Money + misdirection: the shadow side of “charge what you’re worth” pricing culture

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

If you’re a freelancer or creative entrepreneur, you’ve probably seen this before:

You’re zooming around a forum or Facebook group for your professional focus, and someone brings up — dun dun dunnnn — pricing.

I’m a beginner (about 6 months in), so I’m not sure what to charge for XYZ project.

Right now I’m doing $50/hr, and I’m estimating a number of hours…

Immediately, between the mix of decent advice and follow-up questions, the swarm descends.

Too low! How can you live off that?! You should double that immediately.”

You should be starting at a minimum of $300/hr.

And the ever-popular: “You should really start charging what you’re worth, hun. Your time is worth so much more.

This advice, while generally well-meaning, can often be confusing at best, and outright bad at worst.

So why do so many people give it so haphazardly to so many others?

I have a theory:

This is a side effect of what I call “pricing culture” in the online space.

And, like most things in Internet Land, pricing culture started out with fantastic intentions.

The aspect of pricing culture we’ll dig into in this article — the battle cry of “Charge what you’re worth!” — began as a call-to-arms for online business owners with years of experience still charging too-low prices for their services because they lacked the confidence to charge a premium.

It was also a necessary pendulum swing because let’s be real: freelancers are notorious under-chargers, and sometimes struggle to value themselves highly.

For women freelancers especially, this is even more of a problem. (Peep this great article from Abbey Woodcock about it, and this one from Glamour.)

Its popularity makes total sense because pricing itself is, in many ways, a deeply emotional experience.

You not only have to dare to speak big, commanding numbers out loud, but you also have to work through the sludge of your own imposter syndrome and self-doubt, trying to sort out how to charge thousands when you spend most of your days alone at home at your laptop with no pants on.

It can also be hard to know where to start with your pricing, and what your goal should be, and it feels like there are a million things that can go wrong.

So it’s no wonder this simple “Charge what you’re worth, and people will pay it!” idea caught on like wildfire, right?

In some ways, the “charge what you’re worth” rally cry is a good thing — because it challenges people to play bigger when they’re stuck playing small.

But the issue is, “playing bigger” means something different for everyone.

Telling an entrepreneur with 10 years of experience to “play bigger” means something very different compared to someone with 10 months of experience.

And yet the advice is often applied in blanket-fashion, with both teams receiving the same message, with no follow-up as to what that can mean for them specifically.

While it feels like you’re doing good, encouraging work to just shout for everyone to charge hundreds an hour, it can often cause unintentional misdirection and confusion.

Because pricing culture has a wide, deep shadow side.

That’s why, as with most one-liner encouragement tropes on the internet, we willfully ignore the nuance of “charging what we’re worth” at our peril.

In fact, if we don’t take the time now to be open about what that phrase really means in context — and the pros and cons of pricing culture in general — we are actively doing harm to others. (Both beginners and veterans).

So let’s get into the conversation we’ve gotta have.

Pricing culture issue #1: “Charge what you’re worth” often leaves out a huge chunk of the story.

I’ll level with you: “charge what you’re worth, hun” is a very sexy piece of advice to give because it’s simple and easily repeatable.

A small part of us really does want to think that that internet guru just heard the words from someone, pulled up their panties, fixed their money mindset, and finally understood their value bb — and three days later they started booking $10,000 gigs.

*Hair flip*

*Selfie*

It is much less sexy to hear an actual high roller tell you the truth about how they got there:

Well, I invested a ton into my education and support, I started relentlessly pitching clients in the niche I knew could afford my rates and it still took years to cement a consistently reliable client pipeline.

But since then, I’ve set up really high-end, tailored-to-my-market packages with a step-by-step signature process I honed over years of hard-won experience in my chosen industry. I’ve also made my clients a LOT of money.

So yeah, that’ll be $20,000 for this package.

Tl;dr: They’ve have worked their asses off and have oceans of social proof behind them.

