent ideas here. One that works for me is telling them my hourly rate early in the discussion. For example:

My hourly rate is ____. You said you need me to work __ hours a week, which comes to _____, weekly. If we can agree to that, I can start on ___.

It keeps me from devaluing my time and work because I fear insulting people by pricing myself too high, or appearing uppity.

By asking for what my employer pays me, it becomes not a question of "What am I worth?" or "How much is it fair to ask of this person?", but just an extension of my work day. If they can't pay me that, it's easier to politely decline and walk away.


As a freelance editor, I run into this quite a bit. I appear to just be sitting at home, and I am an editor, so "why not just tidy up my resume real quick," etc.

My go-to line, that I try to deliver kindly but firmly:

I'm sorry, but I really can't put my paying customers on hold to get into this for you.

If they persist (true story here):

Look, one of the reasons that you would like my help with this is because you know I take my projects seriously and try to do a good job on everything I do, right? Well, that takes time. This may seem like a quick job to you, but I promise you it won't be, not if I treat it with care. It would take a minimum of a quarter hour just for me to familiarize myself with what you already have, then we might talk for a half hour more about what you really want to accomplish with it, and even if I could spruce it up to get you what you want in 15 minutes (which is impossible), that would already be an hour of my time. Do you know I can get $40 - $75 an hour? If you don't want me to treat it special – if you just want me to look for typos – sure, fine, but we'll just do it right here on the table; get a pen and I'll circle them for you. No, girl! If I open my computer at all it'll be $20. If you want me to push other customers back and do a good job on it, you're going to have to pay me what they'd be paying me because I'll be cutting into my Paid Gig Time to do this instead..."

These may not perfectly match your situation, but I hope you can find something useful in it.

To offer something more specific, let me recap your situation: you are in a fairly new job and one of your co-workers there has already sniffed out that your skill set or expertise would benefit her husband's (or their) side company. Moreover, she talked to him about you (hence the upcoming meeting), but has not yet even told you what their company is.

If I have all that right:

  1. Don't be surprised if the upcoming meeting reveals it's not at all what you thought and you find yourself at a multi-level marketing meeting;
  2. If that's not the case, you should be able to go into this meeting not worried at all about being on the hook for anything because they haven't even told you anything; and
  3. I think your go-to line (after hearing them out) should be something like:

Hmmm. Yeah, this sounds really promising. But, I dunno... Look, I wouldn't mind talking things over with you over lunch now and then, but I really can't afford to sink any free time into this. Do you have any budget for this [kind of work you're looking for from me]? I mean, if my time is compensated, that would give me some more options.

Anyway, just keep it loose, honest, and polite, and don't feel like you have to say yes to anything.

Good luck!


Not really about how, but I'd strongly recommend you bring it up as early as possible. Someone charging for their time is reasonable and should be expected. Finding out an acquaintance is charging for their time late in a project is fairly obnoxious for all involved. However you choose to bring it up, do so before you get into the details of what you'll be doing.


I'd even suggest not giving the 15 minutes for free. Scope creep can be a real issue for you, along with the precedent of "you gave me 15 min; can't you just help me a little bit more?"

You have expertise in your field - expertise that someone needs. That unique set of skills has value and you should be compensated for it. By way of example, I know a guy that works in IT. When people ask him to come over and fix their computer (for free), his response always is, "Why, are you coming over to my house to do YOUR job for free?" That puts it exactly where it belongs - the requestor.

I'd suggest having a frank discussion up front. "Sorry, I don't do free consultations. My hourly rate is [x] and I like to draw up a statement of work before I get started." Run it like a business and it will be treated like a business. I personally have been burned by NOT having a SOW. Get both sides to agree to what's being paid for, how long it will take, and the cost associated with it. Even if it's a short thing, you can resist scope creep and being accused of over-billing.

  • 1
    I think the bar for free is "meet for a coffee to discuss it." At that point, you can get a handle on exactly what they're looking for, and either agree a price for your work, or tell them that it's too much for you to take on as a side project and that they need to try somewhere else.
    – timbstoke
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 14:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.