And, most importantly, they deliver on value their rate commands.

They often make it look easy, and talk about it like it’s easy, but it’s really a much, much longer story than just pulling some magic “charge more because someone nice on the internet told me to” lever.

Issue #2: Understanding what you can charge requires a lot of context. (Sorry, your time is not automatically worth thousands.)

A colleague told me a story recently that sent shivers down my spine.

A former client of his had jumped on a consult call that cost around $3,000. No deliverables, just a conversation and some pointers.

The client’s feedback?

“Eh, it was a good call. But the takeaways were maybe worth $300.”

Yikes.

Somewhere along the way in pricing culture, we’ve glommed onto the idea that being in our very presence is worth thousands because… we say it is.

Is it important to get paid well for what you can do? Hell yes.

However, before you toss out an arbitrary price point, it’s vital to understand:

  1. What are you really worth? What can you actually create for people, or give them, that they can’t get anywhere else? And
  2. What price point can your market bear?

So let’s start with the first point: figuring out your real, indisputable value.

I should specify that this is about your value as a professional. Not a person.

(The two are often conflated, but shouldn’t be. You are not worth less as a human being for charging $500 for a website compared to $5,000.)

While of course low pricing can be a symptom of a lack of confidence, and a little more (earned) confidence can and should inspire higher earning power, the way you price yourself has to have roots in what you’re able to achieve on a results level — not just what you feel you can do because you’re in a good mood that day.

So ask yourself:

What proven results do you get for your clients?

(And, as the brilliant Felicia C. Sullivan pointed out in the comments, results are not only quantitative. How much time and energy you’ve saved a client, for example, are just as important as the money you made them.)

How many projects do you have under your belt ?

What unique skill sets do you bring to the table?

The more experience and success points on the scoreboard, the more you can confidently charge.

Similarly, if you have less experience, you should price accordingly.

That’s why, especially in the case of throwaway Facebook comments, throwing out arbitrary pricing numbers with no context is where things start to go south.

Let’s say you’re a newbie who’s been told you should start charging at $250/hr.

When a prospect with any sense hears that and finds out you’ve only been in the game for 1–2 years and are still learning, you are going to have to try a LOT harder to clearly define your worth and justify your rate.

And chances are? You’re setting yourself up for struggle.

You are, for lack of a better phrase, writing checks your butt can’t cash.

Now to the second point: What price point can the top of your market bear?

Bigger businesses = bigger budgets. Are you currently working with a market that can comfortably shoulder the rates you want to charge?

For example, a $20,000 contract might feel like chump change to a Fortune 500 company.

However, if you draw up a $20,000 contract and your preferred clients are solopreneurs in their first few years of business (read: more modest budgets)?

That’s a much harder sell — and unless you have a clear way to demonstrate how they’ll make their investment back and then some, you’re buying yourself a one-way ticket aboard the struggle bus.

Issue #3: The pricing culture pinnacle, the “six-figure business”, sets an unfair precedent.

Lest we forget…

The current state of pricing culture is helped along by the ever-sexy vision of the promised land — “6-figures”.

It is, without a doubt, the most revered and bragged-about milestone in online business (aside from 7-figures and 8-figures, of course).

And when it comes to pricing, the mere suggestion of it is almost always accompanied by two unspoken indoctrinating questions:

If you’re not making 6-figures, do you even have a successful business?

If you’re not “charging what you’re worth”, how will you ever get hit 6-figures!?

I didn’t even realize that, as a six-figure business owner myself (#BRAG), I clung to these ideas in the back of my mind for years.

But it turns out, there’s more to the story than the sum of the digits in your sales report.

At a mastermind retreat in Canada last year, I found out a woman I’d followed for years (who was a legend before my career even started) did not make 6-figures per year.

Voluntarily.

I could barely process it.

“But… why not!?” I blurted out, agog from where I sat cross-legged on the AirBNB carpet.

She had the audience. She had the brand. She could totally charge more than $40 for her programs.

And of course, I had to flex my own pricing culture buy-in by following it up with: “You’ve gotta charge more girl,”.

(… As if she’d never heard that one before.)

She shrugged politely.

“It’s not a priority of mine. I keep my overhead low and budget to live within my means, so I can still save and travel whenever I want — we’re even buying a house next year.

I’m priced for the people I want to work with. I don’t prioritize making 6-figures because I don’t need to. I work as much or as little as I wish, and have a great life.”

And the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

The truth is, there are so many measures of success beyond sales numbers. But pricing culture defines success as strictly monetary.

Sure, it might be phrased like: WITH THIS MONEY YOU WILL HAVE FINANCIAL FREEDOM TO LIVE THE LIFE OF YOUR DREAMS.

(Read: Taking selfies from the beach while your business makes eleventy billion dollars without you.)

But often, the richest people I meet in the space are the least free, and the most burned out.

Their overhead is high (at the end of the day, they might be taking home even less than a non 6-figure earner), they’ve got multiple team members to wrangle, and they’re often on the road.

That dreamy-looking sabbatical they took? It’s because their health was so bad they literally needed to physically remove themselves from their work and desks to recover.

I know in my case, my first 6-figure year (and the next couple, let’s be real) came about because I was working my absolute hardest, constantly, all the time.

Did raising my prices help with this somewhat? Absolutely — and it happened at about the right time, if not a little late.

But raising my prices also didn’t stop the incessant drive in the back of my mind to take the next project, fill your plate, project is money, money makes 6-figures, 6-figures is success that this side effect of pricing culture had sparked in my brain.

Even when I was charging more, the real work was teaching myself to work less.

All this to say: There are more ways to measure success than sales numbers.

I’m not here to tell you to go broke on a beach somewhere.

But what I will tell you is that it’s possible to still have an extraordinary, happy, free life and business outside the confines of 6-figures with some basic financial planning.

For some, sales numbers paint the picture of how well they’re doing.

For others, life does.

And what pricing culture often causes us to forget is that you get to choose.

Issue #4: “Charge what you’re worth” pricing culture often dismisses the case for intentionally climbing the ladder

I’ve been slow to raise my rates over the last 8 years — a reality that’s earned me criticism (and sometimes teasing) from my colleagues, even though I hit my first six figures in 2015.

But you know what? It’s worked pretty damn well for me.

My aforementioned workaholism aside — projects have always come in the door and food has always been on the table, because my pricing was based on what I knew myself to be capable of .

This gave me confidence on sales calls, and built a stream of clientele with absolute trust that I can do what I say I’m going to do, which keeps them coming back again and again, even as my prices climb.

It also serves to mention that over the course of my 8-year career, I have had maybe 3 dissatisfied clients total— and I’m pretty proud of that.

My approach to pricing has always been to look at the value I know I can bring, and the work I know I can provide, and go from there.

I charged low when I was new and still learning because… I was new and still learning. Higher rates would’ve paralyzed me.

When I thought I could do more, I charged more.

And leaving that reality out of the conversation is where many people (newbies especially) get hurt.

Intentionally or not, arbitrarily suggesting newer pros “double their rates ASAP” or “start at a minimum $XXX” implies that if they do not do these things, they are dumb, lazy, broke, and will be left behind.

This shoves greener professionals steadily climbing the pricing ladder into a box they don’t deserve to be in.

This is especially where pricing culture can actually cause more problems than it solves.

Because on one hand, I get it. It’s hard to be new. It’s hard to work for $25/hr, even $50/hr.

It’s way sexier to jump straight into charging hundreds per hour… but as I mentioned above, you’ve gotta consider what your market will pay for your level of experience.

It’s not “scarcity mentality” to charge lower rates while you’re still new, move with what your current market commands, and work your way up.

It’s realism.

Issue #5: Pricing culture popularizes the “me vs. the dumb client” mindset

How many times have you seen a colleague dismiss a client who can’t afford a certain rate as being “cheap” or out of integrity?

It shows up everywhere, helped along by “GOT ‘EM!” screenshots of low-balling clients being “put in their place” by sassy freelancers — often for simply stating their budget with no real education around what things cost in the industry.

However, while I get the schadenfreude and I’ve laughed at a lot of this stuff in the past, it’s created a fetishization of insulting people who can’t afford us.

Businesses exist to turn a profit. Why are we mocking people for trying to be responsible with their numbers?!

And before someone comes at me with the “but low-ballers” comments, I get it. I’ve lived it. I’ve had clients so cheap I . once got paid via what must’ve been a regifted iTunes gift certificate... from Canada, which made it unusable in the US.

Are there clients who are absolute jerks and will berate a creative pro for charging too much?

Absolutely. And those people deserve to be dunked on.

But for most clients, they’re trying to figure out what they can reasonably afford. It’s our job to show them why the investment is worthwhile.

Generally, we should realize:

Of course Solopreneur Sally is gonna balk at someone charging $500/email with no proven track record.

Don’t call her an idiot. She isn’t one.

Don’t tell her to go into debt. She shouldn’t.

Just say “No thanks” and move along.

Issue #6: Overcharging creates a ripple effect across industries — especially creative ones.

It’s an open secret that the higher your price point, the higher your risk of clients feeling as though their investment wasn’t returned.

However, what it also does is create populations of clients who’ve been promised a magic bullet AND the moon at extremely high rates as a sales tactic.

Especially in the copywriting world, these same clients with stars in their eyes often miss the memo that, despite the fact they’ve shelled out a ton of cash, there are a heap of other factors at stake (their list engagement, the price point of the offer, the timing of the offer, their market, etc.) that create success.

And thus, when that doesn’t happen, and they need to hire another professional, they’re gun shy about their investment, and often even more difficult to work with.

It’s a lose/lose for all of us.

The good news is? The pendulum is swinging back — conversations about pricing culture are officially underway at last, all over the internet.

Two that come to mind are this great piece by Paul Jarvis and this great one by Jessica Manuszak.

While I can’t speak for Paul or Jess here, I can certainly tell you:

I’m not telling you all this to scare you, or make you shy away from a price hike you deserve.

If you’re ready to raise ’em and have the proof to back your rate, do it up!

But getting real with yourself about what you can do, who your market is, and what your picture of success REALLY looks like will help you avoid a heap of land mines in the online business space — like furious overcharged clients, resentment, a total lack of confidence, and the desperate dance of trying to pivot in an attempt to find a market that suits your price point (instead of the other way around).

Because I’m telling you this to tell you the truth:

That the answer to the “How much should I charge” pricing question matches the response to most questions in the marketing and business world, which is: “It depends.

Hype is not worth.

What someone thinks you “deserve” is not worth.

What you can confidently do and create for the market you want to do and create for is where your worth really lies.

So the next time you feel the itch to shout “Charge what you’re worth, hun!” to a stranger on the internet you really want to help, consider asking them instead:

“What do you know you can do… and for who?”


About the author:

Hillary Weiss is a concept development consultant, speaker, copywriter, and founder of Statement Piece Studio @ hillaryweiss.com. She’s also the co-host of the cult-favorite Youtube marketing talk show #HAMYAW, and has had her work featured on Business Insider, The Next Web, The Observer, and more. Through her 1–1 client work, workshops, virtual hot seat sessions, writing, programs, and videos, Hillary has helped 1,000+ brands all over the world get seen and heard (and make serious cash) since 2011. Nowadays, she’s on a mission to help more small businesses define their “statement piece”, a.k.a. the bold point of view that makes them radically relevant to their perfect people, and crush copycat culture on the internet by helping entrepreneurs turn their unique perspective into mega profit — while still having fun.

Wanna know more? Catch her riffs on all of the above on her blog, or say whaddaaap! to her on Twitter @hcweiss.